Don’t be cocky, Democrats. The Republican Convention is very effective TV. Expect this race to tighten.
If this sounds laughable to you, remember that a similar attitude prevented Democrats from taking Trump seriously in 2016.
Progressives keep telling me this convention “infomercial” is propaganda so blatant that everyone can see through the lies. The notion that Team Trump might finally be getting their shit together isn’t seriously considered. These progressives are guilty of projection—of thinking that everyone sees the world the same way they do, and sees through Trump’s shtick. They hate Trump so much they can’t believe that everyone doesn’t agree, or that there’s anything more to Trump than shtick.
This is smug and condescending—which is the stereotype about progressives for a reason. If you really want to defeat Trump, you shouldn’t allow your personal hatred or overweening pride to blind you to what’s going on at this convention. The very symbol of Democrats’ ability to misread—or distort—a symbolic moment, the Covington Kid himself, gave an effective speech, before donning his red “MAGA” cap. Progressives, if you’ll listen, I can be your interpreter—your Trump whisperer.
Yes, Trump is a personally sick guy, and generally a bad and destructive president. But the Mark Burnett-ish, Apprentice-like staging has worked to present him as a good and decent president. That’s probably enough for some people who haven’t been paying close attention, like you have, and probably don’t have the same intense hatred of the man. Indeed, some of these folks have been looking for an excuse to vote for Trump. And they finally got it.
Say you’re a suburban soccer mom who voted for Mitt Romney, went to an evangelical church, but simply cannot condone Trump’s behavior and rhetoric these last four years. You have now been given permission—consider the on-air naturalization ceremony or, about an hour before that, the on-air pardon for the African-American bank robber who turned his life around—to believe that Trump isn’t such a bad guy after all. And that’s not to mention a series of effective speeches by the likes of Melania and Tiffany Trump that were “so presidential you won’t believe it” on Trump’s behalf in a way that he rarely is himself. People looking for an excuse to vote for Trump got several.
Now, maybe you think these voters don’t matter—that Joe Biden’s lead is so big you don’t have to pander to these people who, after all, were always going to cave and vote Trump, anyway. Think again. If Donald Trump wins this election, he will almost surely do it while losing the popular vote. He won the presidency four years ago, after a convention that progressives mocked as it went on and prematurely declared him politically finished by the time it ended, because of just 77,000 votes in three states.
So how are Republicans using this convention to persuade voters? Half of the battle is finding the right enemy. In this case, that requires replacing Joe Biden with an axis of evil: the left, radical protesters, and the media. Monday night was a master class in how to do that. The other half is assuring them that Trump has done some good things, and that you can be a good and decent (and non-racist person) and still vote for him.
The talk coming into the convention was that it was going to be all Trump all the time, which suggested this would just be about rallying the MAGA crowd. Actually, though, as my friend Jamie Weinstein put it, “This is not the Tucker Carlson-Ann Coulter convention.” For a while on Tuesday night, when the topic was business-killing regulations and abortion, it almost felt like the 2012 Republican Party was back.
Please realize that I am not suggesting that Trump is about to “pivot” or that he “became president” this week. I suffer no illusions that Trump will (or could) become a better person or president. Likewise, I do not believe he has the discipline to run a campaign for the next 68 days that replicates the persuasive message this convention (so far) has provided.
What I am suggesting is that this convention has been stunningly effective.
Because Trump is trailing and because (until this week) he had almost gone out of his way to alienate suburban voters, he probably has more room for growth than Joe Biden (who has potentially maximized his reach).
And perhaps because Trump had to give up his giant rallies, because of how the coronavirus has spread on his watch, he had to let the producers and the media pros run this show, instead of just trusting his own instincts as a performer. And, perhaps perversely, he may be benefiting politically from his own mess.
Historically, the conventions and the debates are the big moments where candidates garner the kind of attention that can provide a bump. If these theories hold true, then this race will tighten. It’ll still be an uphill battle for Trump to win re-election, but he’ll be back in the game.
The big question is simply how many people are watching. COVID-19 means this is a weird convention. It lacks the energy and excitement of a normal one. So that’s the huge asterisk. But from the perspective of scripting and messaging, Trump’s team is doing everything right.
Call it propaganda if you want. Just don’t forget, propaganda works.