Perspectives of a GOP Millennial: Trump’s Convention a Squandered Opportunity for Conversion

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This is going to be biased and entirely opinion-driven. I’m just throwing that out there as a preemptive to anyone wanting to argue about this. (Who am I kidding—I’d be happy if just one person wanted to argue because that meant someone actually read it.)

Taking my cue from the immortal words of Jack Donaghy to “flee to the Cleve,” I landed a very non-political internship thirty minutes outside of Cleveland this summer without even realizing that of all the summers to ever be located in, around, and near that city, it’d be 2016. I’m as clueless to sports as they come, and even I drank the Kool-Aid as I wandered the streets of downtown Cleveland the night the Cavaliers won, the excitement and elation from the collective crowd too infectious to ignore. Just last week, something much more within my realm of understanding was on display: the Republican National Convention. Both events created logjams within the city, and both brought die-hards out of the woodwork to chant, scream, and boo. The former was confusing because I don’t follow sports; the latter was confusing because I do follow politics.

In another reality, I might have been ecstatic about the RNC being so readily available to me. I’m from Utah, so my conservatism is all but statistically confirmed, and I am definitely a right-of-center Republican. I anxiously watched all the GOP debates, my incredulity and disbelief heightening with each month of that drawn-out primary season, as my candidate of choice (Florida Senator Marco Rubio, the most electable of the bunch) and every other, were drowned out by the sheer will of populism and a silent majority that is nationalistic at best, and every form of shockingly prejudiced at worst. I watched as my vision of how the GOP could convert key voter blocs and prevail in a winnable presidential election was systematically dismantled by voters who seemed to disregard any rhyme or reason of long-term strategy, and rally behind the most beatable candidate of all who filed (eh, maybe Rick Santorum).

So I didn’t really care about the RNC happening on my doorstep. I immediately read every Politico alert I received throughout the week, staying abreast of the delegate drama, Melania (who, channeling George Bluth, Sr., may have committed some *light* plagiarism), bizarre speaker choices, and a calculated snub in the primetime—but I had no interest in looking at it further, because frankly, it depressed me that this was becoming a reality.

But I was given an opportunity to go to the last day of the convention, and as inherently lazy as I am, I still figured this would be a historically unconventional (see what I did there?) event, and shouldn’t pass it up. So I went, more out of an academic interest, a bemused observer, wanting an up-close look at those who elbowed me out of my own party. And so I was escorted down to see the convention floor of the converted Quicken Loans, which was impressive and interesting, regardless of political persuasion. I vaguely listened to some of the first few speakers of that final evening, my eyes darting around to the characters walking the floor (and hallways), wondering how empty the surrounding Walmarts had been this week. Feeling I’d gotten the full “floor experience” and having no overwhelming desire to stay for another hour or two just to see the acceptance speech slightly closer (and frankly a little paranoid at the potential for violence that never really erupted at all during the week, thanks to the Cleveland police and security—I saw more fights the night the Cavs won), I left to find some food upstairs. I eventually got settled into the seat that my credentials afforded me—the highest seat possible in the Q, reducing the speakers on stage to ants and triggering an early onset of vertigo at the steepness of the nosebleed section—and waited patiently for the real reason we all were here (the balloon drop, if we’re being honest).

Trump spoke (and for a while). And while I watched him, my mood oscillated back and forth between two conflicting yet succinct thoughts: “I can’t believe this is happening, this is hilarious,” my inner millennial, conditioned to love and positively reinforce memes and trolling, responded with the Man, I kinda hope he wins just to see what would even happen! mentality that I initially blamed for getting him so far along in the polls last year; or “I can’t believe this is happening, this is terrifying,” as I had to remind myself that these policies, this persona, and that bizarre, abrupt speech (and Tweeting) pattern were coming from an individual now expected to represent nearly half of the voting electorate in November.

