The first hour of the final evening of the 2020 Republican Convention had two clear, albeit somewhat contradictory, messages.
On the one hand, a parade of nonwhite speakers vouched for President Donald Trump both as a non-racist individual and as a policymaker who delivered criminal justice reform. On the other hand, Black Lives Matter protests are responsible for rioting and rising crime all across America and only Trump can save the suburbs from inner-city chaos. His election rival Joe Biden, by the same token, was both an avatar of the “tough on crime” excesses of the 1990s and somehow the leader of a movement to defund the police.
It was clearly a pitch to more moderate voters who might have misgivings about how things are going under Trump. Earlier nights in the convention served up plenty of red meat to the base — from anti-abortion tirades to overt attempts to “own the libs” — but Thursday night was clearly the persuasion game.
The big message was that America as a whole is tumbling into chaos and lawlessness, and the only person who can rescue us is ... the guy in charge.
The speech itself was a bit of a letdown. Trump, a master of drawing attention to himself, has never been very skilled at reading prepared text from a teleprompter. And this night was no exception, as he delivered a somewhat stilted speech largely free of the zany riffing that makes his rallies compelling. Nonetheless, given a huge (and illegal) stage, he was very much the center of attention, giving a looooong speech and making clear that he sees himself as the indispensable man for a country in crisis.
Winner: Donald Trump
That the president of the United States chose to stage his convention speech at the White House as a flagrant violation of the Hatch Act is on some level not important.
But maybe it’s the most important thing of all.
In the earliest days of his political career it was often said Trump wouldn’t really run for president, because if he did he would “have to” release his tax returns and engage in other forms of financial disclosure. As a candidate, even Trump himself claimed to believe he would “have to” divest himself from control over his operating companies. And in the early days of his administration, he would frequently be told that on the small number of policy issues he did care about, there were various legal or constitutional reasons he couldn’t do what he wanted to do.
But as his first term enters its final months, it’s now clear to everyone that none of that is true. If I earnestly wrote that it is bad that the president of the United States is in a position to collect cash bribes in unlimited quantities through his hotels and opaque network of shell companies, I’d be laughed out of the room as hopelessly naïve and a tedious bore to boot. The smart set of DC journalists who set the political agenda declared days ago that the Hatch Act is something real people don’t care about, so the same television networks that devoted more time to Hillary Clinton’s emails than all policy issues combined in 2016 feel free to ignore it.
Fundamentally, the American system of government depends on the supposition that a president’s co-partisans in Congress will be bothered by lawbreaking — especially lawbreaking that has no ideological purpose. What congressional Republicans learned about themselves in this year’s impeachment process is that they aren’t actually bothered. And now Trump knows that they know this. And they know that Trump knows that they know it. So in essence, the gloves are off, the rule of law is dead, and we’re simply left with the question of whether or not Trump’s illegal orders are followed.
Sure, Trump’s finishing speech was long, tedious, and poorly delivered. But he also used the convention to broadcast a series of blatant lies about his administration’s competency, largely uninterrupted, for 10-plus hours over the course of four nights.
And while the theme Trump pushed all week, on the side of police and law and order, could have come across flat — much like his “immigrants are coming to kill you” argument did in 2018 — events in Kenosha, Wisconsin, made the message suddenly relevant, and some Democrats are newly worried at the prospect of a Trump reelection.
For a political neophyte often caricatured by both his foes and his allies as somewhat dimwitted, it’s genuinely an impressive achievement, and it’ll be his no matter what the outcome in November.
Loser: The Mellon Auditorium
While the Democrats reacted to the unusual circumstances of a political convention held amid a pandemic with an innovative, integrated multimedia show, the GOP — perhaps lacking the Democrats’ Hollywood connections — struggled more with format.
The big set pieces for Trump, first lady Melania, Vice President Mike Pence, and other featured speakers came off well. And the evening featured many well-crafted videos. But the bulk of the programming was a series of traditional standup podium speeches delivered in the empty Mellon Auditorium in Washington, DC. With no audience, speeches delivered there mostly came off flat. Other higher-energy speeches, like the one delivered by Rudy Giuliani, felt unhinged. At times, the microphones picked up audible echo from the vast empty chamber.
The eeriness was bad on its own terms. But it also served as a reminder that Republicans seem to believe the Covid-19 pandemic is somehow gone, irrelevant, or over, even as it visibly, viscerally impacts almost every aspect of American life on a daily basis.
Caseloads are now heading downward after their July spike, but more Americans died of Covid-19 during the four days of the GOP convention than died on 9/11, schools are closed in vast swaths of the country, and nobody knows if cooler weather and more indoor activity will bring a new spike in infections.
Winner: Black Republicans
African Americans are hardly part of the Republican base. In 2016, just 8 percent of Black voters supported President Trump, according to CNN exit polls. And yet, if you didn’t know that and looked at the faces of the speakers at the Republican National Convention, you’d think Black Trump supporters are both welcome at the table of the Republican Party and numerous.
