WASHINGTON — The main purpose of the modern political convention is to produce four days of televised propaganda. The subsidiary function, now that nominees are invariably chosen in advance, is structural: Unify the party before the final battle.
In Cleveland, the Republicans achieved not unity, but a rough facsimile. The opposition consisted of two factions. The more flamboyant was led by Ted Cruz. Its first operation — an undermanned, underplanned, mini-rebellion over rules — was ruthlessly steamrolled on Day One. Its other operation was Cruz’ Wednesday night convention speech in which, against all expectation, he refused to endorse Donald Trump.
It’s one thing to do this off-site. It’s another thing to do it as a guest at a celebration of the man you are rebuking.
Cruz left the stage to a cascade of boos, having delivered the longest suicide note in American political history. If Cruz fancied himself following Ronald Reagan in 1976, the runner-up who overshadowed the party nominee in a rousing convention speech that propelled him four years later to the nomination, he might reflect on the fact that Reagan endorsed Gerald Ford. Cruz would have a stronger claim to conscience had he not accommodated himself to Trump during the first six months of the campaign. Cruz reinforced that impression of political calculation when, addressing the Texas delegation Thursday, he said, “I am not in the habit of supporting people who attack my wife and attack my father.” That he should feel so is not surprising. What is surprising is that he said this publicly, thus further undermining his claim to acting on high principle.
The other faction of the anti-Trump opposition was far more subtle. These are the leaders of the party’s congressional wing who’ve offered public allegiance to Trump while remaining privately unreconciled. You could feel the reluctance of these latter-day Marranos in the speeches of Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell and House Speaker Paul Ryan.
McConnell’s pitch, as always, was practical and direct. We’ve got things to achieve in the Senate. Obama won’t sign. Clinton won’t sign. Trump will. Trump will be our enabler, an instrument of the governing (or if you prefer, establishment) wing of the party. The problem is that Trump will not allow himself to be the instrument of anyone else’s agenda. Moreover, the Marranos necessarily ignore the most important role of a president, conducting foreign and military policy abroad, which is almost entirely in his hands.
Ryan was a bit more philosophical. He presented the reformicon agenda, dubbed the Better Way, for which he too needs a Republican in the White House. Ryan pointedly kept his genuflections to the outsider-king to a minimum: exactly two references to Trump, to be precise. Moreover, in defending his conservative philosophy, he noted that at its heart lies “respect and empathy” for “all neighbors and countrymen” because “everyone is equal, everyone has a place” and “no one is written off.” Not exactly Trump’s Manichaean universe of winners and losers, natives and foreigners (including judges born and bred in Indiana). Together, McConnell and Ryan made clear that if Trump wins, they are ready to cooperate. And if Trump loses, they are ready to inherit.
The loyalist (i.e., Trumpian) case had its own stars. It was most brilliantly presented by the ever-fluent Newt Gingrich, the best natural orator in either party, whose presentation of Trumpism had a coherence and economy of which Trump is incapable.
Mike Pence gave an affecting, self-deprecating address that managed to bridge his traditional conservatism with Trump’s insurgent populism. He managed to make the merger look smooth, even natural.
Rudy Giuliani gave the most energetic loyalist address, a rousing law-and-order manifesto, albeit at an excitement level that surely alarmed his cardiologist.
And Chris Christie’s indictment of Hillary Clinton was doing just fine until he went to the audience after each charge for a call-and-response of “guilty or not guilty.” The frenzied response was a reminder as to why trials are conducted in a courtroom and not a coliseum.
On a cheerier note, there were the charming preambles at the roll call vote, where each state vies to out-boast the other. Connecticut declared itself home to “Pez, nuclear submarines and ... WWE.” God bless the United States.
Charles Krauthammer is a columnist for the Washington Post Writers Group.