A lmost everyone in politics and the media laughed when real estate billionaire Donald J. Trump announced his candidacy for the Republican nomination for president last year. There were 16 other candidates who politicos and commentators said were the most impressive in decades. But Trump crushed everyone. All those caucuses and primaries–and the endless debates–have led up to this week. The party that has given nominations to giants such as Abraham Lincoln, Theodore Roosevelt, Dwight D. Eisenhower and Ronald Reagan will choose The Apprentice star as its standard bearer. No one ever imagined this–expect maybe Trump himself.
WHAT IT IS
The quadrennial conclave of 2,473 Republicans–a.k.a. delegates–who launch their candidate for the White House. They’ll be joined by some 50,000 others–GOP supporters, operatives, the media, lobbyists and hangers-on–at the Quicken Loans Arena (known as The Q) in Cleveland. As legendary political reporter Theodore H. White once wrote, “Every convention is a universe in itself, with its own strange centers of gravity, its own fresh heroes and fools, its own new resolution of pressures and forces, its own irrecapturable mood of stage and place.”
WHY IT’S IMPORTANT
Because it rallies the Republican troops and kicks off the presidential campaign in full force.
THIS CONVENTION’S BIG IDEA
Make America Great Again! Trump launched his campaign with that slogan, and now giant banners of it flank the arena. “It’s powerful,” says GOP strategist Steve Schmidt. “It says three things: the country’s not great anymore, it once was, and this is our last chance to make it so again.”
WHY THE IDEA IS DIFFERENT
None of the other politicians running would dare say that the country’s not great anymore.
THE THREE ELEMENTS THAT MAKE TRUMP A UNIQUE NOMINEE
1. “He operates from a platform of fearlessness,” says Schmidt, who helped get Arnold Schwarzenegger elected governor of California and later ran John McCain’s 2008 presidential campaign. “Politicians in the country are timid. They’re incremental. And voters understand this.”
2. He believes in a “total re-imagination of the Republican Party,” says Washington Post reporter Robert Costa, who’s been on the Trump trail since last summer. Trump sees the GOP as controlled by the Chamber of Commerce, hedge-fund billionaires who are “getting away with murder,” and other Washington “special interests” who have “rigged” the system. In essence, Trump wants to destroy that party and start a new one that he pledges will be dedicated to everyday Americans.
3. He’s the first non-politician to get a major party nomination since 1940, when Republicans chose another businessman, Wendell Willkie (a utilities executive), to challenge President Franklin D. Roosevelt.
WHAT COULD BE ONE FOR THE AGES
Trump’s speech on Thursday night when he accepts the nomination. During the primaries, Trump delivered stream of consciousness talks that lasted for more than an hour. His speeches included him giving dramatic readings of Al Wilson’s “The Snake”; swatting at mosquitos (“Hello, Hillary”); and praising the late Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein for killing terrorists. On the biggest night of his life will he ditch the teleprompter and give us something to remember?
WHEN TO TAKE A SMOKE BREAK
Tuesday night when Speaker of the House Paul D. Ryan takes the stage. The 46-year-old PX-90 devotee also touts himself as a man of “ideas.” But voters aren’t buying his shopworn policies and bromides. So have two cigarettes. Or something stronger.
BE ON THE LOOKOUT FOR
Jamiel Shaw, Sr., an African-American who will speak Monday night. He’s going to describe how his 17-year-old son was murdered by two illegal immigrant gang members and say that he supports Trump’s call for a giant wall on the U.S.-Mexico border. This presentation will reignite fury among the “open borders” crowd such as editorial writers at the Wall Street Journal and Bush Republicans.
WHAT’S HAPPENING OFF SCREEN
A neoconservative meltdown. Ever since Reagan left the White House in 1989, neocons have dominated and controlled Republican politics and even set in motion the U.S. invasion of Iraq. If they’d been able to get Jeb (!) Bush or Marco Rubio nominated, they would have been back in business. But the Trump insurgency crushed their dreams of seizing back the reins of the GOP – at least for now.
THE CONVENTION PLAYERS
How many Republican nominees for president gave their second-grade teacher a black eye? Only one, as far as we know. As Trump disclosed in his 1987 book The Art of the Deal, “I punched my music teacher because I didn’t think he knew anything about music and I almost got expelled. I’m not proud of that,” he confessed, “but it’s clear evidence that even early on I had a tendency to stand up and make my opinions known in a very forceful way. The difference now,” Trump wrote, “is I like to use my brains instead of my fists.”
Until last Thursday 90 percent of the country had never heard of Gov. Mike Pence of Indiana, whom Trump selected as his running mate. Which is fine, because running mates seldom have an impact on the election. What Trump showed by picking him was that he could make a rational decision.
