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Donald Trump’s Big Talk

His convention was the best. Let him tell you: the best.

Getty Images/Ringer illustration
Getty Images/Ringer illustration

Cleveland is demanding our attention. From the Republican National Convention to the Cavaliers’ NBA championship, the Indians’ recent dominance to a surprising tech scene, we’re thinking about the city more than ever. This week,​ The Ringer ​is exploring why Cleveland matters.

All week, the balloons were fastened to the ceiling of Quicken Loans Arena. Sometimes, as the Republican National Convention hiccupped along, it seemed like they’d burst into flames above our heads. But after Donald Trump delivered his speech Thursday night, they fell onto the delegates below exactly as Trump had planned.

This was not your usual balloon drop, folks. No, sir. It was a Trumpian balloon drop. A first wave of red, white, and blue balloons fell. Then another wave. Then confetti fell. Then giant balloons that looked like jawbreaker candies began to fall, and the delegates began playing with them like beach balls.

Trump stood on the stage with Mike Pence and their families, admiring his handiwork. The balloons kept coming, wave after wave. Around the arena, balloons exploded with loud pops. After a few minutes, a funny thing happened: There were so many balloons bouncing around that the delegates completely forgot about Trump. The delegate floor became a Chuck E. Cheese’s ball pit. And the guy they nominated for president? What? I can’t hear you over the popping!

This next sentence will come with some asterisks. But the 75 minutes Trump spent speaking Thursday night were the most effective, most on-message minutes of the entire convention. It was about the only speech (not made by another Trump family member) that went exactly the way Donald Trump wanted it to.

Now, here are the asterisks: The Trump speech leaked to a liberal super PAC Thursday afternoon. Just before 10:45 p.m., a Code Pink protester leapt onto a table in the press section and brought the speech to a halt. All day long, Trump’s own surrogates did their best to take the train off the tracks. Paul Manafort, the campaign chairman, made remarks about women needing their husbands to earn money, and Ben Carson said the Trump kids grew up in a “disadvantaged” home.

But this is the 2016 Republican National Convention. Four colossal screwups make a perfect night.

The GOP convention was constructed in the way that a screenwriter constructs a horror movie. You had regularly spaced “kills” interspersed with moments of extreme boredom and occasional humor. Monday’s kill was supplied by Rudy Giuliani. Tuesday’s came from Chris Christie and his kangaroo court. Wednesday’s came from Ted Cruz — except he got confused and attacked Trump.

There was an idea that Thursday night would be Trump’s chance to go positive, to bring back the screwy levity that had been lost under a blizzard of guests (Fran Tarkenton, Scott Baio) that seemed like the couch of an ’80s Tonight Show episode when Johnny had the night off. Even delegates who had cheered three nights’ worth of slashing attacks on Hillary Clinton wanted something else.

“I don’t want to hear anything about Hillary,” J.R. Damron, an alternate delegate from New Mexico, said an hour before the program began. “I want to hear what he’s going to do for our country, and how he’s going to unite it and bring all Americans together.”

“I came out of marketing,” said Nebraska’s Tom Sanderson. “The first thing you want to do is start branding yourself, then you want to brand your competition. I think he’s been a master of branding the competition before he brands himself. Now it’s time to get down and sell the product.”

That’s how political conventions usually go. Red meat is served as an appetizer. Then the convention bends toward a gauzier, more uplifting portrait of the candidate. That isn’t how Trump’s convention went. “The idea is to hit her every day,” Trump adviser Barry Bennett said of Hillary. For Trump’s own speech, “my guess is even he will talk about Hillary a little bit,” Bennett said with a grin. “Maybe 20 or 30 minutes.” It seemed like he talked about Hillary the whole time.

Trump’s kill was the longest and bloodiest. “This is the legacy of Hillary Clinton,” he said at one point. “Death, destruction and terrorism and weakness.” Clinton and Barack Obama would “sacrifice” innocent lives on “the altar of open borders.” Trump listed horrors we didn’t even know existed: “Our airports are in Third World condition.” Well, the security lines are kinda long and all …

Getty Images
Getty Images

This summer, Trump’s advisers convinced him to use a teleprompter for big speeches. The Trump that hews to talking points has been hailed as Disciplined Trump. The problem is, Disciplined Trump isn’t Fun Trump. The cable networks never would have devoted hours of programming to a candidate reading slashing attacks.