Trump once said there were “very fine people on both sides” of a white supremacist rally in Charlottesville, Virginia. But the RNC’s planners recruited a sizable roster of African Americans, from among the small minority of Black voters who support Trump, to speak at this week’s convention.
At the 2016 RNC, only 18 African American delegates were expected to be present, out of the 2,000-plus delegates invited. This year, by contrast, about a dozen Black people were given featured speaking slots.
Night one of the convention closed with a speech from Sen. Tim Scott (R-SC), the only Black Republican in the Senate, who powerfully relayed his personal success story — “Our family went from cotton to Congress in one lifetime.” Other RNC speakers included 1980s NFL stars Herschel Walker and Burgess Owens, former NFL football player Jack Brewer, long-shot congressional candidate Kim Klacik, and civil rights activist Clarence Henderson, all of whom are Black.
Black Trump supporters filled the speaking list on night four. Trump aide Ja’Ron Smith claimed that “every issue important to Black communities has been a priority for” Trump. Stacia Brightmon, a Black veteran, touted a federal job training program. Secretary of Housing and Urban Development Ben Carson praised Trump for bringing “the office of historically Black colleges and universities into the White House.”
Many of these speakers attacked the notoriously loose-tongued Democratic nominee, claiming that one of Biden’s more inarticulate moments suggests he takes Black voters for granted. Over and over this week, speakers brought up a Biden gaffe when the former vice president, in an apparent effort to tout his broad support among African Americans, said that “if you have a problem figuring out whether you’re for me or Trump, then you ain’t Black.” (Biden later said he “shouldn’t have been such a wise guy” when he made this remark.)
Perhaps Trump — who polled well, for a Republican, among Black men before the pandemic struck — believes he can narrow Biden’s margins among African Americans. Or perhaps, as the Nation’s Elie Mystal writes, the GOP is simply engaged in “tokenism” to “give white people ‘permission’ to vote” for a president who often pushes a white nationalist agenda.
Whatever the reason, it’s clear that Republicans want viewers of their convention to believe that Trump has Black friends.
Loser: Social distancing
It was still surreal to see people, without masks, sitting quite close together on the White House lawn. On Wednesday, Vice President Mike Pence mingled with the audience after the speech he gave the day before Trump.
Seating on the White House South Lawn for @realDonaldTrump #RepublicanConvention speech. Chairs are close together, there is little social distance, and most people are not wearing masks. The Trump campaign says precautions against the #coronavirus have been taken. pic.twitter.com/qlpWRTzYM1— Jeff Mason (@jeffmason1) August 27, 2020
As the coronavirus pandemic rages around the world, and particularly in the United States, the mere sight of so many human beings congregated together is a shock all its own.
At last count, there have been almost 5.9 million cases in the United States and about 180,000 deaths. The US ranked near the bottom of the new Foreign Policy global response index, behind much of Europe, Australia, and New Zealand, and a number of African and Asian countries. My colleague German Lopez reports persuasively that Trump, by repeatedly doing nothing, shifting responsibility and blame to others, “let Covid-19 win.”
It was also reported during the RNC that the CDC had been pressured by the Trump administration to encourage less testing through its official guidance. The administration’s testing czar denies it.
So Trump has been, at best, a hindrance to the US response, and at worst, he may be actively sabotaging it. He has certainly helped politicize the debate over how the US should contain the virus in his attitude toward social distancing. He refused to wear a mask for months and suggested other people were wearing masks to spite him. He tweeted that governors should “LIBERATE” their states from pandemic-related restrictions, even when cases were still high and the country’s capacity to test, trace, and isolate was inadequate.
People follow signals from their leaders. We are fortunate that most Americans say they are taking precautions like wearing masks. But there is already some disparity between Democrats and Republicans. RNC viewers have heard a clear message from their leaders this week: Social distancing doesn’t need to be taken that seriously.
One of the most emotional moments of the night came from Ann Dorn, the widow of a retired police officer killed when he tried to stop looters in St. Louis after the Minneapolis police killing of George Floyd. Dorn linked the chaos that killed her husband, David, to one of the themes of the Republican convention. Namely, that in Democratic-run cities, a movement largely supported by Democrats is spiraling into uncontrolled violence, and that Democratic leaders have failed to stop this violence, but Trump is ready to do something.
“Violence and destruction are not legitimate forms of protest. They do not safeguard Black lives. They destroy them,” she said. “President Trump understands this and has offered federal help to restore order in our communities. In a time when police departments are short on resources and manpower, we need that help. We should accept that help. We must heal before we can effect change, but we cannot heal amid devastation and chaos. President Trump knows we need more Davids in our communities, not fewer.”
