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SEBELIUS: We’ve just never been here before

Nothing like this has ever happened before.

The Republican Party last had its nominating convention in Cleveland in 1936, when little-remembered Kansas Gov. Alf Landon lost in a landslide to incumbent Democrat Franklin Delano Roosevelt. Before that, in 1924, Republican Calvin Coolidge accepted the GOP’s nomination in Cleveland.

But it was nothing like this.

We’ve had presidents who’ve been businessmen, such as Harry Truman (a haberdasher), George H.W. Bush (an oilman) or Coolidge (a banker) — although they all had elected political experience before they got to the Oval Office.

We’ve had a president who was an actor — Ronald Reagan, although he served as governor of California before he got to the Oval Office.

And we’ve had plenty of presidents — at least 23 — who were lawyers.

But we’ve never seen anything like this.

This week, businessman and reality show ringmaster Donald J. Trump is scheduled to accept the nomination of the Republican Party for president of the United States. The media event completes the slow, inexorable merger of politics and entertainment that started with the televised debates of 1960 and now finds its terminal repository in the ultimate showman.

Trump was supposed to be a sideshow, a loudmouth, self-promoting blowhard who knew nothing about issues and would easily fall to better educated, better prepared, more conventional candidates such as Jeb Bush or Marco Rubio or John Kasich.

The political class disdained Trump as something of a barbarian. Trump hurls insults to knock his opponents off balance and utters the most offensive things about Mexicans, immigrants, women, Muslims, the physically handicapped and, of course, the press. A “South Park” skit come to life, Trump says things that would kill a normal politician’s career. (To be sure, Trump is the most disliked candidate of anybody who ran for president in either major party this year.)

But something happened on the way to the convention: The Republican primary audience warmed to Trump in ways that nobody could have predicted, seeing him as a truth-telling crusader against the politically correct, too-cautious, overly measured and utterly poll-tested candidates they usually see. Trump says the insulting things they wish they could say, if only they had the courage and the opportunity.

Trump’s carefully crafted image as a wealthy businessman (he’s declined to release his income tax returns, citing an audit, so just how wealthy is still up for debate) gives his followers a misplaced confidence in his ability to run big institutions. Trump’s real skill has always been marketing, with himself as the product.

But this is no reality show — it’s reality. We may have forgotten that government isn’t supposed to be entertainment, and it isn’t supposed to be a business. Mistakes made in the Oval Office come with a body count, and decisions made there can have disastrous consequences for real people. Bankruptcy is not an option.

There are many Republicans who won’t journey to Cleveland this week, ranging from those who tepidly say they’ll support the party’s nominee to those who claim he’ll be the end of the party itself. There are many who will come to Cleveland saying Trump is better than “Crooked” Hillary Clinton, as if Trump’s nativism is more abhorrent than Clinton’s liberalism. They’ll talk trust, and honor, and nominations to the Supreme Court, trying to convince themselves the bet they’re about to place might just pay off.

And while they whistle past Quicken Loans Arena on the shores of Lake Erie, the rest of us have to acknowledge that the reality show that was the Trump campaign has transformed into the reality of the Trump nomination. We’ve all been drawn into the general-election drama, like it or not.

Throw away your road maps, playbooks, guides to history. They’re useless.

Nothing like this has ever happened before.

Steve Sebelius is a Review-Journal political columnist and co-host of “PoliticsNOW,” airing at 5:30 p.m. Sundays on 8NewsNow. Follow him on Twitter (@SteveSebelius) or reach him at 702-387-5276 or SSebelius@reviewjournal.com.

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