Donald Trump’s delivery of a dystopic view of life in America – and assertions that he alone can deliver a bright future – met roars of approval from the audience in Cleveland’s Quicken Loans Arena.
One after another Thursday night, in a 75-minute, high-decibel appeal to nationalism, the applause lines came – promises to destroy the Islamic State, bring new jobs “roaring back,” stop “uncontrolled immigration,” and restore law and order.
“Bring it, Donald!” a voice cried out from the sea of delegates.
It was a vision of Republican unity at the end of a controversy-filled four-day convention. But the unity was illusory. The loud skeptics – Texas Sen. Ted Cruz, Ohio Gov. John Kasich, and scores of other GOP elected officials – were not in the arena. Quiet skeptics in attendance simply watched.
The old Republican Party – the party of Ronald Reagan and the Bushes – has faded, and a new Republican Party, dominated by Mr. Trump, has moved to the fore.
The evolution has been uneasy. From the day Trump began his improbable journey from rhetorical bomb-thrower at his announcement speech a year ago to his acceptance of the nomination Thursday night, party members new and old have revealed a spectrum of thought.
Some have embraced Trump enthusiastically, including first-time voters and former Democrats inspired by the billionaire businessman to get involved. Some Republicans backed other candidates initially, before happily backing Trump when he clinched the nomination. Others resisted, before reluctantly joining the parade, if only in the name of party unity.
Others are still hanging back, watching to see if Trump can prove himself capable of taking over as commander-in-chief. Still others continue to identify as Republicans, but refuse to vote for Trump. And then there are those who have abandoned the Republican Party altogether. Some will vote for Democrat Hillary Clinton or a third-party candidate or a write-in. Some will not vote at all.
A new Republican Party
In interviews this week with delegates and others attending the Republican National Convention, most of that range of view was in evidence – dominated, unsurprisingly, by Trump enthusiasts.
“We are really on the road to the new Republican Party,” said Ann-Marie Villicana, an alternate delegate from Pasadena, Calif. “It’s cleaning out the establishment, who felt that they are superior to the people…. It’s allowing people to speak, it’s allowing people to vote, it’s allowing people to get their true ideas out, because so far most of the elected people have not been paying attention to what we’re talking about.”
Ms. Villicana anticipates a Trump administration filled with “his people” – people who “want to take us back to our roots. Those are the people who are here.”
Her friend Erik Laykin, another pro-Trump alternate delegate from Los Angeles, painted a picture of a more inclusive, “big tent” Republican Party, one that puts social issues in the background and focuses on what he sees as more central matters.
“Mainstream America cares about very simple truths: national security, low taxes, jobs, the economy, immigration, issues that have a true impact,” said Mr. Laykin, a cyber-crime expert. “The emphasis on the social issues of the Republican Party, the religious issues, it’s divisive.”
What belongs inside the big tent, of course, is in the eyes of the beholder. And for some Republicans, social conservative positions against abortion and gay rights are central to their involvement in party politics.
Trump is more aligned with the “bi-coastal,” New York-L.A. view on gay rights. His shout-out Thursday night to the lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, and queer (LGBTQ) community was a first for a Republican convention. The prime-time speech by tech entrepreneur Peter Thiel, who is openly gay, also sent a signal of inclusion.
But Trump’s selection of Indiana Gov. Mike Pence, a prominent Christian conservative, went a long way toward reassuring that wing of the GOP. Gary Bauer, a Christian conservative leader, called the choice of Governor Pence “outstanding,” and said he believes that among “values voters” the Trump-Pence ticket will match what 2012 nominee Mitt Romney got, or perhaps even more.
As for Trump’s personal life, which includes three marriages, Mr. Bauer said, “human beings are complicated. But you can’t fake good kids. I’m actually very encouraged by the children he raised.”
Indeed, Ivanka Trump spoke right before her father, delivering a polished, powerful message of opportunity for women and of a loving parent who raised her to be a successful entrepreneur in her own right.
The positive tone of her remarks contrasted with her father’s bracingly dark rhetoric. And while Trump’s candidacy will live or die based on the man at the top, his surrogates – including his other adult children – can help reassure voters who may question whether his temperament is suited for the presidency.
