"Vote your conscience”, senator Ted Cruz asked of the crowd at the Republican National Convention in Cleveland, Ohio on Wednesday night. That’s when the boos started rolling in.
“Vote for candidates up and down the ticket who you trust to defend our freedom and to be faithful to the Constitution,” the former candidate for the Republican nomination said with increased confidence, though the cries from the crowd grew louder and louder.
What followed was an intense three minutes: Cruz calmly finished his speech – which did not include an endorsement of the officially-declared Republican nominee – while delegates on the floor booed, hissed, and chanted “we want Trump, we want Trump”.
And Trump they got – moments before Cruz concluded his remarks, Trump showed up at the back of the auditorium, waving to the crowd and even clapping his hands a time or two for Cruz, all done with a smile on his face. Not the most comfortable smile – but a smile nonetheless.
What were Trump and his team thinking, slotting Cruz into the speaking arrangements? Cruz actually acted in a far classier manner than most would have expected given that he was speaking at the crowning ceremony of a man who promoted baseless character assassinations on him and his family just a few months before. Why did Team Trump take the risk?
Perhaps they thought they had nothing to lose. As far as Trump is concerned, he’s already won the war against Cruz. Cruz’s refusal to endorse him was just the last punch pulled. After all, Republican primary voters gave Trump the path to the nomination, not Cruz, and they don’t seem to have buyer’s remorse – they just booed Cruz right off the stage.
It would be easy to think this way – but utterly short-sighted. The war for the soul of conservatism has only just begun – this election, the first battle.
Trump has recruited and converted people who have a soft spot for populist nationalism into his fold, and he turned out enough of them to take the name of the Republican party along with him. His proposal to build a wall along the border of Mexico once seemed like an outrageous, long-running joke. It has now been written into the official Republican party platform.
Most speakers at the convention are embracing this form of right-wing politics, making the case for more state control and a clampdown on free trade, religious expression, and migration (also known as things that used to comprise the American Dream). There is no doubt that Trump’s flavour of conservatism is gaining traction.
But many prominent conservative voices were not present at the convention, most notably former Republican presidential nominee Mitt Romney. The dissenters (ranging from Romney and Cruz, to George W Bush and senator Rand Paul) are not giving in to Trump’s populism, but instead are denouncing their own party’s pick for President and promoting the return of a small-state, individualist agenda.
It’s remarkable thinking back on the primary season, when Cruz appeared to be the closest candidate to Trump. Taking radical stances on immigration and social issues, he seemed to be the “Trump-lite” option for those who didn’t want to embrace full upheaval of the political framework.
But on Wednesday, a far more liberal Cruz crossed battle lines and illustrated the fundamental differences between him and the Republican nominee. He spoke to a hostile audience without fear about freedom, civil liberties, and constitutional rights.
This may be one of the last “spotlight” moments for conservative dissenters for a while. After the Democratic convention next week, all eyes will be on the Trump v Clinton showdown. But the sentiments of Cruz and his fellow dissenters will linger on, with battles between the populists and individualists sure to follow. The war has just begun.