CLEVELAND—What does it mean, in the year of Donald Trump, to be a Republican? As the party prepared to nominate him at its convention next week, a committee of delegates was trying to figure that out, starting with the issue of whether poor people should have junk food.
The proposal had come from Eric Brakey, a libertarian state senator from Maine and a member of the 112-person panel tasked with drafting the official Republican Party platform this week. “I would like to put in language specifying that when Republicans are in control of the federal government, we will allow states to put restrictions in place so that SNAP benefits”—better known as food stamps—“cannot be used to purchase junk food,” Brakey said from his seat on the dais, five tiers of bunting-clad tables in a cavernous convention-center basement. In Maine, Brakey explained, the Republican governor had sought such a restriction but been denied by the Obama administration.
Debate ensued: A delegate from Hawaii wanted to be sure the definition of “junk food” wouldn’t include macadamia nuts. A delegate from Georgia said such a requirement had been tried and proved difficult and confusing for retailers to comply with—in one instance, he said, Oreo cookies had been deemed acceptable, while chocolate-covered Oreos were not. Another Mainer countered that it would reduce health-care costs and improve the lives of the poor.
“I think it sounds like Michelle Obama,” argued a California delegate named Noel Irwin Hentschel. “We’re trying to tell people what to eat? We’re supposed to be the party of individual freedom.”
Another delegate, Andy Puzder, concurred: “I hope we don’t become the party of the food police,” he said. “As a Republican and a conservative, I would be opposed to the government taking this position.” Puzder happens to be the CEO of the restaurant corporation that owns Carl’s Jr. and Hardee’s.*
The panel voted down the proposal, meaning it would not be included as one of the official tenets of the GOP’s philosophy. What might have seemed like a trivial concern had provoked a debate about serious principles, pitting public health and fiscal prudence against freedom of choice, and the interests of big business against suspicion of society’s “takers.”
In two days of platform committee debates, many such arguments unfolded, each a miniature tussle over the location of the GOP’s soul. Trump’s name was rarely invoked, and his campaign did little to influence the proceedings, but he loomed over the debate nonetheless, as the party loyalists struggled to square their activist commitments with Trump’s unorthodox platform.
What emerged was a strange and remarkable document, a true reflection of the GOP’s identity crisis. The platform, which has not been publicly released and which must still be approved by the full convention next week, softens the party’s longtime stance in favor of free trade and calls in strong terms for a wall on the southern border, both reflections of Trump’s signature positions. But attempts to soften the party’s harsh language on gay and transgender issues, on which Trump has sometimes taken a more moderate tone, were resoundingly defeated, as were attempts to tone down the document’s calls for military action, toward which Trump has been relatively skeptical.
The result was a portrait of a party being pulled in competing and perhaps irreconcilable directions. It raises but does not answer the big question for the GOP, one that will linger past November: Will Trump, win or lose, change the party forever? Has he, for better or worse, already remade the Republican Party in his image?
Whether Trump is even interested in shaping the GOP on issues is an open question. Trump met with the platform committee’s chairman, Senator John Barrasso of Wyoming, last week and told him he wanted to “let the platform committee work its will,” according to Barrasso, who added, “I’ve asked him to embrace the platform, and I believe that he will.” Trump staffers were present at the platform meetings but did not attempt to intervene in the deliberations—a departure, committee veterans said, from prior nominees, who tried to work the platform committee into line with their positions. Yet the Trump campaign on Wednesday issued approving press releases noting the areas in which the platform had been “Trump-ified.”
The platform committee, made up of convention delegates from every state and territory, began its work Monday from a draft put together by the staffs of Republican leaders in the House and Senate. The draft tried to take a middle ground on the controversial Trans-Pacific Partnership trade deal, which most Republican lawmakers joined President Obama in supporting before Trump made opposing it a central focus of his campaign. The draft called only for the TPP not to be approved after the presidential election by the lame-duck Congress, before the new president takes office.
But the platform committee removed any reference to the TPP, stating instead that all trade deals should be carefully scrutinized, a stance delegates saw as tougher. David Johnson, an Ohio delegate and member of the subcommittee that made the change, told me he was happy to see the Republican Party come around to a position he had long held.
“A lot of these trade deals are supported by the big banks and big business, but they’re not helpful to small business,” Johnson said. The tile company he owns, he said, had lost business and laid off workers due to unfair competition from China. Johnson watched factory after factory leave his small Northeast Ohio town as Republican lawmakers voted for what he saw as the interests of Wall Street.
Oregon delegate Russ Walker oversaw another subcommittee’s addition of the border wall to the platform. “The border wall must cover the entirety of the southern border and must be sufficient to stop both vehicular and pedestrian traffic,” it states, according to text another delegate shared with me. A call for a new guest-worker program was replaced with a call for reform of the existing program and a demand to decrease legal immigration levels. The platform does not call for a ban on Muslim immigration or asylum, but says that it is impossible to ensure that refugees “whose homelands have been the breeding grounds for terrorism” do not threaten national security.
