Decades earlier, before everyone in America knew his name, a developer tore down the iconic Bonwit Teller Building in Manhattan and replaced it with a fifty-eight-story monument to himself. Now Donald Trump went to work on the Republican Party.
He installed a new guiding principle: a steadfast and unquestioning belief in Trump. This remodeled party had no room for conscientious objectors. Good riddance to George Will, long the conscience of American conservatism. In Trump's view, he was overrated. Same for Ohio's governor, John Kasich: a relic of the past, according to Trump's campaign chairman, Paul Manafort, and if Kasich wanted to embarrass his whole state by skipping the convention, that was his problem. As for George W. Bush, he could stay in Texas, painting cats and dogs, wondering if he'd be the last Republican president.
Trump's long-term effect on the party could not yet be known. Would he make it bigger, or smaller? Right now it was certainly louder, more highly charged, with frequent dancing to the Rolling Stones. It could be ferocious, or joyful, sometimes both at once.
"This is a movement," Trump supporter Maria Espinoza said on July 20 as she stood in Cleveland's Public Square on the third day of the Republican National Convention. Espinoza was co-founder of the Remembrance Project, a nonprofit organization for the families of Americans killed by undocumented immigrants. She said politicians had ignored her until Trump came along. This feeling was common among Trump supporters in Cleveland: the sense that he understood them in a way no other politician could. And they understood each other. During a welcome party at the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame, where several guests wore T-shirts that said CHINESE AMERICANS ♥ TRUMP, dozens joined in a spontaneous chant: BUILD THAT WALL! BUILD THAT WALL!
He had promised a showbiz extravaganza, a celebration like they'd never seen. What he delivered was surreal and disjointed, rambling and bizarre, and, in the final analysis, another resounding victory over conventional wisdom. Never mind the lack of star power. With help from B-list actors Scott Baio and Antonio Sabato Jr., along with a midlevel country star whose cover of "Ring of Fire" caused widespread merriment among the delegates, Trump and his new party smashed the preconceptions once again.
The first Republican president visited Cleveland in 1861, en route to his inauguration, and again four years later on the way to his grave. Rain fell on April 28, 1865, as thousands of Clevelanders walked beneath a canopy in the public square to see Abraham Lincoln in his open casket.
Today a statue of Lincoln stands inside the massive Soldiers' and Sailors' Monument at the edge of the same public square. Many statues depict Lincoln unchaining a slave, but the bronze relief in Cleveland is unusual in this regard: It also shows Lincoln giving him a rifle. Lincoln hesitated to recruit black soldiers, afraid of stirring white anger in the border states, but he finally decided the Union needed their help. Black men comprised 10 percent of Lincoln's army by the end of the Civil War, and sixteen were awarded the Medal of Honor for extraordinary courage.
For many Republicans, this remains a glorious image: black men and white men fighting together to free the slaves. But that was more than 150 years ago. By the time of Trump's convention, the party of Lincoln had been losing the African-American vote for more than five decades. With Barry Goldwater and his white lilies and his white Southern women in lily-white gowns. With Richard Nixon and his Southern Strategy. With Ronald Reagan's denunciation of welfare queens and George H.W. Bush's exploitation of Willie Horton. With voter-ID laws and the birther movement and finally the birther candidate, Donald Trump, whose support among black voters remained in single digits nationally and had recently been measured at zero percent in Ohio.
Some visitors brought guns to Cleveland. Ohio's open-carry law made it easy. A medical doctor packed a slim nine-millimeter in his checked luggage just in case he needed to shoot his way out. A military reservist brought his twelve-gauge shotgun just in case the police needed help. A survivalist militiaman carried a black SIG Sauer with a banana clip just because he could. These men walked the blistering streets of a city that also contained a left-wing subversive intent on burning the American flag and a right-wing preacher who threatened to burn the rainbow flag. It was hot and cops were everywhere: in cars, on foot, on bicycles and horses. Nearly 3,000 were dispatched from more than a dozen states. Some carried assault rifles. One stood on the roof of the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame, a sentinel between the lake and the rising moon.
