A report from the Cleveland as North Carolina Republicans reckon with their party’s new leader.
Originally published in Indy Week.
Before he left for the Republican National Convention, Bob Orr started reading William Shirer’s The Rise and Fall of the Third Reich. He’d heard Donald Trump’s political ascent likened to that of Adolf Hitler. But as a retired judge who spent eighteen years on the N.C. Supreme Court and Court of Appeals, Orr believes that arguments should be backed by evidence. So he cracked open the 1,143-page volume to see if the comparison held up.
Orr is a twenty-first-century rara avis: a moderate Southern Republican steeped in the GOP’s anti-Confederate history. His great-grandfather, a Henderson County farmer named Robert Franklin Orr, refused to defend slavery during the Civil War and traveled over the mountain to join the Union army. Orr wore an “I Like Ike” button in elementary school. When he launched his first judicial race in 1988—no Republican had been elected to a statewide appellate court seat since the 1890s—”it required me to reach out to a broader spectrum of voters,” he says. “Most people are interested in fairness and competence, and not so much in chest-beating.”
Today such bridge-building talk sounds quaint. “We are a dying breed,” he says.
We are talking in the lobby of the suburban Cleveland hotel hosting North Carolina’s convention delegation. Orr is one of nine state delegates pledged to Ohio governor John Kasich. (Trump has twenty-nine delegates; Ted Cruz, twenty-seven; Marco Rubio, six; Ben Carson, one.) When Trump secured the nomination after a campaign marred by violence and race-baiting, Orr wanted to understand this historic moment in a longer context. That’s when he picked up Shirer’s history of the Third Reich.
The circumstances in 1930s Germany and twenty-first-century America don’t line up neatly. Nonetheless, Orr couldn’t help but notice “some of the very same dynamics: a lack of institutions being willing to say no, prejudices and fears, economic strains upon the masses. You had a huge rise in the nationalism: ‘Deutschland über alles’ versus ‘Let’s make America great again.’ There are enough frightening similarities that I hope give people pause.”
Orr, sixty-nine, has never been a delegate before. But Trump, to him, represents such a grave threat that he feels compelled to speak up. “I’m not here to cause problems,” he says. “But somebody’s got to say—even if we’re in a tiny minority—that not all of us believe this.”
• • •
Before she left for the RNC, Ann Stokes prayed: “Let me hear your voice, Sovereign Lord. And let me stand for what is right no matter what comes.”
Stokes, who lives in Lexington, has only been politically active since 2012. But her values, she says, were forged as a child. “I was raised on the Bible,” she says. “My grandfather was a minister, so I was taught the word of God.” Starting in her twenties, Stokes flirted with liberalism, but “then I came home to my roots. Socialism sounds wonderful on paper. But the reality of socialism is you run out of other people’s money. The Bible clearly teaches us that you’re going to answer for your own actions. The Bible tells us if you don’t work, you’re not going to eat.”
Stokes, sixty, was once on food stamps herself; she was in college, and her husband lost his job. “But as soon as we were self-sustaining, we were immediately off,” she says. By contrast, she calls Obamacare socialist—an enduring government incursion into people’s lives.
Stokes found her candidate in U.S. Senator Ted Cruz, a preacher’s son who, launching his presidential bid, talked about “the transformative love of Jesus Christ” and described the Constitution as a check on overzealous government. In the Texan, she saw a “standard-bearer for religious liberty.” In December, she retired early from her career as a marketing representative and went on the road to volunteer for his campaign.
If Cruz is, to Stokes, a fighter for her values, Trump is merely a dealmaker. “If you don’t have core values, everything is negotiable,” she says. “And the bottom line then becomes: What’s in it for me?”
Believing a national convention should be deliberative, Stokes became involved in Free the Delegates 2016, a coalition trying to write a “conscience clause” into the convention rules. That would allow delegates to change their votes if their pledged candidates behaved badly. “The delegates,” she says, “are a firewall against mob rule.”
Adopting the rules will be one of the first orders of business tomorrow. Stokes knows a conscience clause is improbable. Still, she’s ready to make her stand.
