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The Great Divide

At their state convention, Texas Republicans faced some hair-raising questions: Should they be loyal to their principles or their party? Should they support Donald Trump? And where does the conservative movement go from here?

By July 2016Comments

Illustration by Zohar Lazar

In retrospect, Texas Republicans might have chosen a more sensitive slogan for their 2016 state convention than “Unite to Win!” It was not a message the conservative leaders and party activists who assembled at the Kay Bailey Hutchison Convention Center, in Dallas, on May 12 were quite ready to hear or, in some cases, able to stomach. Of course, until recently, no one would have anticipated a need to even say such a thing. Texas remains a reliably Republican state, and with Democrats expected to nominate Hillary Clinton, one of the most polarizing candidates ever to run for president, it seemed a foregone conclusion that Texas Republicans would unite behind their party’s nominee, especially if that nominee were Ted Cruz, the state’s young senator. Then came one Donald J. Trump. No one foresaw that a man who, on the first day of his campaign, had labeled Mexican immigrants “rapists,” later denigrated John McCain’s captivity in Vietnam, and eventually implied that Cruz’s father might have had a role in the JFK assassination would win the nomination. Yet there was Trump, the last man standing from a seventeen-candidate Republican primary, a fact that left many conservatives at the state convention angry, bewildered, or devastated. There was precious little uniting. In fact, the three-day gathering made clear just how deeply Trump’s nomination has dispirited and divided Texas Republicans.

The mood was unusually gloomy for a Texas Republican convention. Many of those in attendance were dedicated Cruz supporters who—until a crushing loss in Indiana a week earlier had prompted Cruz’s withdrawal—had been prepared to keep fighting. The Cruz campaign had constructed an elaborate organization to send its loyalists to state conventions and then on to a contested national convention, where they might have helped the senator capture the nomination. It hadn’t worked out that way, of course, and their nerves were still raw. More generally, most attendees were fretting about what Trump’s nomination would mean for the future of the Republican party, and for the various conservative principles it has purported to represent. The Texans at the convention, after all, were the party’s most dedicated activists, and many were serious about their commitment to conservative ideology. Trump—as he had made abundantly clear over the course of the primary on a number of issues—was not.

The state’s leadership had at the outset of the race shown no love for Trump either: Governor Greg Abbott had backed his protégé, Cruz; Rick Perry, the longest-serving governor in Texas history, famously dismissed Trump as “a cancer on conservatism”; and in the run up to the Texas primary, Trump had, tellingly, received no endorsements—none—from Republicans in statewide office or in the Legislature. But just days after Trump had effectively clinched the nomination, Texas’s leadership crumbled. Trump secured support not only from the Republican Party of Texas itself but also from a number of the state’s longtime leaders, including Perry and Abbott. Perry even professed that he would gladly be Trump’s running mate, if asked. All that mattered apparently was winning an election—not whether Trump was actually conservative or even equipped to be president.

The leadership’s sudden support for Trump wasn’t playing well with many in the convention hall. “Unite to Win!”—the forced cheeriness was fooling no one. The exclamation point seemed almost a desperate plea from the party. And some Trump supporters were loving it, occasionally betraying a malicious glee at the sight of the state’s leadership reluctantly bowing down to the “cancer on conservatism.”

Despite the party’s exhortations toward unity, and despite the endorsements Trump had extracted, party activists attending the convention remained bitterly divided. Many were lifelong Republicans who had worked to elect the party’s nominee in past campaigns—donating money, phone-banking on his behalf, and even volunteering in far-off swing states. But Trump presented a difficult choice: Should they support him and work for his election simply because he would be the GOP nominee, even though he doesn’t subscribe to some pillars of conservatism? Or should they stay true to their beliefs and sit out the election? Which was more important, principle or party?   

“It’s a real quandary,” said one elected official.