Andrew Lee did not bring a gun, because he lived in Washington, D.C., where legally acquiring one was a major hassle. Gun control was a sore subject for Lee, a 29 -year-old black conservative, and part of the reason he opposed the Democrats. He thought their policies had failed in major cities such as Washington and Chicago, where the bad guys had guns and most law-abiding citizens did not. Lee had worked in Republican politics on Capitol Hill for several years before leaving for a marketing job in the private sector. He knew the Republicans had work to do in the race-relations department, but he still saw a place for himself in a party that aligned with much of his worldview. That is, until Trump started firing up the white supremacists.
Late in June, Lee got a call from Dane Waters, a Republican strategist who had worked on five presidential campaigns. Waters invited Lee to serve as press secretary for a last-ditch effort in Cleveland to stop Trump from winning the nomination. It sounded dangerous, especially for an unarmed black man. Lee had a wife and a 2-year-old daughter. He would have to take time off work and pay his own expenses. He wanted to go, but first he had to answer one question:
"Am I willing to die for this?"
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Many things went wrong at Trump's convention. Celebrities, ex-presidents and major corporations stayed away. Staff members from the California delegation were quarantined in their hotel with severe intestinal distress. Mike Pence's speech went nearly unnoticed in the uproar over Ted Cruz's theatrical non-endorsement. Melania Trump's speech contained passages plagiarized from Michelle Obama. Trump delivered a spectacle, all right. And if much of it was the accidental kind, like a Ferris wheel breaking loose from its axis, one aspect went roughly as planned. Trump and his allies said they would put down the insurrection, and that is what they did.
From the start, the rebels had almost no chance to win. Their detractors say it was a pointless exercise designed to shame the nominee or introduce rules that would help Cruz win the nomination in 2020. The rebels deny this. According to Dane Waters, one of their leaders, he and his compatriots built a spreadsheet that contained the names of 1,287 delegates—fifty more than a majority—who were willing to nominate someone other than Trump.
This claim is impossible to verify. But it explains why the rebels believed they could stop Trump from reaching a delegate majority at the convention. More than 1,400 of the 2,472 were pledged to Trump based on the primaries and caucuses, but some party elders contended that all delegates were free to vote their consciences. These issues had been mostly irrelevant since 1976, when Gerald Ford defeated Ronald Reagan at the last contested Republican convention. Now they threatened to complicate Trump's nomination, even if the outcome was not in doubt.
The rebels purchased 2,000 lime-green baseball caps, hoping delegates would wear them on the convention floor as glowing signals of their dissent. But the Trump team had spies in the rebel camp, and upon discovering the hat scheme they made a brilliant countermove. On the first day of the convention, Trump's own representatives on the convention floor—called "whips" in the parlance of Congress—arrived before the opening gavel wearing fluorescent caps of a similar shade: slightly more yellow than green, but close enough to make it seem as if all glowing hats were beacons for Trump. Realizing they'd been outfoxed, most of the rebels went hatless.
Eliot Cohen told a story a few days before the convention. It made him choke up. Cohen, a prominent military historian and former State Department counselor under President George W. Bush, recalled the events of September 1, 1939, on the Westerplatte promontory at the edge of the Baltic Sea. Severely outgunned by German ships and airplanes, the garrison's Polish soldiers were expected to surrender within hours. Instead they fought for seven days, giving up only when they ran out of ammunition. Decades later, at a youth rally on the same ground, Pope John Paul II said, "Each of you, my young friends, will find in life some personal Westerplatte. Some measure of tasks that have to be undertaken and fulfilled. Some rightful cause for which one cannot avoid fighting. Some duty, or necessity, which one cannot shun."
Now Cohen wondered who in his own party would stand against Trump.
"You just have the feeling a lot of these politicians don't even know there's a Westerplatte moment, that such a thing exists," he said. "That maybe you're going to put your career in jeopardy, maybe you'll foreclose your opportunity to be re-elected to the Senate or to become president, but where you just have to say, 'No, no, I have to do this.'"
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Some duty or necessity which one cannot shun? Republican leaders saw one of those, although not the same one Cohen did. They would uphold the will of the voters. They would surrender to Trump.
No, not just surrender. They would help him crush the rebellion.
