It's going to be hot in Cleveland: Why the GOP convention will almost certainly be a trainwreck

This is as big as the stage gets in politics — and many Republicans either want to disrupt it or stay miles away

Published June 28, 2016 10:00AM (EDT)

Donald Trump   (Reuters/Jonathan Ernst)
Donald Trump (Reuters/Jonathan Ernst)

Nominating conventions are designed to be infomercials for the respective parties. It's three days of pomp and staged celebration. While there are occasionally bitter fights over nominees or platform positions, modern conventions have become highly engineered television spectacles: The nominees are anointed, future stars jockey for stage time, and everyone pretends that the previous 12 months of in-fighting never happened.

The Democrats will likely follow this script in Philadelphia this year. Sanders is still working to leverage his influence, but he's already pledged to stop Trump and he will almost certainly endorse Clinton at the convention. Whatever happens, the party will emerge on the back end united and ready to launch the general election campaign.

For the GOP, however, the convention is shaping up to be a complete trainwreck. Nothing is working. Party leaders are contorting themselves every day as they support Trump without actually endorsing him or even admitting he's qualified for the job. And their nominee is doing everything possible to complicate things – hurling racist accusations, insulting Muslim and LGBT Americans, and doubling down on positions he ought to be running away from.

The best indication that the Republican convention will be unusual (to put it charitably) is that hardly anyone wants to speak. A speaking slot at a national convention is tremendous opportunity for any politician; it's the easiest way to introduce yourself to the country and the financiers who fund campaigns. And yet this year Republicans are scrambling to avoid being seen anywhere near the Trump-led convention.

Politico contacted over 50 GOP governors, senators and House members to gauge their interest in speaking and nearly all of them offered reasons why they couldn't or wouldn't. “I am not attending,” said Trey Gowdy, the Republican Congressman from South Carolina. “I won't be there,” said Florida Rep. Carlos Curbelo. In the end, “only a few said they were open to it, and everyone else said they weren't planning on it, didn't want to, or weren't going to Cleveland at all – or simply didn't respond.”

The list of non-attendees is even longer: Sen. Ben Sasse, Sen. Mark Kirk, Sen. Kelly Ayotte, Illinois Gov. Bruce Rauner, Sen. Lindsey Graham, Rep. Mark Sanford, and many others. More will surely emerge as we inch closer to the convention.

It's hard to overstate how strange this is. This is as big as the stage gets in American politics, and hardly anyone wants to touch it. It's not unexpected, however. Something like 70 percent of country objects to Trump's campaign. As Stuart Stevens told Politico, “That's as toxic as we've seen.” Unless you're shameless (i.e. Paul Ryan) or tucked away in a gerrymandered district, supporting Trump is a risky move. However beneficial it may be in the short-term, it could be damaging a few years from now when the consequences of nominating Trump are apparent.

To make matters worse, the #NeverTrump forces are still vowing to stage a coup at the convention. There are reports that an “advance team” is heading to Cleveland this week in order to lay the groundwork for a contested convention. The plan, such as it is, is to “unbind” the GOP delegates so that they can “vote their conscience,” which is another way of saying overturn the will of their voters. This is a noble effort, but it won't work. The majority of delegates oppose the plan and the RNC knows how devastating it would be to usurp the party's democratically elected nominee at the convention. Even if many establishment Republicans would prefer that Trump disappear, they aren't willing to challenge their base in such a glaring way.

But the anti-Trump forces can still make enough noise at the convention to keep things painfully awkward. Against the backdrop of a convention conspicuously short on relevant or respectable speakers, the RNC will have a difficult time papering over the chaos. No matter how they spin it, it will be clear to everyone that this is a party without an identity or a prayer of winning in November.

By Sean Illing

Sean Illing is a USAF veteran who previously taught philosophy and politics at Loyola and LSU. He is currently Salon's politics writer. Follow him on Facebook and Twitter. Read his blog here. Email at

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