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Trump's Convention: The 'Miss Universe' School of Party Politics

Margaret Carlson is a Bloomberg View columnist. She was a White House correspondent for Time, a weekly panelist on CNN’s “Capital Gang” and an editor at the New Republic.
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Donald Trump says conventions are boring, especially the part where the presidential nominee waits three days to show up. The star of "The Apprentice" and longtime organizer of the "Miss Universe" pageant knows stagecraft. That's why he's looking for a way to appear every day of the Republican coronation in Cleveland in late July, on site or from an undisclosed location.  

But the "yuge" interest Trump is taking in his convention is causing consternation in his party. On one side of an office building in Cleveland sit Republican National Committee veterans of conventions past. On the other sit Trump staff, willing to hew to some traditions while hoping "The Show to Make America Great Again" will take advantage of the showman who got them there. 

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Trump has a point: Conventions are boring, but so is democracy and other worthy rituals like marriage ceremonies before entire wedding parties started tumbling down the aisle.

A pure Trumpian production would be more Vegas meets "Shark Week" meets ESPN than a celebration of patriotism. Trump’s first hope, the New York Times reported, was to move the event to a more interesting venue (the Colosseum in Rome, say) until he was told site selection is a long process started years in advance.

He also floated the idea of personally introducing his vice-presidential pick on day three (the latest list includes Senator Tom Cotton, former House Speaker Newt Gingrich, and Governors Chris Christie, Mike Pence and Dan Sullivan), never mind that he would be stealing his second banana's thunder. Cooler heads are trying to convince him that to shore up his campaign, he should make the announcement well ahead of time.

As I walked around the Quicken Loans Arena last week, I could see Trump’s handiwork. He found the initial stage plans, well, too conventional, and sent them back for a redo. The final product is a large and curved scene with an uplit white stairway to heaven should The Donald want to ascend or reprise his famous descent down the escalator at Trump Tower to announce his candidacy. 

There's a time crunch. The NBA champion Cavalier LeBron James's sweat is barely dry as crews work night and day to convert the basketball court into floor seats for hundreds of delegates who, barring a revolt -- which would not be at all boring -- will soon be casting their votes.

To entice networks to expand their coverage, Trump is tilting the program heavily in favor of “winners,” as opposed to losers who haven't endorsed him. Honk if you’ve hit, kicked or dunked a ball and haven’t been invited. The boxing promoter Don King says he's in. The wish list included Bobby Knight, Digger Phelps and Tom Brady, and Dana White, president of Ultimate Fighting Championship. Nascar Chief Executive Officer Brian France and Mike Tyson announced through spokespeople that they would not be going. On the entertainment side, names mentioned are actor Tom Selleck, Kenny Rogers and the Beach Boys, though the band  said it would not be playing Cleveland that week. To stop rumors that droves are turning him down, Trump said he would announce the final lineup (which will definitely include his wife and four of his children) on Wednesday.  

In any case, politicians will be kept to a minimum as Trump fears they’ll just “get up and speak and speak and speak.” At a recent rally in Richmond, Virginia, Trump mocked a politico who “spoke for, like, 45 minutes. He never mentioned Romney’s name.” Trump may not have realized that he was describing the 2012 nominating speech of Governor Chris Christie, his constant companion and potential running mate.

It’s just as well Trump doesn’t want politicians because many don’t want him. Not filling the Clint Eastwood Memorial Empty Chair will be both Presidents Bush, the 2012 Republican presidential nominee Mitt Romney, the 2008 nominee John McCain and too many others -- including John Kasich, governor of the host state -- to list. To fill the void, Dick Cheney, who shares Trump’s affection for waterboarding, is a possibility and Sarah Palin, who might be hard to keep away.

Trump the showman has rehearsed for Cleveland all his life, most recently, in an improv presidential campaign he conducted by streaming self-congratulation for crowd and poll numbers, putdowns of his competition from Lyin’ Ted to Little Marco, and warnings to the other-than-white native-born to stay out. At first, no one thought it would work, like "Hamilton" with its multiracial rapping Founding Fathers. Just as "Hamilton" went on to sweep the Tonys, Trump landed the presidential nomination.

Trump has benefited from making it up as he goes along. In the campaign, Bad Stuff -- made-up stories about Muslims cheering on Sept. 11 or mocking a disabled reporter -- didn’t stick because there was always New Stuff, often in 144 characters late at night, to divert a distracted nation. If Coach Knight fails to enchant, there’s a wrestling impresario in the wings, and in a pinch, who knows, dancing girls, and no congressman in between to slow things down. 

Trump has managed to introduce an added element of suspense to the usually predictable and scripted political convention: Who is going to pay for all this? The presumptive nominee, who has been slow to cough up promised donations, boasts of using the tax system to best advantage and is reportedly unwilling to pay vendors, is a bad bet. If he were liable, no one would provide so much as a balloon. The party and those underwriters who haven’t jumped ship will pick up most of the tab.

The executive producer of the extravaganza is the award-winning NBC veteran Phil Alongi, who has the calmest demeanor of anyone in Cleveland. He once produced a Discovery special in which Nick Wallenda crossed the Grand Canyon on a two-inch thick tightrope without a net. Alongi had a shot of a sunset and a grief counselor available should Wallenda “lose contact with the wire.”

There’s no net or grief counselor to comfort the Grand Old Party should things go off the rails in Cleveland. At any moment, cameras could switch outside the hall to protests that city officials fear could rival those that marred some of Trump’s rallies. Networks have handed out riot gear to their reporters.

And the Republicans' ordeal may not end after Cleveland: There could be a Trump-style inauguration in the offing.  

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.

To contact the author of this story:
Margaret Carlson at mcarlson3@bloomberg.net

To contact the editor responsible for this story:
Max Berley at mberley@bloomberg.net