A year ago, the GOP pressured state parties to cancel primaries and caucuses, making an intraparty challenge all the harder. It continues to funnel millions of dollars of donor money into Trump’s and his family members’ pockets. And at the nominating convention in Charlotte, North Carolina, delegates even gave up on crafting a party platform and instead declared that whatever Trump liked was fine with them.
All that’s left, the party’s exiled Trump critics say, is formally renaming it the Donald J. Trump Party.
“It would pass,” said Kendal Unruh, a conservative activist from Colorado and a leader of the “Dump Trump” movement at that convention in Cleveland. “I can guarantee it…. It is 100% owned by him. Not even bought and paid for. They sold their souls to him so he could own them.”
In Cleveland, Unruh and other activists mounted one final attempt to get rid of Trump as their presidential nominee with a floor fight designed to allow delegates to “vote their conscience” rather than be bound by the primary and caucus results from their states. Leading that charge was Ken Cuccinelli, a Virginia delegate and supporter of Sen. Ted Cruz of Texas, who had remained in the race against Trump until May. Two days later, Cruz, in his speech from the stage, failed to endorse Trump and told delegates to vote according to their conscience.
Today, Cuccinelli is working as Trump’s acting deputy secretary of homeland security, carrying out Trump’s immigration policies despite what the Government Accountability Office describes as an illegal appointment to the position. And Cruz has returned to the posture he took in much of the 2016 GOP primaries: refusing to say a negative word about Trump.
Rick Tyler, a top campaign aide to Cruz during that run, gave points to the Republican National Committee for candor. “A rare moment of intellectual honesty where the ‘Russian’ National Committee acknowledges that they are little more than a brainwashed cult slavishly worshiping a charlatan.”
Trump’s rock-solid hold on his party comes despite his low approval ratings and weak position for reelection compared with most incumbents in the modern era. He achieved that by aggressively asserting himself in Republican primaries to push the candidates who supported him personally, said Steve Duprey, a former Republican National Committee member who was ousted early this year for not being sufficiently pro-Trump.
“He’s more involved in primary races than any president that I can remember,” Duprey said.
At the Republican National Convention program itself, fully half of the marquee speakers share Trump’s surname, including eldest son Donald Trump Jr., whose book sales the GOP committee has subsidized by purchasing them by the thousands. His girlfriend, Kimberly Guilfoyle, and sister-in-law, Lara Trump, are also paid $15,000 a month each in donor money, funneled through former campaign manager Brad Parscale’s company to avoid disclosure in Federal Election Commission filings.
Trump himself made a personal appearance in Charlotte on Monday afternoon as delegates voted to give him the nomination, and the president gave a typically rambling speech attacking Democratic rival Joe Biden and embellishing his own record with a string of falsehoods. Video of his meetings with pandemic emergency workers and former hostages ― videotaped inside the White House ― showed up in the evening programming.
Campaign officials said he will appear each of the following two nights, as well, in addition to his speech formally accepting the nomination on Thursday, meaning he will be the key performer in each of the convention’s days. Historically, nominees have little or no visibility prior to a convention’s final night.
But for longtime Republican officials and activists, the decision not to pursue a platform under Trump ― who has operated a White House with little discernable political philosophy ― is the most remarkable. A platform contains the philosophical underpinnings of a party and its policy goals, and the lack of interest in having one is a clear sign, they said.
The Republican National Committee on Sunday instead put out a statement attacking the news media, stating that it would not ratify a new 2020 platform but that “the Republican Party has and will continue to enthusiastically support the President’s America-first agenda.”
“The platform was always a big deal. I served on county, state and national GOP platforms. We always prided ourselves on how specific we were with all the relevant topics that impacted our lives,” Unruh said. “It is the vision of a party. This is a bigger deal than they even know.”
Fergus Cullen, a former chairman of the New Hampshire Republican Party and a Trump critic, recalled how fraught writing a platform could be: “The number of pitched battles I witnessed among activists about phrases in a platform or the placement of a comma.”
Norman Ornstein, with the conservative-leaning American Enterprise Institute, said Republicans also have the option of choosing a name from the 19th century ― the one used by the dying remnants of the Whigs.
“They can re-adopt the name of the Know-Nothing Party,” Ornstein said. “This is no longer a party of ideas but the cult of the ‘Dear Leader.’”