To hear the political media tell it, the 2016 Republican National Convention has been a complete, unprecedented nightmare. Both liberals and conservatives agreed that the gathering in Cleveland was filled with cartoonish displays of incompetence and embarrassing, over-the-top vulgarities from a motley crew of D-listers and screeching ideologues.
Josh Marshall at TPM called Trump's RNC "the anti-convention, a thematically organized four day dismemberment of his own personal narrative and most elemental campaign promises." The New Republic's Brian Beutler called it a "a grotesque, haphazard mess." National Review's Jonah Goldberg called it a "stomach-churning" act of "political malpractice."
It's true that the convention has had its fair share of unusual events. Just a few items from the highlight reel:
- On the convention's first night, Melania Trump gave a speech that plagiarized parts of a 2008 speech from Michelle Obama
- RNC officials first lied about the plagiarism, then used "My Little Pony" references to shrug it off, then blamed it on a careless speechwriter
- The RNC's laughable claim of "party unity" dissolved in chaos during the roll call vote
- The RNC crowd cheered the acquittals of police officers involved in the killing of Freddie Gray
- Ben Carson implied that Hillary Clinton was a disciple of Lucifer
- Ted Cruz was booed off the stage for refusing to endorse Trump, then was reportedly threatened by pro-Trump delegates
- Scott Baio, who had joked about Hillary Clinton being a "cunt," was invited to address the convention
- Multiple speakers called for Hillary Clinton to be jailed
- Multiple speakers, including Trump himself, made false statements about non-existent growth in crime and illegal immigration since President Obama took office
- A Trump adviser was investigated by the Secret Service for saying that Hillary Clinton should be executed for treason
- An avocado farmer was invited to give a prime-time speech, betraying a lack of poor planning
- Trump supporters publically embarrassed themselves by wearing T-shirts with tacky slogans ("Trump That Bitch") and being generally outlandish
- VP pick Mike Pence gave one of the most boring convention speeches in recent memory
- Donald Trump gave a shockingly dark acceptance speech filled with factual inaccuracies, and focused on his law-and-order message
It's a wild list, to be sure. But I don't think it spells nearly the disaster for the Trump campaign that political observers have anticipated. In fact, I think Trump may have strengthened his general election position during the RNC, or at least come out even.
Here's that same list of convention scandals, as an average Trump voter (or Trump himself) might see them:
- Trump coasted to the nomination, easily picking up the required number of delegates and finally quashing the remnants of the Never Trump movement
- Trump's well-liked wife got embroiled in a plagiarism scandal that few normal voters will care about, and that distracted the media from Trump's other, more substantive policy weaknesses
- Trump's biggest GOP rival, whom everyone hates, got booed off the stage for attacking him
- Multiple speakers called attention to Hillary Clinton's email scandal, a legitimate lapse in judgment that has proved resonant with voters
- Multiple speakers, including Trump himself, tapped into heightened perception of crime and illegal immigration among Americans, successfully framing the Republican Party as the party of law and order despite evidence to the contrary
- Trump and his surrogates took a strong stance against Black Lives Matter and successfully co-opted the widely popular "Blue Lives Matter" counter-movement
- An avocado farmer was invited to give a prime time speech, cementing Trump's bona fides as a friend to the working class
- No bloody protests erupted, and nobody was hurt or killed
- Mike Pence proved that he's an acceptable superego to Trump's id, and a force of quiet consistency on the campaign trail
- Trump's dark, angry acceptance speech dispensed with hopey-changey optimism and got real about the problems facing America
Trump's detractors have been referring to the RNC (and his campaign more generally) as a "circus." But in Trump's world, a circus is an optimal result. People like circuses. People pay attention at circuses. The only thing worse than an attention-grabbing convention where everything goes wrong, in Trump's view, would be a boring convention where nothing of consequence happens and nobody wants to watch.
For the last few months, I've been calling Trump the "Chartbeat Candidate." (Chartbeat is a website used by media companies to track traffic to their sites—it tells you how many people are looking at your stories at any given point in time.) Chartbeat doesn't tell you why people are looking at your stories. If it shows 10,000 concurrent views, those 10,000 people could be admiring your work, or mocking you on social media, and there's no easy way to tell the difference.
Trump takes a very similar approach to his public image. For Trump, all that matters is the absolute value of attention. It doesn't matter whether the sentiment dial is at -100 or 100; as long as it's maxed out, it all registers as positive. "All publicity is good publicity" is a cliché, but Trump is the only politician in modern American history who actually believes it.
Trump, more than any other politician of the modern era, thinks like a cable news producer. And while the TV ratings for the RNC speeches themselves might not be as explosive as he'd hoped, the ripple effects from the convention's dramatic turns—the hundreds of viral news stories about the plagiarized speech, the escalation of Trump's feud with Ted Cruz—will last well into next week's Democratic National Convention, and could well step on Hillary Clinton's message. Clinton may be able to wrest back the spotlight, but she'll spend most of her time responding to narratives Republicans advanced this week, rather than creating her own.
A convention filled with scandals, gaffes, internecine conflict, and violent rhetoric may not have been what the Republican Party wanted. And it may not, ultimately, have brought Trump any closer to victory in November. But it didn't hurt his chances, either. When it comes to what Trump wanted this week, it was entirely clear: It was all about creating drama, hogging news cycles, and keeping the audience's attention. And by those metrics, the RNC was a roaring success.