The Republican gathering in Cleveland has been a convention like no other, loosely organized, off message and marked by shocks such as the theatrical throwdown between Donald Trump and Ted Cruz.
Those headlines obscure the similarities Cleveland shares with previous party conclaves. At the most basic level, conventions are group therapy sessions where the faithful convince themselves of their own lies.
Believing in your own myth is, after all, a necessary first step in selling it to a wider public.
I learned this early in my career. In the spring of 1988, a group of newsmagazine editors were summoned to lunch in the boardroom to hear the off-the-record wisdom of a man we’d describe as a ”top Democratic strategist.” And in this instance, our guest deserved the high designation — he was important enough to live to see his name slapped on a building in central Washington.
Between bites of broiled salmon, the operative lamented the state of the Democratic presidential field, a group of hopefuls already dubbed in the press as “the seven dwarves.” He was most dismissive of the man who, in real life, was short of stature yet edging closer to victory.
Mike Dukakis, the governor of Massachusetts who proudly sported a liberal record and an “ethnic” name, was a looming disaster, according to our man.
“We’re in trouble,” he lamented. “I mean, look at the name. Du-Kaaaak-is? Every bigot and every fearful person in the country will recoil. He sounds black, he sounds Puerto Rican.” He shook his head sadly. “He’s gonna get slaughtered.”
Four months later, I was roaming the floor of the Omni in Atlanta as the Democrats wrapped up their convocation. Dukakis had delivered a decent acceptance speech, something that would drive the candidate to an 18-point poll lead over Vice President George H.W. Bush. It was a brief shining moment, before the historic character assassination administered by Republican knuckle-breakers Roger Ailes and Lee Atwater.
I approached our once-gloomy Democratic fixer, and this time he was smiling and on the record.
“It was a great speech and Mike’s gonna make a great president,” he said. “He’s our Gary Cooper.”
Here in Cleveland, they’re bottling a concoction that they hope will last longer than Trump Vodka, as delegates grow intoxicated on the notion that their man is the second coming of Ronald Reagan.
The reasons are surface, simple and come in rapid succession: Reagan ran on the restoration of America. Reagan was dismissed as a lightweight, yet was smart enough to surround himself with intellects in areas where he fell short. Reagan achieved fame apart from the political realm and remained an outsider.
Older operatives will remember — and concede on background — that the Old Man also wasn’t above a little race-baiting to lure the base.
It’s all found right among the California delegation, with loving keepers of the Reagan cult who span three generations.
Young Sam Barke is one of the newest guardians of the temple. Dressed in an American flag seersucker suit and sneakers adorned with the GOP elephant, the 18-year-old alternate delegate is looking forward to casting his first vote for Trump in November.
“Trump’s a real person. Of the people, by the people and for the people,” he said. The disdain of the establishment validates Trump’s rise. “Reagan wasn’t given a chance by some people because he was an actor,” young Sam said.
A few rows back, K.V. Kumar is also fired up for Trump. He’s attending his seventh Republican convention, and is a first-time delegate for Trump because he wants better “national security, economic well-being, and a fairer immigration policy.”
Longer experience with politics means Kumar, 71, would have been open to crossing party lines. “I will vote for a good Democrat, and I want a woman president. I might have supported Hillary if she hadn’t lied so much.”
But if the Trump candidacy turns into another failed branded enterprise, the delegates may have missed the inheritance message delivered by Cruz on Wednesday night.
His speech shocked the convention crowd. Cruz mentioned Trump once, while citing Michael Smith, one of the five slain Dallas police officers, three times.
Cleverly and deliberately, Cruz used a “freedom agenda” trope as cover to deploy words outside the current playbook. Gay. Muslim. Love.
Cruz, unlike Trump, knows that Reagan had a place for the hardworking immigrant somewhere in the shiny city on the hill, albeit a side street in an unfashionable zip code.
In Reagan’s world, the obedient and honorable worker would make a life for himself, and perhaps sit smiling in the crowd watching his daughter become the family’s first college graduate.
The adoration for Trump turns away from the fact that he has a very different vision from Reagan. When he says our Mexican neighbors send their “rapists” and their “murderers” our way, he’s imagining quite a different fate for our daughters.
Cruz posited a future for the murdered Dallas policeman’s daughter that won’t come under a President Trump. Yet as the boos rained down upon him, he crafted an alternative reality closer to Reagan’s vision. He is certainly a flawed messenger, but Cruz has crafted a new vintage of the Reagan myth, but for laying down and opening in 2020.
David Ellis is chief content officer and senior vice president of CQ Roll Call.