I wake up with a plan for the week: to follow three North Carolina Republican delegates—a moderate, a religious conservative, and a libertarian—as they try to resist the Trump juggernaut.
The last of this trio to arrive is Daniel Rufty, a twenty-nine-year-old law student and army veteran from Charlotte. We had met during the 2012 Republican convention, where we talked at length about libertarianism and democracy. Today, after the state delegation’s breakfast meeting, I tell Rufty that I’m driving downtown to watch some protests. To my surprise, he asks if he can tag along.
Rufty was stationed at Fort Bragg in 2008 when he discovered an army buddy reading End the Fed, in which then-congressman Ron Paul argued that the Federal Reserve System is inflationary and unconstitutional and called for a return to the Gold Standard. “I proceeded to tell him how crazy he was, because he was telling me how corrupt our government was,” Rufty recalls. “I said, ‘Are you kidding? It couldn’t be that bad, man. The media would expose it.'” As he debated his friend and did his own research, though, Rufty came to embrace Paul’s libertarian critique.
Shortly after that, a knee injury landed Rufty in the Warrior Transition Unit at Fort Jackson, South Carolina. There, he met soldiers whose emotional wounds highlighted, for him, “the consequences of the Bush administration’s failed foreign policy.”
When he left the military, Rufty dove into politics. He won a spot as a Rick Santorum delegate during the 2012 convention. When the Pennsylvania ex-senator dropped out, Rufty transferred his vote to Ron Paul. But the convention taught him the brutality of major-party politics: not only did he see efforts to strip Paul’s delegates of power, but Rufty’s own vote was automatically cast for Mitt Romney against his will.
“All this stuff I thought—you vote, and your vote is counted—it’s a façade,” he told me back then. Instead of withdrawing from politics, he plunged deeper. He became the Republican chair for the Twelfth Congressional District. He managed the 2015 insurgent campaign of Hasan Harnett, an African-American tea party activist, to chair the state party. Harnett won that election, but his tenure lasted less than a year before the Republican establishment seized control in April and replaced him with former congressman Robin Hayes.
Now Rufty is a Cruz delegate. He disagrees with the Texas senator on a lot. “But he was close enough to my ideology that I could support him,” Rufty says. Trump, he believes, is far worse. “All these trade barriers and tariffs, that’s big government,” he says. Plus, there’s Trump’s authoritarian streak, which makes Rufty bristle: “He wants to be able to put the press in prison for saying something against him.”
• • •
Rufty and I arrive at an anti-Trump protest. Attendance is pretty sparse. A wall of young demonstrators hold banners with slogans like “Trump Makes America Hate.” There are several causes represented: higher wages, Black Lives Matter, immigrant rights. Someone hands out medicine boxes promising “Multi-Symptom Relief for Chronic Islamophobia.” (They contain chewing gum.) A woman with a megaphone leads a chant: “We are the revolution!”
Rufty leans toward me. “It’s like a cult, man,” he says. “Chant what I tell, when I tell you.”
No Trump! No KKK! No fascist U.S.A.!
“Occupy Wall Street was much more,” Rufty says. “This is pathetic. You better get with it, kids. If you’re going to scare people, you’ve got to get more numbers.”
Donald Trump, you’re going down. We don’t need another clown!
“You want to walk around?” I ask.
“Let’s go rabble-rouse,” Rufty says.
Down the block, he spots a group of young adults in white Socialist Alternative T-shirts. “Is that a third party?” he asks them.
“We’re calling for a party of the ninety-nine percent to the left of the Democrats,” a young man explains. (Socialist Alternative already holds a seat on the Seattle City Council.)
They talk respectfully for a few minutes about police brutality and community oversight of law enforcement. Rufty mentions the Libertarian Party: “They’re not socialist. They’re capitalists. But we might actually have a third choice.” The young socialist affirms his belief in a multi-party system before he and his friends excuse themselves.
“They seem like nice kids,” Rufty says as we walk away. “Socialism seems to attract a lot of college students because they’ve got mountains of debt.” Libertarians and socialists, he says, are “fighting the same fight: getting on the ballots and having that alternative to the two-party system. Who wouldn’t want more than two? Geez, Louise! Look at what we’re stuck with right now.”
