CLEVELAND — The keys to the Republican Party now belong to a onetime Democrat, a man who has lambasted top Republican Party leaders, a man who diverges from the party’s longstanding orthodoxy on an array of central issues.
It’s Donald Trump’s party now.
And his party is one of anger and division, one that is sick and tired of the status quo and skeptical of all elected officials. It is one that is proudly vulgar, one that peddles in innuendo and conspiracy, and one whose members will speak of shooting the presumptive Democratic nominee for treason or chant in unison, “Lock her up!” It is one that is short on specifics but adamant about bumper sticker promises about building a wall to keep out illegal immigrants and about making America great.
“The party’s DNA has been rearranged,” said Nicholas Kemper, a 20-year-old delegate from Texas who supports Trump. “This is the new era right now.”
“He’s taken some unconventional stances,” Kemper added. “He seems to be indifferent about abortion and marriage. It’s going to be an adjustment. It will attract new voters but will also certainly repel some.”
Some Republicans fear that they could lose voters for decades, and that the grip Democrats have on the growing segment of minority voters will only get firmer. They worry that the Republicans’ majority in the Senate is at risk, and possibly the House majority, too.
Others no longer recognize what their party is becoming.
“I’ve made the decision not to watch except for highlights on the morning news,” said Seth Klarman, a Boston billionaire who was the biggest donor to Republicans from New England in the 2014 election cycle.
“What I’ve read and seen has reinforced my decision neither to support Republican candidates who have supported Trump, nor the party itself, because so many Republicans have chosen to put party ahead of country. Donald Trump is completely unqualified for the highest office in the land.”
Klarman, who is an independent, just cut a $5,400 check to Hillary Clinton’s campaign.
One day after Trump officially secured the nomination, Republican delegates in Cleveland Wednesday spoke openly with pride — as well as apprehension — about their party’s new standard-bearer, illustrating the divide that’s plagued the primaries ever since Trump glided down an escalator in Trump Tower last year and announced he was running for president.
Some continued to criticize Trump’s negative tenor and divisive rhetoric and expressed concerns about the party’s ability to attract younger voters, especially minorities and women.
Melissa Richmond, a 29-year-old delegate from Virginia who is Mitt Romney’s former director of donor relations, fears that under Trump, “the trickle-down racism and misogyny that Romney talked about will come to fruition.”
“He uses language that tears down other people and appeals to our basest instincts,” she said. “He doesn’t set a good tone for our country. It’s not the Republican Party I know. It’s super discouraging.”
Richmond, vice president of Running Start, a nonpartisan organization focused on encouraging young women to run for office, said about half the people she trains are women of color. She worries that a Republican Party led by Trump will not only discourage minority women from joining the GOP, but also turn them off to politics, period.
“I wish I could be more excited being here at the convention,” said Richmond, who plans on writing in a candidate in November, probably Romney.
“I would love to feel proud to be able to say, ‘Oh, I wish you’d been at the convention. It was the best thing ever.’ But I’m not.”
More than halfway through the convention, the party seems to be what Trump might have called “low energy,” the phrase he once used to describe Jeb Bush. Some attendees have already left, and the seats have never been completely full in the arena where the NBA champion Cleveland Cavaliers play.
During the first two nights, most delegates had filed out by the time the final speakers took the stage.
After months of opposing Trump, House Speaker Paul Ryan and Senate majority leader Mitch McConnell both took the stage Tuesday night, declaring their support for the nominee. McConnell was booed, and Ryan — a onetime wunderkind of the Republican Party — was received tepidly as he gave a speech rich on policy. And on Wednesday, former rival Ted Cruz spoke, but declined to endorse Trump.
While each day has had a theme, there is little cohesion among the speakers, and the name Clinton is uttered far more often than the name Trump.
Ben Carson, one of the Republican speakers, said the presumptive Democratic nominee had sympathy for Lucifer. A top RNC official blamed Clinton for not standing up for those who accused Bill Clinton of sexual improprieties. One of the most animated moments of the convention came when delegates chanted over and over: “Lock her up! Lock her up!” and “Guilty!’’
Yet, in an interview this week, Anne Copp, a New Hampshire delegate from Danbury, pushed back on the notion that Trump is sexist and racist.
“I’m offended by that,” Copp said. “I’m not an uneducated, low-class woman, and I’m for Trump.”
In fact, she said, Trump is making the GOP more inclusive.
“He’s widened the party,” she said. “It’s no longer going to be leaning toward the establishment.”
Other delegates credit Trump for expanding the party base to appeal to blue-collar union workers who have traditionally voted Democrat by focusing on international trade and prosperity, as well as voters disenchanted with the Republican establishment.
“I didn’t get the appeal at first,” said Chris Ager, a New Hampshire delegate from Amherst who had supported Scott Walker and Marco Rubio.
But Ager said his two sons, ages 26 and 30, who had never voted in their lives, quickly became Trump fans because he’s a brash, straight-talking “billionaire who can’t be controlled by anyone.”
Some social conservatives say they are even willing to overlook Trump’s more moderate positions on traditional Republican stances on gays and abortion because they would rather see the next Supreme Court justice appointed by Trump than his Democratic rival.
In other words, they agree with him on enough to make him acceptable, especially when compared with Hillary Clinton.
“I have opinions that differ from Donald Trump in socially conservative ways,” said Steve Goddu, a New Hampshire delegate from Salem who had originally supported Cruz. “But if you get 80 percent, that’s a good day.”
“I am very hopeful in the direction that Trump can take the party,” said Curtis Hill, the Republican nominee for Indiana attorney general. “He has captured a movement and brought energy to the campaign and he wants to make America great again. What is wrong with that?
“He is different than most Republicans and his campaign is different, but this country is stuck and we need a new direction.”
Georgia activist Debbie Whelchel is concerned about what direction Trump will take the party.
“Yes, of course I am worried,” said Whelchel, who backed Marco Rubio in the presidential primary. “He is a loose cannon, and who knows what he will do or say?. He is an outsider, but we are a conservative party. We like tradition and rules, and he doesn’t.”