CLEVELAND — A dozen or more mounted police officers clip-clop down Cleveland’s empty streets a day before the Republican National Convention gavels in. Helicopters circle above head and tourists stop to snap photos and look around eagerly. The question on everyone’s mind is the same: Is Donald Trump here yet?
As cloudy skies threaten an actual storm, the city braces itself for both the showmanship of a national party convention starring a billionaire former reality television star and the contention expected to come along with it.
In a four-day celebration in the key swing state of Ohio, the Republican Party will formally nominate the real estate mogul and wed its future to the Trump brand, his zealous fans and the unrivaled controversy and incendiary rhetoric he’s championed under the campaign slogan-turned-convention theme, Make America Great Again. The party descending on Cleveland this week is very different from the one that entered Cleveland’s Quicken Loans Arena last August for the first primary debate. Then, all eyes were on former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush, the perceived front-runner with a hefty war chest and two past presidents in the family. Now, 11 months later, it's the Trump show.
Like Bush, many of the Republican Party’s biggest stars won’t be there. The party enters the convention still bruised and divided after a contentious primary, and many have opted to sit out the GOP’s rebranding. Just a third of the contenders who first began campaigning for the presidency in Iowa more than a year ago will rally behind the eventual nominee this week.
In their place will be Trump, Trump and more Trump.
Instead of the party luminaries who usually take prime-time convention speaking slots, there will be four of Trump’s children, Trump’s wife Melania, two Trump employees and Trump friends. There’s also a handful of senators, conservative stalwarts, the occasional billionaire and a few C- and D-list celebrities.
Most speakers are expected to place a heavy focus on Trump’s core issues, including immigration and national security. It’s a strong rebuke of the party’s own insistence that it needed to broaden its appeal, soften its rhetoric, and be more inclusive to minorities after losing the White House in 2012. Instead of embracing comprehensive immigration reform as the post-2012 autopsy wholeheartedly recommended, the party will lift up the candidate who has vowed to build a wall along the nation’s Southern border and force Mexico to pay for it while deporting millions of undocumented immigrants.
With that shift to the right comes all the controversy, demonstrations and protest that such proposals inspire. Advocacy groups like Black Lives Matter, anti-hate groups and other activists have all condemned Trump as racist and offensive, and white nationalists and anti-Semites have celebrated him. Both sides will make their voices heard in Cleveland, as part of the thousands of protesters expected.
Tensions for these protests — and security overall — could not be higher.
The shooting Sunday in Baton Rouge that killed three police officers, the recent attack on police in Dallas and the slew of terror attacks in the U.S. and abroad have police constantly reassessing their security strategy for the convention.
Hours after a truck driver drove through a crowd in Nice, France on Thursday killing 80 and injuring dozens others, Cleveland police said they made “enhancements” to their security measures. More fencing, cameras and other technology were added after past attacks, too. The shooting in Dallas — against police officers working during a Black Lives Matter protest — was particularly a "wake-up call that exposed our vulnerability as law enforcement," Deputy Police Chief Ed Tomba told NBC News.
Inside the convention hall, aides say to expect some glitz and glam from team Trump. While what exactly that glam might look like in practice, a partial speakers list signals that they’ve struggled to attract the kind of A-list celebrities that Trump hinted about in past interviews.
Just two actors will take the stage: Kimberlin Brown from "The Young and the Restless" and "The Bold and the Beautiful” will speak, along with Antonio Sabato Jr., a Calvin Klein underwear model and “General Hospital” star.
Sabato, a reality television regular who has appeared on "Celebrity Wife Swap" and "Dancing With the Stars," might seem an odd speaker choice in past years, but he’ll fit right in at this convention. Other reality TV-related speakers are Wisconsin Rep. Sean Duffy, who did a season on "The Real World" before going into politics, and pro-golfer and Sports Illustrated swimsuit model Natalie Gulbis, who had a reality program on the golf channel. Three billionaires will also take the stage to speak in support of the party.
Add in Trump, both a reality star and billionaire, and you’ve got four of each, and perhaps one of the most unusual conventions — and candidates — in history.