President Donald Trump and his rival Joe Biden presented two alternate realities of the state of America at their conventions over the past two weeks – and the President’s ability to persuade wavering moderates and independents will hinge on his ability to stay on message.
But the restraint that Trump showed on Thursday night in an unusually muted speech accepting the renomination of his party had vanished by the time he touched down in Londonderry, New Hampshire, Friday night where he told supporters — who were not socially distanced and booed when the public address announcers asked them to wear masks — that he felt free to “wing it.”
After charging that Biden is “weak as hell” and an enabler of “rioters” and “anarchists,” Trump suggested that protesters in Washington, DC, who surrounded and harassed Sen. Rand Paul as he left the White House on Thursday night would have killed him if police had not intervened, and then launched a baseless new attack on Kamala Harris at a time when he’s facing a historical deficit with women.
“Joe Biden is coming out of the basement, because the poll numbers have totally swung – they’ve totally swung,” Trump said, mocking Biden’s announcement Thursday that he would be resuming campaign events after Labor Day. “Sleepy Joe is coming out. … Ten days! That’s like an eternity in Trumpville.”
He told the crowd he’d like to see the first woman president, “but I don’t want to see a woman president get in to that position the way she’d do it” and “she’s not competent,” he said, suggesting his daughter instead: “They’re all saying, ‘We want Ivanka.’ I don’t blame you.”
“We’re going to win,” Trump told the crowd outside an airplane hangar. “Does anybody have any doubt?”
But there is. In fact, doubt remains about whether American voters will buy what the President and Republicans tried to sell at their convention this week — a whitewashed version of Trump’s slow and inadequate response to a pandemic that has killed more than 180,000 people and infected more than 5.9 million, and Trump’s ludicrous claim that he has done more for Black Americans than any president since Abraham Lincoln.
During the Democratic National Convention a week earlier, Biden and Democrats asked American voters to take a harder look at the toll of the nation’s three coinciding crises: from the United States’ unenviable position as the leader in coronavirus cases around the globe; to the more than 22 million jobs lost during the subsequent economic shutdown; to the chaos and divisiveness of Trump’s presidency, which has unfolded in the midst of a national reckoning over systematic racism and police brutality.
Biden promised to lead voters out of the current moment of darkness back into the light and to a sense of normalcy, while accusing Trump of creating a climate of fear and shirking the responsibilities of his office while stoking hate and division. In his convention speech, he said Trump had failed in his “most basic duty” to the nation: “He has failed to protect us.”
Biden has held a double digit lead over Trump throughout the summer as the President’s poor approval ratings on the coronavirus and race relations created a strong drag on his numbers. But there are signs that the race is tightening and that the economy is recovering at a faster clip than economists initially expect. As Trump routinely points out, retail sales recently hit a record high and the stock market has also been surging.
With scientists and epidemiologists still advising Americans to avoid crowds in order to limit infection – warnings that Trump mocked at his event Friday night – the former vice president has not been running a particularly vigorous campaign in terms of in-person interactions, relying instead on social media, advertising and virtual events to connect with voters.
Though Biden plans to step up his events in battleground states, some Democrats are worried that he could lose his edge as Trump touches off a robust schedule of campaigning to remind Americans that the economy was roaring before the pandemic hit, while rewriting history on his response to the virus.
In Londonderry Friday night, he suggested that China might have unleashed the virus on purpose. He also said that his administration “saved millions of lives” by banning foreign nationals from China from entering the United States in January and shutting down the economy for several weeks.
“We could have had 2 million,” he said, presumably referring to lives lost. “We did everything right.”
The economy under his administration is now “setting records” in terms of an economic comeback, Trump said, and he went on to twist Biden’s recent statement in an ABC interview, where the former vice president said he would shut down the economy if there was a second wave of the coronavirus and scientists recommended the move.
“Biden wants to do a blanket shutdown,” Trump claimed, adding that such a move would lead to suicides, alcoholism and other afflictions.
He said the United States would have a great year next year “unless somebody stupid gets elected and raises your taxes.”
Trump tries to do damage control on race
The emphasis on appealing to Black voters during the convention this week was an acknowledgement from Republicans both that the party sees a real opportunity for Trump among Black male voters, and also that Trump needs to do some image repairing after his race-baiting rhetoric.
Throughout much of the summer as Americans protested police brutality and the death of George Floyd, Trump offered no semblance of leadership other than an executive order aimed at addressing police misconduct, and inflamed the debate by portraying the mostly peaceful protests as riots in the streets. After several months, clear majorities of voters said he was making racial tensions worse in this country.
This week he has tried to soften that image by highlighting his efforts on criminal justice reform. On Friday, he announced the pardon of Alice Marie Johnson, who was one of his most effective speakers at the convention this week, after commuting her prison sentence two years ago.
Johnson, who had already served 21 years of a life sentence after being convicted on charges of conspiracy to possess cocaine and attempted possession of cocaine, has spoken movingly about the power of redemption.
But he then swerved back into his “law and order” message at the New Hampshire rally, condemning the “thugs” who harassed guests leaving the White House after his acceptance speech on the South Lawn.
Pushing his theme that mayors of Democrat-led cities are allowing crime and violence to run rampant, he inexplicably blamed Washington Mayor Muriel Bowser for the incident: “The DC police are good. … The mayor should be ashamed of herself with that kind of display of incompetence.”
He called protesters “bad people” and “trouble makers” before claiming that Paul, a Republican senator from Kentucky, and his wife would have been beaten up or killed if the police had not escorted them away from the crowd.
For the first time on Friday night, Trump weighed in on the police shooting of Jacob Blake, a 29-year-old Black man who was shot seven times in the back Sunday by a White police officer in Kenosha, Wisconsin. Trump said he was looking into the matter “very strongly.”
“I’ll be getting reports and I’ll certainly let you know pretty soon,” Trump told WMUR in New Hampshire. “It was not a good sight. I didn’t like the sight of it, certainly, and I think most people would agree with that.”
The Department of Justice has launched a civil rights probe into Blake’s shooting. White House chief of staff Mark Meadows said the probe came at Trump’s urging. Trump, however, was silent about the actions of a 17-year-old vigilante, who shot a TikTok video from one of his rallies earlier this year and has been charged with killing two protesters in Wisconsin during a protest against the Blake shooting. The suspect in the case is claiming self-defense.
On Friday morning, Trump took credit for “success” in Kenosha in a tweet.
“Succes: Since the National Guard moved into Kenosha, Wisconsin, two days ago, there has been NO FURTHER VIOLENCE, not even a small problem,” Trump tweeted. “When legally asked to help by local authorities, the Federal Government will act and quickly succeed. Are you listening Portland?”
The President was clearly trying to send a message to Democratic cities with his Twitter posturing but the message he sent to voters was clear – the Trump who spoke from the South Lawn on Thursday was a one-night-only attraction.