Soon Rufty peels away, leaving me to explore the downtown sideshow. The first convention session is getting underway, and Rufty plans to help challenge the convention rules.
Unbeknownst to me, while I was downtown, the RNC’s opening session was devolving into chaos. “Never Trump” forces were pushing for a roll-call vote on the rules, nursing the long-shot hope that delegates might be freed to vote their consciences. Eleven states offered petitions demanding a roll-call vote, but Trump aides squelched the rebellion by pressuring delegates to withdraw their signatures. Shouting ensued. The Colorado contingent walked out. When delegates objected, their calls from the floor were ignored.
I learn this a few hours later, when the North Carolina and Washington delegations gather for an afternoon party at an Italian restaurant. Dallas Woodhouse, the state party’s executive director, is encouraging everyone to drink heavily. But no amount of liquor can mask the tension. Dinner tables self-sort by preferred candidate. There’s lots of nervous whispering.
Susan Hutchison, head of the Washington State GOP, climbs onto a low stage and tries to make peace. The floor fight, she says, “was a victory for all of you who wanted a voice—you were heard. But the rules have been approved. Now that it’s over, it’s going to be a little quieter. At the end of the convention, we will be together.”
“Good luck with that,” Rufty says to me. “You cheat, you lose. I learned that in first grade.”
“Talk with your neighbors,” Hutchison says. “Talk about how you feel. And then slowly, as the days go on, we’re going to come together. This is how most conventions work. You’ll all be very happy.”
I sit at a table that includes Ann Stokes. There’s a lot of grousing about what happened on the convention floor. Stokes, though, keeps quiet. “I’m not going to say much now,” she says. “Just say I’m not happy.”
I arrive at the convention for its first evening session. The North Carolina section is smattered with empty seats. Only about half of those in attendance are reacting with any enthusiasm to speakers like former New York mayor Rudy Giuliani—who waves his arms, warns Islamic terrorists that “we’re coming to get you,” and asserts, incorrectly, that “Hillary Clinton is for open borders.”
One of the delegates here tonight is Orr, the retired judge. His criticism of Trump has been rankling GOP officials. “Bob Orr left the Republican Party a long time ago,” Woodhouse, the state party director, tweeted the night before. “Fought the @ncgop on school choice, in the pockets of @ncae.”
As an attorney, Orr has represented the North Carolina Association of Educators, a professional organization that the state GOP calls “labor union bosses.” (It is not a union.) Orr’s mother, a career teacher, was a charter member of NCAE. The organization’s endorsement was key to his first election victory. “No apologies,” he says.
On the convention floor, Orr calls his fellow Republicans decent people. But he worries that evangelicals and tea party activists—along with the “cult of Trumpism”—have built an organization that no longer welcomes moderates. He worries that, as millennials rise into national political leadership, they will find the GOP irrelevant. “My question is: Is there a place in the Republican Party for people like me?”
At the delegation breakfast, the star speaker is U.S. House Speaker Paul Ryan, who had waited until June to endorse Trump. Ryan asks for a show of hands to gauge college loyalty: N.C. State, UNC, Duke. “Like in the Big 10, we root for our team. We want them to go all the way,” Ryan says. “But at the end of the day, when … one of the teams from our state goes to a championship, we root for them, right?”
There’s a bit of confused silence, and I imagine the Chapel Hill fans contemplating rooting for Duke.
“Come on, work with me here,” Ryan says. “Good grief! The point I’m trying to make is, we started this year with ruptures. Let’s just be honest about it.” But those, he says, can be mended. “Our country is going in the wrong direction. We are losing the core principles that makes this country so special. And we have got to unify to get it right, so that we can get this job done.”
Afterward, Hayes, the newly installed party chair, admits to me that unity has been “a particular challenge in this election cycle because of legitimate questions about Donald Trump. I’ve been married for forty-eight years. He’s been married three times. There have been questions about some of his business dealings. But you can’t change the past; you can shape the future.”
