The Republican national convention is the Trump show, and all the Trumps are being rolled out, even the black sheep, Tiffany. Most of the family members are there in merely supporting roles for the pater familias, although Don Jr might fancy a political career in the wake of daddy’s second – or third – term. After all, he is the most closely connected to the Trump base, having peddled racist conspiracy theories since at least 2016 – remember the Skittles tweet?
Speaking of sideshows, there were also, of course, the heroes of rightwing “cancel culture” panic, such as the Covington Catholic kid and the St Louis Bonnie and Clyde. The evil cartoon characters from St Louis warned suburban America that “no matter where you live, your family will not be safe in the radical Democrats’ America”, while the Covington kid is here to personify the attack on “free speech” by the identity politics of the radical left.
In many ways, this convention is a call-back to the old Republican party of dog-whistle politics. The intended audience knows who they won’t be safe from – Black people – and knows that no one is so powerless as a white man. But they don’t explicitly mention race, as their audience still feels a bit awkward when the racism is too overt.
Similarly, the non-white sideshow is there to tell this dog-whistle audience that, to quote Nikki Haley, “America is not a racist country.” Even liberals got swayed by the South Carolina Republican Tim Scott’s “body blows” to Biden. As he portrayed himself as the product of “the promise of the American journey”, older moderate Republicans could probably hear the tunes of Reagan’s “Morning in America” in their minds.
But these were just intermezzos in an onslaught of aggressive, relentless and unapologetic attacks on the so-called radical left provided by the Trump family and the host of people making their highly profitable careers through them – including the hope for the Trumpian future, Charlie Kirk.
Many people have noted the absence of establishment Republicans. Sure, the Senate majority leader, Mitch McConnell, and the House minority leader, Kevin McCarthy, will both speak, but they are exceptions, and sideshows to the Trump show. In fact, in a whole new twist to “No Platform”, the Republican national committee proudly announced it would have no new platform for the 2020 elections.
The Washington Post claimed that this means that “the Republican party stands for nothing”. But this is obviously wrong. Trump is the platform! And by now, even the Post should know what Trump stands for: authoritarianism, corruption, egocentrism, nativism and populism. As I’ve argued before, US democracy is not dying in darkness. It is dying in plain sight … if it is dying at all, but that is up to the American people and its vote.
Another popular take is that the Republican convention shows that Trump now fully controls the party. After all, he is the platform and most of the speakers are either his family or personal cronies who show “near spiritual devotion”. The Florida representative Matt Gaetz praised him as “a builder – a visionary”, while the master of rightwing grift, Charlie Kirk, called him “the bodyguard of western civilization” and “the guardian of America”.
The assumption of a lot of media coverage of the convention is that Trump has wrestled the party away from the former Republican establishment, and that the Republican party is now the Donald Trump or even Trump family party. As someone put it on Twitter: “the RNC has become the TNC”. But maybe things are a bit more complex than that. Maybe the Republican establishment has decided to sit this one out.
Many Republican primaries have shown that Trump is nearly untouchable within the highly mobilized party base. Just as with the rise of the Tea Party in the wake of the Great Recession, the most bizarre and extreme people are being elected in primaries, at times getting rid of solid Republicans. And just like then, the Republican establishment has decided that it cannot control them.
The November election is not just about 'the soul of America', but the soul, if there is one, of the Republican party
What it can do, however, is create some distance from Trump. Hand him the convention, make him the platform and see where it goes. If he wins in November, they were always with him. If he loses, it was Trump who lost, not the Republican establishment. They will argue that they only stood with “the president” out of loyalty to their country and party, but that this was Trump’s loss.
While the Trump camp is getting stronger, and has an enthusiastic and mobilized youth base, it needs at least one more term for Donald Trump to truly challenge the Republican establishment, within both the party and the broader conservative movement. In this way, the November election is not just about “the soul of America”, but the soul, if there is one, of the Republican party.
Cas Mudde is the Stanley Wade Shelton UGAF professor of international affairs at the University of Georgia, the author of The Far Right Today (2019), and host of the new podcast Radikaal