One theme unites last week’s Democratic National Convention and this week’s Republican National Convention: The GOP is Donald Trump’s party now. For Democrats, this was an elegy and an invitation. Conservatives who were disgusted by Trump’s vulgarity and eager for upstanding leadership had a place in Biden’s big tent. The RNC, meanwhile, has been less a political convention than a groveling recognition that the party has no principles or priorities outside of serving Trump.
Nowhere was this clearer than in the decision to not write a new party platform. Instead, the RNC applauded everything Trump had done and preemptively rubber-stamped everything he will do, passing a resolution that it will recycle 2016’s platform and “continue to enthusiastically support the president’s America-first agenda.”
New York magazine’s Jonathan Chait made the case that Trump was taking a page from the playbook of unpopular monarchs, demanding fealty from all who might challenge him. “The GOP,” he wrote, “has been subsumed into the twisted personality of a single man in the way no modern American party ever has.” Writing in The American Prospect, Harold Meyerson concurred, arguing that “Republican policy until 2024 is to support any and all of Trump’s impulses—that is, whatever is on Fox & Friends on any given morning. In 2020, the Republicans have become less a party than a well-funded cult with a ballot line.”
For the GOP, Trump is nothing short of a godhead. “Given the chance to state their political beliefs,” wrote The Los Angeles Times’s Seth Masket, Republicans are “saying that Trump is the one thing they believe in and that he is the party.”
The lack of a platform certainly underscores the defining attribute of the contemporary Republican Party: its slavish relationship to the president. Nearly everything he says and does, no matter how outlandish or at odds with orthodoxy, is adopted with barely a murmur of dissent. But that’s only part of the story. Trump gets his way on everything he cares deeply about: immigration, trade, an authoritarian view of the powers of the executive. But everything he doesn’t care about, which constitutes a vast swath of domestic and foreign policy, remains firmly in the control of party apparatchiks.
The decision to not write a platform is less a gesture of surrender and more an acknowledgment of the tacit arrangement the president has made with the party. The arrangement isn’t totally coherent, but it’s how Trump and the GOP have governed for the past four years.
The first three days of the RNC have underscored this dynamic by largely ignoring policy altogether. There has been little mention of issues that divide Trump and mainstream Republicans, such as trade. Instead, there has been an awkward attempt at sanding down these differences with Trump’s focus on bringing back manufacturing (with tariffs that have largely gone unmentioned), melded to more traditional talking points about cutting red tape and regulations and providing relief for job creators.
So on the one hand, there is President Trump casting himself as the only politician willing to do what it takes to lift up the American worker. On the other, there is White House economic adviser Larry Kudlow, looking for all the world like a pitchman for a gold informercial, promising capital gains tax cuts and relief for big banks.
One reason why the Republican Party declined to write a platform is that resolving these contradictions would be messy. By not writing a platform, Republicans can punt on the question of what, if anything, the GOP stands for until 2024.
But that doesn’t mean they stand only for Trumpism, which itself is an incoherent ideology made more incoherent by the fact that Trump regularly contradicts himself on Twitter. Perhaps the real problem isn’t Trump but that bog-standard Republicanism is deeply unpopular: economic policies that benefit the rich, cuts to public programs, a Darwinian health care system. One “challenge for GOP candidates,” a leaked memo from 2018 revealed, “is that most voters believe that the GOP wants to cut back on these programs in order to provide tax breaks for corporations and the wealthy.”
Foregoing a platform doesn’t just signal the party’s fealty to Trump. Knowing full well that their policies are deeply unpopular, Republicans have increasingly taken to the shadows. Trump’s bombastic nature and general incompetence have provided cover for pushing through all kinds of unpopular cuts to health care and education.
In a largely policy-free convention, school choice—an issue that Trump clearly does not care about at all—has gotten more play than any other. That is, in part, a sign that the president is struggling with Evangelicals. But it’s also one of many issues that Trump has simply handed over to others in the party. It’s a relationship that’s not as one-sided as is often presented. Trump gets what he wants, and Republicans get a great deal of what they want, too.