On the convention floor, Trump campaign and RNC officials worked together. "We control the mics," one floor official said to another about an hour before the convention began. "So we can shut down mics."
They began talking about what to do with a rebel who got out of line.
FLOOR OFFICIAL ONE: You don't think he's gonna rush the microphone, do you?
FLOOR OFFICIAL TWO: I'll throw an elbow on 'im.
Trump and his allies had boasted for days about a victory in the Rules Committee that would prevent the delegates from voting independently and potentially reversing the outcomes of the primaries. But now the rebels appeared to have enough signatures on a petition to bring the rules vote to the convention floor—effectively allowing the delegates to decide for themselves what rules would govern them. This was personal for Kendal Unruh, a 51-year-old schoolteacher from Castle Rock, Colorado, and a leader of the Free the Delegates movement. She once had an autistic son named Cameron, but lost him at age 6 to a heart condition. When she saw Trump on television in 2015 mocking a disabled reporter, she vowed to stop him if she could.
What happened that Monday afternoon in the arena was fair and just, if you believe the Trump campaign and the RNC, or an exercise in fascism, if you believe the rebels. Either way, it was the convention's most turbulent day in forty years.
The rebels went looking for the secretary of the convention, hoping to deliver the signed petition for the roll-call vote, but at 2:36 p.m. Lee told supporters via text message that the secretary was "hiding behind armed guards in (an) attempt to muzzle the delegates." They eventually turned in the petition, but convention officials put the rules to a voice vote instead. It is hard to accurately judge a voice vote in a large arena where anyone could be shouting, delegate or not. From the upper level, the anti-Trump "no" vote sounded louder than the pro-Trump "yes" vote. But the man with the gavel, U.S. Rep. Steve Womack of Arkansas, heard it differently. "In the opinion of the chair," he said, "the ayes have it."
This was not quite the end of the rebellion. Fifteen minutes of chaos followed, and those fifteen minutes offer a window into the mind of Donald Trump. He had once re-tweeted a quote from Benito Mussolini. He spoke admiringly of Vladimir Putin. When Trump and his lieutenants described their victory at the convention, they did so in Trump's favorite vernacular: the language of unchecked power. Both Trump and Manafort said Trump's opponents had been "crushed." When Trump's delegate wrangler, Rick Gates, spoke of the opposition, he said, "Our goal is to destroy them."
The noise persisted long after the chair made his determination, with the rebels chanting ROLL-CALL VOTE! ROLL-CALL VOTE! Even without microphones, they were very loud. But they were overwhelmed by another chant, the one stirred up by Trump's yellow-hatted floor whips, the same one that carried Trump through the primaries: U-S-A! U-S-A! U-S-A!
The rebels had enough signatures to force a roll-call vote. But Womack left the stage, giving the Trump whips several minutes to circulate through the aisles and cajole the delegates into rescinding their signatures. Womack reappeared ten minutes later, called another voice vote, ruled again in favor of the ayes. The insurrection was over.
By the time the nomination became official the following night, many of the rebels had left the building. Some got drunk at a nearby microbrewery called Hofbräuhaus. Andrew Lee was sipping Macallan Scotch and watching on television when House Speaker Paul Ryan, the convention chair, said he was already looking ahead to the next State of the Union address, when he planned to sit on the rostrum behind President Trump. Trump had not destroyed the Republican establishment. He had seized it, with the acquiescence of men like Ryan.
"Democracy is a series of choices," Ryan said. "We Republicans have made our choice."
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If the primaries had fractured the Republican Party, and if it was Trump's job to reassemble the pieces, Trump and his allies did offer one unifying imperative. It came up more often at the convention than building the wall, revering the veterans or punishing China for unfair trade. And if you tried to guess the party's official platform by listening to the convention speakers, you might conclude this was the central plank:
"Hillary for prison," said Patricia Smith, mother of Benghazi victim Sean Smith. "She deserves to be in stripes."
"We should send her an email," said Darryl Glenn, the Republican Senate candidate from Colorado, "and tell her she deserves a bright orange jumpsuit."
"Yeah, that's right!" yelled retired Lt. Gen. Michael Flynn, responding to chants from the audience. "Lock her up!"
