Republicans chose not to produce a platform for their convention, no statement of values or declaration of principle. Instead, the party has approved a resolution to “enthusiastically support” President Trump’s “America-first agenda,” whatever that may be. And while the White House has produced a bullet-point outline of its second-term agenda, this week’s convention itself has little content planned other than cultural grievance and worshipful praise for the president. As one veteran congressional aide told Politico, the only thing Republicans believe now is “Owning the libs and pissing off the media.”
It’s easy, observing all of this, to say that the Republican Party has fallen fully into a cult of personality around Trump and his family, a shocking number of whom have featured speaking roles at the convention. It’s also easy to say the party has no ideas or plans for the future. But that would be a mistake. For the Republican Party, the situation now isn’t too different from what it was in 2016. Trump lacked a serious agenda then just as he lacks one now. Rather than bring a new program to bear on the party, he has made the equivalent of a trade: total support for his personal and political concerns in exchange for almost total pursuit of conservative ideological interests.
The last three and a half years have only shown the wisdom of this pact. Republican indifference to the president’s corruption, criminality (yet another former campaign adviser was arrested last week) and prejudice — which freed him to profit from the office and turn the bureaucracy into an instrument of his will — has been rewarded with deregulation, cuts to the social safety net and the installation in the federal judiciary of a large new cohort of reliably conservative judges.
In which case, why fix what isn’t broken? If there’s no platform for the Republican National Convention, if the party has agreed to simply support the president’s second-term agenda, it is because the basic arrangement between Trump and the Republican Party is still intact. Should he win a second term, we’ll see more of the same: an administration that pursues as much of the party’s agenda — redistribution to the wealthy, deep reductions in the state’s ability to solve problems for the general welfare — as possible, and a Republican Party that looks the other way as Trump turns the federal government into a patronage machine for himself, his family and his allies.
It is noteworthy that under Trump the Republican Party has abandoned the rhetoric of limited government and natural rights. But this has less to do with the party’s agenda than it does its public image. Gone is the militarism and evangelical piety of George W. Bush’s Republican Party or the libertarian-inflected outrage of the Tea Party. Instead, predictably, we have the Fox News aesthetics of a president who rose to political power via the cable news channel and who exists in a codependent relationship with the network. He relies on its coverage for ideas, messaging and even personnel, and Fox, in turn, tailors its coverage and commentary to his preferences. It is not for nothing that when Fox breaks with Trump, it’s a story.
You can see the Fox Newsification of the Republicans in their choice of speakers for this year’s convention. Whereas the 2012 convention saw speeches from a wide range of Republican lawmakers and officials, Trump’s event is a glorified cable news panel, with appearances from figures like Charlie Kirk — the pugilistic founder of Turning Point USA, an activist group for young conservatives, who let the convention know that “Trump is the bodyguard of Western civilization” — and Mark and Patricia McCloskey, a couple filmed pointing guns at Black Lives Matter protesters in St. Louis.
We will see more of this over the next few days, as subsequent speakers include frequent Fox News guests like Rudy Giuliani, Franklin Graham, Representative Dan Crenshaw of Texas, and of course, the president’s children, Eric Trump and Ivanka Trump. (Donald Trump Jr. spoke on Monday: “Joe Biden,” he said, channeling Fox, “is basically the Loch Ness Monster of the swamp”). There will be traditional Republican lawmakers in speaking roles, like Senators Tim Scott of South Carolina and Mitch McConnell of Kentucky, but they aren’t part of the core message.
It is not news that the Republican Party has a stagnant governing agenda cobbled together from the long-discredited dogmas and shibboleths of the conservative movement. “The current iteration of the G.O.P. is indifferent to the substance of government,” Steve Benen, a political writer and producer for The Rachel Maddow Show on MSNBC, writes in “The Impostors: How Republicans Quit Governing and Seized American Politics”:
It is disdainful of expertise and analysis. It is hostile toward evidence and arithmetic. It is tethered to few, if any, meaningful policy preferences. It does not know, and does not care, about how competing proposals should be crafted, scrutinized or implemented.
What is news is the extent to which the Republican Party has embraced the trappings of its leader, which is to say, the trappings of a right-wing cable news network: a nonstop parade of conspiracy, demagogy and grievance, in service to a cult of personality, all for the sake of a politics of plunder, theft and extraction.