Sensing the divide, nearly all the Republican leaders who spoke at the convention were disinclined to dwell on the subject; those who called on their supporters to back the nominee did so briefly and with stone faces. Others omitted any mention of the forthcoming presidential election. In private conversations, however, no one could talk of anything other than Trump and the implications of his nomination, a catastrophe that national Republican party leaders had failed to avert and that state leaders were now failing to repudiate.

Some convention attendees were simply resigned to Trump. “Republicanism is like a religion here,” said a businessman from Wichita Falls. “And even if you’ve got a shitty pastor, the congregation will go along with him.”

“We’ve got to achieve the reality we want with the cards we were dealt,” said one legislator, adding hopefully, “What if his ego is so big that he can’t stand to be called a liar and delivers?”

Others brimmed with anger and sorrow. “Stop trying to shove Trump down our throats!” said a grassroots activist from Houston. She had, she explained, been volunteering for the cause for twenty years. “I love the Republican party. That’s why I’m sad.”

But there was one man who could perhaps offer conservatives some direction on how to deal with Trump’s nomination: Cruz. He was scheduled to address the convention on the final day, his first public appearance since ending his campaign, and speculation abounded about what he might say. No one expected an endorsement, but party officials were hoping he would signal at least some support for Trump. Most conservatives, however, were hoping he would not capitulate.

Lieutenant Governor Dan Patrick’s press conference on school restrooms.
Lieutenant Governor Dan Patrick’s press conference on school restrooms.

Photograph by AP/LM Otero

At least one elected official was in high spirits at the convention: Dan Patrick. The first-term lieutenant governor seemed to be navigating the party’s deepening divide over Trump comfortably enough. He had been a vocal Cruz supporter, even standing next to Cruz during the senator’s victory speech the night of the Texas primary. But following Cruz’s withdrawal, Patrick had rushed to enthusiastically endorse Trump.

On the second morning of the convention, Patrick took time to highlight his latest cause: the federal government’s recent efforts to protect the rights of transgender Americans. Or from a different perspective, its crusade to allow boys in the girls’ restroom. That morning, the Obama administration had issued a directive to public schools that students be allowed to use the restroom corresponding to their gender identity rather than their biological sex. “I didn’t choose this fight,” Patrick sighed, without apparent irony, in the press conference that he had quickly convened, which aired live on Fox News.

The issue had been on his mind all week, though. On Monday, Patrick had called for the resignation of Fort Worth’s superintendent, Kent Paredes Scribner, after Scribner announced a similar policy change. In Scribner’s telling, the change was intended to protect transgender boys and girls in the district’s schools. Patrick, however, accused Scribner of putting his “personal political agenda” ahead of his responsibilities to Fort Worth students, proving that he had “lost his focus and thereby his ability to lead.”

Whether the lieutenant governor was correct in concluding that Scribner was unfit for his job was, of course, beside the point; Texas superintendents work for their respective school districts, not the state. But that consideration had failed to register with Patrick, who tends to cast his arguments in emotionally charged terms and had certainly made it clear that he felt strongly about the issue. “Every parent, especially those of young girls, should be outraged.”

In his speech to delegates at the convention, Patrick continued to stoke outrage about which restroom boys should use. “We shouldn’t even be having to have this debate in America,” he said with an air of exasperation, as if he were not leading the charge to guarantee that we would.

Patrick was one of the only convention speakers who seemed eager to discuss the general election. In his speech, he called for unity more explicitly than most. In addition to actually mentioning Trump by name, he offered a reason that Texas Republicans might look forward to Trump’s election: as president, he might nominate Cruz to replace Antonin Scalia on the Supreme Court. “Can you imagine?” Patrick asked, as the room filled with applause.

It was, objectively, not much of a case for Trump, but it was a more robust argument than any other speaker would muster that day. Abbott, for example, had invoked the need to defeat Clinton when calling on Republicans to support their nominee, whom he left unnamed. Glenn Hegar, the comptroller, focused his remarks on Texas’s economy, making no reference to the forthcoming election.

For those who have followed Patrick’s rise through Texas politics, his enthusiasm for Trump makes some sense. Trump and the lieutenant governor—whose professional background is in talk radio—may not agree on everything, but they take a similarly emotive approach to political debates.