Republicans hit this message again and again, condemning the property damage and violence by some protesters. They repeatedly claimed that Joe Biden and Democrats want to defund police departments that are supposed to protect communities from this violence. (Biden’s plan actually calls for an increase in funding for police.)
One can disagree with this message. Maybe you think protests that become violent or turn to looting are the voice of the unheard, showing a genuine grievance that should be taken seriously, or that it’s unfair to link such violence to Democrats in particular, given that many of them — including Biden — have condemned it.
But Dorn was an effective messenger — though her husband’s daughters claim he was not, in fact, a Trump supporter.
It’s too soon to know how the protests in Kenosha will affect public opinion in Wisconsin. A recent study from Omar Wasow, published in the American Political Science Review, concluded that nonviolent protests in the 1960s successfully built support for Democrats who backed civil rights causes. But the backlash to the riots of the era was so fierce that it helped Republicans — contributing to the election of Republican Richard Nixon in 1968.
It’s unclear if this study applies to the current political environment, given how much has changed. And Trump, after all, is the incumbent, whereas Nixon was running in an open contest. But it suggests riots could lead to a backlash against Black Lives Matter and other causes linked to Democrats — and Trump is clearly hoping it will.
Loser: Bill de Blasio
Not only was New York Mayor Bill de Blasio not invited to the Democratic National Convention last week, he didn’t even know it was happening. (Or so he claims, because who among us hasn’t pretended not to care about that party we weren’t invited to.) But at the Republican National Convention on Thursday, the short-lived 2020 presidential candidate and reluctant Upper East Side resident was front and center.
Republicans ran what basically amounted to an attack ad against the mayor on the final night of the convention. The produced video spot showed New York residents and housing leaders criticizing de Blasio. “I would really hate to get started on this mayor,” said Carmen Quiñones, president of the Douglass Houses, a public housing complex on New York’s Upper West Side.
The spot seemed to be an attempt to pit Black Americans against immigrants when it comes to housing in the city. “How is it that we have people waiting on the waiting list for New York City public housing for 10 years or more, but yes, we have illegal immigrants living here?” posited Judy Smith, a resident of New York public housing.
It’s true that housing is a perennial issue in New York, and that de Blasio, like many mayors before him, has failed to fix it. It is also true that the Trump campaign has been making some pretty overt appeals to Black voters throughout the convention, and making immigrants out to be a scapegoat plays very much into that narrative.
Beyond the ins and outs of the policy debate, the situation does say something about de Blasio, who has had a problematic tenure as mayor. He hasn’t exactly been knocking it out of the park amid the Covid-19 outbreak. The pandemic is an unprecedented situation, but de Blasio’s response has been rather inconsistent and indecisive when it comes to issues such as schools, and his ongoing feud with New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo hasn’t helped the situation.
In early August, the city’s health commissioner resigned over disagreements with the mayor. Heck, I’m somewhat sympathetic to de Blasio, and even I’ve thought, “Please stop going to Prospect Park,” on multiple occasions in all of this.
On the one hand, de Blasio is an easy character for Republicans to train their fire on: He is not particularly popular in national politics or in New York (though in the city, it’s worth clarifying his polling problems are more with white residents than with Black residents). Plus, the GOP is trying to run this narrative of Democratic-led cities on fire, and the unpopular New York mayor seems as good an example as any. On the other hand, de Blasio getting all this attention during the RNC is a bit of a win for him. Beyond Joe Biden and Kamala Harris, who else has gotten this kind of attention?
So, I guess, go Bill?
Winner: The politicization of sports
Sports have always been political — and this week that’s been incredibly evident, as players in numerous leagues have decided to strike in protest of racism and police brutality. Teams in the NBA, WNBA, MLB, and MLS are among those participating in demonstrations following the police shooting of 29-year-old Jacob Blake earlier this week. “Despite the overwhelming pleas for change, there have been no actions, so our focus cannot be on basketball,” Milwaukee Bucks player Sterling Brown said when the team boycotted a playoff game on Wednesday.
Amid these protests, the Republican National Convention included a video montage on Thursday dedicated to the “American athlete.” Clips showed Trump praising athletes’ willingness to “strive for greatness,” and spotlighted a nostalgic Lou Gehrig moment. Yet, despite its purported praise of American athletes, it was a segment that, likely intentionally, made no mention of the ongoing protests so many athletes are currently involved in.
It was clearly meant to tap into the “cancel culture” theme of the week and make overtures to more moderate Republicans who may miss the days when sports were less rife with political strife.
The video’s tone-deaf, and insulting, omission of these demonstrations revealed how Republicans are using sports for their own ideological aims as well. By focusing solely on celebratory meetings in the White House (something many athletes have actually refused to attend during the Trump administration) and lauding teams for “overcoming adversity,” the RNC montage seemed to ask people to hark back to a time when sports was solely about “winning,” not sending a message.
In other words, by implying that politics and activism shouldn’t be present in sports, Republicans were making sports political, too.
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