Any lingering doubts that this year’s Texas Republican convention would be a goat rodeo of galactic proportions surely dissipated around 10 p.m. on July 13, when Walter West, a member of the party’s executive committee, swung a bottle of Skrewball Peanut Butter Whiskey toward his webcam and, by extension, at James Dickey, the party’s much put-upon chairman.“Don’t drink the Kool-Aid,” West warned colleagues as he waved the open bottle. But despite his protestations, it was West who had drunk the proverbial Kool-Aid, and so had the Texas GOP. The only thing left to do was to watch the bodies fall.
On Monday, the Republican Party of Texas finally ended its comic and humiliating state convention on the fifth day of what was meant to be a three-day event. But it turned out that even five days were not sufficient: The party scheduled a second convention to take care of all the remaining business it didn’t finish. In the morning, chairman Dickey briefly appeared on a livestream in front of a makeshift set to announce that the party had decapitated him, and replaced him with Allen West, a former Florida congressman and tea party personality. (No relation between Allen and Walter.) Dickey looked worn and beleaguered, but he sounded almost relieved.
How could things have gone this wrong? Consider Walter West and his peanut butter whiskey. West, like most of the rest of the party rank and file, was mad because he wanted the party to hold the in-person convention it had long promised. He was mad because after Houston officials had canceled the convention because of the public health risks, the party had failed to push forward anyway. In other words, his desires had collided with reality, and if one of them had to go, he would rather it be reality. It would be weakness—drinking the Kool-Aid—to acquiesce. So he would not be moved, and neither would the party. The iceberg had been sighted. Full speed ahead!
When the coronavirus first hit, both political parties in Texas faced the question of what to do about their conventions this summer. The Texas Democratic party didn’t take long to decide that the prudent thing to do would be to hold an online convention. The event, which officials spent months planning, went off in early June without a hitch, something the party has gloated about endlessly. (It’s a less impressive achievement than it appears—when Texas Democrats gather, it’s mainly to hear the sound of their voices as they agree with each other.)
But the Texas Republican party was dead-set on having an in-person convention, for several reasons: Republicans are more likely to think the threat posed by the coronavirus is overrated and that we all have a duty to shoulder the risk and resume “normal life.” A more important reason is that Republican activists live for the convention. It’s where they get to shank their party enemies and engage in heated arguments about the wording of obscure platform planks such as the importance of protecting Texas against electromagnetic pulse weapons. It would doubtless be less fun online.
The party’s base demanded again and again to hold the convention as planned at the George R. Brown Convention Center in downtown Houston. No doubt many Republicans understood that this would be a mistake, because of both the potential loss of life and the extremely bad public relations aspect of an outbreak worsened by a GOP convention. Even Lieutenant Governor Dan Patrick, who rarely breaks with the party’s base, said that he wished the State Republican Executive Committee, or SREC, had wised up.
But the SREC refused, voting again and again to proceed with planning an in-person event. So on July 8, Houston mayor Sylvester Turner, a Democrat, canceled the convention, saying that he had no choice, given the risk the event would pose to public health. (Patrick, of course, called it a “political hack job.”) The party then sued for its right to hold the convention.
That brings us back to the Skrewball meeting on July 13. While the lawsuit moved forward, the SREC met to consider its options. The committee could have committed to a digital convention. Instead, things went haywire. Walter West charged the party’s lawyers with being either halfwits or pawns of a party elite that didn’t really want to have the convention at all, and after he brandished his bottle of Skrewball, the digital sergeant-at-arms ejected him from the meeting.
The rest of the members then debated for four hours, at one point considering a proposal to hold the convention in an outdoor rodeo expo hall with dirt floors in Montgomery County, north of Houston. In mid-July. In triple-digit heat. The meeting ended with the committee pushing ahead with an in-person convention, no matter that a district court had nixed the idea in the meantime. The next day, the Texas Supreme Court agreed with the lower court. The GOP would have to meet online, despite having done little to prepare for it.
In other words—check this out—Texas Republicans had spent so much time talking about what they wanted to happen that they didn’t prepare for what was likely to happen.
Hey, apropos of nothing, did you hear that schools are opening back up in a few weeks?
On Thursday morning, the convention commenced. Or at least, a livestream commenced. But at first the only thing on the livestream was a still image of downtown Houston, a chyron that said “we are at ease”—doubtful—and some twangy music. After a while, a few prerecorded messages from elected officials played: Governor Greg Abbott pleaded with delegates to like him. Agriculture commissioner Sid Miller preened in front of the Alamo. Outgoing railroad commissioner Ryan Sitton gave a sort of motivational speech in the style of a youth pastor. Then the videos replayed.
In the late afternoon, an increasingly tired-looking Dickey appeared on the convention livestream to explain that there had been some “technical difficulties.” The convention was recessed, and the SREC met yet again. Dickey explained that the software the party used to credential delegates—to make sure that meeting participation was limited to those who were supposed to be there—had failed, and it seemed doubtful that it could be fixed in time for the second day.
