A worker installs the sign for the Virginia delegation on the floor of the Republican National Convention in Cleveland, July 15, 2016. (Reuters/Rick Wilking)

5 questions and story lines to follow as the Republican Convention unfolds in Cleveland

Protests, renegade delegates and #NeverTrump: This week, the GOP's corrosive dysfunction will be on full display


Sean Illing
July 18, 2016 2:00PM (UTC)

The Republican convention kicks off in Cleveland today. Normally, conventions are week-long infomercials for the respective parties. The goal is two-fold: present a united front to the country and define your candidates. The process itself can be untidy, but generally it's straightforward: party leaders deliver canned speeches to a rapturous crowd; major donors and corporate financiers are rewarded with face time and skyboxes; future stars jockey for precious stage time; delegates are formally awarded to the presumptive candidate; and the party begins to coalesce after months of in-fighting.

Not this year, however.

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Donald Trump has turned the GOP on its head. The establishment remains deeply uncomfortable with him as its standard-bearer. He has no message discipline, no coherent worldview, no policy vision, and a nasty undercurrent of bigotry driving his campaign. But Republican primary voters made their choice, and now party elites are in the unenviable position of defending a buffoon they don't believe in. Needless to say, this will make the next few days interesting.

Here are five story lines and questions to keep an eye on as the events unfold in Cleveland:

1. What becomes of the #NeverTrump contingent?

Since he clinched the nomination, Republican insiders and conservative activists have sought ways to undermine Trump at or before the convention. Party elders like Mitt Romney and Bill Kristol have searched in vain for third-party alternatives. Anti-Trump elements have explored ways to unbind delegates or change the rules in such a way as to force a contested convention. None of it has worked.

Reince Priebus and the Trump campaign have worked diligently to shut all of this down. Trump is a disaster, but scenes of chaos on the convention floor, with delegates screaming and renouncing the party's nominee, would be worse. The whole point of a convention is to rally around a candidate. It's also understood that usurping Trump and denying the will of the voters would drive a wedge right through the party. No surprise, then, that the RNC committee effectively killed the efforts of rogue delegates to challenge Trump's nomination at the convention. Last Thursday, at a long and contentious meeting, the committee rejected a proposal to allow delegates to vote their conscience regardless of the results of their primary contests. Although there may be protest options left, this is a serious blow to the anti-Trump movement.

The question is, will the #NeverTrump folks make their final stand here nevertheless? And if so, will it end with a bang or a whimper? The smart money is on a whimper.

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2. Who will actually show up to speak?

One of the clearest indications that this Republican convention will be unusual is that hardly anyone wants to speak. Speaking slots at a national convention are typically coveted. And yet this year people are not only rejecting speaking opportunities, they're refusing to attend. The list of non-attendees is impressive and growing by the day. Trump is a historically toxic candidate, and respectable Republicans don't want anything to do with him. It will therefore be interesting to see how Trump and the RNC responds to this. If they can't attract the usual suspects, how will they fill the time slots? Who will they tap as alternates?

So far it appears Trump will fill the void with celebrities, family members, and marginal political figures. Although it remains unofficial, the names being tossed about are, frankly, weird. Some of the highlights include Tim Tebow (who has since denied the rumor), Trump's Slovenian supermodel wife, a Silicon Valley billionaire, a professional golfer, an NFL quarterback, a former reality TV star (not Trump), the president of the UFC, and all four of Trump's adult children.

Again, this list isn't final, but if it's any indication of what to expect, this will be an unusual convention indeed.

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What impact will the protests have?

There is growing anxiety about the potential for protests outside the convention center to turn violent. Against the backdrop of recent events in Baton Rouge, Minnesota, and Dallas, the atmosphere will be highly combustible. A white nationalist group, the Traditionalist Worker Party, has already vowed to make an appearance. Black Lives Matter protesters are sure to arrive as well. The chairman of the New Black Panther Party has said his group will exercise its “Second Amendment rights because there are other groups threatening to be there that are threatening to do harm to us.” And there are dozens of other groups from across the political spectrum that have applied for permits to march and demonstrate, including the notoriously objectionable Westboro Baptist Church.

Local law enforcement is bracing for days of heated protests. How effectively they can manage a situation like this remains to be seen, however. If things go sideways, it could spin out of control rather quickly. Hopefully, that doesn't happen. But if it does, it could overshadow the convention itself and derail the GOP's efforts to unify the party.

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How will the GOP square its platform with Trump's apocryphal rhetoric?

Trump is an ideological chameleon. To the extent that he's taken positions, they've been either incoherent or inconsistent. The party's nominee appears to have litte interest in policy. This sets up an interesting dynamic at the convention. On the one hand, Trump doesn't care about the platform, and so his campaign has allowed activists to dictate the agenda. As The New York Times reported last week, the platform committee doubled down on the culture war agenda, with no resistance from Trump's people. On marriage, abortion, homosexuality, and gender rights, the GOP showed no signs of relenting. The platform says, among other things, “that man-made law must be consistent with God-given, natural rights” and that teaching the Bible in public schools is “indispensable for the development of an educated citizenry.” This sort of religious zealotry is out of step with much of what Trump has said and done publicly, however. It's not clear how that tension will be resolved, if at all. And then there's the question of trade policy. Trump has made a habit of bashing free trade in his populist appeals to blue collar workers. I'm not sure he understands the issues, but he certainly sounds like a protectionist. The GOP has held free trade sacrosanct for decades. This is a line you're not allowed to cross in Republican politics. How Trump talks about this at the convention could have long-term implications for the Republican brand.

How will Trump handle this stage?

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Finally, there's the obvious question: What will Trump do? He has violated every political norm of American politics during the course of his campaign. He's offended women, veterans, disabled people, LGBT Americans, Muslims, Mexicans, and African Americans. This has made him the least popular major party nominee in American history, but it's also endeared him to Republican primary voters. But the primaries are over, and this is a much bigger stage. If there's a final opportunity for Trump to change his approach, the convention is it. This is the moment the party presents its platform and candidate to the nation. If Trump could muster a modicum of grace, it might leave a lasting impression on voters. But everything we've seen from him suggests he'll continue to do what he's done. As Trump told The New York Times's Maureen Dowd in April, “I've done it my way.”

He sure has, and why would anyone expect otherwise in Cleveland?


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 silling@salon.com.

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