By the time President Donald Trump descended the South Portico steps on Thursday, the goals for this week’s Republican National Convention had become clear: win back women, put coronavirus in the rear-view and convince Americans the President is not a racist.
In one of the longest convention acceptance speeches ever delivered, spoken in a dour tone almost entirely from a teleprompter, Trump sought to deliver on all three of those aims – teed up for him by the conventions’ previous speakers – while also appeasing the base of supporters who helped propel him to the White House lawn in the first place.
The result was a made-for-television world in which the coronavirus pandemic has largely faded, the President is oozing with empathy and accusations he is racist are met with appalled denial.
Outside the fortified gates of the White House, things look different. The type of mass gathering the President arranged isn’t possible nearly anywhere else. His insult-filled Twitter feed gives voters little evidence of hidden warmth. And his hardline “law and order” stance has veered into racist rhetoric.
Yet in his speech, Trump essentially asked viewers to believe what he was offering instead of their own lived reality.
He proclaimed his efforts to combat the virus were centered on “the science, the facts and the data,” despite numerous examples to the contrary – including the very mask-free crowd he had assembled for his speech.
He declared, “very modestly,” that he had exceeded any previous president’s efforts for the Black community, save Abraham Lincoln, even as he’s declined to address issues of systemic racism that have sparked nationwide protests.
And while he claimed to be “an ally of the light,” a nod to rival Joe Biden’s own acceptance speech last week, he delved into dark premonitions about “violent anarchists, agitators, and criminals” who he claimed would be given free reign if Biden wins.
“Everything we’ve achieved is now in danger,” he said. “This election will decide whether we will defend the American way of life or allow a radical movement to completely dismantle and destroy it.”
The four-day convention, which came as Trump struggles to reverse a polling deficit caused by his handling of the pandemic, was the President’s highest-profile opportunity to frame the race on his terms.
The final evening amounted to the clearest attempt yet to reverse the hardening impressions among Americans that Trump mishandled the pandemic and has behaved like a bully during his term.
Here are 6 takeaways from the final evening of the Republican National Convention:
Living like there’s no pandemic
If the speakers at this week’s convention provided a portrait of Trump’s presidency that didn’t always comport with reality, the images of mask-less crowds gathered without social distancing helped reinforce it.
Combined with the repeated references to the coronavirus pandemic in the past tense, the images projected a post-pandemic world, even as deaths mount.
Trump did not address the pandemic at great length. When he did, he predicted a quick resolution to the ongoing crisis using dubious claims about his own performance.
“In recent months, our nation, and the entire planet, has been struck by a new and powerful invisible enemy. Like those brave Americans before us, we are meeting this challenge,” he said. “We are delivering lifesaving therapies and will produce a vaccine before the end of the year, or maybe even sooner.”
Later, he sought to brag about his handling of the pandemic using misleading figures and exaggerating the extent to which he had tackled the outbreak in its early stages.
It’s an image Trump wants as he tries to convince Americans he is on top of the pandemic. To vouch for his handling of the virus, Trump did not rely on medical experts but on Dana White, the president of Ultimate Fighting Championship who is his longtime friend.
Of course, the pandemic is not over. More than 3,200 Americans have died since the Republican National Convention started three days ago – more than died during the terror attacks on 9/11.
Unlike most Americans, Trump has access to an extensive testing regime that his aides say renders him the “most tested man in America.” Anyone who comes into close proximity with him receives one; on Thursday, that included at least some of the more than 1,000 invited guests on the South Lawn for his speech.
The effect has been to provide Trump with the crowds he long desired for his convention. But it has also allowed him to project a reality that simply doesn’t exist for the rest of the country.
How effective that is in convincing Americans that Trump has handled the virus well isn’t clear. People living through the outbreak are still feeling its effects. Images of the President going about his life as normal can’t change that reality.
“Here’s what you have to understand about the nature of a pandemic: It’s relentless. You can’t stop it with a tweet. You can’t create a distraction and hope it’ll go away. It doesn’t go away,” Democratic vice presidential candidate Sen. Kamala Harris said in a prebuttal to Trump’s speech earlier Thursday.
Ignoring Jacob Blake but condemning violent protests
The “law and order” message Trump hoped to advance Thursday came at tense moment. Kenosha, Wisconsin, remains on edge after the police shooting of a Black man. Many professional athletes were continuing a boycott, though NBA playoff games were scheduled to resume. In Washington, a large racial justice demonstration was being planned for Friday.
In his speech, Trump sought to cast Biden as dangerous at a precarious time.
“Your vote will decide whether we protect law abiding Americans, or whether we give free reign to violent anarchists, agitators and criminals who threaten our citizens,” he said.
At the same time, he lamented what he characterized as unpatriotic efforts to reckon with the country’s hateful past.
“In the left’s backward view, they do not see America as the most free, just, and exceptional nation on earth,” he said. “Instead, they see a wicked nation that must be punished for its sins.”
The tinder-box atmosphere surrounding the President’s address is not an entirely unfamiliar or uncomfortable place for Trump, and in some ways fits squarely into the theme of his convention and campaign: that Democratic-run areas will devolve into chaos should Joe Biden win.
He used almost identical themes in his 2016 convention acceptance speech, when he said: “The crime and violence that today afflicts our nation will soon come to an end. Beginning on January 20th 2017, safety will be restored.”
But in refusing the address or even acknowledge the circumstances that have led to protests in Wisconsin, Trump also seems to undercut the assertions made over and over during the convention that he is attuned to the issues of the Black community and eager to help.
Those themes arose again Thursday, with speeches from Housing and Urban Development Secretary Ben Carson, Trump’s sole Black Cabinet member, and Ja’Ron Smith, the highest-ranking Black official at the White House.
“Many on the other side love to incite division by claiming that President Trump is a racist. They could not be more wrong,” Carson said, citing (among other things) Trump’s willingness to accept Black and Jewish members at his club in Florida.
Alice Johnson, whose life sentence for a drug violation was commuted by Trump, said she was “free in body thanks to President Trump, but free in mind thanks to the almighty God.”
Yet in the same evening, Trump claimed Biden wanted to release hundreds of thousands of criminals, and touted his own demand that people convicted of defacing federal memorials spend 10 years in jail.
Ultimately, the messages appeared designed to inure Trump from accusations that he is racist. Yet in practice, his unwillingness to confront the reasons behind current racial tensions – and to instead stoke them with divisive rhetoric – offers a different reality.