Trailing in the polls as the Republican National Convention kicks off on Monday, Donald Trump's last hope is to make this an election about Joe Biden. This alone is no easy trick for an incumbent president to pull off, but Trump faces a myriad of other complications and challenges.
COVID-19 has upset both his re-election narrative and his convention plans. Moreover, Trump is temperamentally and situationally unable to make the positive case for his re-election—leaving him with just one viable tool in his toolbox: to destroy his adversary.
But Joe Biden’s solid performance at the Democratic National Convention undermined the notion that he was too old and sleepy to be president, and little has happened that would stoke fears about him being an empty vessel to be manipulated by the left (Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez got, what, a minute of screen time?). Absent these two vital ingredients, Trump is going to have to work hard to sell a coherent or plausible anti-Biden message.
Now, let’s throw in the fact that Trump won’t get to “perform” in front of a live convention audience, won’t get to feed off the energy of the crowd, and, therefore (probably) won’t get the kind of bounce that generally comes from accepting the nomination and watching the balloons drop. Indeed, it’s just as likely that Trump’s “unconventional” convention could go from being merely anticlimactic to being an out-and-out disaster.
Republicans have the advantage of going second after the Democrats, so they were presumably able to mimic what worked and drop what didn’t. But the downside is that Trump, with just days to go until the GOP convention, was reportedly engaged in some last-minute tinkering. I’m sure his direction is just what his convention team needed just a few days out.
Keep in mind that Trump’s pining for a live convention in Charlotte (and later, Florida) delayed the inevitable pivot toward a virtual convention. Did that leave his team enough time?
This presents a problem, since any technical glitch could be blown out of proportion. The press is eager to label the convention as disorganized, and a chaotic convention would symbolize an incompetent presidency.
If the livestream doesn’t crash, there’s little doubt that Trump—who cut his teeth on courting the New York press and then as a reality TV “star”—will entertain. Indeed, two producers of The Apprentice were involved in preparation. The question is whether they can persuade any swing voters.
I have my doubts.
Even if Trump and his campaign execute a flawless convention (stimulating! enthralling! dramatic!) that also redefines the political convention genre by driving massive ratings, Trump still has to motivate some swing voters to go to the polls and vote Republican (or against Biden). The inclusion of former U.N. Ambassador Nikki Haley, Senators Tim Scott and Joni Ernst, and South Dakota Governor Kristi Noem is a nod in that direction.
However, his good choices will be offset if not overshadowed by base pandering in the form of the gun-wielding McCloskys (the St. Louis couple who brandished guns at Black Lives Matter protesters), Nicholas Sandman (the Covington Catholic kid), and a parade of Trump family members (not to mention that Trump himself will appear each night!).
Instead of making the positive case for his re-election (which is nearly impossible), Trump’s natural move is to try and disqualify Biden. He telegraphed this via a speech he gave last week in Pennsylvania: “If you want a vision of your life under a Biden presidency,” Trump said on Thursday, “imagine the smoldering ruins of Minneapolis, the violent anarchy of Portland and the bloodstained sidewalks of Chicago–and imagine the mayhem coming to your town and every single town in America.”
Sure, there will be some “untold stories” painting Trump in a positive light, fluffy bio pieces, and nice speeches from folks like Scott and Haley, not to mention his wife and all four adult children. And there will be the trappings of power, via the appropriation of presidential symbols as props (see the White House Rose Garden). Maybe they’ll even throw in some fireworks. But American Carnage 2.0 will be the overarching theme of Trump’s RNC.
Never mind the fact that all of this “violent anarchy” happened on Trump’s watch, going negative is his only real play—which is to say that this week is going to get nasty. Time to buckle up.