Before leaving for the Republican National Convention, I thought I’d try to meet some of the delegates from around my way. The two I ended up sitting down with on Friday morning, both elected from Illinois’s ninth congressional district, which covers some of Chicago’s northern suburbs, were a random selection—the first two people who picked up the phone when I called. Random, but fortuitous, because these two delegates turned out to represent the opposite sides of the Trump question—in great, big, capital letters. As a bonus, talking to them ended up answering the biggest remaining question going into a Republican convention that looks to become a coronation: Whatever happened to all that talk about establishment Republicans organizing to stop Donald Trump?
Linda Lucchese is a handsome woman in her 60s, soft-spoken and calm, tastefully accessorized in some very smart silver jersey that matched the silver hair she pulled back in a ponytail. We sat down outside a Starbucks in Park Ridge, where she lives and used to own a dance studio, and she asked me about the publication I was working for:
“This is a Republican paper?”
“No, the New Republic.”
“So are you national?”
Lucchese is not what you’d call a political insider. She’s never been involved before in a campaign, she said, “Because I’ve never been gung-ho about politicians. But when I heard that Trump was going to be running, I found his website and saw that I was, you know, in favor.” She signed up, and received an email from a Trump campaign coordinator. “You know, ‘Does anyone want to be a delegate?’ So I said I was interested,” and the Trump campaign guy replied, “‘Get these papers in to me.’
“So I sent in, you know, the few papers he needed, and, you know, lo and behold, I was picked as one. And then my name was on the ballot.”
She has no idea why she was one of three potential delegates chosen by the Trump campaign; she suspects it might have been her punctuality. “Because I know most people drag their feet on a lot of things. I pay my bills a month in advance, so there are never any late fees or anything.” She also has no idea why she ended up as the only Trump-pledged candidate to win election for one of the three delegate spots for the ninth district; she never heard back from the Trump campaign with any guidance, nor did she ever campaign. “Though I did go to one Republican club meeting around here. They wanted candidates for different things to voice their opinion, so I went for the heck of it, and, um, voiced my opinion as everyone else did at that time, because everyone was running. So that was about it.” It was her first political speech.
One way or another, she ended up winning, bound for Cleveland. There was a congratulatory email; maybe a few others; she doesn’t really recall. “I didn’t keep the emails, or anything like that. But, um, it was virtually that simplistic.” Sic.
I asked Lucchese what attracted her to Trump.
“Well, I was impressed with—he’s been in the public eye for so long. And there hasn’t really been anything negative about him. Yes, he did have his girlfriend Marla on the side, but he married her, had a kid, whatever. But his television show, I was impressed how he handled it, that he had two advisers,” whose advice he weighed. “And all those celebrities that he went through: You never heard anything negative about him. They seemed to sit there—and there was quite a variety of celebrities on that show—they seemed to sit there, and they showed him respect. They didn’t have to be there. They could have done charity work. In so many other venues. But I was impressed at how he handled it: You know, he listened to those two advisers he had, and then he came up with some rationalization between the two suggestions. And he moved on it. You know, right or wrong, he moved on it. You know: ‘You’re fired. Because you didn’t do this or this.’”
That quality of decisiveness, she said, is “why a lot of congressman are scared of him: ‘He’s going to point the finger at me if he finds what I do. Trump is going to call me out.’”
Lucchese’s voice lowered conspiratorially when she observed that Park Ridge, where she’s lived for 36 years, is Hillary Rodham Clinton’s hometown. “You know, they don’t even know what I know about this town. I’ve had a business here. So I know the town.” (I asked her for details. They were underwhelming.)
I asked if she’d seen Hillary’s latest commercial.
I said, “It involves the man of the hour.”
“Of course. She’s gotta attack him.”
I showed her the new ad, which it turned out she had seen. It’s the one that features little children staring at TV screens as Trump says awful, offensive things. Luchesse’s eyes darkened as she watched. “You know, they could do the same on Hillary.” She explained her theory that Senator Clinton must have had something awful on Barack Obama, which was how she blackmailed him into becoming Secretary of State Clinton—and that he, in turn, must have had something awful on her, or else why would he have forced her out of that job? I noted that Clinton left to run for president, with the president’s support, an interpretation that left her unimpressed: George H.W. Bush didn’t stop being vice president when he ran for president, did he?
