Republican presidential nominee Mitt Romney waves to delegates after speaking at the Republican National Convention in Tampa, Fla., on Thursday, Aug. 30, 2012. (AP Photo/Jae C. Hong)
Republican conventions didn’t always used to be like this. They used to be only partly like this.
For generations, GOP national meetings were sites for one of the longest-running ideological blood feuds in the nation. In 1952, the Grand Old Party’s moderate and conservative wings almost fought to a draw. The right-wing partisans of Senator Robert Taft marched into Chicago’s International Amphitheater locked arm in arm, singing “Onward, Christian Soldiers,” and left united in the dubious conviction that the convention had been “stolen” from them by the better-organized supporters of Gen. Dwight Eisenhower—just one more instance, many of them went on to insist, of what Joe McCarthy called a Communist “conspiracy on a scale so immense as to dwarf any previous such venture in the history of man.”
In 1960, the battle was joined once again when Richard Nixon’s endorsement of a civil rights plank was decried by Barry Goldwater as “the Munich of the Republican Party.” Thrilled conservatives tried to draft Goldwater instead. By 1964, Goldwater’s partisans succeeded in winning the nomination, but the civil war continued unabated on the convention floor when the moderates’ innocuous plank opposing “the efforts of irresponsible individuals and extremist groups to infiltrate our party” (endorsed by a governor named George Romney, who had a then-17-year-old son named Mitt) was shouted down in a voice vote.
In 1976, the first GOP convention since 1952 when the nominee’s identity wasn’t known at the outset, the moderates prevailed on the final roll call, but not in the show on TV, which was ruined when the convention band had to play “God Bless America” four times in a row to silence the shrieking air horns blasted by churlish partisans of the defeated Ronald Reagan. But the civil war didn’t die with Reagan’s ascension four years later. It was just displaced—for instance, into back-room fights over platform planks on the abortion issue: “one of the most difficult and controversial of our time,” the platform read in 1976; a “complex” issue with “differing views…among Americans in general,” it said in 1980; then finally the bat-shit assertion in 1984 that the “Fourteenth Amendment’s protections apply to unborn children.”
And in 1992, when the moderates had the upper hand with the renomination of party elder and incumbent president George H.W. Bush, the shriekers won the keynote speaking slot—and Pat Buchanan declared “a cultural war as critical to the kind of nation we will one day be as the cold war itself.” The ghosts of the Republicans’ civil war were even in evidence at the 2004 convention, when, by most accounts, the party had become a vehicle for conservatism tout court: recall the claim, repeated in speech after speech there, that a key reason George W. Bush deserved re-election was that he’d increased the rate of minority homeownership.
Well, that war is over and done with. A major American political party, shorn of all moderating influence, has finally, unalterably, gone insane. The striking thing is how many of the estimated 15,000 journalists who were with me in Tampa for the 2012 convention were missing this story of a lifetime—one sixty years in the making.
To be fair, the dramaturgy confused a lot of observers. After all, when I arrived inside the Tampa Bay Times Forum, the fellow onstage singing “God Bless the USA” was such a big black teddy bear of a man—and “God Bless the USA” seems like such an ideologically neutral, innocuous, goose-pimply kind of tune—that it would be easy to miss the blindingly reactionary stanza with which this anthem, featured at every last Republican and Tea Party rally, begins: