CLEVELAND—It was sabotage night at the Republican National Convention on Wednesday.
Trump’s rival, Sen. Ted Cruz, used his prime-time speaking opportunity to deliver a conservative stemwinder distinguished by his refusal to endorse the GOP presidential nominee on stage. “Stand, and speak, and vote your conscience, vote for candidates up and down the ticket who you trust to defend our freedom and to be faithful to the Constitution!” Cruz inveighed.
The Trump family, sitting in the VIP box, stared stonily at the podium. They’d avoided applauding for Cruz throughout his speech. Boos starting circulating throughout the arena. One woman sitting in the club level started screaming repeatedly: “You say it!! You say his name!” at the top of her lungs. Minutes later, she was escorted out of the arena. Cruz smiled at the pro-Trump New York delegation, standing in front of the podium, acknowledging their anger.
“I’ve never seen anything like this in my life,” said Rep. Mark Sanford of South Carolina, his mouth agape as he witnessed the chaos on the floor. Cruz was making his pitch for the 2020 Republican nomination right in front of his hated rival. Unlike Trump’s other 15 presidential opponents, Cruz (as he has done throughout his career) refused to go along with the flow, putting his ambition ahead of any forced solidarity with Trump. This time, his obstinacy may be remembered more vividly than his numerous nihilistic clashes with congressional leadership. Cruz is the last man standing against the Trump juggernaut.
Then, in a scene reminiscent from a World Wide Wrestling event, Trump walked into the arena as the boos towards Cruz cascaded through the arena. It was a real-life representation of the two wings of the Republican Party clashing at this convention—the Trump wing and the Cruz wing. Cruz left the stage, making a new series of enemies, as Donald Trump’s son, Eric, prepared to make the case for his dad.
As if on cue, the Jumbotron began flickering. Eric Trump delivered his speech with the scoreboard lights flashing and dimming across the arena. His line about the infrastructure at home crumbling could have been a reference to the electricity at the Quicken Loans Arena. Donald Trump sat in the VIP box without much of an expression. His son-in-law, Jared Kushner, standing in the back of the box, slowly paced around as the chaos unfolded in front of him. Eric Trump’s speech, a heartfelt tribute to his father, was overshadowed by events out of his control. After Eric finished, his father stood up, whispered to Ivanka, “I’m leaving,” and exited with minimal fanfare.
Newt Gingrich, who has taken on the role as Donald Trump’s “explainer,” then tried to calm the roiling hall with a deft improvisation. “Ted Cruz said you can vote your conscience for anyone who will uphold the Constitution,” he said. “… So, to paraphrase Ted Cruz, if you want to protect the Constitution of the United States, the only possible candidate this fall is the Trump-Pence Republican ticket.”
But this night will not be remembered for Gingrich’s plea for party unity, nor for the nomination of Mike Pence as vice president. Pence delivered a compelling defense of conservatism, laying out the case against liberalism in the Obama era with hard-hitting one-liners. He delivered a workmanlike speech, making the strongest case for Trump of anyone outside of the nominee’s own family.
But Pence was overshadowed by Cruz. It was textbook Ted Cruz. Either history will reward him as the lone Republican willing to challenge a nominee taking the Republican Party in a disastrous direction, or it will be the latest episode of a Republican who is willing to put his own ambitions ahead of his party.