The Republican National Convention has been a four-day procession of police officers, soldiers, religious leaders, mothers, White House aides, Trump family members and up-and-coming party stars, all singing the praises of President Donald Trump. But one group seems to have been left out of the show: the once-dominant Republican establishment that ruled before Trump.
The expected appearances this evening of some current Republican leaders — in particular, Mitch McConnell, the Senate majority leader, and Kevin McCarthy, the House minority leader — served as a reminder of who had largely not been given a spot on the stage.
There were no Bushes, Cheneys, Bakers or Doles. There were no former Republican presidents or vice presidents, or prominent former Cabinet members like Condoleezza Rice, who were part of Republican White Houses over the decades leading to Trump’s election. Indeed, two names were barely mentioned over roughly 10 hours of convention speeches and video: Bush and Reagan. (And never mind anyone named McCain.)
Their absence seems to be the final signature on the divorce between the old guard and Trump, as well as proof, if it were still needed, of how much he has taken over the party. And the feeling is mutual. The old guard — the elected officials, Cabinet members and political operatives — has shown little interest in being part of the Trump pageant, and Trump has had little interest in having it join his show.
“He certainly didn’t run because he cared about the Republican Party,” said Torie Clarke, who served in the White Houses of Ronald Reagan, George Bush and George W. Bush. “He didn’t win because of the Republican Party. I don’t think it’s a surprise.”
Matthew Dowd, a senior strategist for George W. Bush, said the animosity went both ways. “Nearly every one of the folks who have spoken at the GOP convention would not have been invited to speak at the convention in 2004, including Donald Trump,” he said.
Trump’s aides said convention organizers had quite deliberately not sought to promote Republican establishment figures. “The convention was focused on hearing from real people in the real world who have benefited from President Trump’s policies,” said Tim Murtaugh, communications director for the campaign.
Instead of having a spot on the podium or being involved in the planning of the convention and the campaign, these old-line Republican names are following the event from a distance, if they are paying much attention to it at all. Many of the old-guard Republicans, particularly those close to the Bushes and former Sen. John McCain, are actively opposing Trump, and some have endorsed his Democratic opponent, Joe Biden.
Linda L. Fowler, a professor of government at Dartmouth College, said a major function of a convention was to “reinforce the party’s brand by showcasing its previous leaders and celebrating its roots.”
“Given the fact that the convention transacted no business, produced no platform and did nothing to promote the fortunes of down-ballot candidates, it is hard to see why it took place at all,” she said. “It was simply a television show.”
There is always some natural tension during a change in power, even among members of the same party. Departing presidents, especially unpopular ones, sometimes steer clear of conventions involving their potential successors. In 2008, George W. Bush stayed away when McCain was nominated to run against Sen. Barack Obama.
Sig Rogich, a key adviser to Reagan and to the elder George Bush, said Bush had come in with his own team after winning the White House in 1988. “But they were still very aligned and collegial,” he said of the two Republican camps.
That is not the case here. Trump has made his disdain for the Bush dynasty clear; he was not invited to speak at the funeral of the elder Bush, and he took delight in knocking Jeb Bush, the former governor of Florida, after defeating him for the presidential nomination in 2016. He has also largely refrained from joining the reverence the party expresses for Reagan.
“Trump is allergic to establishment Republicans, and it’s no surprise that they’ve been airbrushed out of the convention,” said Mark McKinnon, who served as chief media adviser to George W. Bush. “Trump has refashioned the party completely in his image, and I don’t think he likes to be reminded that anything came before him. “
Joe Gaylord, a senior adviser to Newt Gingrich, the former House speaker, said the party under Trump had returned to its historical roots before World War II — protectionist and isolationist — creating a gulf with the establishment that ran the party from 1980 until 2016. Gaylord said that process had been accelerated as Trump’s influence took over the leadership of state and county parties across the nation.
“Parties always take on the image of their president, and the parties have evolved a great deal,” Gaylord said. “Trump has moved from the evolution of parties to the revolution of our party. It’s pretty clear he was not part of the old guard at all, and they don’t have much to do with him.”