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The Republican Party turns its platform into a person: Donald Trump

August 25, 2020, 7:23 PM UTC

American presidential politics took a significant turn from historical norms last weekend when the Republican National Committee declined to present a party platform, veering instead toward current norms in Russia and China.

Every four years—since 1840 for the Democrats, 1856 for the Republicans—each of the two major parties has issued a platform setting out its positions on the issues of the day. These documents have grown substantially; this year’s Democratic platform is the longest ever, at 42,092 words, barely eclipsing the Republicans’ 2004 platform (41,156), according to the American Presidency Project at the University of California at Santa Barbara.

But this year, the day before the Republican convention began, the RNC issued a one-page resolution saying it will not adopt a platform until 2024. The resolution includes a single phrase relating to policy: “RESOLVED, That the Republican party has and will continue to enthusiastically support the President’s America-first agenda.”

As a guide to what, specifically, that agenda might include, the RNC appended a copy of its 2016 platform. But of course that document says nothing about COVID-19, a 10.2% unemployment rate, a multi-trillion-dollar federal deficit, continuing protests over police behavior and racial inequities, current relations with China, or a raft of other major issues that have emerged over four years. The party’s stated position on those is simply “the President’s America-first agenda” as he might express it. The president’s tweets and speeches are this year’s Republican party platform.

That position—embodying a party in a person rather than in policies—is unique in U.S. presidential politics but is not unique globally. Among the major powers it shows strong parallels with current practices in Russia and China.

Vladimir Putin’s United Russia Party followed such a path in 2007, when it began referring to its party manifesto as the “Putin Plan.” As Elizabeth Wood, professor of Russian and Soviet history at MIT, has written, the party referred to it “as if such a plan really existed and as if it contained genuine content.” In reality, she says, it was whatever Putin said it was, and this remained murky. As published, it consisted only of “quotes and slogans from the president’s addresses to the federal assembly. ‘The greatness of Russia’ hardly constitutes a ‘plan.’”

In China, the National People’s Congress (NPC) in 2018 amended the Chinese constitution to enshrine “Xi Jinping Thought on Socialism with Chinese Characteristics for a New Era” as guiding doctrine for the nation. Again, exactly what “Xi Jinping Thought” consists of is open to interpretation. The NPC Observer, a website produced by lawyers and researchers in the U.S. and Hong Kong, says Xi’s ideology as referred to in the constitution “is a collection of concepts and principles that he articulated during his first term.” Because he’s still president, he can presumably revise Xi Jinping Thought at any time. As General Secretary of the Chinese Communist Party, his views are official party positions as well as national policy.

The idea that a party represents a person rather than policy positions is playing out this week at the Republican National Convention. For many years the U.S. tradition has been for the nominee to appear only on the convention’s closing night, after party leaders have given speeches and conducted formalities. The first Republican president, Abraham Lincoln, didn’t even appear at the convention that nominated him in 1860, says Lincoln biographer David Herbert Donald, and didn’t accept the nomination until four days later, after he had studied the party platform adopted at the convention. But President Trump is speaking at all four nights of this convention, and half the featured speakers are family members; there is no platform to study.

While the RNC resolution says the party will not adopt a platform “until” the 2024 convention, it doesn’t promise it will adopt one. Whether the Republican party continues as America’s first platform-free major party remains to be seen.