The Republican National Convention in July 2016 received mostly negative reviews from reporters and pundits. The Washington Post’s Dana Milbank said the convention was “ a triumph of narcissism.” The New York Times’ David Brooks lamented that Trump had turned the party and convention into “a personality cult.” Others noted the negativity of the Republican convention, with its many (personal) attacks on presumptive Democratic nominee Hillary Clinton.
Are these assessments of Trump’s handling of the Republican convention fair? And to what extent is what happened in Cleveland last week unique to Trump?
What history shows is that, although the Trump convention was perhaps the most extreme version of a convention devoted to candidate over party, it is merely the culmination of a long-term process.
Certainly, the Republican convention was Trump-centered. His family and business associates were prominently displayed throughout the convention. The nominee also made many personal appearances. Convention delegates got to see Trump on Monday (making a dramatic entrance bathed in silhouette to introduce his wife), Tuesday (through video after receiving the nomination), Wednesday (appearing briefly on the convention floor just as Ted Cruz reached the peroration of a speech that refused to endorse him), and, finally, Thursday (when he served up the longest acceptance speech ever — 75 minutes).
Meanwhile, nearly all other leading Republicans — including the only living Republican presidents, nearly all recent Republican presidential nominees, and the Republican governor of the state hosting of the event, John Kasich — refused to appear.
Generally speaking, modern conventions showcase the best and brightest the party has to offer in addition to its nominee. The Republican convention this past week certainly lacked in such political star power. The result was a convention devoted to forging the Republican Party to its new nominee.
Traditionally, conventions were the venue at which parties selected their nominee. Unlike today, the outcomes of these conventions were frequently unpredictable. Even incumbent presidents did not have full control over their conventions. For example, in 1896, party bosses succeeded in nominating New York governor Theodore Roosevelt as the Republican vice-presidential candidate — against the wishes of both President William McKinley and Roosevelt himself.
Conventions also saw sharp conflict between different wings of the party. For example, in 1912, Republican delegates supporting Roosevelt walked out of the convention in protest of the re-nomination of President Howard Taft and began their own (short-lived) third party. In 1924, a deeply divided Democratic Party required more than 100 rounds of voting to finally settle on a compromise presidential nominee. And in 1948 several Southern states walked out of the Democratic convention in protest of the inclusion of a civil rights plank in the party’s platform.
But for all the political excitement these conventions produced, one key element was notably absent: the nominees themselves. Based on a tradition in which candidates feigned a lack of personal interest in winning the nomination, they also did not appear at the convention. Instead, presidential nominees waited to be notified officially by a delegation of party leaders weeks after the convention had adjourned.
A key moment in the rise of candidate-centered conventions was Franklin Roosevelt’s 1932 acceptance speech at the Democratic meeting in Chicago. Roosevelt argued that the time had come to break “foolish traditions.” The speech FDR gave in Chicago introduced a new tradition of candidates accepting their nominations in person.
More broadly, FDR’s speech was a crucial step in the development of partisanship centered on the president himself. Combined with the increasing importance of the presidency itself in the expanded federal government forged by Roosevelt’s New Deal, parties became dominated by their presidents and presidential nominees. Parties became dependent on presidential candidates and presidents to pronounce party doctrine, raise campaign funds, mobilize grass-roots support, and campaign on behalf of other party candidates.
This trend continued with the party reforms of the early 1970s. With both parties now relying on presidential primaries and caucuses to select their nominees, in nearly all conventions since 1976 the eventual nominee entered the convention with a clear majority of delegates.
As a result — and despite frequent media speculation — there is generally no longer uncertainty about who is going to win the nomination. Therefore, by the time delegates gather at modern conventions, the party is already intrinsically linked to the person who will be its presidential nominee.
The core task of conventions has changed accordingly. No longer are conventions battlegrounds for party factions. Rather, they now exist to introduce voters to the candidate and to present the party in a way that matches the kind of campaign the nominee intends to run. Unlike the rowdy conventions of the past, modern conventions want to convey an image of party unity and support for the nominee.
Thus, while Trump may have put himself more at the front and center at the Republican convention than previous nominees, a presidential candidate’s dominating convention proceedings itself is not new.
The other notable element of the Trump convention and candidacy has been the rancor associated with it. Trump has tried to use personal attacks to score political points throughout this campaign. During the convention, he tempered the chants that his opponent Hillary Clinton be “locked up” — insisting that beating her in November would be sufficient punishment — but nevertheless these chants logically follow from Trump’s characterization of Clinton as “crooked Hillary.”
But Trump’s recriminations also represent the culmination of a long-term process. The focus on presidents and presidential nominees as the central agents of American democracy has produced a form of partisanship in which conflict over competing principles is combined with personal recrimination. As Alan Abramowitz and Steven Webster have noted, there has been a growing trend of “negative partisanship,” where party differences are overwhelmingly expressed through mutual antipathy between Democrats and Republicans.
These diatribes have focused especially on presidents and presidential nominees. Democrats were animated by their hatred of George W. Bush, just as Republicans have been animated by their hatred of Barack Obama. Thus, this year’s Republican National Convention made visible what has been happening in both parties for many years.
In an interview with The New York Times, Trump expressed hope that voters would take away from the convention “the fact that I’m very well liked.” It is questionable whether the 2016 Republican convention achieved that goal. But that Trump identified the goal in personal terms, and spent most of the convention trying to convince voters why they shouldn’t like his opponent, is neither surprising nor unique.
Boris Heersink is a PhD candidate in the politics department at the University of Virginia.
Sidney M. Milkis is White Burkett Miller Professor in the politics department at the University of Virginia.