Using the teleprompter as a guide, Trump got off only a few ad-libs. At one point, the text said Iraq was seeing “a reduction in violence.” Trump salted the line with a few peppy adjectives: Iraq was seeing “really, a big, big reduction in violence.” Another time, the text said: “We are going to defeat the barbarians of ISIS.” Trump saw an opening and added, “And we are going to defeat them big.”

When Trump got off a big applause line, he would take two or three steps back from the podium. He would nod his head as the audience chanted U-S-A! Then he would shoot his head back toward the podium. He did this every single time, like a robotic acknowledgement of love.

“We cannot afford to be so politically correct anymore,” Trump said to a huge cheer. We attendees already knew this, because earlier in the night, a video was shown touting “Mr. Trump’s” kindness to female executives in his company — his sensitivity to maternity leave and so forth. When the video ended, the first words the house band sang were, “She was a fast machine …” Trump wanted the 2016 RNC to be un-PC. Actually, it was pre-PC, reflecting a state of nature before grace and propriety entered anybody’s head.

We never really got to know Trump during the convention. He is uninterested in, or incapable of, self-reflection. The biographical videos Thursday showed a few interesting-looking black-and-white pictures of Trump and his dad, then cut to real estate porn of Trump buildings around the world. Before Ivanka spoke, Colony Capital CEO Thomas J. Barrack Jr. (another in a list of speakers who shouldn’t even headline a local chamber of commerce luncheon), got on stage and tried to tell a story to humanize Trump.

The story went like this: In 1989, Trump and Barrack took a helicopter to Atlantic City to see Mike Tyson fight. When they landed, Trump’s limo “whisked” them to a casino (presumably one Trump owned). The crush of Trump admirers was so big that Trump and Barrack had to use the back door. Once inside, Trump spotted a loyal employee whose son was sick. Trump sent the kid a nice note.

Think about that: In order to humanize Trump, one of his best friends told a story about a helicopter, a limo, and a heavyweight-title fight. Another time, Barrack said, “He befriends the bewildered.” You can forget about the bewildered vote on election day.

Trump had a single grace note during his speech. “I would like to thank the evangelical community because, I will tell you what, the support they have given me …” he said. Then he added, “And I’m not sure I totally deserve it.” I’d never suggest there’s a sweet-natured, self-aware Trump out there. But that’s the Trump that was sacrificed to the prompter.

The first thing I saw of the Code Pink protester was her slip-on shoes. She leapt onto a press table two rows beneath mine and unfurled a banner that said, “Build Bridges, Not Walls.” A reporter named Mitch Harper was seated two seats to her left. Harper, who has a white beard and wears glasses, writes for a website called Fort Wayne Observed. He immediately grabbed the flag.

“I’m an old EMT,” Harper told me after the melee. “It’s not unusual for me to leap into the fray.” More to the point, he’s also a former GOP candidate for mayor of Fort Wayne. Harper said the protester — later revealed to be Code Pink cofounder Medea Benjamin — showed up early. She came with a blonde woman, who was also looking for an empty seat. In a rich irony, the empty seat they found belonged to Pamela Geller, the notorious conservative gadfly. But Geller couldn’t get her internet connection to work and abandoned her place at the table. Benjamin used a conservative’s seat as a stage to harass Trump.

The speech stopped while the cops hauled Benjamin away. But even Trump’s ad-lib was on message: “How great are our police?” Only minutes later, he jackhammered through a litany of cop killings.

After the speech, you could sense an air of self-satisfaction around Trump. He was the convention’s best speaker, and he knew it. He had executed his plan in a way his bumbling campaign staff never could and perhaps never will again. He smiled as the balloons fell. If there is no inner life to Trump, then I don’t feel shame about trying to read his mind. These are the best balloons, folks, aren’t they? he seemed to be thinking. Aren’t they? Am I right? Look at them — beautiful. Let me tell you. The best!