Party conventions are supposed to win a public spotlight for the party in question. By this measure, the 2022 convention of the Republican Party of Texas in Houston was a stunning success. Typically, the event, in which thousands of activists gather to rub shoulders while elected officials give speeches, can be a dry business. But this year, national media pored over the party’s interminably long platform, highlighting language that declared the 2020 presidential election results illegitimate, endorsed a referendum that would allow Texas voters to declare their secession from the United States, and called for the state’s schoolchildren to be drilled on “the humanity of the preborn child.” The platform also declared homosexuality “an abnormal lifestyle choice,” and called for Texas to strengthen the electric grid, not with regulations that keep the lights on in other states hit by extreme weather that our own leaders are averse to, but rather to defend against mythical “electromagnetic pulse weapons.”
The extremeness did not stop at the platform. The Log Cabin Republicans, a group that backs LGBTQ rights, had been banned from placing a booth in the convention hall. U.S. senator John Cornyn, the longest-serving statewide elected official in Texas, was booed and shouted down during his speech, while attendees denounced his role leading Senate negotiations and helping craft an agreement for modest measures that might help prevent school shootings. Governor Greg Abbott, the state party’s highest elected official, seemed so afraid of getting the Cornyn treatment that he declined to address the convention at all—instead appearing only at an opening reception where he sought to soften those annoyed by his presence by picking up the tab for beer and snacks.
National observers have written that these were all signs the party had lurched dramatically to the right. “The Texas Republican Party convention was really, um, something,” wrote CNN’s Chris Cilizza. Taken together, the events of the convention had one message, he continued. “This is Donald Trump’s party. Period. End of sentence.” Axios’s write-up concurred: “Texas GOP goes full MAGA.”
The convention indeed showed a state party moving back to the right after a brief period, in 2018 and 2020, in which it inched ever so slightly to the center over concerns that Democrats might be getting more competitive in elections here. But the difference from prior conventions was one of degrees.
The Log Cabin Republicans have never been allowed to participate in the convention. Abbott has long been loathed by conservative activists, and both the current and former chair of the state GOP are among his enemies. (Current chair Matt Rinaldi, who presided over the convention, called Abbott a petty tyrant two years ago.) And John Cornyn is always booed at the gathering. He was simply booed louder and longer this time, and for a specific reason rather than a general sense among the grassroots that he is a wishy-washy Republican In Name Only. (When Cornyn spoke of the pain the families in Uvalde must feel after the school shooting, shouts of “No gun control” filled the room.)
The platform, meanwhile, always contains ludicrously extreme planks and is mostly irrelevant when it comes to actually passing bills. The platform-drafting process at the Texas Republican convention is a sort of day-care program for the grassroots. For many right-wingers, this is the highlight of their year. Texans who get their news from Facebook threads and chain emails gather together, load up a document with their complaints, pass it, and then elected officials throw it in the trash. That elected officials don’t enact the platform is among the most common criticisms you’ll hear from those who draft it. But it would be tough for even the most ideological legislators to adopt the planks wholesale: they are always a jumble of often-contradictory messages. (The 2022 platform, for instance, opposes decriminalization of drugs but also calls for marijuana to be moved from the federal Schedule 1 to Schedule 2, which would lessen legal penalties.)
Even right-wing elected officials seem to view the platform as a nuisance. Consider, for example, the proceedings in 2014, when convention delegates got ready to pass a platform that endorsed net neutrality, a regulatory measure supported by internet companies and opposed by telecom companies. That platform threatened to embarrass telecom giant AT&T, which had spent a good number of dollars to sponsor the convention. So at the last minute, a posse of elected officials took to the floor to tell delegates they had mistakenly endorsed “Obamacare for the internet.” The offending passage was quickly stripped out. The proceedings clarified how party grandees feel about the platform. The second the planks threatened the money, the delegates were corrected. Otherwise, party elders clearly didn’t care very much. Have fun, kids!
In the Washington Post, Greg Sargent wrote that the 2022 platform “lays bare some ugly truths about how radical the abandonment of democracy among some Republicans has truly become,” singling out one plank in particular that calls for the repeal of the 1965 Voting Rights Act. Repealing the VRA would be radical—it’s one of the most beneficial pieces of legislation in the history of the country, having made imperfect democracies of Southern states for the first time in their history. It is not a Trumpian idea in Texas, however. The state GOP has called for the VRA’s repeal in every platform in the past decade, well predating Trump’s appearance on the scene.
