CLEVELAND—Donald Trump took the stage silhouetted in smoke, with Queen’s “We Are the Champions” blaring in the background. The air cleared. “Oh, we’re going to win. We’re going to win so big,” he said.
On Monday night in Cleveland, Trump bent the Republican Party to his will. An unconventional lineup of speakers sang his praises, echoed his slogans, and adopted his unbridled style. Former New York Mayor Rudy Giuliani, who usually favors a tone of restrained menace, let his voice rise to a Trumpian roar as he denounced Islamic extremist terrorism. “You know who you are! And we’re coming to get you!”
When Trump took the stage, it was to introduce his wife—and to emphasize that this convention isn’t about the party. It’s a family affair. “If you want someone to fight for you and your country I can assure you, he’s the guy,” Melania Trump said. “He will never give up, and most importantly he will never, ever let you down.”
But just hours before Donald Trump made his first appearance in Cleveland, kicking off his four-day coronation as the Republican Party’s presidential nominee, a raucous rebellion broke out on the convention floor. The law-and-order candidate, it turned out, was struggling to keep his own party in line.
The Republican National Convention may be an elaborate pageant, but it’s also the governing body of the Republican Party. Those dual identities came into conflict, as a band of delegates tried to force a debate on the rules that govern the party, floating a proposal to unbind delegates and let them follow the dictates of their own consciences. The dissidents rounded up enough signatures to force a floor vote. The chair called for a voice vote, proclaimed the rules adopted, and tried to forge ahead.
Instantly, chaos. There were shouts on the floor. “Roll-call vote!” “Freedom!” “Railroad!” Directly in front of me, two ushers jammed their fingers against their earpieces, struggling to hear above the crowd, then started pacing around, chanting, “U! S! A!” It built to a roar, drowning out the protests.
Some delegates headed to the exits. I found Bradley Gulotta, an alternate delegate from Louisiana, fuming outside the hall. It was “an effort to stamp out transparency,” he said. He’d come to Cleveland as a Cruz delegate, but, he said, “I would’ve held my nose and supported any of the candidates other than Trump.”
It all came pouring out. Trump doesn’t represent conservative values. “He spits so much venom at anyone who crosses him.” And he worries about Trump. “He’s not someone who you want children from across the country looking up to,” Gulotta said.
He was hardly alone. A delegate from Tennessee told me she was dismayed. A delegate from Arkansas confided that his delegation was split, and he’d hoped to have the chance to vote against the rules. Maybe, if there had been a roll-call vote, they would have stood by that, but neither was willing to be identified by name.
The effort came close to success, though, because it drew on broader discontents within the party. “I wanted to vote no on the rules, and I’m a Donald Trump supporter,” Thomas Leonard, a Massachusetts delegate, told me. He was hoping a rules fight could lead to a successful challenge to Rule 12, which assigns more power to the Republican National Committee, and less to the grassroots. Leonard had been elected as a Ron Paul delegate in 2012, then bounced off the slate by the state party, which had confirmed his hostile view of establishment control.
Other delegates wanted to rework the primaries, apportioning delegates on the basis of registered voters and closing them to all but registered Republicans—both moves that would favor conservative candidates like Ted Cruz. The common theme in these proposals was an effort to reclaim the party—to insist that it belongs to its members, to its grassroots activists, and not to the establishment or to any particular candidate.
But the effort fell apart. It needed support from a majority of seven states’ delegations. The dissidents said they submitted signatures from 11, the chair recognized nine, and then Trump loyalists convinced enough delegates to rescind their support that only six remained.
The effort failed because most Republicans in Cleveland have come around to embrace Trump as their nominee. “I was for Cruz,” Oklahoma’s Carolyn McLarty, who chairs the RNC’s resolution committee, told me. “But 14 million people voted for him. He’s done an amazing thing.” This was “not the time or the place to usurp the democratic will of the people,” Mike Edwards, another Oklahoma delegate, said. Julie Faubel, an alternate from Texas, had once favored her former governor, Rick Perry. “Donald Trump was not my first choice,” she told me. “But I said, ‘I will support whoever we put up in November.’” She proclaimed herself, “pleased with the vote and ready to proceed.”
Indeed, the convention proceeded through the night, with speaker after speaker praising Donald Trump and denouncing Hillary Clinton. The delegates cheered Giuliani. They greeted Trump with a thunderous ovation. They embraced retired Lieutenant General Mike Flynn’s attack on Hillary, chanting, “Lock her up!” And they hailed Melania Trump’s optimistic, positive speech.
It’s Trump’s party, rocking on in Cleveland. —Yoni Appelbaum