I asked Lucchese what she thought of the media coverage of Trump. She was not impressed. “They have to report something sensational,” she said, “so they can get the Nobel Prize or whatever.”
“Did anyone bother to tell her it’s all show biz?”
David Harris, my next interview, had chuckled when I told him how The Apprentice inspired his fellow delegate to get involved in politics. Elected as a John Kasich delegate, Harris could not have made for a bigger contrast to Linda Lucchese: He’s been at the center of things for decades. He’s an Illinois assemblyman, and we were sitting in his district office, which looks like just about every other Republican legislative district office I’ve been in: clean, orderly, and filled with career memorabilia. Harris is in his second stint as an assemblyman—he previously served from 1983 to 1993—and is also the former adjutant general of the Illinois National Guard and senior vice president of the Illinois Hospital Association: He’s the establishment. Which means, these days, ironically, that he’s a rebel. In Springfield, he recently made some noise by breaking from Republican Governor Bruce Rauner by voting for a pension deal for Chicago cops and firefighters.
He is, in short, just the sort of sensible, pragmatic Republican whose decline we’ve been mourning for decades—which explains his attraction to Kasich. “I liked the fact that he had a track record,” Harris said. “I liked the fact that he had a demonstrated, proven ability in Ohio that you can point to and say, ‘He did what he said he was going to do, and it’s working, and hopefully can do the same things as president of the United States.’ But obviously my fellow Republicans didn’t necessarily agree.”
I asked whether there’s still a place in his party for Republican politicians who run, like Kasich had so unsuccessfully, on governmental experience and compassion. Representative Harris turned, well, politic. “Sure. There’s a place for that in the Republican Party. There’s no question about that. You have to have experience. You have to have capability. You can’t just run a campaign, run a nation or a state, just on, ‘Well, this is what I’d like to do,’ and not have the guts to get down into the nitty-gritty. You gotta know the rules and regulations. We elect presidents and governors. We don’t elect kings.”
He recounted a famous story about the time Richard Nixon, just elected president, was flying over the National Mall in Marine 1. Nixon spotted an ugly clump of quonset huts, and ordered them removed. When he left office, though, he discovered they were still there: bureaucracy had intervened. A successful, mature executive understands this, Harris said: “You can’t just issue an edict and expect it to happen overnight.”
I observed that he had just eloquently described an ideal chief executive as exactly opposite of the man his party is about to nominate. I thought he’d done so unconsciously; he seemed to be actively working to convince himself his party’s standard-bearer is not a dictatorial and incompetent maniac.
“Oh, I don’t know, yeah, you know,” he stammered in return. “Yeah, I am a Kasich delegate. But at the same time, Trump got things done, there’s folks that believe that”—he sounded like he was struggling to believe that—“and you can read stories that, in the background, when he needs to get things done, he knows how to make that happen.”
He gathered control of himself and, speaking slowly, chose his words more carefully: “Now the public persona is”—he paused—“somewhat different. I will concede that. But maybe in the background you hire the good people. … I think he realizes he has to work with Congress, and hopefully he will be successful.” I noted Trump’s recent threat that he hoped this too, so he wouldn’t have to “go the executive order route much as Obama did.”
The conversation turned, naturally enough, to the establishment’s failed efforts to stop Trump. As it happened, we were talking on the morning after the RNC’s Rules Committee had overwhelmingly voted down a last-ditch stop-Trump effort to derail the coronation, a “conscience clause” that would have unbound delegates to vote for any candidate. That had followed another gambit that apparently fizzled out in the rumor stage. It went like this: Though the rules say that delegates have to vote for the candidate they’re pledged to, if they vote, there was no rule that you had to vote. The idea had been to organize at least 306 delegates pledged to Trump but who didn’t want Trump to win to abstain on the first ballot, denying him the first-ballot majority and releasing delegates to vote their consciences on the second or further ballots.
