CLEVELAND—The Republican establishment didn’t get its first choice of a candidate for president—or its second, or its third. What it got was Donald Trump, and on the night that the Republican National Convention formally made the entertainer its nominee, it was the establishment’s turn to go on stage and make the best of the situation.
The lineup was heavy with figures who represent that group, if it even still exists: Speaker Paul Ryan. Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell. House Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy. Governor Chris Christie, a renegade member of the club who was among the first big-name Republicans to back Trump. The remaining hesitations about Trump were barely hidden. But like all true party men, they’re good soldiers, and they knew their duty Tuesday. Luckily for the reluctant backers, they shared one strong motivating force: a fierce dislike for Hillary Clinton.
“Hillary Clinton will say anything, do anything, and be anything to be elected president, and we cannot allow that,” McConnell said, sounding about as fired up as he ever does, which is to say not very. Christie, slipping back into his old role as a U.S. attorney, offered a prosecutorial discourse, inviting conventioneers to deem Clinton either guilty or not guilty of a long slate of offenses. For the most part, the audience eschewed both options in favor of a third: “Lock her up!” they chanted, in perhaps the most energetic moment of the evening.
With Hillary’s critics out in force, Trump was largely absent. Despite being formally named the nominee in the afternoon, he appeared only via video (he had flown back to New York, skipping out on a meeting with donors). He barely figured in many of the congressional leaders’ speeches, either. Ryan mentioned him just twice, each time in connection with vice-presidential nominee Mike Pence, his former House colleague. McCarthy did the same, but only managed one mention of the nominee.
McConnell offered a fantasy account of the last four years, citing a long slate of almost-legislation—bills passed by the Senate but vetoed by the president, like Obamacare repeal or defunding Planned Parenthood—that he said a President Trump would sign into law. Whatever hesitations Republicans might have about Trump, they seem assured of his ability to put his name on a bill.
Ryan started out a little lethargic, and his laugh lines (“progressives deliver everything except progress”) fell flat in the hall. Acknowledging the acrimonious primary, he veered close to passive-aggression. “Democracy is a series of choices. We Republicans have made ours,” he said. “Have we had our arguments this year? Sure we have—and you know what I call those? Signs of life.”
But by the time he got to the end of the speech, the speaker got wound up, and he delivered the clearest call to party unity of the convention.
“What do you say we unite this party, at this crucial moment when unity is everything?” he said, to thunderous applause. “Let’s take the fight to our opponents with better ideas—let’s get on the offensive and let’s stay there. Let’s compete in every part of America, and turn out at the polls like every last vote matters, because it will.”
Paul and McConnell each endorsed Trump this spring, but their backing has been tepid—the sort of support given by obligation, and offered alongside disavowals of Trump’s policy positions and concerns that he’s hurting the party. Ryan even labeled a Trump comment “racist.”
On the floor of the Quicken Loans Arena, there was no denying those tensions. For Gerard Randall, a delegate from Ryan’s home state of Wisconsin, they made the unity plea that much more powerful. “It was important that he state it, because so many have been thinking that he waffled on supporting the ticket,” Randall said. “He left no doubt that he supports it, and that all Republicans should support it.”
Over in the Kentucky delegation, delegates seemed to be talking themselves into embracing the ticket, too. “The people have spoken. Who am I to disagree?” said Nathan Haney. Unsurprisingly for a guy wearing a “Team Mitch” button, Haney was a big fan of the leader’s speech. As for McConnell’s support for Trump? “He understands the rules. When the people elected someone, they are the nominee. Whether you supported them, that’s who the voters selected. And we are all in.”
The one man who seemed to have no reservations about Trump all along was Christie. The New Jersey governor’s speech was a noteworthy departure from his speech at the 2012 RNC, in which he barely mentioned nominee Mitt Romney, alienating many in his party. This time, he spoke warmly about Trump, apparently setting aside any disappointment or fury he might have felt at being passed over the running-mate slot. (Perhaps his gleeful broadside against Clinton was an audition for the attorney general’s job instead.)
You didn’t have to look far for reminders of the struggle many Republicans face in achieving that elusive unity. In a back corner of the hall, the Washington, D.C., delegation was still fuming over maneuvers earlier in the evening. Rather than deliver the district’s delegates to Marco Rubio and John Kasich, the party had awarded them to Trump. It was one final indignity for Republicans who opposed Trump, and D.C. Republicans are among the most establishment members of the party. Even a couple hours later, Dana Hudson was still seething.
“Party bosses are colluding with Trump to subvert democracy,” she said. “The Republican Party is the party of liberty and freedom. If they don’t listen to us, why are we here?”
Hudson, a lobbyist, said she and other Trump opponents had been threatened and intimidated. She was the subject of rumors linking her romantically to Marco Rubio, which she says were false. And after those threats, she had no interest in Ryan’s call for coming together.
“I have been waiting for our presumptive nominee to unify the party and I will not vote for anyone who is not unifying the party,” she said. “That opportunity was lost today. That opportunity was lost yesterday.”
Amid the anger and ambivalence, there were two speakers who were ready to speak about the nominee without hesitations, though: Trump’s children Tiffany and Donald Jr.
—David A. Graham