Until the great Ted Cruz schism opened up on Wednesday night, it was hard to distinguish Donald Trump’s weeklong coronation at Cleveland’s oh-so-aptly named Quicken Loans Arena from a late-night infomercial.
There was the stream of celebrity has-beens — Scott Baio (“Joanie Loves Chachi”), Kimberlin Brown (“The Bold and the Beautiful” and “The Young and the Restless”), Antonio Sabato (“General Hospital” and “Dancing with the Stars”). There were shady hucksters — like Youngevity distributor Michelle Van Etten, who peddles an alleged energy supplement that will make you feel “crazed,” according to an endorsement from the paranoiac radio host Alex Jones (Um, thanks?) And there were amateurish foul-ups, like the revelation that Melania Trump’s well-received testimonial to her husband was cribbed from Michelle Obama’s 2008 convention speech.
But when Texas Sen. Cruz took to the podium, amid frenetic cable-news speculation about whether he’d endorse his bitter primary rival, the sweaty B‑list glitz gave way to something much more momentous: a struggle for what may still be generously termed the soul of the Republican Party.
Cruz, of course, swaggered into the limelight dragging a rich trove of grievances against Trump — who had attacked Heidi Cruz’s appearance and bizarrely insinuated that Cruz’s father played a role in the assassination of John F. Kennedy. But Cruz opened with a grudging note of congratulation to his primary-season tormentor and then delivered a litany of approved convention talking points. He decried the alleged perfidy of Barack Obama, stealth jihadist (“He wants to export jobs and import terrorists”) and the crimes of the odious, Constitution-defiling Hillary Clinton. It was only when he was winding up his peroration with an anodyne plea for his listeners not to stay home in November that the restive Trump-besotted crowd turned on him, with a vicious chorus of boos and “We want Trump!” chants.
And that’s when things got truly disturbing. For they got Trump. The shape-shifting bigot-mogul stepped out of his VIP box to offer some pro forma waves to friends, a tightly clenched smile to the audience — and in the general direction of Cruz, one of the most wilting death glares ever caught on camera. Cruz’s oration, meanwhile, sank into the beer-hall chaos engulfing the arena. The chants and boos, which originally started in Trump’s home delegation of New York, built and spread throughout the hall, and offered the firmest possible rebuke to Cruz’s closing appeal to jump-start and revive his preferred vision of American conservatism: “We will unite this country by standing together for shared values,” he implored from the stage, “by standing together for liberty.” To which thousands of Republican delegates replied, in essence, Fat chance and fuck you!
In that moment, viewers could see the party of Lincoln expire before their very eyes. The RNC was failing, on a truly stupendous scale, to simulate anything like party unity, per the scripts of nearly every other modern political convention. More than that, though, the Republicans were militantly spurning the majoritarian tactics the party needs to develop in order to win a solid shot at the White House in November. For not only was the Texas senator’s earnest appeal to individual conscience drowned out in the spittle-flecked call for Cruz’s public abasement — the person of Trump himself was also held forth, by both the man himself and his outraged, adoring Cleveland throng, as the great self-evident cure for the party’s threatened battle of principle. The iconography was unmistakable: Here is your panacea, conservative America, and the craziness it stokes goes far beyond Alex Jones; it is awed, grateful obeisance at the feet of Donald Trump.
The moment also offered a skeleton key of sorts to the erratic-to-incoherent course of events in Cleveland. After all, Cleveland’s Trump-palooza spectacle wasn’t conceived in the image of any other modern political convention. It’s not a big-tent overture to the disaffected elements of the conservative electorate, let alone to the Independents and right-leaning Democrats needed to claim an electoral majority in November. No, the Cleveland confab is one long altar call, seeking to transmute the Trumpian cult of personality into a bona fide political religion.
The public shunning of Cruz was just one facet of this makeover. To a striking degree, the Cleveland proceedings have celebrated the Trump brand of transgressive utterances. “We need a president who is politically incorrect and who will tell it like is,” Florida Gov. Rick Scott beseeched the American polis on Wednesday. “We need a president who’s not afraid to say ‘radical Islamic terrorism.’ ”
Like most religions, the GOP’s Trump faith harbors a talismanic belief in the powers of words to effect tremendous works of transubstantiation. Never mind that being “politically incorrect” is just a euphemism for unhinged and ugly verbal abuse, or that saying “radical Islamic terrorism” will do no more to reverse the descent of Islamism into murderous anarchy than chanting “Candyman” aloud in sequence will.
There’s also a chiliastic taste to all this Trump worship — nothing works like the rhetoric of end times to galvanize the faithful into action. Newt Gingrich, who took the stage after Cruz, had the tricky task of making Cruz’s outburst seem like a mere distraction on the path to Trump’s apotheosis. Not surprisingly, Gingrich — who in his recent failed charm offensive to land Trump’s VP nod, went on his own Trumpian binge of xenophobic Islam-baiting—reached for apocalyptic fear-mongering: “The worse-case scenario is losing an American city to terrorists with weapons of mass destruction.” The Cleveland crowd was once again channeled reassuringly back into a posture of righteous white ethnic wrath.
Fixating on language also performs the indispensable trick of permitting the Trump Quicken Loans revival to entirely overlook the far less flamboyant rigors of policymaking. Trump was quoted in a truly chilling New York Times story saying that he’d evaluate the prospect of lending military support to NATO allies facing a potential Russian invasion on a case-by-case basis. Basically, he laid out a welcome mat for Vladimir Putin on the borders of the Baltic states, and beyond.
And for all the speakers’ ritual callouts to the economic squalor of the Obama years, none furthered any coherent remedy — beyond, that is, to frack for oil, dig for coal and elect Donald Trump. The theme of the convention’s second night, “Making America Work Again,” clearly triggered a massive brain freeze in the Republican brain trust. The proceedings rapidly descended into the familiar, reassuring threnodies of Salem-style Hillary hating. Repeated “Lock Her Up” chants from the crowd built through the night and culminated in Ben Carson’s demented suggestion that the Democratic nominee was an actual Satan worshipper (by way, of course, of her undergraduate infatuation with Saul Alinsky). No religion is complete, after all, without a thoroughly worked-out demonology. This point was driven home in no uncertain terms on the convention’s second day, when Trump campaign adviser Al Baldasaro blurted out the subconscious collective wish of the “Lock Her Up” crowd: that Hillary Clinton should in fact be executed for treason, even after a Republican-appointed FBI director found nothing in her email abuses to warrant prosecution.
So, just to review: The GOP’s most revered conservative ideologue was all but booed off the stage — and far worse in the Republican cosmology, reportedly evicted from a donor suite — for the thoughtcrime of withholding an endorsement (or an act of worship, if you prefer) from Maximum Leader Trump. And the candidate of the loyal opposition has been threatened with incarceration and execution, when she’s not alleged to be consorting with the actual devil. Oh, and I nearly forgot: Right-wing radio hatemonger Laura Ingraham and a televised Trump shared a Sieg Heil salute, just to keep the general vibe going. Where, exactly, does this leave the genuinely perplexed and aggrieved members of the American electorate who find themselves on the outside looking in on the stylized, bigoted rituals of Trump worship, and taking in the whole sick scene in a mounting mood of alarm? Let us pray.