The convention is playing very differently in Pamela DeVoll’s house in North Texas. A lifelong Republican, she is seeing the opposite of what she’d hoped for: “I didn’t want the Trump Show, I wanted the Republican Show,” she said.
“I am not going to give up my Second Amendment rights, and I’m absolutely for the police,” she said, “but I need to vote for things that will make my life better. I was hoping to see speakers that weren’t just regurgitating Trump. I wanted to see some glimpses of the Republican Party I’ve always supported.”
Whether they’re hardcore Trumpers, party loyalists who struggle with Trump’s manner or traditional conservatives who believe the party has lost its way, Republicans generally agree that this convention breaks the mold — not only by being staged in an empty hall, but by focusing almost entirely on one man, the president who swallowed his party whole.
For supporters such as Robbins, that focus is a good thing. The Democrats last week presented what he saw as a jagged image of a divided country, overly obsessed with the identities that separate Americans from one another.
Trump, by contrast, “just talks about us as Americans,” Robbins said. “I do want to hear more from him about what he’s going to do to make it better for people having a hard time now, but I don’t see anything wrong with him talking about the Democrats’ socialism and the people rioting in the streets.”
But for Republicans who spent most of their voting lives committed to low taxes, less debt and other hallmarks of Reagan conservatism, this week’s video testimonials to Trump make it harder for them to stick with a president they find alternately exciting and maddening.
“I wanted to see something of substance rather than them just blaming the Democrats for everything,” said DeVoll, 62, a retired high school food-science teacher. “What drew me to Trump was the idea that he wasn’t going to do business the same old way. But he’s not done anything different than anyone else other than embarrass us.”
“Every day, I would watch President Trump’s update, hoping he’d say something that would keep me from feeling afraid,” she said, “that he’d let the experts talk and say what he’s doing to protect us. But he just puts it on the governors. He isn’t giving us anything other than, ‘It’s not my job.’ ”
National polls conducted in recent days made clear that the overwhelming majority of Republicans are satisfied with Trump’s performance and embrace his bid for a second term.
But what they wanted from the convention — hope, inspiration and a plan to gain control of the novel coronavirus — was often at odds with what’s playing out on home screens this week, where speaker after speaker has slammed Democrats as radical socialists and spoken of the pandemic in the past tense rather than as a deadly threat that is not under control.
A huge majority of Republicans — 85 percent — said in a CBS News poll that they wanted to hear their party spell out its plans for the next four years, while only 15 percent said they preferred to hear why former vice president Joe Biden shouldn’t be the next president. Similarly, 90 percent of Republicans said they wanted to hear good things about Trump, and only 10 percent hoped to hear criticism of Biden.
But while the drumbeat of attacks on Biden and the Democrats isn’t necessarily what Donna M. Owens — Toledo’s first female mayor in the 1980s — wanted to hear, it nonetheless reminded her that Trump has spent his presidency under assault from critics.
“Everybody has been fighting him every step of the way, and I think that endears him to people,” Owens said. “The more you attack him, the more people want to defend him.”
Owens, 84, had always been a mainstream Republican. She sat in the front row at Ronald Reagan’s convention in 1984. She worked hard for George H.W. Bush.
But in 2016, she went to Cleveland and found herself enthralled with Trump.
“I got involved with him because he wasn’t a politician,” she said. “Not that I have anything against politicians because, as you know, I’ve been one, but I thought we needed a business person.”
She likes Trump’s edge and now dismisses former party leaders such as ex-Ohio governor John Kasich, who spoke out for Biden last week, and the late senator John McCain, of whom she now says, “He wasn’t really a Republican.”
Owens watched the Democrats and found Biden to be “very strong, warm and fuzzy.” And she has misgivings about Trump’s tweets, “but I have to look past it. I look at what he has done — I guess I can deal with it.”
Ryan O’Connell, a 37-year-old Republican who is now a stay-at-home father after he was laid off from his job at a Catholic youth ministry in May, can’t bring himself to look past Trump’s rhetorical excesses and the convention’s portrait of Democrats as radicals who condone violence.
O’Connell, a father of four who lives in the suburbs east of Phoenix, has avoided watching the convention, relying on news clips, which he said sounded to him “like a lot of rhetoric that amounts to, ‘They are coming to get you.’ I think that is the exact wrong tone that our country needs right now. It sounds like very apocalyptic rhetoric . . . sort of a Trump cult.”
“It’s all fearmongering, and I don’t like that whatsoever,” he said.
O’Connell remains torn, undecided. He can’t see himself voting for Biden, in large part because O’Connell cares deeply about making abortion illegal, but he also has a hard time siding with Trump. In 2016, he cast his ballot for independent candidate Evan McMullin — his first vote for a non-Republican.