THE INNER CIRCLE
Thomas J. Barrack, Jr.: A billionaire real-estate financier who says that Trump’s campaign is unique because it’s “testing a system just like every disruptive technology in the market today,” a theme he’ll explore when he speaks on Thursday.
Ed Brookover: A 30-year veteran of GOP politics who led Trump’s delegate-hunting team. He’ll be patrolling the floor to make sure there aren’t any speed-bumps and that the delegates keep their word and vote for The Donald.
Paul Manafort: Smooth Washington operator who produced Reagan’s 1984 reelection convention, started a lobbying firm and is now Trump’s campaign chairman and chief strategist. One D.C. insider summed him up best when he said, “He’s a nut cutter.”
Trump’s Three Eldest Children: There’s Don, Jr., 38; Ivanka, 34; and Eric, 32. All work for the Trump Organization and are his closest, most trusted campaign advisors, even though though they’ve never been in politics. “Everything we’ve done, we’ve done together as a family,” Eric told Time. “We’re learning together.”
Roger Stone: Bad boy strategist of GOP politics whose back is tattooed with Richard Nixon’s head. His heroes are the notorious GOP strategist Lee Atwater and Sen. Joseph McCarthy’s fixer, Roy Cohn. Watch for Stone in the shadows.
THE WISE MEN
Michael Flynn: A retired Army lieutenant general. After the terrorist attack in Nice, he called on Muslim leaders to condemn “this radical form of this ideology.”
Newt Gingrich: The former Speaker of the House lobbied hard to be Trump’s veep, but when Newtie realized it wasn’t going to happen he argued against his selection on CNN by asking, “Do you really want a two-pirate ticket?”
Rudy Giuliani: The former mayor of NYC who says Trump reminds him of Reagan speaks Monday night.
Jeff Sessions: Trump’s favorite U.S. Senator, known for being tough on border security and trade deals. The 69-year-old Alabamian was the first in Washington to endorse Trump.
THE RISING STARS
Sean Duffy: The 44-year-old congressman from Wisconsin is cut from the same reality show mold as Trump. Before politics he was a cast member of MTV’s The Real World and later worked as a commentator for ESPN. Speaking Monday night.
Stephen Miller: A former policy advisor to Sen. Sessions, Miller is Trump’s go-to guy on issues. He steeled himself for controversy at Duke University where he wrote editorials for the student paper defending tobacco and championing the lacrosse team that was falsely accused of rape.
Rick Scott: He’s 63, but if Trump gets elected this two-term governor of Florida and former venture capitalist will be a good bet for the cabinet and a future presidential run. Scheduled to speak Wednesday.
Ryan Zinke: This 54-year-old congressman from Montana is a former Navy commander with SEAL Team Six and was one of the first in Washington to endorse Trump.
THE HALL OF FAME
Eileen Collins: NASA’s first female space shuttle pilot will speak Tuesday.
Natalie Gulbis: A 31-year-old pro golfer who met Trump a decade ago while competing in a tournament at his club in West Palm Beach.
Robert Montgomery “Bob” Knight: When this former Indiana University basketball coach (900 career victories) endorsed Trump last spring, he declared, “That son-of-a-bitch could play for me!” He’s scheduled to appear in a convention film.
Dana White: The Ultimate Fighting Championship president said that he’ll address the convention Tuesday and tell the country “about the Trump I know.”
Ted Cruz: Remember “Lyin’ Ted”? If you’ve forgotten, he’ll be speaking on Thursday morning. And speaking and speaking and speaking and speaking…
Fox News Channel: Night after night for months on end the cable channel’s highest-paid “all-stars” such as Stephen F. Hayes, Brit Hume, Charles Krauthammer and George F. Will argued that Trump would never be the nominee. Who still watches this stuff?
William Kristol: He’s the neocon who championed Dan Quayle, Sarah Palin and the 2003 invasion of Iraq. And he spent most of the last year saying Trump had no shot of prevailing in the primaries. Watch for him trolling The Q trying to convince some poor sap to challenge Trump for the nomination.
Stuart Stevens: Chief strategist to Mitt Romney’s losing 2012 campaign who last summer wrote “Why Trump Will Never Make the Ballot” for the Daily Beast and told me Trump would back out before the Iowa caucuses. “I can’t imagine he’s going to go from this great business success to risk being a political loser,” he said.
THE PHYSICIAN ON CALL
Dr. Ben Carson: We may all need brain surgery by Friday.
Follow John Meroney on Twitter: @thejohnmeroney.