Trump's RNC role is a much bigger mistake than Republicans realize
Letting Trump completely dominate the convention could have consequences for a party that's more popular than he is
The Republican National Convention is lousy with Trumps. It's not just that the president will apparently be free associating for nearly an hour every evening ("Air Force One has more televisions than any plane in history. They've got them in closets, they've got them on ceilings, floors."). It's not just that his children and even some of their girlfriends and spouses have been given prominent speaking slots. It's that as an institution, the GOP has chosen to undergo a process of self-erasure, taking hours of free advertising that could have been anchored in touching up the party's brand or appealing to wavering Republicans and instead handing them heedlessly over to the president for him to butcher.
That's an enormous mistake for a very simple reason: The Republican Party is more popular than Donald Trump and it will continue to exist long after he leaves office. Every minute that the party submits to his untreated logorrhea and his manic determination to showcase the central roles that nepotism and incompetence play in his administration is not only completely and inexplicably wasted but one that actively contributes to the looming possibility of an across-the-board walloping at the hands of Joe Biden and the Democrats in November.
To understand why, you have to know what these conventions are for. In the distant past, they were where the difficult, behind-the-scenes work of selecting the nominee was done. In the post-reform era of binding primary and caucus results, the party conventions are mostly a long infomercial, designed to introduce the presidential and vice presidential nominees to the public, to showcase up-and-coming political stars, to haul out past presidents and losing nominees whose popularity generally grows with the passage of time to remind fence-sitters of what they like and admire about the party, and for incumbents to tout their policy achievements and second-term agendas.
These are party affairs. The goal is not just to win the presidency but to boost the organization's fortunes in races up and down the ballot. They are supposed to be the first thing that voters who lean toward a party and are just tuning back into politics in time for the election to see. The goal is for those folks to watch the proceedings and think to themselves, "These people seem fine! I am okay with them running the country. Take my money."
Obviously, neither President Trump nor Vice President Pence needs an introduction at this point. Trump has been squatting in our minds for so long that it would probably be impossible to evict him. There is only one living former Republican president, and he would surely rather paint portraits of Saddam Hussein all day than show up at this convention. The 2008 GOP nominee is dead, and his widow was featured at the Democratic National Convention last week. The 2012 nominee voted just eight months ago to remove President Trump from office for high crimes and misdemeanors and presumably did not receive an invitation to Charlotte. The president's achievements in office, such as they were, have been obliterated by the coronavirus pandemic, the attendant economic collapse, and the general climate of extraordinary misery.
So you can see why the RNC's organizers might have struggled a bit filling time with productive content. And you can't hide an incumbent president. This isn't some purple state Senate race where the candidate can studiously avoid saying the unpopular president's name or run ads that don't talk about the president or the party at all. But the convention organizers still missed a massive opportunity to remind Republicans and Republican-leaning independents that the party stands for something besides the whims of Donald Trump and his offspring. They didn't need to have this terribly unpopular, divisive president speak every single night, to grant him an infinity runway to do his ridiculous improv routine, and to stuff the program with other Trumps, their hangers on, and random culture war weirdos who are only famous on Pepe the Frog Twitter.
The Republican Party still has a strong brand — or at least stronger than the president's. In a pre-pandemic January survey, Gallup found that the GOP had its highest public approval rating — 51 percent — since just after George W. Bush was re-elected in 2005. A summer 2019 Pew survey had the party's approval rating at 45 percent — several ticks above the president's. There's no question that President Trump's shambolic response to the COVID-19 disaster has dragged the party's reputation down with it, and that's reflected in some less bullish numbers in other surveys. Yet as an institution, it commands the loyalty of tens of millions of Americans, many of whom may not be particularly invested in Trumpism. The appeal of conservatism — small government, lower taxes, business-oriented policy, family values — will survive this presidency and remain indelibly associated with the Republican Party.
President Trump? He's the least popular incumbent at this stage of his term since George H.W. Bush, who lost his re-election bid to Democrat Bill Clinton. Last week an AP-NORC poll pegged his approval rating at 35 percent. Voters disapprove of his handling of the coronavirus — destined to be the central issue of this campaign — by nearly a 2-1 margin.
Turning the Republican National Convention into some kind of tacky, late-night public access Trump TV show also means that party elites at the highest levels appear to believe the president's bluster about how beloved he is by self-identified Republicans. Every other day, President Trump tweets out a statistic that he appears to have simply invented — that 96 percent of Republicans approve of his performance in office. In reality, the president's job approval with Republicans has generally been in the high 80s. Pew has pegged his average approval with Republicans over the course of his presidency at 87 percent. Convincing the 13 percent or so of self-identified Republicans who disapprove of Trump's job performance to nevertheless show up and vote for him is the key to his re-election.
To do that you must convince these voters that President Trump is part of a structure that is larger and more enduring than he is. That's why Sen. Tim Scott (S.C.) and former UN Ambassador Nikki Haley were featured on Monday, and why Iowa Gov. Kim Reynolds and Florida Lt. Governor Jeanette Nuñez were given slots last night. These are functionally normal people, the kind of Republicans you might think of as generic in the sense that you can probably guess what they would do in office and what they believe just by their party label. You might not love them, but you trust them not to deliberately loot the country. The RNC desperately needed more normal Republicans (whatever that means these days) and fewer Trumps. More Dan Crenshaws and fewer personal injury lawyers whose only claim to fame is blowing up Twitter with their gun-waving antics during a St. Louis Black Lives Matter protest.
What they chose instead was to make it clear that President Trump and the Republican Party are the same thing, that this is not a Republican president, but rather the Republican president, that Trump's bizarre fixation on litigating media grievances, trolling his enemies, mainlining cable news shows, and owning the libs has indeed become the raison d'etre of the party itself. So while these proceedings might be full of cheap thrills for people who think Charlie Kirk is a profound thinker, they are a disaster for endangered Senate Republicans like Joni Ernst, who will need some subset of voters to be able to disentangle her performance in office from the president's. And perhaps most importantly, four nights of showcasing lunatics like Rudy Giuliani is highly unlikely to reverse President Trump's yawning deficit in the polls.
As the election draws inexorably nearer, GOP elites are likely to regret this whole thing sooner rather than later.