SAN ANTONIO — “God doesn’t change, he’s the same yesterday today, and forever,” said a young man in a white cowboy hat and a long-sleeve Texas state flag shirt. His voice rose as he spoke. “If you look up at the sky and see that God has moved, he hasn’t moved—you have. God doesn’t move or change, and we shouldn’t either!”
The man was not a preacher and this was not a church service. He was a delegate and this was a meeting of the Permanent Platform Committee at the Texas Republican Party’s convention, which concluded its biannual meeting this weekend in San Antonio—a gathering of nearly 10,000 delegates, lawmakers, party activists, and merchants hawking MAGA hats and Trump T-shirts.
The young man ended his biblically inspired testimony by saying, “I strongly urge this committee to retain the current language in the plank about homosexuality.”
He was referring to the 2016 party platform, which included a plank condemning homosexuality as “a chosen behavior” that is contrary to “fundamental unchanging truths.” But at this year’s convention, the language was softened. Instead of passing judgement on homosexuality as such, the plank calls on the State Legislature “to pass religious liberty protections” for those who disagree with gay marriage.
The idea was to send the message that the Texas GOP is a big tent and that protecting religious liberty is more important to Republicans than excluding gay Texans from the party. The debate over the plank’s language was nevertheless protracted and at times fierce. Gay marriage, like abortion and the Second Amendment, are no-compromise issues for many Texas Republicans, especially the hard-core grassroots activists who attend the state convention, like the young man in the white cowboy hat.
What Does Conservatism Mean to Its Activists?
If Texas is an exaggerated version of America, the Texas Republican Party is an exaggerated version of Texas. Within the party, GOP primary voters make up the conservative base, and among that group, the thousands of activists and volunteers who attend the state party convention every year are the most staunchly conservative Republicans in Texas.
But when activist conservatism gets distilled down to the level of the state GOP convention in the reddest state in America, it can sometimes be hard to tell which competing faction is more conservative. But it isn’t hard to tell that tribalism and a growing insistence on ideological purity have begun to afflict Texas Republicans in unsettling ways.
The booths lining the exhibition hall at the convention were object lessons in that tribalism. A booth for Texas Against Legalizing Marijuana was right next to the Texas Hemp Industries Association. Nearby were booths for Republicans Against Marijuana Prohibition and Mothers Advocating Medical Marijuana for Autism. There was a booth for the Texas Nationalist Movement, the John Birch Society, Open Carry for Texas, a group advocating for a constitutional convention of the states, and a group calling for tougher voter ID laws.
What these disparate factions have in common is a commitment to ideological purity around what it means to be conservative—and, by extension, what it means to be a Texas Republican. But ideological purity means ideological purges, and on many issues, GOP activists believe there is only one “correct” conservative position on any given issue.
On the question of state’s rights, for example, the Texas Nationalist Movement calls for secession from the United States, and the Article V group calls for a constitutional convention to redefine what the United States should be. Both can’t be right about what Texans should do vis-à-vis the federal government, but both believe they’re advancing the “true” conservative position.
No issue better captured this impasse at the convention than abortion, which pitted “abolitionists” against more familiar pro-life groups like Texas Right to Life. Abolish Abortion Texas, an upstart group of younger anti-abortion activists, believes the state legislature should ban abortion outright, in defiance of the U.S. Supreme Court and federal law.
Bradley Pierce, the 35-year-old bearded attorney from Liberty Hill who acted as unofficial spokesman for the group, told me Abolish Abortion Texas formed organically at the state GOP convention two years ago, coalescing around the belief that Roe v. Wade is unconstitutional. “We thought, why are we writing legislation that tries to comply with Roe? If it’s unconstitutional that means it’s not the law of the land, so why don’t we just ignore it?”
That approach stands in stark contrast to the strategy of Texas Right to Life, which has long called for “prudent incrementalism” to weaken and eventually overturn Roe. John Seago, the group’s legislative director, characterized the debate as a “family disagreement,” but insisted that “there’s no silver bullet, no shortcut” that will end abortion, as the abolitionists claim. Both sides at least agree that the two approaches are fundamentally irreconcilable: either the federal judiciary doesn’t matter and should be ignored, or it matters a great deal and Roe needs to be overturned.
Something similar played out with school choice. Like nearly every other contentious issue at the convention, it was a split between competing conservative factions: those who want vouchers and those who have opted out of public education entirely and are homeschooling their kids. The homeschoolers oppose any legislation that includes vouchers because they fear it will force all homeschooling families, regardless of whether they use vouchers, to adhere to state regulations.
The pro-school choice faction wants vouchers so they can better afford to send their kids to private school or run a homeschool. They view their position as more conservative because they believe they should have a choice about where to send their kids to school and how their tax dollars are spent.
Let’s Not Conjure The Spirit Of The French Revolution
Whatever the issue, the question at the convention was: what’s more conservative? The answer is unclear, in part because none of these issues map neatly onto a conservative spectrum. It’s not a question of who’s further to the right but of competing vectors on the right, of different versions of what it means to be conservative.
In a battle over the GOP chair, challenger Cindy Asche attacked incumbent Chairman James Dickey, who easily won reelection, for not being supportive enough of President Trump. In a convention full of red MAGA hats, where any mention of Trump brought cheers from the crowd, Asche’s strategy was to impugn Dickey’s conservative credentials by out-Trumping him.
Texas Land Commissioner George P. Bush was booed when he took the stage by a group of activists who believe his plan to redesign and restore the Alamo is really just a pretext to impose a “politically correct” history on the Texas shrine.
Earlier in the week, Sen. John Cornyn escaped a formal censure by the party for backing federal spending bills. In January, the State Republican Executive Committee formally censured outgoing Texas House Speaker Joe Straus, a moderate Republican whom Texas conservatives have long derided as a RINO. At the convention, the committee censured outgoing State Rep. Byron Cook, a Straus ally whom one delegate publicly compared to Benedict Arnold and Julius and Ethel Rosenberg, the couple convicted of spying for the Soviet Union and executed in 1953.
In all these cases, the insistence on ideological purity is the common thread, which is especially notable in Texas because Republicans so thoroughly dominate state politics. The Texas GOP comfortably controls both chambers of the state legislature and the governor’s mansion, and no Democrat has won statewide office since 1994.
Amid such political dominance, moderation and prudence in the defense of conservatism are increasingly seen as evidence of insufficient ideological purity. It’s strange and unsettling to see this unfold in Texas, where moderately conservative governance has brought so much prosperity in recent years.
The growing insistence on ideological purity is a risk for the Texas GOP. During the French Revolution, political moderation came to be seen as evidence of treachery against the revolution, and eventually plunged it into chaos. Maximillian Robespierre, who helped launched the Reign of Terror, proclaimed that “We must smother the internal and external enemies of the Republic or perish with it; now in this situation, the first maxim of your policy ought to be to lead the people by reason and the people’s enemies by terror.”
Five months later, Robespierre was beheaded by guillotine, condemned as an enemy of the people for his moderation in the defense of revolutionary ideals.
Of course, we’re a long way from guillotines or a modern-day Reign of Terror in Texas. But the tenor of the Texas GOP convention bears an unsettling resemblance to the National Convention of Robespierre and the authors of the French Revolution, who failed to resist the ever-increasing demands of ideological purity they imposed on one another in turn.
What happens at the Texas Republican convention matters to the rest of the country because right now Texas is the nation’s best hope for reviving the spirit of the American Revolution—as long as it can avoid foundering on the spirit of the French one.