The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Believe it or not, there is still a Republican Party that exists outside of Trump

Kimberly Guilfoyle prerecords her address to the Republican National Convention at the Mellon Auditorium in Washington. (Jabin Botsford/The Washington Post)

As was the case with the Democrats last week, Fox News’s coverage of the first night of the Republican National Convention was generally light, its hosts and guests in the early hours analyzing various things as the convention rattled forward in a small inset box. Unlike last week, though, what viewers were missing was largely what they had see on Fox anyway: furious grievances, in-group references and wild articulations of loyalty to the president of the United States.

Donald Trump is president today because of his ability, and willingness, to channel conservative media. Perhaps he realized in 2015 that the cultural battles being fought on Fox offered a route to power in the Republican Party; it’s more likely that as both contributor to and consumer of Fox’s coverage, he sincerely believed the rhetoric in which he was swimming. But that was his advantage in the primaries and in building a base of energetic support large enough to win the general election. He said what the people on Fox and Breitbart News were saying, and it worked.

Former New York governor Mario Cuomo once said that politicians campaign in poetry and govern in prose. Trump campaigns in tweets about what he’s seeing on Fox News, and he largely governs to shape Fox’s coverage. So, despite a pledge from his campaign that the Republican convention would offer a breath of optimism — and despite an email from the campaign in the middle of the first night describing the Democratic gathering as “the darkest, angriest, gloomiest convention in history” — speaker after speaker offered remarkably grim assessments of what might be, should Trump lose in November.

“Don’t let the Democrats and their socialist comrades take you for granted,” Trump campaign adviser Kimberly Guilfoyle shouted. “Don’t let them step on you. Don’t let them destroy your families, your lives and your future. Don’t let them suppress future generations, because they told you and brainwashed you and fed you lies that you weren’t good enough!”

Democrats “will disarm you, empty the prisons, lock you in your home and invite MS-13 to live next door,” Rep. Matt Gaetz (R-Fla.) said with a grin. “And the defunded police aren’t on their way."

The McCloskeys, a couple from St. Louis who earned national attention after confronting peaceful protesters with a rifle and a handgun, warned that Democrats wanted to destroy American suburbs.

“Forced rezoning would bring crime, lawlessness and low-quality apartments into thriving suburban neighborhoods,” they said, presumably speaking from their large mansion.

An immigrant from Cuba who built a successful gasoline distribution business told viewers that he had no doubt that Joe Biden and his allies “will hand the country over to dangerous forces” of “socialism, communism and totalitarianism.”

The line of argument was consistent: The Democrats are an unprecedented danger against which Trump stands as the only barrier. It’s a message that Trump himself offered last week and one that is a staple of Fox’s prime-time programming. Donald Trump Jr.'s assertion that the election is “shaping up to be church, work and school versus rioting, looting and vandalism” could easily have aired on Tucker Carlson’s or Sean Hannity’s show, and probably has.

Again, this immersion and intermingling with what Republicans see on Fox News is intentional. It’s a swamp of its own, a universe of coded language and baseline assumptions that are as much about the opposition as about the president himself. Trump bears the sword and is the subject of the ballads to some extent because he decided to be that figure, and the culture war coalesced around him.

It requires building a Trump who doesn't exist, a guy who's constantly at work and who embraces America's exceptionalism and diversity. He's the guy the ballads are about, but that doesn't mean the ballads are entirely accurate.

Coming into the convention, it seemed that the party had folded itself into the president entirely. Its platform for 2020? Whatever Trump says it is. Who gets to speak? Anyone named Trump, anyone who can speak Fox and anyone willing to pay some form of fealty. The election doesn’t have to be about validating Trump, but everyone involved seems to have decided that it might as well be — buying into the argument that feverish support for the president is the only thing that will pull enough Republicans to the polls that the party might win. It’s the bet Fox News made early in his presidency, and it’s working for them.

But even with all of that — even with the muddied references to culture fights and the hyperbolic invocation of a historic threat to the nation, and even with the endless insistence about how well Trump has done as president — there were still glimmers of a Republican Party that exists apart from the guy who’s currently bearing its mantle.

Former U.N. ambassador Nikki Haley bashed the Democratic Party for saying that America is racist during her Republican National Convention speech on Aug. 24. (Video: The Washington Post, Photo: Jabin Botsford/The Washington Post)

Nikki Haley, former U.S. ambassador to the United Nations, gave a speech praising Trump’s approach to foreign policy while weaving in her own life story and excoriating the Democrats in a way that resonated with the conservative-media audience. But her speech, unlike most of the others, was less about the president than about a broader vision. It was, in a way, a normal convention speech about the outcomes the party was seeking; it stood out, though, because it wasn’t another in a series of hagiographies of Trump. There aren’t many politicians who have been outspoken against Trump but who also worked for him, who can speak believably to his base and to his skeptics, but Haley is one of them. That, as she knows, could position her well for a post-Trump Republican Party, should such a thing ever arise, and her speech Monday was calibrated to that end.

Haley’s speech was useful to Trump anyway because it broke from the Hannity-esque parade of frustration and demonization. Each of these conventions aims at what people pick up from their Facebook feeds as much as from their cable news feeds, and lots of suburban women will undoubtedly be shown snippets of Haley’s remarks over the next few weeks. That this serves Haley’s ambitions is secondary for at least the next four years.

Fellow South Carolinian Sen. Tim Scott (R) probably did the most effective job of prosecuting an actual case against the actual Democratic Party and not exclusively against the “they’re all commies” caricatures offered by the night’s Trump Juniors (literal and figurative). He, too, told a life story about growing up non-White in America, even invoking Martin Luther King Jr.'s metaphor of the arc of the moral universe.

“Our family went from cotton to Congress in one lifetime,” he said, describing the struggle his grandfather had faced. “And that’s why I believe the next American century can be better than the last.”

This is actual optimism, something that was in short supply over the course of the evening. It came despite Trump and the focus of his closest allies, slipped in as Scott made his case for what a future Republican leader might look like. Again, his speech was useful to Trump, validating the president’s constant insistence about how much he has done for Black Americans. But it was also useful to Scott and, perhaps, the party.

The Republican Party clearly belongs to Trump and Fox News in some sort of timeshare arrangement. But even as that partnership dominates the direction of Trump’s reelection campaign, there is still some faction of the party that knows there has to be something once Trump is gone. It’s possible that a Trump victory in November might quash that faction for good. It’s also possible that the old party can’t be resuscitated even if he doesn’t win.

But — maybe unexpectedly — that faction was nonetheless able to be heard Monday. Fox News even carried the speeches.