The language, Walker said approvingly, is “very strong, much stronger than the 2012 platform,” which he also helped to draft. “I think that’s a direct reflection of Donald Trump.” Trump, he contended, isn’t remaking the party. “I think what he’s doing is adding a voice to the Republican Party—a voice that speaks clearly to average Americans.”
Meanwhile, on cultural issues, the committee showed no inclination to temper its traditional views. Multiple references to the horrors of abortion and the sanctity of human life were inserted; a reference to “aborted fetuses” was changed to “aborted children”; opposition to “policies and laws that create a financial incentive or encourage cohabitation” was adopted. “A traditional two-parent household” was deemed best for children, and women’s “exemption from direct ground combat units and infantry battalions” was urged. (In a departure from 2012, however, the platform did not call for amending the constitution to ban same-sex marriage; it urged instead that an amendment allow states to determine their marriage laws.) The platform condemned the Obama administration’s “edict to the States concerning restrooms, locker rooms and other facilities” for transgender people.
Tony Perkins, the head of the socially conservative Family Research Council and a delegate from Louisiana, pronounced himself exceedingly pleased with the result. “This is one of the most conservative platforms the party has ever had, and I didn’t think we could get more conservative than 2012, which was probably one of the most conservative platforms in our history,” he told me.
Perkins, who supported Ted Cruz in the primaries, said he believed Trump was moving in conservatives’ direction rather than reshaping conservative ideology. “He’s growing in his understanding of conservative policy,” Perkins said, adding that his choice of running mate would be an important signal. (Perkins is not a fan Mike Pence, Chris Christie, or Newt Gingrich, preferring someone in the mold of Jeff Sessions, the senator from Alabama.) “I think he’s learning but he’s open, and I think he’ll have a conservative administration,” he said.
Newt Gingrich told me a few months ago, “America is very nationalist, as Ronald Reagan once proved.” Gingrich, the former House speaker who is now a leading contender to be Trump’s running mate, was lauding Trump’s influence on what he saw as a party that had become overly elitist and dogmatic. “In some areas he profoundly disagrees with the Republican establishment,” Gingrich said, “but he often does so in ways that fit with the American people.”
Many prominent conservatives have viewed the rise of Trump as a crisis and a threat. The syndicated columnist George Will announced last month that he had quit the GOP over Trump, telling a Washington conservative group, “This is not my party.” Jeb Bush said on NBC this week that with Trump’s nomination, “Conservatism is temporarily dead.”
Trump’s conservative opponents see him as having rejected or downplayed the three-part philosophy that has defined the party since the Reagan era: aggressive American leadership on the world stage; smaller government and lower taxes; and faith-driven opposition to abortion and gay marriage. Trump’s adherence to all three parts has been notional or inconsistent. His “America First” foreign policy is more transactional than idealistic, and would, he contends, have left Saddam Hussein in power in Iraq. He takes issue with the attempts of conservatives like House Speaker Paul Ryan to shrink government by reducing spending on programs to benefit the elderly. He has praised Planned Parenthood and condemned attacks on the LGBT community, even as he declares himself newly opposed to abortion and gay marriage.
While some traditional conservatives rail at these heresies, others have wondered what Trump’s rise says about the true priorities of Republican voters. And some have tried, in recent months, to conceptualize a new, Trump-inspired ideology—to supply an infrastructure of ideas to the presumptive nominee’s loosely structured rants.
The most vigorous of these efforts was undertaken by a now-defunct blog called the Journal of American Greatness, whose pseudonymous writers penned articles with titles like “Toward a Sensible, Coherent Trumpism.” Trump, declared “Publius Decius Mus,” had, intentionally or not, created an opening for “progress beyond ossified ideologies, and return to a superior understanding of man, politics, America and the West itself.” Proclaiming themselves followers of the political philosopher Leo Strauss, the writers savagely mocked the feel-good platitudes of the out-of-touch conservative intelligentsia and positioned themselves as advocates for the renewal of a unique American national and cultural identity, one that they saw rendered politically incorrect by globalism, multiculturalism, mass immigration, and corrupt economic elites.
Last month—shortly after it received approving mention in a Peggy Noonan column—the blog was suddenly shuttered and its archives deleted, replaced by a notice declaring that what had begun as an “inside joke” had gained more traction than its authors expected, proving “the desirability of breaking out of conservatism’s self-imposed intellectual stagnation.” Two sources familiar with the authors said the unexpected attention had gotten out of hand and they feared exposure that could imperil their careers in movement conservatism.
