CLEVELAND, Ohio — The Republican National Convention started here Monday tapping into the ill-ease of the American public in the wake of terrorist attacks across the globe and domestic unrest. The theme for the first of four days was “Make America Safe Again,” a play on Donald Trump’s “Make America Great Again” tagline that he’s used from the beginning of his current run for president.
The prime time slate of speakers who took the stage at the Quicken Loans Arena started with Willie Robertson, one of the stars of the “Duck Dynasty” reality show, and television actor Scott Biao. They were followed by the first veteran in the lineup, former SEAL Marcus Luttrell, author of Lone Survivor.
Luttrell started his remarks by stating that he was born into a patriotic family that taught him “to die for any woman and to fight beside any man.” He said his father, who served in Vietnam, was “shamed out of his uniform” but instilled in his sons to “love this country and its people more than we loved ourselves.”
Luttrell was followed by Patricia Smith, the mother of Sean Smith, one of the four Americans killed during the attack on the consulate in Benghazi in 2012. “For all of this loss, for all of this grief, for all of the cynicism the tragedy in Benghazi has wrought upon America, I blame Hillary Clinton,” she said, which elicited a passionate response from the delegates on the convention floor, many of whom launched into a “lock her up” chant.
The topic of Clinton’s responsibility for the failure and tragedy of Benghazi continued with Mark Geist and John Teigen, two security contractors who fought off the attacks that night. The two men, who helped write 13 Hours, a book criticizing the State Department’s response to the attacks that was made into a Michael Bay movie last year, offered the crowd a lengthy, machismo-infused version of their experiences that night and left no doubt that they believe the lives of their comrades were lost because of the inaction of then-Sec. Clinton.
Arkansas Sen. Tom Cotton, a U.S. Army veteran who served in both Iraq and Afghanistan as a platoon leader with the 101st Airborne Division, jabbed at President Obama’s unwillingness to use the term “fundamentalist Islamic terrorist” when referring to ISIS and the associated network of lone wolves, saying that if Donald Trump was made commander-in-chief he would “call the enemy by its name.”
The energy in the building shifted into the next gear as former New York City mayor Rudy Giuliani took the stage and proclaimed that “the vast majority of Americans today do not feel safe. They fear for their children; they fear for themselves; they fear for our police officers who are being targeted, with a target on their back.”
Giuliani also hit Obama for his apparent reticence around labeling the terrorist threat in religious terms, saying, “Failing to identify them properly maligns all those good Muslims around the world who are being killed by them. They are killing more Muslims than anyone else.”
The lights faded to black as Giuliani left the stage, and the classic Queen hit “We are the Champions” boomed through the PA system. Donald Trump appeared as a backlit silhouette, and when the lights came back on he stepped to the podium and announced, “We are going to win so big,” and then introduced his wife Melania, who was the keynote speaker for the evening.
Mrs. Trump’s remarks, delivered with her heavy Eastern European accent, hit a number of general themes, including the fact that she was an immigrant who went through the naturalization process and became a citizen in 2006 and that her husband wasn’t one to give up on anything in life. (Media pundits were quick to point out that parts of her speech mirrored one given by First Lady Michelle Obama at the DNC in Denver in 2008, an accusation that Trump allies dismissed. “There’s no way that Melania Trump was plagiarizing Michelle Obama’s speech,” New Jersey Gov. and Trump proxy Chris Christie said.)
Donald Trump retook the stage at the end of his wife’s speech, and the two walked off to raucous applause from the delegates and other faithful in attendance. And, in what has to be viewed as a case of bad showmanship planning by either the RNC or the Trump team, retired Lt. Gen. Michael Flynn, former head of the Defense Intelligence Agency and a vocal critic of the Obama administration in spite of the fact that he’s a registered Democrat, walked to the podium to speak as a large majority of the audience streamed for the exits, assuming they’d seen the most important part of the program.
“The destructive pattern of putting the interests of other nations ahead of our own will end when Donald Trump is president,” Flynn said. “From this day forward, we must stand tougher and stronger together, with an unrelenting goal to not draw red lines and then retreat and to never be satisfied with reckless rhetoric from an Obama clone like Hillary Clinton.”
Flynn was followed Iowa Sen. Joni Ernst, another Army veteran, who told the dwindling crowd, “Our allies see us shrinking from our place as a leader in the world as we have failed time and again to address threats. They are looking for American leaders who are willing to stand up and say ‘enough is enough.'”
And by the time Texas Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick brought the first day’s proceedings to a close, Quicken Loans Arena was nearly empty.