In American politics, the winner did not imprison the loser. That happened in those other countries, where generals smashed the palace doors, where dictators fled to distant islands, where the peaceful transfer of power was only a theory in a book. But Trump had said it more than once, and he would say it again before November. If he became president, he would prosecute Hillary Clinton.
For some Republicans, this fantasy was even more thrilling than middle-class tax cuts. Which is why the former federal prosecutor Chris Christie put on a show trial for the delegates. These jurors found Clinton guilty of sowing chaos in Libya, letting Boko Haram terrorists run wild in Nigeria, aiding and abetting the Castro brothers in Cuba and negotiating a very bad "nuclear arms deal" with Iran. (Among other things.) Delegates shook their fists, chanting, "Lock her up!" As time went on, Christie seemed less like a prosecutor and more like someone inciting a mob. Or a priest from the book of Leviticus, burdening his goat with the sin of humankind. This exercise continued throughout the week. When a journalist discovered Melania Trump's plagiarism, Trump's campaign chairman found a way to blame Clinton. ("This is once again an example of when a woman threatens Hillary Clinton, how she seeks out to demean her and take her down," Manafort said.) Ben Carson drew a line from Clinton to the left-wing activist Saul Alinsky to Lucifer himself. Then you had the anti-Trump Republicans who believed the entire Trump candidacy was a scheme to help the Clintons. Hatred of Trump could make a person hate Clinton all the more.
A man wandered the convention floor wearing a Clinton mask and an orange jumpsuit. A friend of Trump's went on the radio and said Clinton should be shot to death for treason. Detailed plans to create jobs, improve health care, fix Social Security? Those stayed in the background at Trump's convention. For now the party had a different priority. It involved a woman and a prison cell.
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When they weren't denouncing Clinton, the Republicans did make an affirmative case for Trump. It sounded most convincing when it came from his children, three of whom served as vice presidents in his corporation.
"In the same office in Trump Tower where we now work together," said Ivanka, 34, "I remember playing on the floor by my father's desk, constructing miniature buildings with Legos and Erector sets while he did the same with concrete, steel and glass."
As described by the two daughters and two sons who spoke for him at the convention, Trump was not cruel or sexist. He was a kind and attentive father who taught them the value of ambition and hard work. "I still keep all of my report cards, some dating back to kindergarten," said Tiffany, a 22-year-old just out of college, "because I like to look back and see the sweet notes he wrote on each and every one of them."
For all the coverage of his tax returns and bankruptcies, it was easy to forget Trump's achievements. Eric, 32, told the story of the ice-skating rink in Central Park that his father could see from his office window. The city had bungled its renovation for six years, sinking millions into the project with no completion date in sight. Trump offered to take over. He finished in less than five months, under budget and ahead of schedule.
"We didn't learn from MBAs—we learned from people who had doctorates in common sense," said Donald Jr., 38, whose skillful delivery caused speculation about his own future in politics. "Guys like Vinnie Stellio, who taught us how to drive heavy equipment, operate tractors and chain saws, who worked his way through the ranks to become a trusted adviser of my father. It's why we're the only children of billionaires as comfortable in a D10 Caterpillar as we are in our own cars."
Trumpism was not conservatism. As Ivanka said, "I do not consider myself categorically Republican or Democrat." Trumpism sounded more like the lunchtime conversation at a construction site, a distillation of the hopes and fears and grievances of a certain kind of blue-collar worker. Trump himself was 70 years old. He would fade away in a few years. But his philosophy had taken root. This was only the beginning of Trumpism, and only the first Donald Trump.
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On Wednesday afternoon, the day before Trump's epic speech, the rebels vacated their temporary headquarters on the sixteenth floor of an office building downtown. A box of garbage bags sat on a chair. A blue Ethernet cable hung from the suspended ceiling. Andrew Lee carried a shoulder bag and a folding table onto the elevator. He rode down to the first floor and then walked to the parking garage and opened the hatch of his black Volkswagen GTI. He tossed in his useless lime-green hat. He put in the table and the shoulder bag. He slammed the hatch. There was no room for Lee in the party of Trump. "I can look my friends, my family, my wife, my baby in the face and say, 'I did what I could,'" he said. Then he started the engine and got out of town.