Getting to 'Yes'
Many delegates in Cleveland had originally backed other candidates, but had no qualms about backing Trump. Christopher Harvey, a delegate from Harris County, Texas, laughs about how Trump was his fourth choice. First he was with former Pennsylvania Sen. Rick Santorum, “because he’s a friend.” After Mr. Santorum dropped out, he shifted to Florida Sen. Marco Rubio, “because I like his youth, his energy, and his experience.” Then he went for Senator Cruz, “because he’s from my state and I loved his stance on the Constitution.” Then when Trump clinched, Trump became his man.
“I’m pulling hard for him,” said Mr. Harvey. “He has no care for political correctness. He’s like a Texan, he don’t care.”
Harvey, who is black, says he wasn’t disturbed by how Trump handled support from white supremacist David Duke, “because I know Trump’s heart.”
“The ones I’m disturbed about are the ones who claim they love black people, but yet if you look at black neighborhoods, they’re controlled by Democrats,” he said.
Harvey spoke before Cruz delivered his extraordinary non-endorsement speech Wednesday night, which left the Texas delegation reeling and divided, and Cruz’s political future uncertain. The loud boos that greeted Cruz after he spoke presented both a picture of unity – there was little support expressed in the arena – but also reflected the larger disunity of the party.
Ambivalence among Ohio delegation
Plenty of elected officials have refused to endorse Trump – including the governor of Ohio, who under normal circumstances would have proudly stood center stage at a national convention held in his home state. But this was not a normal convention. Not only has Governor Kasich withheld his support for his party’s nominee, he also hosted a big party that had the look and feel of a presidential campaign rollout.
The Ohio delegation – representing the only state Kasich won during the primaries – added another note of ambivalence toward Trump. Betty Montgomery, the state’s former attorney general, applauded Kasich for taking a “principled stand” in withholding support from Trump.
When asked about the fact that Kasich had signed the party “pledge,” as one of Trump’s primary opponents, to support the eventual nominee, Ms. Montgomery offered this explanation: “At some point when the campaign rolls out, you realize that the pledge that you took was before facts were known or events occurred. I’m not one to speak for John Kasich, that’s for him to speak to.”
Montgomery added that she’s still “a little uneasy” about voting for Trump herself. “I’ve got a few months to decide what I’m going to do,” she said. One thing is for sure, she added: She won’t vote for Mrs. Clinton. If nothing else, anti-Clinton sentiment was the glue that bound convention-goers together.
Another Ohio delegate, Sarah Brown, had no problem shifting her allegiance from Kasich: “I will be voting for Trump. I want a Republican president, period.”
A voter’s choice for president can be a deeply personal decision, and for some, leaving the emotional attachment of one candidate for another can be difficult.
“Everybody moves at a different pace,” says Henry Barbour, RNC member from Mississippi, who originally backed Texas Gov. Rick Perry, then Senator Rubio, and then fell in line behind Trump.
Finger on the pulse
At the beginning of the convention, it was the small “Never Trump” movement that took center stage, as it made a last-ditch bid to allow delegates to “vote their conscience” – i.e., vote for a candidate other than Trump. Their effort, in fact, had died long ago, when Trump clinched the nomination outright during the primaries. The “chaos” on the convention floor Monday had a feel of kabuki theater, as Trump opponents sought to show their willingness to fight till the bitter end.
A few Republicans in “Never Trump” T-shirts roamed the convention perimeter, seeking media attention as much as anything.
But in the main, party members – especially those willing to attend the most divided Republican convention in 40 years – were ready to move on and make the most of an uneasy situation. Trump won fair and square, they said, and they pledged to do their best to elect him.
And really, said some, Trump should be applauded for putting his finger on the pulse of a significant slice of the electorate. Bauer, the Christian conservative activist, says he doesn’t understand the chagrin of some party members.
“A big part of the conservative coalition has always been blue-collar workers and Main Street,” he said. “It’s great we’ve got all these think tanks in Washington, but quite frankly they haven’t come up with very much to address the anguish in middle America about economic insecurity and the massive social change that’s taking place in the country.”
“Politics abhors a vacuum,” Bauer added. “There were 17 [GOP] candidates, and the only one who really came up with a message that really resonated with those folks was Donald Trump.”