That, in turn, explains why Patrick would be so much more comfortable shifting his support to Trump’s cause than the lawyerly Abbott or the analytical Hegar. The lieutenant governor is the most impassioned of Texas’s Republican leaders and, not coincidentally, the least consistent in his conservatism. Not entirely unlike Trump.

An attendee signs a “Defeat Hillary, Vote Trump” banner.
An attendee signs a “Defeat Hillary, Vote Trump” banner.

Photograph by Laura Buckman/Bloomberg via Getty Images

There will, in the years to come, be more than enough time to debate the underlying conditions and larger social and political trends that have enabled Trump’s rise and why so few pundits saw it coming. But at the outset of the campaign, many people underestimated Trump’s prospects, not only because he was a novice candidate but because it seemed unfathomable to them that such a man could win over a Republican party that had historically been committed to conservatism. How could a twice-divorced, braggadocious businessman known to consort with Democrats succeed among voters who four years ago felt Mitt Romney had been too moderate? If nothing else, Trump seemed like a poor fit for the party he was trying to take over.

In retrospect, though, it should be clear that Trump’s appeal to primary voters has had little to do with ideology or principles. In addition to showing no fealty to conservative ideals, he has publicly expressed support for positions antithetical to most mainstream Republicans on issues such as abortion, gun control, property rights, entitlements, taxes, and trade. There was nothing in his record to suggest that he had ever been committed to the party, or to conservative political philosophy, and he made only cursory efforts in the course of the campaign to convince skeptics that he had experienced some sort of late-life conversion to their cause. Only the most profoundly gullible Republicans could have believed Trump’s claims to have secretly harbored such convictions all along, given his ardent apostasy on some issues, his casual flip-flopping on others, and the fact that even when he attempted to answer a question as a conservative would, he at times revealed that he had no idea what the party line actually was.

Trump has sometimes chalked up his conservative apostasies to misunderstandings, or claimed that he had been maliciously misquoted. Both excuses beggar belief. A year after Trump announced his campaign, it’s abundantly evident that his positions are subject to change, based on considerations that remain known only to him. In March, for example, a Washington Post headline summarized part of Trump’s immigration plan as “Donald Trump Flip-Flops, Then Flips and Flops More on H-1B Visas.” He has himself declared preemptively that any proposal he offers while campaigning should be understood to be “negotiable.”

His level of inconsistency is genuinely unusual. Trump is seventy years old, and you would expect that he would know his own mind. And many observers may have misread his oscillations as a businessman’s pragmatism. But there’s a much more plausible explanation for his relentless flip-flopping and offhand deviation from party orthodoxy: he doesn’t care about policy or ideology. He acts and reacts on instinct. He appeals not to reason or intellect or ideology but to voters’ emotions. And in fact he has a history of doing so. Perhaps the best summation of his approach came not from any political strategist but from a sales playbook used in one of his business ventures, Trump University: “You don’t sell products, benefits, or solutions—you sell feelings.”

Of course, Republican politicians and right-leaning media have been making emotional appeals for years, building campaigns around dog whistles about immigrants, people of color, and women. Since 2008—the year of the financial crisis and the year that Barack Obama was elected president—America’s political right has been unusually animated, and there has been an ongoing debate about the emotions and instincts that ignited the right and the underlying ideology and principles they serve. The persistent accusation that Obama was not born in the United States, to take one claim made famous by Trump, is a lie that reputable Republicans have declined to peddle because it’s effectively a coded appeal to nativists and bigots, implying that Obama doesn’t represent what Sarah Palin once described as “the real America” and that his presidency itself is actually illegitimate. By contrast, Republican rhetoric about Obama’s “imperial presidency” is also an emotionally charged claim, but it’s based on a substantive constitutional concern for the separation of powers.

There is, it should be noted, nothing inherently wrong with appeals to how people feel. In fact, the most successful politicians are generally those whom voters can relate to, who communicate in ways that resonate with them and elicit an emotional response. “That’s the reality of politics,” said one Republican Party of Texas official at the convention.