At this point, some SREC members were still pushing to hold an in-person convention of some kind—perhaps dozens of in-person meetings across the state. Dickey, displaying an almost supernatural patience, tried to explain that this was impossible. Many did not seem to believe him. Walter West, the Skrewball guy, replaced his Zoom background with a photoshopped black and white image of his face with glowing red eyes, captioned “I TOLD YOU SO,” displaying a kind of touching obliviousness to the reality that his intransigence was, in fact, part of the reason this thing was becoming a disaster.
Dickey suggested they might be able to use other software to fix the mess, but that the convention would have to be pushed back. Members began working on a proposed new schedule in Google Docs. But because the URL of the draft was shared on the Zoom stream, anyone was able to edit it. First, some clever troll started scribbling yellow lines across the doc. Then, someone made an addition to the proposed Saturday schedule. “Peepeepoopoo,” it read.
Around midnight, Dickey agreed to a committee member’s request to call the new software vendor to get assurances that the tech would work. Though it seemed exceptionally unlikely he would reach anyone, he nonetheless put the meeting on hold and stepped offscreen, before coming back a few minutes later, saying little. It was easy to imagine him standing perfectly still off-camera for the requisite period of time, having a hard think about why he had taken this job.
Hours of confused Zooming finally produced a decision. The convention would take Friday off and instead meet on Saturday and Sunday. This gave the party an additional 24 hours to get its house in order.
On Saturday, things initially seemed to be getting back on track: some delegates got credentialed, allowing them to participate in votes. But it was only a small victory. The large number who did not get cleared were furious, and some suspected it was a plot to silence their voices. Then, on Sunday, as committee hearings were being livestreamed, shards of recorded messages from elected officials played seemingly at random and in quick succession, like the first flashes of a very boring acid trip. In the evening, after a long delay, delegates to the national Republican convention were finally elected. But that success was quickly clouded by a dawning realization: in order to wrap things up, the party faithful, many of them senior citizens, would have to stay up all night.
After many hours of debate, the worn-out delegates voted to end the convention and hold a second convention. But of course there was a wrinkle. When Dickey invited nominations for a committee to oversee the planning, far too many names came rushing in. At first, 1,200 names had been submitted, Dickey said. Then 2,600. Then more than 5,000. And many of them were duplicates, which meant party officials needed to clean up the list before a vote was possible. That could take hours.
At the same time, Dickey made the extraordinary claim that the party was being subjected to a Distributed Denial of Service (DDoS) attack from an unidentified outside entity that was disabling the party’s ability to continue with the convention. For a time, party officials lost access to their high-speed internet connections and were forced to rely on overwhelmed Wi-Fi hot spots.
Around midnight, Dickey admitted defeat and recessed the convention, allowing delegates to meet virtually in their Senate district caucuses. But there wasn’t to be any peace for the poor party chairman. A majority of the delegates promptly voted Dickey out of office and replaced him with a right-wing challenger, the aforementioned Allen West, who represented a southeast Florida district in Congress until his defeat in 2012. While serving in the Army in Iraq, West was court-martialed for torturing a man that he suspected was a member of the Iraqi insurgency. West was fined and allowed to retire as a lieutenant colonel. On Monday morning, long after the convention was supposed to have adjourned, an utterly defeated and tired-looking Dickey appeared briefly on a party livestream to announce that he had been liberated from his responsibilities.
One of Allen West’s first acts was to make Walter West, of the Skrewball bottle, the party’s new sergeant at arms—putting him in charge, essentially, of enforcing discipline at party gatherings. It is now Allen’s duty, with Walter at his right side, to plan that second convention. Dickey, no doubt, will be watching at home in a bathrobe with a tall glass of Skrewball in hand. Your problem now, suckers!
It would be too cute to offer the bungled convention as evidence the Texas Republican party is suffering a wider sort of disarray. (Though it may indeed be.) The two things aren’t connected. The party could screw up the second convention, too, and still outperform expectations in November.
But there is nonetheless something remarkable about the saga of the amusingly disastrous convention. For years, attending the Texas GOP convention was like walking around the lower decks of the Death Star. And I mean that as a compliment. It was an impressive machine; a fully operational battle station.
Though the Democratic convention is always demographically diverse, the Republican convention in years past was ideologically diverse in a way its counterpart never was. Here were all these folks from wildly different perspectives: Christian conservatives, Ron Paul ReLOVEutioners, Texas Nationalists, corporate lobbyists, Log Cabin Republicans, ex-gays, fathers’ rights activists, gun-huggers, local chamber of commerce types, etc. They fought bitterly and a lot of them hated each other. And yet, somehow, they reliably came together so that when old Grand Moff Tarkin turned the ignition switch, something big always went boom.
But for the time being, at least, the people of Alderaan can sleep soundly. This crew isn’t blowing up anything anytime soon.