I’m not sure if it was something in the meatballs I ate in one of the hotel suites or the infectious rabble in the air, but I realized later that for a good, healthy moment there, I could’ve been on board. Maybe it was the intense desire to be excited for a candidate from this party, but I was more open-minded and receptive that night that I ever had been and probably ever will be. I could’ve been persuaded—more accurately, if we’d gotten a restrained and (dare I say) presidential-sounding Trump that night, it’s very possible that every cringe-worthy, eye-widening, head-shaking, career-assassination-defying statement he’s ever made could be swept under the “everyone runs a bit crazy in the primaries” rationalization. My brain, hurting from watching my party implode in the most spectacular fashion, was practicing some major defensive somersaults, prepping me for the possibility of Trump ending that speech (which I had no idea at that point would be over an hour…) and me stepping off my high horse, exclaiming, “Thou hast almost convinced me to be a Trumpeter.”

Unfortunately, this was not the case. And I don’t necessarily mean unfortunately for me, but unfortunately for Trump, who could’ve been able to pull off some miraculous healing of the party (though perhaps this was always doomed to be impossible), and unfortunately for those reasonable Republican voters caught in the middle of this nightmare, looking for some answer between two very unpleasant options. (And you can’t say Gary Johnson—as much as I prefer him to the others and would love to see that happen, Republicans that are committed to voting at all costs against Hillary won’t be convinced that a vote for Johnson doesn’t just spoil the GOP candidate and give a more decisive victory to the Democrats. I do hope he scores high enough in the polls to join the presidential debates, though).

My first wake-up call should’ve been the black and gold podium they brought out before The Donald spoke.

Trump stayed on message, sure, and he rarely ad-libbed from his teleprompted speech, and I let most of his doomsday preaching slide. By the way, I’m confused at the uproar at Trump’s negativity. Was this honestly surprising to pundits or are they all just posturing? It’s business as usual for candidates running against an administration or governing party to cast their fruits as rotten and their path as unsustainable, so I wasn’t shocked or disappointed by this rhetoric, more just bored that there was no nuance to the delivery, no gradual crescendo, he just cranked the dial to a yelly 11 and kept it there for 75 minutes. And I sat there, my mind in a game of tug-of-war, as he went talked through his stances on trade, on foreign policy, on Hillary Clinton, and then dug his heels in on two of the most inane, impractical, and ultimately election-losing ideas of his campaign: banning Muslims (now softened to banning entry from countries with terrorist presence) and that damn wall which won’t work.

I feel like I wasn’t even asking that much. I didn’t need Trump to make a mad dash to the center, like most do after running to their respective corners during primary season. Conventions aren’t for that, necessarily; they’re to build party unity and excite the base. The problem is that Trump seemed concerned with only exciting his base, neglecting those he has yet to win over. Is he not aware of the political whiplash that occurs when Republicans publicly expressing support? (Think Paul Ryan’s condemnation of Trump’s “text-book” racist comments directed at Judge Gonzalo Curiel less than a full week after an asterisk-laden endorsement.) And maybe he’s right. He certainly won enough votes across the country to not care as much about the #NeverTrump Republicans, and could smartly bank on those same Republicans voting for him anyway because he’s not Clinton.

I may be in the minority—and the primary voting results suggest that I am—but I’m at least proud to be associated with a state that tried to fight against the tide of inevitability, loudly rejecting Trump when given the chance to express it. And I get the idea of voting against rather than for someone. I make decisions like that all the time and yes, even in a past presidential election—so believe me, I understand why Republicans and Democrats alike are voting for their party’s nominee more out of fear of the opponent than genuine excitement for the potential and possibilities of their own candidate. I sympathize with Republicans who now find themselves having to reluctantly get behind Trump. But the individuals whose answer from the get-go, whose support was firm and mind convinced from the first (surely not last) racial potshot, whose preferred option out of a pool of a dozen plus, has always been Donald J. Trump? I hope I never understand that.

Photo credit: Trent Nelson, Salt Lake Tribune.