Cruz himself had tried to engage voters emotionally during his campaign, rallying to the side of Kentucky county clerk Kim Davis, who refused to obey the U.S. Supreme Court’s gay marriage ruling, or asserting that police should patrol Muslim neighborhoods more closely. But Cruz’s rhetoric was backed by his professional expertise in constitutional law and a long-standing commitment to conservatism as a political philosophy. Even while appealing to people’s emotions, he had an underlying policy agenda.

Trump is doing something fundamentally different. He has no agenda. He says whatever pops into his head. He’s effectively distilled the power of emotional politics into its purest form. He’s riling people up—not to enact any specific set of proposals but to simply promote himself. What might happen next, what Trump would actually do as president, is anyone’s guess. Two of his central proposals—deporting millions of undocumented immigrants and banning Muslims from entering the country—are practically infeasible, and are certainly not “conservative.” They do, however, effectively tap into people’s anger and resentment.

His narrative theme, “Make America Great Again,” has struck a nerve with millions of voters—and as one conservative observed bleakly, no one could really object to the notion. “It’s like criticizing a sunset.” Its appeal is due to its opacity; the slogan can be applied to nearly any issue that voters see as preventing America from “winning.” Trump, for his part, has never quite specified who or what the problem with America is. And over the course of the primary, the number of possible culprits grew and grew. So did the theories about what deep vein of feeling he had tapped into among his supporters, most of them drawn from the dwindling number of groups he had yet to malign—economic anxiety, racial anxiety, or male anxiety, perhaps; or maybe anger, resentment, alienation, disaffection, or sheer malice; or some combination of the above.

But whatever the cause, the effect of Trump’s campaign has been profound. He has broken the GOP’s traditional connection between emotional appeals—the tools it uses to sell itself—and its underlying ideology. He’s cleaved the party off its foundation.

In other words, he has divided the Republican party along a different fault line from the one we’ve become accustomed to seeing. Since the rise of the tea party, the GOP could be roughly broken down along ideological lines: tea party versus the establishment—or conservatives versus moderates. Trump divides Republicans not along ideological lines but between those who adhere to any ideology and those who don’t.

The divide is illustrated in how two prominent right-leaning media organizations have reacted to Trump. On one side is Breitbart, a news site notorious for casting its reporting, which is occasionally serious, in the most lurid possible light. It tends to choose provocative stories that feed into the larger narratives it’s pushing. Consequently, Breitbart has been one of the most pro-Trump outlets. On the other side, National Review, a conservative magazine with more-cerebral underpinnings and a roster of serious conservative thinkers, published a special issue whose purpose was made plain in its cover headline, “Against Trump.” The issue included pieces from 22 contributors summoned from all corners of the conservative coalition, many of whom would normally be at odds over policy differences but in this case were united in opposition to a candidate whose only known commitment is to his own self-interest.

The Texas Republicans calling for unity at the state convention, then, were failing to appreciate how Pyrrhic a victory in November might be: their party and their country would be headed by a man who, in addition to his other failings, would redefine conservatism mainly in reference to himself.

Some delegates at the convention even felt that Trump’s nomination had already irretrievably undermined the causes they had been working for years to advance. Has Trump spelled the end of the conservative movement? “I did care,” reflected one conservative, explaining why he had spent his entire career working for Republican candidates and causes. “It doesn’t mean I can’t admit to myself it’s all been a futile joke.”

Delegates during Cruz's speech.
Delegates during Cruz’s speech.

Photograph by Laura Buckman/Bloomberg via Getty Images

By the time Ted Cruz appeared in the convention hall, the conservatives in attendance were quite eager to hear him speak. Here was a man who, after a blowout win in Wisconsin just five weeks earlier, had seemed poised to overtake Trump and win the nomination. Instead he was back in the U.S. Senate, a defeated candidate.

