Unconventional GOP Convention Finds a Theme: ‘Make Clinton to Blame Again’

A much hyped opening day featured a disconnected lineup of senators, soap stars, and Melania Trump, all tied together by the GOP’s go-to strategy: Everything is Clinton’s fault.


CLEVELAND — What do former Texas Gov. Rick Perry, former New York Mayor Rudy Giuliani, retired Army Gen. Mike Flynn, and former model Melania Trump have in common? Hillary Clinton, it turns out.  

The Republican National Convention kicked off in Cleveland, Ohio, on Monday with the theme “Make America Safe Again,” but it strained to hold together the kind of unconventional lineup promised by presumptive Republican nominee and former reality TV host Donald Trump.

Celebrity veterans, at least in conservative circles, such as Marcus Luttrell, a former Navy SEAL and crowd favorite, opened for traditionally hawkish Republicans such as Sens. Tom Cotton of Arkansas and Joni Ernst of Iowa, two freshman lawmakers and themselves veterans. Presidential also-rans Giuliani and Perry shared the same stage as actors from reruns Happy Days and General Hospital, as well as local law enforcement. In between, mothers spoke of sons dying in Benghazi, Libya, and fathers spoke of sons shot dead in the street by an immigrant.

From personal tragedy to geopolitical complexities, there was one common thread, tugged by Republicans years ago in anticipation of Clinton’s presidential run: Tie each and every security crisis at home and overseas to the policies of President Barack Obama and, more specifically, to his first secretary of state.

The most pointed was Patricia Smith, mother of Sean Smith, who was among four killed in the 2012 terrorist attacks at the U.S. consulate in Benghazi. When she was escorted to the podium, the crowd was somber.

“I blame Hillary Clinton,” Smith began in a choked voice, and the crowd erupted in cheers. “I blame Hillary Clinton personally for the death of my son. Personally.”

The relentless attacks echoed Trump’s own line of late. On Saturday, he spent more time trying to tie the terrorist attack in Nice and the attempted coup in Turkey to Clinton than he did introducing his vice presidential pick, Indiana Gov. Mike Pence. It was all evidence, Trump said, of the chaos unleashed in the world by “Obama-Clinton.”

“Now we’re seeing unrest in Turkey, a further demonstration of the failures of Obama-Clinton,” Trump said at the time. “You just have to look — every single thing they touched has turned to horrible, horrible, death-defying problems.”

“You saw it the other day with the truck,” he continued, referring to the Nice attack. “You heard what he was screaming out the window.… You see it all over. And Hillary is a weak person.”

On Monday night in Cleveland, Rep. Mike McCaul of Texas, chairman of the Homeland Security Committee, asked the crowd, “Are you safer? Is our military stronger? Is America still respected?” He was met with a chorus of “No!” from the packed convention floor and emptier stadium seats. “Over and over, Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama apologized for America and allowed jihadists to spread like wildfire,” McCaul also said.

Even Cotton, a Harvard University-trained lawyer and Army veteran who served in Iraq and has acknowledged he has disagreements with Trump’s neo-isolationist “America First” foreign-policy pronouncements, pointed the finger squarely at Obama and Clinton.

“We’d like a commander in chief who calls the enemy by its name, a commander in chief who draws red lines cautiously, but enforces them ruthlessly,” he continued. “And it would be nice to have a commander in chief who could be trusted to handle classified information,” he finished, with what passes for a smile for the lugubrious senator, a dig at the investigations over Clinton’s use of a private email server during her tenure at the State Department.

Contrasts drew starker as the night wore on. Trump himself showed up to introduce his wife, a former model. She was followed by Lt. Gen. Mike Flynn, the former top intelligence official at the Defense Department who has become an outspoken critic of the Obama administration’s foreign policy. Yet both had a shared target. 

“Everything depends on it, for our cause and our country,” Melania said, implying dire stakes for an election that has become a virtual referendum on immigration and nativism in her deliberate, heavily accented English.

After Trump escorted his wife off stage, unable to resist pausing for photos in his first appearance at the convention, Flynn quipped, “I don’t know how you follow an act like Melania Trump.”

The jokes stopped there for the former head of the Defense Intelligence Agency, who spoke hoarsely of ominous consequences if Clinton were to be elected, even as people began to stream out of the convention hall.

“We do not need a weak, spineless president who is more concerned about issuing apologies than in protecting Americans,” Flynn said. “We do not need a reckless president who believes she is above the law.”

“Lock her up!” the remaining delegates chanted.  

Sounding a more extreme version of Melania’s message, the retired general warned the thinning crowd on its way toward the exits, “Our very existence is threatened.”

Photo credit: Win McNamee/Staff

Molly O’Toole is a senior reporter at Foreign Policy, covering immigration, refugees, and national security. She was FP’s sole 2016 presidential campaign reporter, on the trail from New Hampshire to Nevada. Previously, she covered the politics of national security for Atlantic Media’s Defense One, where she reported from Congress, the White House, the Pentagon, and the State Department. Before that, she was a news editor at the Huffington Post. Molly has also reported on national and international politics for Reuters, the Nation, The Associated Press, and Newsweek International, among others, from Washington, New York, Mexico City, and London. She received her dual master’s degree in journalism and international relations from New York University and her bachelor’s from Cornell University and in 2016 was a grant recipient of the International Women’s Media Foundation. She will always be a Californian. @mollymotoole

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