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A Historian's View Of This Year's Republican Convention

Sen. Ted Cruz, R-Tex., speaks during the third day session of the Republican National Convention in Cleveland, Wednesday, July 20, 2016. (John Locher/AP)
Sen. Ted Cruz, R-Tex., speaks during the third day session of the Republican National Convention in Cleveland, Wednesday, July 20, 2016. (John Locher/AP)

How will the Republican National Convention in Cleveland be remembered?

Here & Now‘s Robin Young speaks with Jill Lepore, a professor of history at Harvard and staff writer for the New Yorker, who is at the RNC this week.

Hear more of Here & Now‘s coverage from the Republican National Convention.

Follow the Here & Now Election Road Trip on Tumblr.

Interview Highlights: Jill Lepore

On the crowds outside the convention

“It’s actually, there have been times when I’ve been out there sort of counting. It’s a ratio of journalists to protesters is 10 to 1. Which is, you know, an incredible relief for people.

There’s been, though, I think a kind of really interesting set of spontaneous moments. I mean maybe they’re a little but staged. On my way over here this morning I crossed through Public Square, this beautiful plaza where many of the protesters have been gathering… It was the public square and it’s been this very exciting place for free speech because it hasn’t resulted in violence. This morning when I walking across I stopped for a cup of coffee, they have ping pong table out there, and there was a ping pong contest between the Indiana state troopers and this bunch of young black men… There are these lovely moments in a week that’s been not the loveliest.”


On the tone of the convention rhetoric

“Each speech is like one Armageddon after the next. There’s this incredible sense of foreboding, and people came here to Cleveland after weeks of really very agonizing national and international news, I think kind of battered, really deeply concerned, saddened by what was going on in the country and around the world. The greeting from the podium — this isn’t from floor with the delegates — but the speeches, they’re not that different from the guys marching down the street with the signs that read ‘repent, repent.’ I mean there’s just this sense of the coming catastrophe.

It’s a strange choice of a political narrative. It’s always been the case that conservatism is sort of backward looking, right, ‘the golden age lies in the past.’ So returning to the greatness that America once was… That’s not a novel thing. But this is different than that. It’s making the argument contingent on accepting the idea that the present is catastrophic.”

On comparisons between Ronald Reagan and Donald Trump

“[Ronald Reagan] really packaged a kind of nostalgia for the era in which he was a movie star, he’s actually repacking himself, looking back at the ‘40s Reagan, that young, beautiful, handsome man. But he’s nevertheless ushering in a new day, a new beginning, ‘Morning in America.’ I mean so much of his political rhetoric was forward looking.

So there was a hinge between, ‘The past was great, but the future is going to be even better.’ Somehow the Trump campaign, the messaging coming off of that campaign, it has not yet made that turn, and this kind of feeling of kind of sourness and grimness kind of pervades the place.”

On how young voters are reacting to the convention

“It’s a tough sell for young people. I’ve been really struck. I spent most of my time in the Public Square because it’s beautiful, it’s an incredibly beautiful park, talking to especially younger people who were there. Not so much in big groups, but singly or in twos, a couple University of Cincinnati students I sat down with yesterday. And they’re not that… they’re really concerned about things going on in the world, they’re not happy with either of the major party candidates. Across the spectrum, I haven’t found young people who are excited about either of the major party candidates.”

On what archivists are collecting in Cleveland

“I stopped at the historical society and I said, ‘What are you guys collecting?’ They have this incredible memorabilia from 1924 and 1936, the last two conventions (in Cleveland). You know, they have these ponchos, and they’re like, ‘We don’t know what to collect, they’re no paper tickets this time around.’”


Jill Lepore, professor of history at Harvard University and a staff writer at The New Yorker.

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