Talking about these schemes led us to the nearly forgotten history of the “contested convention.” Harris himself was an advance man for Ronald Reagan’s 1976 presidential campaign, when the former California governor tried to replace President Gerald Ford as the Republican nominee, and thus was a player at the last great contested national convention. He’d witnessed, in fact, the moment I featured as the climax to my 2014 book, The Invisible Bridge, which narrated that 1976 Reagan run: a nail-biting secret caucus of the Mississippi delegation beneath the bleachers at Kansas City’s Kemper Arena.
Mississippi was deciding how to vote on a complex procedural maneuver involving something called (you can look it up) Rule 16C—basically, whether to count its delegates individually, which would benefit Reagan, or as a block, which would help Ford. As I wrote, “Intelligence concerning that particular flap of the butterfly’s wing was so tactically sensitive at that critical moment in the madness, the state party’s young executive director Haley Barbour started reciting the names of Mississippi’s 82 counties in alphabetical order, Adams to Yazoo, then in reverse, Yazoo back to Adams, to keep the other side from listening in.”
This was how contested conventions used to work. Such battles demanded multiple and redundant communication channels and crack security procedures to safeguard them; they required strategic shrewdness and tactical suppleness, along with trusted leaders obeyed implicitly by loyal foot soldiers in a virtually military chain of command—and, of course, enormous advance planning.
And so it was that speaking to Representative David Harris finally cleared up—for me, at least—that great mystery: Why did #Nevertrump fail? Because it was never really tried.
I told him more about my interview with his new colleague Linda Lucchese: how she had no idea what she even was supposed to do when she got to Cleveland. How there had been no communication from the campaign, no marching orders, no liaison, no security protocols, no nothing. I contrasted that to the convention defense mounted by the Goldwater campaign in 1964, gamed out for months, in which leaders assigned each delegate a buddy to travel with at all times, picked them up at the airport to make sure the opposition never got to them, trained them, drilled them, everything.
The Trump campaign had mounted no defense. They’d never even introduced themselves to their delegates. Which means that, if any smart plotters who knew the convention rules had tried to throw the Trump forces into a state of disorganization, then swoop in for the kill, it might have been as easy as pushing on an open door. Trump could have been rolled.
I asked Harris the next logical question: had he ever been approached by anyone about being involved in such planning? “No. No. I was not. Nobody talked to me. And that, you know, Rick, I think that shows”—I interrupted and finished his thought: that “Never Trump” was never more than a paper tiger?
“That’s exactly right. Whether it’s a legislature or a convention, anything can happen. But for anything to happen, you have to have what I call critical mass. It was never there! I never sensed it was ever there. I mean, if you really needed critical mass then you needed to talk to people like me. You needed to talk to every Cruz delegate, you needed to talk to every Kasich delegate.”
So here we were, on convention eve. What some thought would become a civil war in Cleveland is shaping up as an uneasy truce, with all the big questions about the future of the Republican Party—whether with Trump or without him—massaged out of existence or ignored. Well, if the party wasn’t going to flush these things into the open, I would. So, timidly, I asked this paragon of the old Republican order one last question:
“I have to ask you: one of the delegates from Chicago, she has a Twitter account called ‘Whitepride.’”
Harris smiled a smile that betokened sadness. “What can I tell you? That’s not the Republicanism that I want to associate with.”
So what happens next for the Republicanism you want to associate with?
“Should Mr. Trump lose big, you’re going to see really a realignment of the Republican Party.” If he wins, though, “we’ve got to move with the direction that the president, that President Trump”—he had trouble getting out the words—“wants to move it. In terms of what happens between now and November, that’s somewhat a cause of concern, because I’m not sure the party is going to be as united as it needs to be.”
Harris caught himself, as if uncomfortable with dark thoughts: “Now, as we move forward, the specter of a Hillary Clinton presidency is going to scare a lot of people, a lot of Republicans and independents, and that may be enough to say, well, I can vote for Donald Trump because Hillary Clinton is so bad.”
Is that what you intend to do?
“Well! I think Hillary Clinton is so bad.”
He’d evaded the question, so I asked it again, and again he evaded it: “When I go into that voting booth, I tend to vote Republican.”
Correction: An earlier version of this story misspelled Linda Lucchese’s last name.