Hayes didn’t favor Trump originally; he was drawn to Marco Rubio, Mike Huckabee, and Scott Walker. He takes heart, though, from evangelical leader James Dobson’s recent claim that Trump has accepted Christ. “He’s a baby Christian,” Hayes says, echoing Dobson. “We all have a responsibility to help him grow.”
The chairman draws an analogy to Chuck Colson, the self-described “hatchet man” for President Richard Nixon, who pleaded guilty to obstruction of justice after Watergate and went on to found a Christian prison ministry. “I say to people who have questions [about Trump]: look at the change in a modern-day political operative. Yesterday is done. What are you going to do in the future?”
I catch up with Stokes at another reception at a New American café. Twenty-four hours after the chaotic floor fight, she has collected herself enough to talk.
“How did you feel as you saw this going down?” I ask.
“Brokenhearted,” she says. “I thought better of the Republican Party.” All she wanted was a “transparent vote on the rules,” but the GOP and Trump campaign shut that down. “They wanted a voice vote because you can manipulate a voice vote.”
Her friend Robb Ward, an alternate delegate from Raleigh, adds that he witnessed some of that manipulation. Ward watched Trump’s whips, who wore lime-green hats, encourage the non-voting alternates to shout “yea!” during the voice vote. They also led chants of “U-S-A” to drown out the delegates seeking a roll call.
“It was disgusting,” he says.
Trump is nominated for the presidency of the United States. Stokes and Rufty are on the convention floor during the official vote. Orr is nowhere to be seen.
I wake to a report that Orr has flown back to Raleigh early, stung by the rebuke by party leaders. “If I’d known there was some oath of loyalty, some code of omerta, where I couldn’t say anything against Trump, I probably wouldn’t have come,” he told The Charlotte Observer.
I don’t see Rufty at the delegation breakfast, either. I text him to ask if he’ll be at the convention later. He notifies me that he’s returned home. “Looks like the business sessions are finished,” he writes. “I’m not into the commercial crap.” That leaves Stokes as the sole remaining delegate of the three I’ve been following. She will be at the convention tonight, but plans to skip Thursday, when Trump formally accepts the nomination. “The coronation,” she calls it. “I’m not ready to celebrate.”
Stokes feels worn down by the hostilities. Yesterday, she posted on Facebook (jokingly, she says), “If anyone is interested, I have all the official Donald Trump memorabilia from the convention. Pins, hats, stuff. Going to highest bidders!”
“WOW!” responded Guy R. Smith, a Trump supporter and founder of the Patriots Business Alliance. “We call that a road whore where I come from!” Smith repeated the “road whore” epithet further down the thread.
“And the sad thing,” Stokes tells me about Smith, “is we worked together in the trenches.”
Stokes plans to return to those trenches this fall, but probably only on behalf of down-ticket Republicans. Of Trump, she says, “I want him to have an epiphany. And I want him to be able to convince me that he’s the right person for the job. Right now, I can’t campaign for him because I’m not convinced that he would be better than Hillary.”
On the convention floor tonight, the North Carolina section is again checkered with empty seats. Stokes is here, as promised, and happier than I’ve seen her all week. “Today was refreshing,” she tells me. She had attended a rally where Cruz supporters chanted, “Twenty-twenty!” and the Texan spoke about his gratitude. “The men and women gathered here today: you are patriots,” he said. When he suspended his campaign in Indiana, Cruz said, “there were a group of volunteers who had traveled the country who had bled. And I am, to this day, upset with myself that I could not stay and hug each of your necks, that I couldn’t thank you one at a time.”
“You didn’t hear ‘me-me-me,'” Stokes says. “You heard ‘we’ and ‘us.'”
Tonight Stokes is looking forward to Cruz’s convention speech. When that moment arrives, many North Carolinians rise from their seats. Cruz talks about ISIS and Ben-ghazi. He invokes the recent massacres in Dallas, Orlando, Baton Rouge, and Nice. He claims that Iran celebrates a “Death to America” holiday (which PolitiFact has rated “mostly false,” though the slogan is used). He says the Bill of Rights extends to Muslims, atheists, and gays, while also saying that many policies should be decided by the states. He warns that under a Clinton administration, “education, health care, marriage, speech [would] all [be] dictated out of Washington.” He reaffirms his opposition to abortion and his belief in the “right to keep and bear arms.”