That night Ted Cruz gave an eloquent speech about liberty and conscience. But these ideas were lost in the noise of what he would not do, which was endorse the man who insulted his wife's appearance and accused his father of conspiring to kill President John F. Kennedy. Trump's children watched Cruz from the family's box just off the convention floor. Delegates booed. One yelled, "Get off the stage!" As Trump entered the arena and joined his wife and children, many delegates turned their backs on Cruz. But if Trump and his allies felt snakebitten by their fellow Republican, they had only themselves to blame. They knew full well who Cruz was before they let him in.
On Thursday night, as he delivered the longest and angriest convention speech in recent political history, Trump did not sound quite like himself. The freewheeling entertainer of the primaries had given way to a politician straining to meet the moment. He spoke slowly, tentatively and very loudly, as if volume could stand in for gravitas. "I AM YOUR VOICE," he said to the nation's forgotten and abandoned workers, following a script that capitalized the words.
A good show needed action, conflict, and through much of 2016 the anti-Trump protesters had kept Trump well-supplied. They should have asked for paychecks. "Get 'em out," Trump would say, or "Get 'em the hell out," or "Throw 'em out," and his deportation force would obey, and thus Trump would cleanse the room in the same way he wanted to cleanse the nation. But now he did his best to resemble a statesman. He barely responded when a protester interrupted his speech. Showing a new kind of self-restraint, he did not tell anyone to throw her out. He simply waited until the officers took her away. Then, in a triumphant ad-lib that could have come from a Republican focus group, he said, "How great are our police?"
If Lincoln was the first great Republican president, many in the party believed Ronald Reagan was the last. Twenty-seven years after his second term ended, it was his name that Republican candidates most often invoked. But Trump was another creature entirely. Reagan painted a glowing picture of America as a "shining city on a hill"; Trump painted an ominous picture, saying America had been ruined from within. Reagan told Mikhail Gorbachev to tear down a wall; Trump told Mexico it should pay the United States to build one. Reagan said, "In this present crisis, government is not the solution to our problem; government is the problem." Trump said, "Nobody knows the system better than me, which is why I alone can fix it." Reagan stared down the Soviet Union, pushing it toward the ash-heap of history. Trump changed the Republican platform to make it more favorable to Russia and said he might not defend the Baltic states from Russian attack. Lincoln? Reagan? In seventy-six minutes, Trump never said either name.
"Remember," he said, near the end of the speech that closed the convention, "all of the people telling you you can't have the country you want are the same people that wouldn't stand—I mean, they said, 'Trump doesn't have a chance of being here tonight. Not a chance.' The same people. Oh, we love defeating those people, don't we?"
Anger, populism, disdain for the elite: Trump sounded more and more like Andrew Jackson, the first Democratic president. The Republican delegates stood and hailed their nominee. It was just past midnight. Outside the moon was waning, and a young man who called himself a gay atheist conservative wore a red hat that said MAKE AMERICA GREAT AGAIN. Trump had driven old Republicans away, but he'd drawn new ones in. Oh, we love defeating those people. Journalists and commentators called Trump's convention a historic disaster. Voters said otherwise. A CNN/ORC poll would show an impressive 6-point convention bounce, briefly giving Trump a 5-point lead over Clinton.
In downtown Cleveland, the public square was nearly deserted. Two men stood in the moonlight, talking about Trump. A 32-year-old Bulgarian immigrant named Martin Genev had flown to Cleveland from Seattle to be near the first man for whom he'd ever cast a vote. Every political movement was a reaction to the last. Genev recounted a story from the old days under Soviet rule in Bulgaria. He said American political correctness reminded him of those days, when his grandfather was arrested for telling a joke.
The flag on the soldiers' monument stood at half-staff, commemorating one recent tragedy or another. The statue of Lincoln stood inside, along with an unfastened chain. Genev talked about politics. The conservative movement was fading, he said. Clinton was corrupt; Sanders a socialist. Genev could see only one rational choice.
"You compare Trump to the rest," he said, "he comes off as a savior."