How the Republican National Convention became CPAC

The event that will be broadcast by the Republican Party this week is not, historically speaking, a convention. It is not the site of actual politicking. It will determine nothing about who the party runs for president or what policies it pursues for the next four years. It’s a PR stunt, a pseudo-event — an “artificial happening … manufactured expressly for the purpose of getting the press to cover it” — a program of political infotainment. It is an awful lot like CPAC.

CPAC is the Conservative Political Action Conference, an annual gathering in Washington that offers an incredible amalgam of campaigning, performance art, happy hour, education, and grift. CPAC holds a presidential straw poll each year which is both a lot of fun and deeply meaningless, but then, everything at CPAC has this same feel of hyped unreality.

People in Founding Fathers cosplay mix with eager Young Republicans in their first grown-up suits, vying for an internship at their favorite think tank. There are D-list celebrities and cringey attempts to be hip to what the kids think is groovy. While smaller panels may feature serious scholars and break-out sessions offer training in get-out-the-vote techniques, the televised main stage tends toward the titillating and gimmicky. Speakers allege the Democrats are going to “take away your hamburgers,” declare their “pronouns are U-S-A,” and coordinate boos of Sen. Mitt Romney (R-Utah). Trump, who first got a speaking slot in 2011, fits right in. It’s where he hugged that flag, which honestly makes a lot of sense in CPAC logic. The press certainly covered it.

In 2020, the Republican National Convention is running on CPAC logic, too. The convention has been moving in this direction for decades, but the pandemic-forced format change makes that evolution far more obvious than in years past.

For Republicans and Democrats alike, party conventions are not what they used to be. From their inception in the 1830s through the mid-20th century, the conventions were a place for practical politics — bargaining over planks in the platform and literal smoke-filled rooms. At the Republican convention of 1880, delegates went through 36 ballots before they decided on a presidential nominee: Ohio Rep. James Garfield, who was not running for president and indeed only came to the delegates’ attention when he gave a speech in another candidate’s favor.

That could not happen today. Political and technological changes over the last 100 years — the use of primaries to determine presidential nominees, the broadcast of convention speeches to the general public via radio and television, and the ability to easily workshop platform content remotely — have combined to transform the conventions into little more than long-form infomercials.

All the process on display is pro-forma. The platform is drafted in advance. The nominee is selected in advance. Very rarely does anything unscripted happen, certainly not on the convention floor. (If you’re looking for what’s left of real convention drama, whether among Democrats or Republicans, I direct your attention to the rules committees.)

COVID-19’s elimination of most of the usual convention elements has accelerated and highlighted this transformation. This year, the Republicans have no platform committee at all. Party leadership has rather decided to simply recycle the 2016 platform, with now-awkward derogatory references to the abuses of “the current president” left intact.

“This is the first time since I began attending Republican National Conventions in 1964 that I have seen a convention where finalizing the party platform has not occurred,” Morton Blackwell, a 32-year Republican National Committee member (and, full disclosure, my first boss after college), told me in an interview by email. Blackwell, a longtime Virginia Republican leader, has attended every GOP convention since becoming Barry Goldwater’s youngest delegate 56 years ago. The nomination has been a foregone conclusion each time, 1976 excluded, he recalled — but nixing the platform committee is new. “Both major party national conventions this year are seen by their respective party leaders as almost entirely marketing opportunities,” Blackwell said.

That doesn’t necessarily strike him as a bad thing — nor do the increasingly CPAC-style guest speaker selections chosen with that end in mind. The Republican convention is no stranger to speakers from outside party hierarchy (who could forget actor Clint Eastwood and his speech to an empty chair?), which otherwise dominates the schedule. But two selections for this year stand out: First, Nick Sandmann, the Covington Catholic student whose behavior in an apparent confrontation at the 2019 March for Life (and its media coverage, over which Sandmann has since won a defamation lawsuit) became the subject of national controversy when a brief video went viral. And second, Mark and Patricia McCloskey, better known as the “St. Louis gun couple” after photos showed them inexpertly pointing weapons at protesters in their front yard.

Sandmann and the McCloskeys would be no surprise at CPAC, which loves a teenage pundit and a divisive, viral moment. But they would be out of place as speakers at Republican National Conventions past. The speaker schedules I’ve found for the last five conventions show a few comparable guests in 2016 (in a clearly Trump-inflected phrase, one group of speakers was billed simply as “victims of illegal immigrants”) but nothing similar in 2012, 2008, 2004, or 2000 (a 2004 tribute to the victims of 9/11 certainly had an electoral agenda but was markedly more somber in tone). The Republican National Convention didn’t used to share memes.

“I do think this is a different approach than we have seen before from Republicans, reflecting that it is now entirely the party of Trump,” Dr. Norman Ornstein, a widely published election analyst and scholar at the American Enterprise Institute, said in an interview. “There are two elements here,” Ornstein told me, “one is that the [convention] focus is not the country or the electorate as a whole, but the base, especially those white non-college educated voters” whom Trump tends to court. “The second,” he continued, “is that the politics of grievance and resentment are dominant, even if there are some gestures towards hopefulness.” The decisions to include Sandmann and the McCloskeys “reflect both of these strands,” Ornstein concluded. “Much closer to CPAC than to the old GOP.”

Blackwell hadn’t heard of these speaker picks, but he received the news approvingly. “The nation would benefit from a fresh reminder that the media that tried to crucify that Covington student are the same as those who viciously distort the news against President Trump,” he said. “And the appearance of that couple from Missouri would bring home afresh to many that it’s the Democrat[ic] local government officials who have so often ordered the police to stand down while leftist guerillas rampage through streets to loot stores, burn buildings, and injure innocent people.” Blackwell described “safety” as the core issue of this year’s race — which I’d say is correct, albeit not unique to the Republican side — and he deemed such “interesting speakers” a valuable weapon in this fight.

I’m not the target audience for the CPAC-ification of the Republican National Convention, and “interesting” isn’t the word I’d choose here. The McCloskeys strike me as primarily emblematic of poor judgment, and were Sandmann my child, I wouldn’t allow his name and face to be used once again by political activists with priorities other than my son.

But I suspect Blackwell may be right about the strategy here, and I expect we’ll see the Republican National Convention continue to trend toward CPAC’s raucous style in pandemic-free years to come.

After all, if the convention isn’t real politics anymore, you’ve gotta use it for something.


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