In the middle of North Carolina’s seating area, a row of tall male delegates applauds. Standing next to them, the more diminutive Stokes cocks her head upward and quietly clasps her hands, as if in prayer.
Little of this litany of principles will be remembered, though, because of what comes next: the senator’s conspicuous non-endorsement of Trump. “Don’t stay home in November,” he says. “Stand, and speak, and vote your conscience.”
The arena erupts in boos from Trump supporters. Three minutes later, the boos morph into cheers as Trump enters the arena’s VIP section. The nominee waves to the cameras and gives them a thumbs-up, upstaging Cruz’s last lines.
Stokes leaves after that, skipping the acceptance speech by vice-presidential nominee Mike Pence. She passes me in an aisle. “That,” she says of Cruz’s address, “was perfect.”
When I tweet this remark, another journalist responds, “Sometimes it feels like every Trump quote is 1st put through the RacialTron Insinuator 3000.” Truth is, I’m pretty sure there’s no intended insinuation in the phrase “deep dark mess.” Less ambiguous is a comment by Robin Hayes, who takes the microphone after Eric Trump leaves. Following some witty back-and-forth about crowdfunding new shoes for the chairman, whose old ones are held together with duct tape, someone playfully tells the delegates to pull some cash from their wallets. “Which bill,” Hayes asks, “has Robert E. Lee’s picture on it?”
As usual, the breakfast speakers circle back to party unity. State Representative William Brawley, a delegate from suburban Charlotte, comes to the podium and disputes reports by journalists that Republicans are divided. “Are they even at the same convention we’re attending?” he asks.
Then, as we file out, I hear rumors that Hayes has told two Cruz delegates, whom he had flown to Cleveland on his private airplane, that they would need to find another way home after they failed to denounce last night’s Cruz speech. The Charlotte Observer‘s Jim Morrill confirms the story, quoting Hayes as saying that Ted Hicks of Durham and Rod Chaney of Hillsborough “embarrassed our delegation and our party.”
I ask Hayes about the article. He confirms that he rescinded his offer. “You do someone a favor,” he says. “They turn around and poke you in the eye. You don’t do them another one.”
Meanwhile, Stokes, the last of the delegates I’ve been following, packs and leaves Cleveland before lunch.
But the dissension on display in Cleveland is unprecedented in both intensity and openness. Not only are the disagreements fundamental, but the candidate himself seems to relish the conflict that party officials would like to make go away.
On the convention floor this last night, the North Carolina delegates are subdued. There are occasional spirited moments: when PayPal co-founder and Trump supporter Peter Thiel suggests turning away from the culture wars—”Now we are told that the great debate is about who gets to use which bathroom. This is a distraction from our real problems. Who cares?”—several delegates stand and boo. One of them, Jeff Lominac—a Cruz delegate from the Hickory area—disses Thiel by saying, “He’s an open homosexual.”
Even Trump’s Vegas-style entrance, his name spelled out in giant letters over a forest of American flags, fails to inspire many North Carolina delegates. As the candidate launches into a dystopic picture of America—”violence in our streets and the chaos in our communities“—there’s a stirring among the North Carolinians. Some call out, “Build the wall,” but without the fervor coming from other delegations. Even this measured enthusiasm is far from unanimous. The silent Cruz supporters, standing or sitting with lips pressed tight, feel to me like the loudest voices in the room.
Trump wraps up seventy-five minutes later. Balloons descend to the 1970 Free song “All Right Now.” A blizzard of latex covers briefcases and half-buries a child near me, momentarily turning the convention floor into a playground that all can enjoy. The Trump and Pence families come together. The nominees step forward and shake hands. The music switches to the Rolling Stones’ “You Can’t Always Get What You Want.”
It takes a moment for delegates to recognize the tune. Some climb onto on their red metal chairs as the balloons rain down, singing and gesticulating triumphantly. Others try to ignore it and make for the exit. But many seem to understand what the song represents: a final rebuke to the losers, a sharpened middle finger, slicing the Republican Party straight down its tender middle.