Organizers of this week’s Republican National Convention unveiled their program and theme late Sunday, on the eve of the gathering’s first session. The theme — “Make America Great Again” — will surprise no one who has heard of Donald Trump and been sentient in the year 2016.
Many people may not even realize that conventions have themes, as most are forgotten soon after the last balloon has fallen. But as the Trump convention gets underway, it’s worth a moment of reflection on the theme of the last Republican nominating extravaganza.
In 2012, in Tampa, the giant letters looming over the RNC podium proclaimed: “WE BUILT THAT.” The sentiment might have been lost on a casual viewer, but it was a retort to something President Obama had said about government support for business. “If you have a business,” Obama had told a crowd at a rally, “you didn’t build that.”
It sounded shocking, but the president had gone on to say that nothing significant gets done by just one person alone. Any business needs roads and police and fire protection and courts and schools and other public sector contributions.
Still, the “you didn’t build that” meme caught fire that spring of 2012, with the flames fanned by gusts of commentary from conservatives. And so it became a motto quite natural for a convention nominating a businessman in Mitt Romney and a pro-business member of Congress in Paul Ryan.
Unfortunately, the theme may have been misunderstood by some. It morphed in some minds into a claim of ownership and enfranchisement, a celebration of the haves, the proud and the established. When Romney spoke of “makers and takers,” it was clear he saw his party as the former and the Democrats as the latter. Popular enough among partisan Republicans, this message proved to have limited crossover appeal.
The convention in Cleveland this week is quite a different affair. Although Trump likes to describe himself as a builder, it is fair to say the GOP at this juncture looks less like a sound, intentional structure than an exercise in deconstruction.
Scores of perennial convention attendees, including former presidents and presidential nominees, governors, senators and congressional leaders, are conspicuous by their absence. Few of Trump’s former rivals for the Republican nomination will be present, and not all of those attending have even endorsed him.
Even on the convention’s eve, dissidents persisted in talking up delegate revolt. They held out a fleeting hope that a “conscience vote” might defy the results of the primaries and upset Trump’s first-ballot victory.
Most of the delegates here are not in rebellion. And there is surely something that could be called the “House That Trump Built.” But, even so, pollsters continue to find nearly half the Republicans nationwide wish they did not have to live in it.
How can this be? Trump has won more votes than anyone before him in Republican primaries and caucuses. How can there be such resistance to the winner in what should be his own ranks?
Republicans seeking answers might recall the “We Built That” theme from 2012. Because the party that Trump has taken over this year has been building toward a takeover by someone such as Trump for decades.
Once a party of rigorous hierarchy, Republicans were said to “fall in line” behind a sequence of establishment champions who waited their turns. But this chain of command has weakened since the loss to Obama in 2008.
A Gallup Poll in 2011 found nearly three-fifths of all Republicans could not name a favorite for the 2012 nomination. (Romney finished first as the choice of just 13 percent.) Four years later, the field was wide open once again.
The establishment tried to rally around Jeb Bush, son and brother of former presidents. But even that dynasty and the $100 million it quickly raised were not enough to scare off more than a dozen serious rivals. The latest Bush scion was dismissed in the first weeks of voting.
Trump emerged early as an unconventional front-runner and won the key contests, particularly in the South. Lifelong students of American politics were stunned to see a thrice-married New York billionaire casino owner win in Dixie, running at least even among self-described evangelical Christians.
Those voters, combined with working class white men across several regions, propelled Trump to a lead in delegates that gradually became insurmountable. The anti-Trump vote was divided among several rivals who chose not to take him on directly until it was too late. Each kept waiting to inherit Trump’s backers when the upstart inevitably faded. But he never did.
How did it become possible for the Republican Party to sort itself out in this way? To some degree, it was a vulnerability born of success. If it had not grown so strong in the South, among displaced workers, white evangelicals and older white males without college degrees, the GOP might not be crowning a champion chosen by these voters.
Of course, the Republican Party has added these newer sources of votes to its traditional strongholds quite deliberately and with great effort over many years. But now they have come to supplant the traditional party strongholds as the wellspring of party power. And they are not as inclined to follow establishment predilections.
If you want a pivotal year in this history, you might choose 1964. The Civil Rights Act was passed because Republicans of that time provided the votes to break the filibuster by Southern Democratic senators. One Republican who did not support the bill was Barry Goldwater of Arizona, who won the party’s presidential nomination that same summer.
Goldwater won only five states outside his home state that November, and they were all in the Deep South. Four years later, Richard Nixon and his “Southern Strategy” reclaimed the White House for the Republicans. Despite Alabama Gov. George Wallace’s third-party candidacy, Nixon won five states from the old Confederacy plus Oklahoma, Missouri and Kentucky.
Four years later, Nixon swept the region. With the exception of the election of Jimmy Carter in 1976, the South in presidential elections has been primarily Republican since. In years when Republicans won (1980, 1984, 1988, 2000 and 2004), their electoral college majorities have relied heavily on their domination in the South.
And since November 1994, the majority of governorships, Senate seats and House seats in the South have been held by Republicans. More recently, the GOP has come to rule in Dixie’s state legislatures as well.
One would expect the region to produce presidential contenders of its own. And it has, including half a dozen of its own officeholders and former officeholders who ran in 2016. But it was Trump who had his way in most of the primaries there.
His “America First” mix of military strength, economic nationalism, support for growing entitlement programs (which most Republicans want to restrain), fierce resistance to illegal immigration and opposition to existing trade deals found resonance in the region and embarrassed its “favorite son” candidates.
Some social scientists believe that in another decade or less, the changing demographics of the South will make nearly all its states competitive between the parties. It also appears clear that younger voters nationwide are less likely to support Trump. These factors combined suggest the Trump coalition that has emerged may be short-lived.
But even if it proves transitory, it is a phenomenon arising from real historical trends and deep springs of voter sentiment from which the Republican Party has been benefiting for nearly half a century.