Modern presidential conventions are inherently propagandistic affairs, usually devoted to a mix of glitzy patches for the presidential nominee, the vice-president, and the party as a whole. The 2020 Republican National Convention has altered the traditional emphasis, which is now devoted almost entirely to glorifying its presidential nominee. President Trump will speak on all four nights of the convention, rather than just one. Half the featured speakers are members of his family:
And perhaps most remarkably of all, the party has announced it will forgo a platform altogether. In lieu of a document attempting to define the party’s beliefs and priorities, the RNC simply states that it agrees with everything Trump has done and will do:
The official excuse is that the coronavirus has made it impossible for the party to get together and write a platform: “The Republican National Committee (RNC) has significantly scaled back the size and scope of the 2020 Republican National Convention in Charlotte due to strict restrictions on gatherings and meetings, and out of concern for the safety of convention attendees and our hosts.” Yet somehow the Democrats managed to come up with a platform without killing anybody.
What’s most remarkable about the personality-cult character of the Republican Party is that its leader is deeply unpopular with the public. Previous conventions have convened to support Republican incumbents who were genuinely respected by the public (Ronald Reagan, Dwight Eisenhower) without prostrating themselves like this. Why would the party, and its candidates running for office at every level, define themselves so thoroughly with a president who has never even briefly held the support of half the country?
It is probably because Trump is so deeply and historically unpopular that his party has embraced him so tightly. The Republican Party elite harbors quiet doubts about the president’s basic competence, morality, and fitness for office. As a result, Trump feels the need to force them to make public commitments of loyalty, to place their reputations in his hands so that no escape is possible.
And so chief of staff Mark Meadows, who once worried that simply attending the 2016 convention would be a moral stain he could never erase, now calls Donald Trump the most well-read person he knows. (“He reads probably more than anybody I know, which causes me to have to read more because every morning he’s giving me a to-do list.”)
Of course Trump’s power over his party is not total. The loyalty runs in both directions. Trump disregarded his popular campaign promises to raise taxes on the rich, crack down on Wall Street, and expand health-care coverage in order to comply with the Republican agenda. If Trump tried to pass a small tax hike on the wealthy, the Republican Party would abandon him.
But his abuses of power and contempt for the basic requirements of his job have become matters for his party first to ignore, and then to celebrate. The GOP has been subsumed into the twisted personality of a single man in a way no modern American party ever has. The official disregard of any platform — save whatever Trump says — is the most perfectly fitting encapsulation of the GOP in 2020.