Sandmann and the McCloskeys would be no surprise at CPAC, which loves a teenage pundit and a divisive, viral moment. But they would be out of place as speakers at Republican National Conventions past. The speaker schedules I’ve found for the last five conventions show a few comparable guests in 2016 (in a clearly Trump-inflected phrase, one group of speakers was billed simply as “victims of illegal immigrants”) but nothing similar in 2012, 2008, 2004, or 2000 (a 2004 tribute to the victims of 9/11 certainly had an electoral agenda but was markedly more somber in tone). The Republican National Convention didn’t used to share memes.
“I do think this is a different approach than we have seen before from Republicans, reflecting that it is now entirely the party of Trump,” Dr. Norman Ornstein, a widely published election analyst and scholar at the American Enterprise Institute, said in an interview. “There are two elements here,” Ornstein told me, “one is that the [convention] focus is not the country or the electorate as a whole, but the base, especially those white non-college educated voters” whom Trump tends to court. “The second,” he continued, “is that the politics of grievance and resentment are dominant, even if there are some gestures towards hopefulness.” The decisions to include Sandmann and the McCloskeys “reflect both of these strands,” Ornstein concluded. “Much closer to CPAC than to the old GOP.”