Trump’s heterodoxy has prompted some to wonder whether he could fundamentally realign the conventions of American political debate. “For the past 80 years that debate has been about the size of government—Republicans for less government and more market and Democrats for more government and less market,” David Brooks wrote in a recent New York Times column. Trump, he said, might replace that “archaic and obsolete” question with a new axis, “open/closed,” with both right- and left-wing opponents of globalism on his side. This new alignment has been seen around the globe, notably in the recent shock of the Brexit vote.
Many have seen in Trump a reprise of the campaigns of Pat Buchanan, who sought the Republican nomination in 1992 and 1996 and ran on the Reform Party ticket in 2000, unsuccessfully in all three cases. Buchanan warned about the perils of trade, foreign intervention, and cultural decline; Trump, he told me recently, is carrying his message forward. The difference, Buchanan said, is that when he ran, the dire consequences of these policies were merely hypothetical. Trump has succeeded where Buchanan failed, he believes, because the consequences have now come to pass: manufacturing wiped out, foreign adventures turned to quagmires, traditional values marginalized.
Buchanan, who is 77 and lives in northern Virginia, told me he cannot imagine the Republican Party reverting to its former orientation post-Trump. “You can’t go home again,” he said. “Bush Republicanism—globalism, free trade, interventionism, democracy promotion, waging wars to remake the Mideast in the image of Vermont—it’s all over. Neoconservatism, I don’t know how you come back to it. The American people won’t stand it anymore.”
On Tuesday in Cleveland, the platform committee had entered its second day of hearings, painstakingly voting on amendments that ranged from typographical correctives to obscure pet issues. Brakey, the Maine lawmaker who had proposed the junk-food plank, now sought to make part of the platform more simpatico with Donald Trump.
Brakey proposed to condemn the Obama administration’s intervention in Libya and blame it for destabilizing the region and empowering the Islamic State. “The deposing of secular dictators in the Middle East empowers our enemies,” his text read. “We oppose the continuing of this failed practice.”
Defending his views, Brakey summoned Trump: “Even our presumptive nominee acknowledges that the decision to take out the secular dictator in Iraq was a mistake,” he noted. But other delegates said they didn’t like the idea of the GOP “defending evil dictators.” That amendment was defeated, as were several other Brakey proposals aimed at turning the party in a less interventionist direction. Delegates declined to soften the party’s stance toward Russia, to categorically condemn foreign aid, or to call the drug war a failure.
Another delegate, Rachel Hoff, did not expect to win her platform fight—but she was determined to be heard. “I’m honored to be here today, serving as the first openly gay member of the Republican platform committee,” she said from her seat in the front row of the delegates. There was a tiny outbreak of applause. Hoff, a pale woman with curly red hair bound back from her forehead by a barrette, is a national-security expert at a D.C. conservative think tank; she was a vocal opponent of Brakey’s military amendment, arguing for more defense spending.
Hoff’s voice broke as she made her argument: She was not asking the committee to support same-sex marriage, she said, only to “acknowledge the diversity of opinion within our party on the issue of marriage” by making the platform neutral on the issue. “I’m not here asking you today to endorse my own constitutional rights,” she said. “I’m only asking you to recognize that many Republicans…agree with me, and we should not be excluded.”
Hoff’s proposal was voted down, as were a litany of other attempts by her and another delegate—Annie Dickerson, an adviser to the conservative New York billionaire Paul Singer—to make the platform more gay-friendly. A proposal to add a condemnation of Islamic terrorists’ attacks on “LGBT individuals in particular” also went nowhere.
“Can you not, at the very least, stand up for our right to not be killed?” Hoff pleaded. “The terrorist attack in Orlando one month ago today was a targeted attack on the LGBT community for simply living in freedom as who they are.”
But others argued that it would be improper to single out specific groups when women, Christians, and Jews were also Islamic State targets. “That you would think that LGBT in particular have been the target of violence and oppression … is insulting,” a delegate from Michigan said. “We don’t need any of this. Radical Islamic terrorism is oppressing everybody.”
When I caught up with Hoff after the hearings, she said that defeat had been the most dispiriting. Listening to Trump condemn the recent attack on an Orlando gay nightclub by vowing to stand up for the LGBT community, she said, she believed the party had moved in her direction. The committee, she said ruefully, “showed perhaps impressive resolve in avoiding even a single positive reference to the LGBT community.”
Hoff said she would have liked to see the Trump campaign show leadership on the issue by pushing the platform committee on it. “We’re a party of principles, and the foundations of our party are freedom, liberty, equality, and justice,” she said. “I’m worried about the future of our party if we don’t evolve on this issue.” Trump, it seemed, could push the GOP in certain directions. But in other respects, the long-entrenched forces of conservative activism would have their way.
* This article originally stated Puzder's company, CKE Restaurants, owns Arby's. We regret the error.