The presumptive GOP nominee, real estate developer and reality show host is bound to draw an uptick in interest in the July 18-21 gathering in Cleveland because it is Donald Trump, accepting the GOP nomination for president, a moment that few predicted would happen.
Even without the promise of the drama that would have come from a contested convention, the curiosity factor alone would seem to guarantee a bigger audience than recent conventions — a relatively low bar given that the 2012 gathering got beat on one night in the ratings by “Here Comes Honey Boo Boo.”
But if Trump plans to fill the Quicken Loans Arena with a stream of top musical acts and superstars, he will have his work cut out for him.
Getting celebrities to show up for even the Democratic Convention can be a challenge, but for Republicans, it is even more so. Hollywood is not only an industry that leans left, but there is a perception among a number of industry conservatives that too closely aligning themselves with right-wing partisanship risks future employment. The last major Hollywood figure to speak at a GOP convention was Clint Eastwood and, while it certainly didn’t hurt his career, he may forever be linked to that routine with an empty chair.
Fred Davis, who was creative director at the 2008 GOP Convention, said that they had a lot of difficulty getting entertainers to the gathering.
“It got to the point where we were looking for anybody — even if we could get Grandma Moses to come,” he quips. “People would be really supportive, but then they would say, ‘Gosh, I can’t make it that week.’ It’s funny how busy everybody was.” Others cancelled at the last minute after getting some heat for performing, he said.
“The question to be asked is to what extent the Donald Trump phenomenon will break that, because I think the jury is still out,” Davis said.
In 2008, Robert Duvall narrated a convention film for John McCain, and in 2012, in addition to Eastwood, the Tampa gathering drew such figures as Taylor Hicks, Jon Voight and the Oak Ridge Boys. Jeff Bridges performed at both conventions that year to try to draw attention to childhood hunger issues. Democratic conventions have been a bigger magnet, reflected in the fundraising split that has for decades favored the left. It has been running about 74% to 26% so far this cycle, according to the Center for Responsive Politics.
In contrast to recent GOP nominees, Trump has a long, long career of mixing it up with celebrities, touts his friendships with many of them and has experience in the showmanship of our day: reality television. He’s managed to adapt its attention-grabbing aspects into the context of a presidential primary. He knows showmanship and the major players. In a recent interview with Michael Wolff of The Hollywood Reporter, he said that he regularly talks to WME Entertainment’s Ari Emanuel, and that the agency chieftan even offered to take charge of a convention film for him. A spokesman for the agency said that they had no plans to do such a film.
It’s still a leap, though, to go from knowing musicians and artists and their reps, and actually getting them to commit to an event that signals endorsement. ABC’s “Jimmy Kimmel Live” featured Trump as a guest last week, but his appearance was too much for The Weeknd and Belly. They backed out of the show. Other musicians — like the Rolling Stones, Neil Young and Adele — have sought to get Trump to stop playing their songs.
Robert Davi, who narrated a number of convention videos at the 2008 convention, predicted last year that Trump would be the nominee, and says that the stars and performers who show up for him may prove to be unexpected.
He says that while “you are not going to get Barbra Streisand,” people “may be surprised on who may entertain.”
A number of artists have been booked already for events surrounding the convention, including Lynyrd Skynyrd and Kid Rock for Cleveland Rocks, an event that will raise money for veterans organizations.
Rob Jennings, executive producer of Cleveland Rocks, said that the event is non partisan, and a similar event is being held the next week, when Democrats will meet in Philadelphia. Among the acts booked so far: Kool & the Gang (which backed out of a GOP gathering) and Electric Factory.
“We are sort of equal opportunity celebrators,” Jennings said.
Still, there already has been some skittishness, even if the events are not official Republican fetes. In April, Joe Walsh backed out of a concert that week, stating that he “cannot in good conscience endorse the Republican party in any way.”
Given the continued acrimony between Clinton and Sanders supporters, there also could be discord in Philadelphia, too, that proves a turnoff for skittish celebrities.
“I have heard it is tough on both sides,” Jennings said. “A lot of folks at some levels don’t want to get in the mix — you take a side and you are going to offend somebody.”
Conversations between the Trump campaign and the party convention organizers began in the middle of last month, and since then there have been reports that the Republican National Committee has made inquiries about using the Cleveland Browns stadium during the event. That has led to speculation that perhaps Trump is looking into making his acceptance speech in a major venue, just as Barack Obama did in Denver.
As for the rest of the week? Davis says that planning the event will be “no easy cakewalk.”
“I think you have no choice but to center it around Donald,” he said, adding that he should avoid gimmicks. “No fake game show — all that cornball stuff.”
Rather, he’d feature segments where other people are talking about their experiences with Trump, whether it is his experience or charitable activities, but with Trump off stage. The advantage would be that it would be “other people talking about him more than him talking about himself.”
“There is a place for humility in politics,” Davis says. “I don’t know if he will do it or not.”