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RNC Is Donald Trump's Show, but GOP Cracks Remain

Donald Trump will be the Republican nominee for president of the United States.
Image: Donald Trump pumps his fists during a rally in Raleigh
Republican Presidential candidate Donald Trump pumps his fists during a rally in Raleigh, N.C., on July 5, 2016.Gerry Broome / AP

CLEVELAND — Donald Trump will be the Republican nominee for president of the United States. If you’re still wrapping your head around that idea, then this week’s GOP convention should make it perfectly clear.

The Republican National Convention’s prime-time schedule reflects Trump in all his glory. The speaking slots are thick with loyalists like New Jersey Governor Chris Christie, Alabama Sen. Jeff Sessions, and Dr. Ben Carson along with several of Trump’s own family members. Several speakers have starred in reality shows, including golfer Natalie Gulbis, actor Antonio Sabato Jr., and Duck Dynasty star Willie Robertson. Some of the themes go places only Trump would go: One segment is expected to detail Bill Clinton’s sexual misconduct.

Trump adviser Paul Manafort told reporters Sunday that the goal was to hold a nontraditional convention that would "help the American people understand more about Donald Trump the man." As part of that effort, friends, employees, and business colleagues of Trump will speak as well.

"This is a Trump convention," he said.

Beneath the surface, though, is a Republican Party — and convention — that remains divided since the primary contest effectively ended in May.

The party’s two living former presidents, George W. Bush and George H.W. Bush, are not coming to Cleveland and have refused to endorse Trump. The party’s 2012 nominee, Mitt Romney, has announced he’ll vote for someone else in the general election. Popular swing state politicians, including Ohio’s own Gov. John Kasich, South Carolina Gov. Nikki Haley and New Hampshire Sen. Kelly Ayotte, are not speaking. Two top GOP lawmakers, Illinois Sen. Mark Kirk and Nebraska Sen. Ben Sasse, say they are not voting for him.

While it gained little traction, the Trump campaign also had to quell a last-minute revolt from a faction of rebellious delegates who tried to change the rules in order to allow someone — anyone — to replace the nominee.

So it goes when your nominee is Donald Trump, a candidate whose life experience, demeanor and policy prescriptions challenge almost everything Americans have come to expect from a modern presidential nominee.

Trump has shown repeatedly that what you see is what you get with him, and the party is making its choice with clear eyes.

The man who launched his campaign with a conspiracy theory that the Mexican government sends “rapists” across the border spent the run-up to the convention declaring without evidence that he’s seen “some people” publicly honor the shooter who killed five police officers in Dallas and defending a tweet featuring apparent anti-Semitic imagery that reportedly was lifted from white supremacists.

At the same time, he’s excited millions of Republican voters with his call for a border wall, his criticism of trade deals, his proposal to ban Muslims from coming to America and his general opposition to “political correctness” that his supporters complain stifles their identity.

He’s exposed a significant gap between the party’s blue-collar base and its more upscale donors, activists, and officials — a gap that the GOP will have to contend with well into the future.

But while Trump has taken over the Republican nomination, he hasn’t quite taken over the Republican Party.

Some leaders, like Sasse and the anti-Trump delegates, are taking a principled stand against him. Some, like vice presidential pick Mike Pence, are building an alliance. But most party actors seem content to quietly ride out the storm until the election confirms Trump and the movement he represents has any staying power.

In effect, this means supporting Trump publicly, gently distancing oneself from his more heretical positions and rhetoric when necessary, and hoping no one pays much attention either way. Prime examples so far include Speaker Paul Ryan and Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, both of whom will address the convention.

Trump, for his part, has not made a lot of effort to bring the most recalcitrant members in from the cold. Since clinching the nomination in early May — a day after linking rival Cruz’s father to the John F. Kennedy assassination — it’s become clear that party infighting is part of the brand.

He regularly lashes out at Republicans like Romney who have refused to endorse him and reportedly threatened Sen. Jeff Flake of Arizona at a Capitol Hill luncheon to court skeptical legislators. He recently defended his old remark that Sen. John McCain, the party’s 2008 presidential nominee, was “not a war hero” for getting captured in Vietnam, telling a reporter he made it because he was “very disappointed” in the senator’s record on veterans issues. This came after McCain, amazingly, said he would support Trump.

But Trump also has something in common with Republicans that should make unity easier this week: He doesn’t want Hillary Clinton elected president, and neither do they.

Trump’s signature “Crooked Hillary” line will likely find a supportive audience in Cleveland, where Republicans are still upset over FBI director James Comey’s decision not to recommend charges against Clinton over her use of a private email server and, as Comey put it, “extremely careless” handling of classified material.

Even among high-profile Republicans who have refused to support Trump in November, few have indicated they will pull the lever for Clinton.

The party’s strong antipathy towards Clinton may explain why two high-profile holdouts against Trump decided to accept speaking spots: Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker and Texas Sen. Ted Cruz. Walker tepidly endorsed Trump without naming him via a tweeted syllogism this month, telling voters that “he is better than she is.”

Cruz, who called Trump a “serial philanderer,” a “pathological liar,” a “braggadocious arrogant buffoon,” “unhinged,” and a “narcissist” just ten weeks ago, has yet to endorse Trump but presumably could do so in his convention speech.

There’s also some room for compromise between Trump and the more recalcitrant wings of the party. Because his ideology and policy positions are mostly secondary to his message, the main thrust of which is about his unique personal talents, he’s given Republicans wide latitude to break from him on substance without facing a backlash.

Take his vice presidential pick, for example. Pence is almost a perfect reverse image of Trump: A longtime Washington lawmaker and a social conservative who is pro-free trade and pro-Iraq War. By picking him, Trump signaled his willingness to accept more traditional Republicans so long as they bend the knee, an arrangement many convention-goers seem willing to accept.

Then there’s the platform the convention produced. Trump decided to largely remove himself from the process, which led to a platform that contained some favorable planks — a call for a border wall, for example — but a raft of hard-line social conservative measures that one would associate more with a religious right nominee than one with three wives who once called venereal disease his “personal Vietnam.”

Among them: Language decrying pornography as a “public health crisis” and “public menace,” a passage opposing policies that “encourage cohabitation,” and a plank defending gay conversion therapy from state restrictions. (Appearing on NBC's "Meet the Press" Sunday, GOP chair Reince Priebus told Chuck Todd that gay conversion therapy "is not in the final platform.")

The Republican Party will no doubt be permanently affected by Trump, but we may not know the direction of the degree until the 2020 convention and beyond. For now, he’s running the show and the GOP is willing enough to play its part in Cleveland this week.