But he said he will vote for Trump this time if it looks like Arizona is at risk of going for Biden, as early polling suggests may happen.
O’Connell doesn’t believe Trump shares his commitment to limited government, and he said the president has hijacked the GOP away from conservative principles. He worries that “eight years of Trump might be enough to forever change the nature of the Republican Party. If I’m doing an honest self-assessment right now, I’d probably feel equal resignation whether he won or whether Joe Biden won.”
Many Republicans, like many Democrats who watched their party’s presentation, are watching the convention in search of hope. Some pointed to first lady Melania Trump’s address Tuesday night as a rare acknowledgment of the loss and pain caused by the pandemic, a standout moment in a convention dominated by dark evocations of the doom the president says would follow a Biden victory.
“A lot of us want to be inspired right now,” said Ashley Mae Hunt, the 29-year-old chair of the Iowa Federation of Young Republicans. “It’s a pretty dark time.”
Hunt, who owns a political consulting and public relations firm in Des Moines, said Trump is not a natural “consoler in chief,” but she’d been cheered to hear that Trump planned to “keep it positive” at the convention. So far, she’s seen the opposite, “and I don’t think Americans need any more negativity around them right now,” she said.
She wants her party to accept the Black Lives Matter movement and open its leadership ranks to a younger and more diverse array of people.
“There’s just this overwhelming idea that we are the White old men party,” said Hunt, who grew up on a farm in Iowa Falls and has a twin brother who is as liberal as she is conservative. “It’s an issue for all of us if people of color are afraid to walk on the street because the people who are told to protect us are actually harming them.”
Hunt initially supported Sen. Marco Rubio (R-Fla.) in 2016, but during the Iowa caucuses, she saw how Trump generated an energy that “was insane . . . just like nothing else.”
But now she worries that his lack of attention to detail, disdain for science and penchant for offending people have worn out his welcome.
Kirsten Ritenour has no such concern. She’s 62, but this is the first GOP convention she’s watched as a registered party member. It was Trump who moved her from independent to Republican, and she sees no reason to doubt his ability to bring back the economy, boost coal profits in her struggling section of Pennsylvania and push back against legalized abortion.
Ritenour’s family owns a business selling gazebos, storage sheds and garden statues in Champion, amid rolling hills off the Pennsylvania Turnpike where Trump/Pence signs have sprouted like midsummer corn. The business went through a rough patch when the coronavirus was first spreading, but now, she said, they’re enjoying one of their best years ever, “because people aren’t going away. They were working on their yards, putting up statues, building sheds.”
Trump understands what it takes to run a small business, Ritenour said. She doesn’t blame him for the virus’s impact, but she does want to hear Republicans explain how they’re going to get the economy moving again, and how to open up schools.
Sometimes she just doesn’t know whom to believe about the disease. She thinks the push to wear masks is “a crock of crap,” and she wonders: “Can you trust the CDC? Can you trust Dr. Fauci? I don’t know . . . I don’t want to see anybody die, but you all are going to die of something.”
Mainly, she wants assurances from Trump about “what they are planning to do to get this country back to where it was before covid.” But she’s hanging in there with the president: “He is trying to do the best he can.”
But Trump cannot succeed just by “throwing grenades into a bucket of grenades,” said Travis Klavohn, a consultant and part-time carpenter in Smyrna, Ga. “You’ve got to work with people on both sides of the aisle.”
Klavohn, 49, became a Republican when he was 16, during the Reagan years, in Sunday evening discussions with his grandfather. Klavohn voted for Trump in the 2016 primary, when his candidacy still seemed a long shot.
“I thought, ‘Oh my goodness, here is someone saying things that need to be said,’ ” Klavohn said. He liked what he heard about putting American workers first and tightening immigration restrictions.
But in the years since, Klavohn, who lost a bid for a state Senate seat in a heavily Democratic district in 2018, has found Trump’s management style counterproductive. And he’s been disappointed by Trump’s failure to address the pandemic and the federal deficit.
“We were not true to our conservative principles,” Klavohn said. “The 2016 campaign was about being anti-establishment, tearing down or challenging institutions we thought were overbearing. But the covid crisis has shown that we do need institutions, we do need experts.”
Now, he sees his party turning away from suburban Atlanta Republicans who he said “are much more moderate and don’t care so much about ideology. They just want good people running the government so they can go about their lives. They may not be into the crazy stuff, the really extreme kind of politics, QAnon.”
The party on display this week, Klavohn said, will lose ground in suburbia this fall. “In the long term, maybe that’s a good thing,” he said, “that we realize we need to moderate our tone and serve every citizen to win these communities.”
Jeremy Duda in Phoenix, Ruby Mellen in Washington and Haisten Willis in Atlanta contributed to this report.