During an interview before his speech, at the Omni Hotel adjoining the convention center, Cruz was in a visibly somber mood. In addition to dealing with his own loss, he was among those coming to grips with whom the GOP’s nominee would be. Party officials who were counting on Cruz to call for unity would be out of luck. He had not decided, he said, whom to vote for in November, adding that he was in no rush to do so. “I fear that our nation may be facing four very challenging years,” he said.

At one point early in the campaign, he had been more receptive to Trump than most of his peers in the Republican party, declaring the New York businessman “bold,” “brash,” and on one occasion, “terrific.” Even at the time, this had been a transparently strategic gambit for Cruz to win over Trump supporters, and in Dallas it appeared to be one that Cruz had come to regret.

He elaborated a bit on what he had seen in Trump at first. “To the millions of Trump supporters: I understand their frustration and rage. I understand their fury at being betrayed, over and over and over again, at being lied to by politicians in both parties, and we saw a candidate who seemed to be a vessel for that rage.”

There was, however, nothing more substantive to Trump than that, in Cruz’s assessment. “The fact that people are furious about Washington should not be interpreted as the American people suddenly embracing big-government European socialism. It is, rather, a desperate cry to change the corruption in Washington.

“In much of the media speculation,” he concluded, “these issues are viewed through the prism of personality. I think substance matters far more. And you learn a great deal about what a candidate believes and about their character during the course of a campaign. And so at this point I will continue to watch and listen carefully to what the candidates say and how they conduct themselves.”

It was observed that he might find himself, like many of the other conservatives who had convened in Dallas, without any good options in November.

He paused, and very faintly smiled. “We have six months to watch the campaign.”

When he took the stage an hour or so later, Cruz had shaken off his subdued aspect. His speech was a barn burner, focused on a list of causes that conservatives should care about and fight for. Where that will lead him remains unclear, but it was evident from the briefly animated convention hall that some of his supporters were prepared to follow him into this uncharted terrain. “I couldn’t be prouder of him if he were my own son,” said one activist afterward, as the final standing ovation subsided.

“Unite to Win!” Cruz had apparently embraced the idea—but his concept of the battle at hand was not the one that Republican Party of Texas officials had in mind.

“This last [primary] was not about policy. I wish that it were,” he had said earlier in the day. “I tried very much to make it about policy. But that was unsuccessful.

“There are many media observers who are trying to use this primary to write the epitaph on the conservative movement, to declare that the conservative movement is now dead. I think that is a mistaken interpretation of what happened.”

In Cruz’s view, then, Trump’s nomination is an aberration, and his implication was straightforward: conservatives must prioritize their principles and stick together to ride out the storm. Perhaps he’s right that by doing so, the conservative movement can survive Trump’s campaign. But that will depend in part on what Cruz’s fellow Republican leaders do. If the Republican party is setting aside substance and supporting a candidate who is so solely focused on emotion, the consequences may linger for years, even if Trump loses in November. Other candidates in the future may mimic his rootless appeals to anger and resentment; those who try to focus on conservative ideals may find that voters remember how few Republicans cared about principles when Trump forced them to choose.

This could have special resonance in Texas, where Republicans have a monopoly on power. Will Republican leaders and the grassroots activists choose to harp on shallow topics like restroom access and conspiracy theories about military exercises and the supposed threat from refugees? Or will they work to find conservative policy solutions to the biggest challenges facing Texas: water, transportation, taxes, health care, and education?

At first glance, the conservatives who attended the state convention were deciding whether to support Trump, if only as an alternative to Clinton. But since Trump is ultimately incompatible with the principles that they and their party have purported to represent, it’s safe to say that the GOP as we know it has already lost the 2016 presidential election. Texas Republicans have to decide—both before the election and in the years to come—whether they want to abandon their purpose too.

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  • gordo

    Nice, Erica. I largely concur. I see Texas Republicans today in the same rock-hard place that Democrats had in the 1980’s-having to disavow their national nominees for President in order to try to stay relevant in statewide races. With the same inevitable result, and in about the same timeline.