Only voters can decide the political fate of Donald Trump. But the evidence of a dark, dispiriting election year suggests unequivocally that the President has failed to find answers equal to the magnitude and complexity of America’s two great crises – over health and race.
So at the shape-shifting Republican National Convention on Wednesday, Trump’s most loyal subordinate Vice President Mike Pence had little option but to do what he does best. He twisted the facts, spun a more pleasing alternative national reality and showered his boss with praise.
Even by the standards of 2020, it was a disorienting night. Adding to the awfulness of another police shooting of a Black man and the shooting of two protesters (by an apparent Trump supporter) and the pandemic about to claim its 180,000th American victim, a monstrous hurricane tore towards the Gulf Coast.
Already, there are doubts whether the President’s big acceptance speech and a fireworks display Thursday at the White House in front of a pandemic-defying crowd of more than 1,000 people will be appropriate given what forecasters say are “unsurvivable” conditions facing those in the path of Hurricane Laura.
The RNC has had some effective moments – especially in highlighting the stories of regular Americans from lobstermen to farmers who say they have benefited from Trump’s economic policies. Democrats may have missed an opportunity in not doing more to highlight such inspiring stories.
But for the third night in a row the convention offered a vision of a far different country than the one currently staggering through a cataclysmic year. It was a tale of a resurgent economy, a deadly virus defeated and a benevolent and wise President who was a champion of Black Americans, an empathetic counselor of professional women and a guardian of constitutional values worthy of mention in the same breath as the Founders.
Yet when it came to it, Pence – the second most senior member of an administration that says it has done more for Black Americans than Democrats such as President Barack Obama, former vice president Joe Biden and his running mate Sen. Kamala Harris – didn’t even mention the police shooting of Jacob Blake in Wisconsin, instead tossing Kenosha, Wisconsin, into a list of places ravaged by violence without referencing the tragedies that brought protesters into the street. And there wasn’t even a passing reference to the countless other similar incidents that have left African Americans despairing – encounters with police that on Wednesday triggered an athletes revolt started by NBA players who boycotted playoff games.
Pence didn’t note that a 17-year-old suspected of killing two people and injuring a third in Kenosha overnight was a pro-police supporter of the President who posted video on TikTok from a Trump rally in Des Moines in January. The shootings came a night after the RNC highlighted a St. Louis couple who brandished guns at Black Lives Matter protesters outside their home.
When asked about the link between the suspect and the Trump rally in Des Moines earlier on Wednesday, White House counselor Kellyanne Conway said the White House is “not responsible for the private conduct of people who go to rallies.”
Trump supporter or not, the suspect will be held accountable by a legal process. But the incident is sure to spark more debate about the extent to which the demagogic approach the President has taken towards racial tension and violence influences the actions of impressionable individuals at a volatile moment.
In another odd twist, shortly after Pence insisted that “we will have law and order on the streets of America,” he recognized the sister of Dave Patrick Underwood, an officer of the Department of Homeland Security’s Federal Protective Service who he said “was shot and killed during the riots in Oakland, California.”
In fact, a US attorney says the suspect in that case is allegedly tied to the extremist Boogaloo movement, a loosely knit group of heavily armed, anti-government extremists.
A platitude on race
Pence, speaking at the Baltimore fort where an 1814 battle with the British inspired “The Star Spangled Banner,” chose to put the blame for unrest on the Democrats, while divorcing the protests from their cause.
“Last week, Joe Biden didn’t say one word about the violence and chaos engulfing cities across this country,” Pence said. “Let me be clear: the violence must stop – whether in Minneapolis, Portland or Kenosha.”
“We will always stand with those who stand on the thin blue line and we are not going to defund the police, not now, not ever,” he added, driving home the administration’s hardline law enforcement message.
Pence also offered a platitude but no answers for Black Americans – failing to address the historic discrimination they have faced from law enforcement played out over and over in agonizing cellphone videos, and that helped spark a national reckoning on race earlier this summer after the death of Minnesota man George Floyd who stopped breathing with a police officer’s knee on his neck.
“We don’t have to choose between supporting law enforcement and standing with African American neighbors to improve the quality of life in our cities and towns,” Pence said.
Conventions are about playing to the base. And there is no doubt that many Americans will prefer the Trump-Pence vision of a strong law and order response to unrest to Biden’s support of protesters who see systemic racism in law enforcement.
But that doesn’t mean that what Pence said on Thursday night was a fair representation of the truth. And for all the hagiography directed towards the President, the convention has provided few genuine answers on how either crisis would get better if Trump wins another four years.
It might be argued that the most significant political developments in the country on Wednesday came not at the RNC – but in the room where NBA players met in their bio-secure bubble in Florida and decided to launch a protest that is threatening the league’s season. It already looks like one of the most significant civil rights statements by athletes in many years, following on from Colin Kaepernick’s taking a knee protests.
The boycott drew a sharp new line in the presidential campaign.
Biden made a strong statement of support for NBA players – athletes who the President has said he will not watch because of their activism on racial justice.
“This moment demands moral leadership. And these players answered by standing up, speaking out, and using their platform for good,” Biden tweeted. “Now is not the time for silence.”
Obama, who last week warned in a Democratic National Convention speech that Trump represented an existential threat to American democracy, also offered his support.
“I commend the players on the @Bucks for standing up for what they believe in, coaches like @DocRivers, and the @NBA and @WNBA for setting an example,” Obama tweeted. “It’s going to take all our institutions to stand up for our values.”
Trump has seized on athlete protests as ammunition in his wider culture war arguments that has seen him defend the Confederate flag and statues of southern Civil War generals that warn that American history and heritage are under attack.
A viral whitewash
Pence, who heads the White House’s coronavirus task force, tried to recast the President’s haphazard response to the pandemic as string of heroic feats as he suggested that Biden has shown a defeatist attitude toward the virus.
In a whitewashing of the President’s negligence and cavalier approach to containing the virus in February and early March, Pence argued that Trump’s move to block foreign nationals from China from entering the country in late January saved “untold lives” and “bought us time to launch the greatest national mobilization since World War II.”
In reality Trump wasted precious time in February – when scientists and epidemiologists were calling on the federal government to ramp up a robust testing and tracing program – by insisting that governors should chart the course for each state. His restrictions on travel from China, which Pence exaggerated Wednesday night, came too late to make a major difference in case numbers in the view of many medical experts. Many of the cases that fueled spread of the virus were later traced to Europe before Trump instituted a travel ban in March.
Though governors begged the federal government to help by providing funding for testing and using the Defense Production Act to produce more personal protective equipment, Trump repeatedly delayed those moves and never put forward a coherent national strategy to stop the virus.
But Pence claimed Wednesday night that the federal government has now “coordinated the delivery of billions of pieces of personal protective equipment” and then made a stunning promise that a coronavirus vaccine will come later this year. Most experts believe a vaccine won’t be ready until 2021 at the earliest.
“Last week, Joe Biden said ‘no miracle is coming,’” Pence said Wednesday night at Fort McHenry. “What Joe doesn’t seem to understand is that America is a nation of miracles and we’re on track to have the world’s first safe, effective coronavirus vaccine by the end of this year.”
After three nights when Trump’s allies have cast the President as a heroic figure who would be unrecognizable to many Americans, he will face the voters to make his own case for reelection Thursday night.