There is a long list of Republican officials and candidates staying away from the Republican National Convention. There is very little upside to attending. If, as many Republican insiders believe, Donald Trump goes down in flames, those caught on air applauding him will spend years cringing over the video. In the short run, any Republican is going to be badgered with questions about their support for Trump. (How can you back a racist? Is he really fit to serve as commander in chief?) In addition to former presidents George H.W. Bush and George W. Bush, 2012 GOP presidential nominee Mitt Romney, Ohio Gov. John Kasich, Sen. Marco Rubio (R-Fla.), Sen. Rand Paul (R-Ky.), Sen. Jeff Flake (R-Ariz.), Sen. Kelly Ayotte (R-N.H.) (and other incumbents in Senate competitive races), Rep. Mia Love (R-Utah), Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.), Sen. John McCain (R- Ariz.), who was the party’s 2008 presidential nominee, and a slew of GOP governors are not showing up.
There are also many GOP veterans, operatives and consultants who have attended GOP conventions, in some cases going back decades, who are not coming. One longtime operative said, “I missed 1996 but have been to every other since 1988.” This year he says glumly that he is “not bothering to go.” Another emails, “I am staying as far away from there as I can.”
Even those making a brief appearance are trying to downplay their attendance. Speaking at an anti-poverty panel featuring his reform agenda at the Beyond These Walls Church, House Speaker Paul Ryan declared, “This is the most important meeting I’m going to have all week.”
The reasons run from the practical — a client or boss is in the #NeverTrump camp — to the personal. There are dozens upon dozens of operative, campaign veterans, and think tankers who in effect can’t bear to watch Trump get the nod and, even worse, see solid Republicans debase themselves by cheering or rationalizing Trump’s positions.
John Hart, who heads Opportunity Lives and has worked in conservative politics and policy for years, defends those who are absenting themselves. “The dissenters aren’t sowing seeds of division but of recovery,” he says. In all likelihood, their principled objections will be the outline of the 2016 post-mortem.”
There is also some clear-thinking career planning at work. Many Republicans think a Trump loss will not be an ordinary GOP president loss. Given Trump’s views and language, a defeat, they argue, would represent a repudiation of Trump’s brand of know-nothing populism. He and those who want to be involved in a post-Trump world believe their calling card will be their refusal to drink the Trump Kool-Aid. “Never worked for Trump” or “Never applauded” Trump will be seen, they think, as a recognition of their good sense and staunch conservative principles.
Quin Hillyer, a longtime conservative journalist and activist as well as a prominent figure in the #NeverTrump movement, says, “I was one of many who deliberately stayed away from the Republican National Convention because we want no part of a coronation of a dishonest, bigoted lout, and certainly do not want to lend him even a scrap of legitimacy.”
The legions of those staying out of Cleveland have effectively issued a statement of defiance. They are not going to help erect the Potemkin village of unity. They want to come out of 2016 with their self-image and conscience unsullied by Trump. In that sense the convention, if Trump loses, may well be seen as the place where the “past” of the GOP went for their political funeral.