For the past 50 years or so, political conventions have tended to resemble a "Midwest Regional Commercial Insurance Brokers of America" meet-up: Paunchy professionals gathered together to pat each other on the back and engage in some mildly reckless binge drinking in fast-casual chain restaurants. This year will be different for both parties, and the Republican convention will shift the most dramatically from sleepy mutual-admiration society to fractious spectacle.
One behind-the-scenes battle has already been fought. On the micro level, it was between pro- and anti-Trump forces, and some points could be taken as victories for one side or the other. But, on a global scale, everyone lost.
Recall that those who want the GOP to survive its candidate have two methods at their disposal: First, the Never Trump movement, which seeks to actually unseat him as the nominee via obscure legal challenges. They will almost certainly fail. The second, more subtle maneuver took place this week, when delegates met to ratify the official positions of the party in its platform. During those meetings, the fissure that many in the Never Trump movement would like to ignore yawned wide. And the Republican Party fell in.
On the one hand, moderate Republicans tried to institutionalize the more centrist parts of Trump's admittedly slippery policy agenda, hoping perhaps to tout those changes to sympathetic swing voters in the short term and escape the label of extremism that Trump brings to other areas in the long term. At the same time, social conservatives sought to tether any drift to the middle (whether prompted by Trump or by logic), at times building into the platform ideas far to the right of anything Trump has dared to mention.
The upshot of this procedural dance is a platform that incorporates most of Trump's ugly nationalism and rejects his few gestures toward moderation. It adopts Trump's enthusiasm for a border wall, China-bashing, "America first" trade policy, and coal. In keeping with Trump's rhetorical harshness against minorities, delegates changed an existing platform reference from "illegal immigrants" to "illegal aliens."
The new platform undoes Trump's weak support for LGBTQ rights as well, by advocating "conversion therapy," "traditional marriage," and gender-policed bathrooms. Delegates objected to proposed language condemning ISIS for targeting LGBTQ people (echoing Trump's own bombastic denunciation of the Orlando attacks), and instead inserted a mealymouthed denunciation of its “brutal assault on all human beings.”
Trump has shown some sanity on gun control, but the platform heralds the right to assault weapons. And where Trump has waffled on abortion restrictions and shown full-throated support for Planned Parenthood in the past (sometimes saying he'd defund it in the next breath), the GOP doubled down on anti-choice ideas, advocating to defund the organization, to ban the use of aborted fetal tissue in scientific research, and to pass a constitutional amendment to extend the "right to life" to the "unborn." (Lifenews.com said the platform "may be the most pro-life ever.") In a crowning irony, the party whose nominee has himself appeared on the cover of Playboy and makes judging the female body a high-profile pastime declared pornography a "public health crisis."
In creating this document, the delegates have managed to wrench the party platform even further away from the mainstream than where Trump himself stands. Already saddled with one of the most unpopular politicians to run for president, the GOP delegates embraced the parts of him most Americans don't like.
Ironically, they did all of that without Trump's explicit involvement. Citing a desire to leave the platform to "activists," the Trump campaign stayed away from Cleveland physically. According to media reports, Trump was "barely mentioned" by those creating the platform. So, another way to think about it: If Republicans lose in November, they can't blame the nominee. Given an opportunity to provide themselves with plausible deniability, the party faithful just further incriminated themselves.