‘It got vicious and it got nasty’ – a NZ National MP writes from the Republican National Convention

Sunday, July 24, 2016

America! Jesus! Freedom! That was the all-important catchphrase for Will Ferrell’s satirical character in The Campaign. Cam Brady would have fitted right in last week at the Republican National Convention.

New Zealanders don’t do politics anywhere near on the scale Americans do. The mammoth size of the event in Cleveland would blow the mind of even the most seasoned New Zealand political observer.

The recipe isn’t too difficult. Flood a city with 50,000 delegates, media, officials, observers and protesters. Arrange dozens of speeches. Crown the candidate. Try to avoid a plagiarism scandal or Texas senator going off script. Then hope for the best – or at least to manage the fall out.

I’m currently in the United States with Bay of Plenty’s Todd Muller where we are formally part of the Republicans’ visitor programme with the International Democrat Union. Next week we are joining a similar international programme with the Dems’ National Democratic Institute in Philadelphia.

Attending a nominating convention is eye opening. Since a teenager I have closely followed American politics from afar. Watching The West Wing or House of Cards gives you a bit of insight, but they’re nothing compared to the real deal.

Of course Todd and I jumped at the chance to see this phenomenon in person. But more importantly, it was an opportunity to connect with US politicians, build relationships where we can, and fly the flag for New Zealand interests that get discussed or voted upon in the Congress.

Let’s get on the table nice and early that everyone here in Cleveland has been friendly and hospitable. New Zealanders are held in very high regard by our American friends and we were always welcomed with opened arms.

The convention delegates themselves were also really nice people to talk with. New Zealanders and our media can be mistaken in believing that Republicans all have three heads and a desire to bomb the Middle East ASAP. But all we saw were very passionate people that truly believe Trump can make their country great again.

The Cleveland convention achieved the most important goal for Donald J Trump – formally nominating him as the Republican Party’s candidate for President of the United States. He rewarded onlookers with the longest acceptance speech in four decades, while millions of viewers around the world shook their heads in disbelief. Interestingly, so were many Republicans here in Cleveland.

The Republican Party is much divided right now. There is the Party of Trump and the Party of Everyone Else. Attending this convention showed us the almost parallel universe that sits alongside the formal televised event. Political party events are usually stage managed celebrations, whichever country you’re in. But the contrast in feeling among many of the party’s establishment, expressed away from the convention arena, was astonishing.

If you’ve read this far you already know Trump isn’t the most popular guy in the Republican Party. The party leadership had all their stars aligned – good fundraising, strong party organisation state by state, and an unpopular incumbent president. Yet somehow the party members managed to do the impossible and pick the candidate with the highest “unfavourables” and Hillary’s best chance of winning.

This naturally troubles those with influence in the party. Think the elected officials, the fundraisers, the lobbyists. Think the people that have vast experience serving their party in the pursuit of Republican policy positions. The nomination of Trump presents many of them with the choice of either failing their conscience, or failing their party.

Many side events that never make it into the newspaper or on TV take place around each convention. They are exclusive and invite-only, and it’s where the real politics is done. While speech after speech takes place inside the arena, politicians and those with a stake in the GOP are discussing the way forward. It’s here where you see the pro-Republican yet anti-Trump side speak their mind.

We managed to gain a first-hand view of just a small part of this alternate political world, but it was fascinating. It’s here where we were able to grab a photo and quick discussion with people like US House Speaker Paul Ryan, third ranked House Republican Steve Scalise, and a number of political influencers.

These guys know they have a huge job ahead of them to bring their party back together once the circus is over. Ryan himself is walking one of the most challenging political tightropes ever contemplated. His job is to ensure the wider party is sufficiently backing the nominee forced upon them, but also keeping enough distance to contain the inevitable collateral damage.

We shouldn’t believe all the commentary at home about it being a foregone conclusion that Obama’s successor will be the country’s first female president.

We like to think in New Zealand that everything will be fine and the Clinton brand will easily prevail. We lull ourselves into this false sense of security because we find Mrs Clinton much more palatable. Our politics is more in line with hers and she reached out to New Zealand warmly when she was Secretary of State.

But we shouldn’t think Trump is automatically disqualified. Yes, we would question the sanity of any New Zealand politician that adopted Trump’s policy positions; however, the reality is that his prospects aren’t too dissimilar to hers.

The election is much closer than the world thinks. President Trump could conceivably be taking office in January 2017. Experts in presidential politics that presented to us admitted they got it all wrong in the primaries and are no longer willing to believe what conventional wisdom tells them. Trump has thrown everything they know to be true into question.

American politics is just so divisive. It really is black and white, without any shades of grey or nuance. Grey isn’t encouraged and nor can one survive long term to gain high elected office if they’re too moderate.

This was exemplified by delegates and speakers in the Quicken Loans Arena. It got vicious and it got nasty. Speaker after speaker all week long whipped up discontent and fear, while chants of “lock her up; lock her up” were heard regularly.

Republican Party delegates and members don’t just dislike what Hillary Clinton believes. They have a deep and primal hatred of her. She is their anti-Christ and they’re out for blood. I know our own politics can get heated at times, but once the cameras are turned off, we typically get along reasonably well.

Not at a nominating convention. All bets are off over here and Mr Trump is the saviour. He will build that wall, command the economy to perform, eradicate enemies at the blink of an eye, and all will be well again in the land of the free. There is no questioning of how he’ll actually do it, there’s just an inherent belief that what he says must be right.

Trump’s convention speech was roundly panned in US media as being dark and too long, as well as devoid of any solutions. Speeches during the week rarely painted a picture with words or argued a point with depth and persuasion. Rather they appeared to be crafted as a collection of tweets with only a loose connection, designed to get the crowd going and make headlines. It works for those that are faithful.

The intersection of religion and politics is also jarring for us as New Zealanders. We are taught that church and state shouldn’t cross paths; that you don’t mix your ministries. Not here in America. The most frequently mentioned topics are religion and freedom. Not religious freedom (especially if you’re Muslim), but rather how religion so closely informs politics of the day.

But with all that caused us concern having now seen it up close, we did walk away from the RNC with a belief that they’ll work it out in the end. A President Trump is an alarming possibility, but the American political machine can’t be made or broken by one man.

Behind all the talk of freedom and liberty under God, the founders of this nation were remarkably clever. They crafted a nation full of checks, balances, and limitations. These mechanisms are frequently berated for leading to gridlock in Washington, but should Trump cross that White House finish line, people across the globe will all be thankful for the forethought of 1787.

Onwards to Philadelphia.

Jami-Lee Ross

Member of Parliament for Botany