THE INAUGURAL day of the Republican National Convention, which begins on July 18th in Cleveland, Ohio, is dedicated to national security and immigration. It might seem appropriate, therefore, that a highlight will be an appearance by Melania Trump, the presumptive nominee’s Slovenian-born wife. On Day Two of the four-day confab, dedicated to the economy, Tiffany Trump, Donald Trump’s 22-year-old daughter, seems a less obvious choice of speaker. Her half-brother, Donald Trump junior, is not necessarily the man you would choose to hear on that topic either, though he will also speak. Neither is their brother Eric Trump a recognised expert on opportunity and prosperity, to which Day Three, when he is scheduled to speak, is dedicated. Their sister Ivanka Trump will introduce Mr Trump, on Day Four, ahead of the speech in which he will formally accept the Republican presidential nomination.
The Trump-heavy line-up is, to a degree, tactical. A big chunk of Republican voters sympathise with Mr Trump’s anti-trade, anti-immigrant, anti-Barack-Obama invective: polls suggest up to 70% support his promise to close America's borders to foreign Muslims. His difficulty is that most voters—about 60% of the total—dislike Mr Trump himself; parading his relatives, who should know him best, is accordingly an effort to create sympathy for him. The convention will reveal a “very personal” side to the Republican torch-bearer and star of Celebrity Apprentice, promised his campaign manager, Paul Manafort, on July 17th. “I mean, you’re going to have his family speaking,” he said. “You’re going to have friends who have known him speaking. You’re going to have people who have worked with him.”
Having crushed his 16 rivals for the Republican ticket in the primaries, Mr Trump has won the right to tailor the convention to his needs. Such a heavy reliance on his wife and offspring is also borne of necessity, however, most potential speakers from the Republican elite having refused to show up. They include the party’s previous two presidential nominees, Mitt Romney, the main leader of the failed #NeverTrump campaign to block Mr Trump, and John McCain, who says he will take a trip to the Grand Canyon instead of attending his party's customary main pageant.
The past two Republican presidents, George Bush senior and junior, will also stay away, as will their son and brother, Jeb Bush, the former governor of Florida, whose nasty, comedic belittling by Mr Trump in the primaries gave an early taste of his political method. That John Kasich, Mr Trump’s final victim in the primaries, will also give the convention a miss is perhaps more remarkable. Because he is also the governor of Ohio, and responsible for the convention's heavy security precautions, necessitated by an expectation of rowdy protests, or worse, against Mr Trump.
With many senators and congressmen also giving Cleveland a miss—especially those, such as Senator Mark Kirk in Illinois, and indeed Mr McCain in Arizona, who face tough re-election battles in November—the convention’s organisers had thin pickings for speakers. According to a schedule released on July 17th, Chris Christie and Scott Walker, two other failed presidential candidates, will be among four governors scheduled to speak. Paul Ryan, Speaker of the House of Representatives, will be the best-known among five congressmen to appear on stage. Mitch McConnell, the majority leader in the Senate, will be among eight senators—making Senate Republicans the only arm of the GOP better represented among the speakers than Mr Trump's family.
Mr Trump promised that this would not be a regular party convention. Yet the “show-biz” element he promised to lighten the boring old policy discussion (to which, to be fair, his campaign has hardly subjected voters thus far) is not evident either. Mr Trump will be heralded by a golfer, Natalie Gulbis and a couple of actors, of whom Scott Baio, a television star of the 1980s, is perhaps the best-known. He has described how bumping into Mr Trump at a recent Republican fund-raiser led to this arrangement. “He was walking out and I looked at him and said, “Mr Trump, Scott Baio.” And he goes, “Oh my God!” recounted Mr Baio. "And he said to me, “Did you want to speak?” And I went “Here (at the fundraiser)?” And he goes, “No, no, no, I mean at the convention."
Thus the Trump circus, a show entirely dependent on the brute charisma of its ringmaster, rolls on. It is absurd—so absurd as to risk deflecting attention from the dreadful significance of what is about to happen in Cleveland. At a time of mounting global uncertainty, the Republicans are about to adopt as their presidential pick a man dedicated, if you believe half his pronouncements against trade, NATO and the United Nations, to dismantling the world order over which America has presided since the second world war. At a time of racial anxiety and some violence in America, they are about to nominate a man who has risen by dog-whistling to the worst racial prejudices, against Hispanics, blacks and immigrants of all sorts, of white America.
It is still likely that Mr Trump will not make it to the White House. But certainly he might. The latest polls show him trailing Hillary Clinton, who will formally accept the Democratic candidacy next week, by between four and seven percentage points. And if his show in Cleveland, which will receive blanket coverage on all the networks, goes off well, that gap may well be about to close.