The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Opinion Republicans are putting on two conventions this week. One of them will be sane.

Delegates begin to arrive for the first day of the Republican National Convention in Charlotte, N.C., on Monday. (Travis Dove/Pool/EPA-EFE/REX/Shutterstock)
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The Republican Party revealed its descent into a cult of personality by declaring on Sunday that it would have no party platform at its convention this week, only a pledge of complete loyalty to President Trump. The party proclaimed in a resolution that “The [Republican National Committee] enthusiastically supports President Trump and continues to reject the policy positions of the Obama-Biden Administration, as well as those espoused by the Democratic National Committee today … [and that] the Republican Party has and will continue to enthusiastically support the President’s America-first agenda.” Any platform would be ruled “out of order,” according to the resolution. It is quite a confession of intellectual vacuity.

The document also effectively puts the party on record supporting all of Trump’s loony ideas about the “deep state," his denial of Russian interference in the election, his defense of Confederate imagery, his opposition to legal immigration, his insistence that there is nothing wrong with extorting an ally to fabricate dirt on a political rival, his hawking of phony cures for the novel coronavirus, his animosity toward NATO, his embrace of trade wars and his reckless attacks on democratic norms and institutions. It is a party that welcomes QAnon support — because Trump does. It is a party that approves of abusive policing (“Don’t be too nice” when putting suspects in the police car, he told a room of law enforcement officials) and China’s Uighur detention camps — because Trump does.

You can understand why the party would not want to spell all that out in a platform. You can also understand why “Republican ideas” is an oxymoron and “conservatism” has lost all meaning.

There are, however, some green shoots sprouting on the center-right. This week, Never Trump groups will hold a “Convention on Founding Principles," running as counter-programming to the Republican convention. The event, put on by Evan McMullin and Mindy Finn’s Stand Up Republic and the eclectic think tank, the Niskanen Center, promises to have “speakers, thinkers and leaders from across the country who share our commitment to founding principles and political renewal in America. Delegates will present, deliberate and ratify organizing principles, vote for preferred candidates, and plan future actions.” Thousands of disaffected Republicans are expected to participate. It will be live-streamed and available for viewing on Facebook and YouTube.

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“Well over 12,000 people pre-registered to participate over the course of our four-day event. That includes 466 delegates who are trusted activists in our movement from all 50 states, Washington D.C. and Puerto Rico,” says McMulllin. “They’ll be participating in a presidential straw poll, the results of which will be announced tonight, and ratifying a declaration of principles later in the week.”

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The event will feature the sort of respected figures who no longer have a place in the GOP. Speakers include former CIA director Michael Hayden, former FBI director James Comey, former RNC chairman Michael Steele, former members of Congress David Jolly and Charlie Dent, TV pundits Amanda Carpenter and S.E. Cupp, human rights activist and chess champion Garry Kasparov, former South Carolina governor Mark Sanford and former commerce secretary Carlos Gutierrez. Hayden tells me, “The GOP has no platform because the wanna-be autocrat Trump hopes to be totally unchained in a second administration so that he can indulge his uninformed lunatic whims. And his whims can change from minute to minute, hour to hour.”

Finn is among many NeverTrump women actively working to defeat Trump. She says, “I’ve participated in the last four GOP conventions, worked three Republican presidential campaigns and once invested my career in a healthier party. Now, like many former Republicans, particularly young-ish women like me, I’ve lost hope in today’s GOP as my political home.” She adds, “The GOP’s decision to forgo developing a party platform at this year’s convention solidifies their descent into a party that stands for nothing but ‘winning,’ Trump and needling the press and liberals. Our Founders are weeping in their graves.”

McMullin deplores the RNC platform of simply a paean to Trump. “Unfortunately, at this point, it’s not a surprise that instead of producing a platform of ideas and policy solutions this year, party leaders are literally just reaffirming their loyalty to a man, who also doesn’t have any worthy ideas or solutions.” He adds, “Until the party realizes that and returns to its founding principles and unifying ideas to advance the American cause, it will continue to be a destructive force and experience electoral defeat.”

The question is whether there is a critical mass of such people who might form the nucleus of a reformed Republican Party — or alternatively, a new party that might eventually replace the GOP as the second national party. More important than the politics, however, will be the ability to generate ideas that are distinct from the Democrats and from the right-wing populism that has infected the GOP. “Trump emerged as the perfect reflection of a party that long ago abandoned serious policy ideas and principled ideology,” Jolly tells me. “The Convention on Founding Principles will hopefully reflect what a new party could one day look like.”

If these Never Trumpers can update and create a new center-right movement that honors objective reality and science, sees government as a useful means of improving Americans’ lives, concerns itself with gross income and racial inequality and focuses on 21st-century challenges such as climate change and automation, it can make a contribution to the political debate in the post-Trump years.

Jerry Taylor, the president of the Niskanen Center, tells me, “The fact that the party has no interest in a platform at this convention underscores the fact that the only things it stands for is the eternal glory of one man and holding power by any means necessary. He adds that the counter-convention is meant to "[forward] the principles that might inform an alternative political vision for America.”

“The existing Republican party is utterly dysfunctional, and this group has much to contribute toward building a new positive, principled future for the GOP," Carpenter says.

For now, the Convention on Founding Principles is a bittersweet reminder that there used to be honorable people and cogent ideas in the party of Lincoln and Teddy Roosevelt.

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