Indeed, this year’s platform was less evidence that the party had gone “full MAGA” than that the Texas GOP’s grassroots are to the right of Trumpism in meaningful ways. Donald Trump Jr. put out a statement in support of the Log Cabin Republicans getting a booth. Many of the Christian-right niche issues the party platform carves out space for, such as ending no-fault divorce, are dead letters in Trump world. In other cases, it is the MAGA folks following the Texas GOP, not the other way around. It seems hard to believe that Trump, a veteran of the New York nightclub scene in the seventies and eighties, cares about tormenting transgender children and their families nearly as much as many Texas Republican officials do. But he duly participates.
Other extreme planks weren’t all that different from those voted on in prior conventions. Take for example, LGBTQ issues. The 2022 platform now calls homosexuality an “abnormal lifestyle choice.” The language is more emotive and forceful than in the past couple of years. But in 2018 and 2020, the platform still called it an abnormal lifestyle choice, just in a polite way, writing that homosexual sex was not part of “God’s biblical design” and is contrary to the “foundation for all great nations in Western Civilization.” That softened language was the aberration: prior to 2018, the platform condemned homosexuality as an aberration and insult to God that “tears at the fabric of society” and spreads “communicable diseases.”
How far we’ve come.
A difference of degrees is still a difference, however, and those degrees can add up over the years. There were indeed some developments at this year’s convention that seemed indicative of larger dysfunctions within the state party. One of them was the convention’s attendance. Somewhere between four thousand and five thousand showed up, which is not unimpressive. But a decade or so ago the convention regularly boasted ten thousand or more attendees. Back then, speakers would describe it as the largest gathering of its kind in a free country, or some such boast. Whether or not it was true, it was possible to believe. This year, state senator Brandon Creighton from Conroe, north of Houston, rather limply described the event as “one of the largest gatherings of conservative patriots in the country.”
It’s not clear why attendance dropped, and Republicans I interviewed offered a range of explanations. One reason might be that years ago the convention was a place where factions of the party would come together and vigorously contest ideas. In 2014, for example, there was a big fight over whether the platform should include a guest-worker program—a “Texas Solution” to the immigration crisis that would allow workers to come from Mexico legally for months at a time. Throughout the years there were also libertarians and chamber of commerce types and tea party activists all fighting for their priorities. Now there’s little to contest. The delegates this year were a smaller, purer group of like-minded right-wingers, which is why the platform they produced was marginally more hardcore than that of the last convention.
Another indication of dysfunction was who didn’t speak. Abbott’s reticence to talk to anyone, including right-wingers, outside of carefully controlled venues isn’t news. But it’s worth pointing out how deeply weird it is. The Texas GOP is the most successful state party in the country, judging by length of rule and its ability to pass right-wing legislation, and Abbott is its standard-bearer. Over eight years as governor, he’s carefully catered to, and sought acceptance from, the kinds of folks who attend these conventions—adopting many right-wing issues of the day as his own, from Jade Helm to his attempt to build a Texas “border wall.” And yet he can’t show his face on stage at the party’s premier biennial party without being booed and heckled.
Cornyn and Abbott weren’t the only politicians at the convention who had reason to fear the state party’s activists. On the fringes of the convention, Congressman Dan Crenshaw, from Houston, got in a much-publicized scuffle with some right-wing provocateurs, led by online troll Alex Stein. Protesters swarmed Crenshaw and his entourage, peppering him with questions about his “globalist” ties and calling him “eyepatch McCain.” (Crenshaw is a former Navy SEAL who lost an eye in Afghanistan, and the reference to the late U.S. senator John McCain of Arizona was intended, and heard, as an insult in a party whose members now share Trump’s disdain for the late war hero.) Crenshaw has expressed some very mild skepticism of some elements of the modern right-wing movement and has condemned the rising popularity of “grifters” and “lies” among its members. He’s otherwise a strong foot soldier for the movement who should easily win reelection. It should give Texas Republican elected officials cause for concern that many of them cannot show up at their party’s own convention without being heckled or attacked.
What’s perhaps most bizarre is that, in leading us into these choppy waters, conservative activists in Texas are framing their fight as one for a return to tradition. The mascot of the convention this year, if not its star, wasn’t a politician at all, but Lieutenant Governor Dan Patrick’s pickup truck, which got a berth of honor in the gathering’s trade show. This was the folksy down-home antique you may have seen in Patrick’s ads, where he puts on his boots and hunting garb and sits in a rocking chair and acts like your angry grandpappy. Patrick is from Baltimore, of course, and his childhood home probably saw more delivery vans than pickup trucks. His current home, in suburban Houston, is more accustomed to the Escalade.
But no matter. The pickup’s falseness is appropriate for a political movement that is becoming more and more radical in pursuit of what it likes to call “traditional” values. In searching for a mythic past that never was, the delegates at the convention promise to take us to places we’ve never been.