On Night 1 of the 2020 Republican National Convention, acolyte after high-profile acolyte lined up to lavish praise on President Donald Trump for standing tall between the American people and a Marxist, politically correct hellscape.
They just couldn’t seem to figure out why, exactly, he was so great.
Trump was alternately touted as a true champion of the Black community—but also as the only person standing in the way of the death of the “suburbs” at the hands of “low-quality apartments” and radical Marxist mobs. He was cast as a visionary leader who has made and kept his promises of law and order and economic growth, all while video of U.S. cities on fire unspooled throughout the night. And Trump’s work combating COVID-19 was described as a Herculean effort to save the country—a message that all but ignored the 175,000-plus who had died and was delivered from an empty auditorium in the capital of a pandemic-stricken nation.
These contradictions have always been at the heart of Trump’s effort to secure a second term in the White House. But the Republican Party’s showcase on Monday laid them bare in full—and revealed an apparent campaign strategy of just throwing it all at the wall and seeing what sticks, so long as Trump is cast in a positive light.
Four years ago, when Trump was nominated in Cleveland, he faced a possible mutiny from GOP delegates who hated him, and a rival in Sen. Ted Cruz (R-TX) who urged Republicans from the convention stage to “vote their conscience.”
On Monday night, Trump was alternately described as “the bodyguard of Western civilization,” a “visionary” builder, the very representation of a “bright and beautiful future for all,” and greeted as a selfless man who “used your strength to Make America Strong Again, sacrificed the life you built to Make America Proud Again, and risked everything to Make America Safe Again.” The Republican Party itself was almost an afterthought, made altogether clear in the ramp-up to the evening when officials decided to dispense with an actual platform, choosing instead to adopt the same one they had in 2016, repackaged with a statement of support for President Trump.
By Monday night, the ascendance of Trump over party was on full display. Kimberly Guilfoyle, a top fundraiser for the Trump re-election effort and girlfriend to Donald Trump Jr., delivered a booming, scenery-chewing speech, lauding a “president who is fearless, who believes in you, and who loves this country and will fight for her!”
The Trump lovefest—and the relentless talk of leftist anarchy and violence—offered a stark contrast from the Democrats’ convention last week, and a preview of the divergent ways each campaign is planning for victory in November. Democratic nominee Joe Biden and the Democrats spent a week conspicuously courting those outside the party base; they practically drowned out his opening convention night with videos and appearances from disaffected Republicans in a play to win converts from the center. The red meat from Trump, meanwhile, was strictly a play to turn out the president’s base.
In his speech accepting the Democratic nomination last week, Biden warned of “four historic crises” facing the nation: “The worst pandemic in over 100 years. The worst economic crisis since the Great Depression. The most compelling call for racial justice since the 60's. And the undeniable realities and accelerating threats of climate change, ” he said.
The GOP convention kicked off their convention on Monday as the country happened to be dealing with all four on the same day: rising COVID infections; a police shooting of an unarmed Black man in Wisconsin that sparked fresh civil unrest; a worsening economy; and historic wildfires in California.
But these issues were either glossed over or omitted entirely from the program. The wild fires received passing thoughts and prayers from Republican National Committee Chairwoman Ronna McDaniel. The death toll from COVID-19—177,000 and rising—was also never directly addressed.
In fact, the virus was only mentioned in the most positive of lights throughout the two-and-a-half-hour evening. The economy, of course, was coming—not roaring—back at the RNC, and police brutality was something treated as an occasional threat rather than a systemic problem.
It was not the convention the president wanted and tried to will into existence until reality intervened—moving it from its initial site, Charlotte, to Jacksonville, Florida, because North Carolina’s Democratic governor could not guarantee the president an arena packed with GOP fans, and then moving it largely online from Washington D.C. when Jacksonville authorities balked.
But still, GOP planners were determined to put on a brave face and pledged an optimistic, forward-looking event that would contrast itself to the Democratic National Committee event which they derided as negative and hokey.
To accomplish that, they mixed slick, pre-recorded videos featuring supporters like two mixed-race sisters from Chicago with in-person speeches from GOP fixtures like Trump, Jr., former South Carolina Gov. Nikki Haley, and Sen. Tim Scott (R-SC) at a soaring D.C. auditorium replete with dozens of American flags and plenty of marble.
There was, of course, plenty of Trump himself. The night featured two clips of Trump hosting groups of people at the White House. The first was a discussion with frontline workers, meant to display his compassion and his ability to talk to the common man and connect with workers and medical staff. It largely showcased Trump's unique ability to be his own worst advocate, making the type of rhetorical missteps and flamboyant boasts that get him in trouble.
“We're not getting rid of our postal workers. They like to sort of put that out there. If anyone does, it's the Democrats,” Trump said to a postal employee, after publicly admitting earlier this month that he was trying to block aid to the Post Office in order to sabotage voting-by-mail.
“I won't even ask you about the hydroxychloroquine,” the president quipped to a coronavirus survivor, once again going to bat for the unproven treatment. “It’s a shame what they’ve done with that one.”
In the second clip, the Trump campaign brashly touted stories of Americans held hostage abroad who the administration negotiated to release. It was meant to be a powerful testament to Trump’s leadership and ability to stand up to bullies abroad—at one point, however, Trump told Andrew Brunson, a pastor who was imprisoned for two years in Turkey, that the country’s leader was “to me… very good.”
As Monday night’s festivities ended, the president’s lieutenant’s were already looking forward to another three evenings of more of the same.
“This will be the law and order convention,” a senior Trump administration official said.
For many of Trump’s aides, surrogates, and diehard supporters, the four-day event was yet another opportunity for the president to make his case to the American people that a Biden administration would somehow unleash a left-wing era of anarchism, meanness, cancel-culture pablum, and nasty social-media bans.
“‘Law and order’ should be the central theme of the convention… It should be about unity and bringing the country together,” longtime state Rep. Al Baldasaro, a New Hampshire co-chair of Trump’s 2020 campaign, told The Daily Beast on Monday. “There are very vicious people on the left, even some of my family members, I’ve never seen them so vicious. You’d think we could disagree civilly, but it’s just gotten so bad.”
Monday was also heavy on the Trump campaign’s version of outreach to Black voters, a group that has roundly rejected the president but whom Trump has made a show of courting anyway. The keynote speaker was Scott, the only Black Republican in the Senate, who authored the GOP’s police reform bill in the aftermath of George Floyd’s killing.
In his remarks, Scott highlighted his own road to office and attacked Biden and Harris, accusing them of wanting a “cultural revolution.” But he went right to the GOP’s case that Biden doesn’t deserve Black voters’ support by surfacing his past gaffes and comments on race. “Joe Biden said if a Black man didn’t vote for him, he wasn’t truly Black,” said Scott. “Joe Biden said poor kids can be just as smart as white kids. And while his words are one thing, his actions take it to a whole new level.” Scott then laced into Biden’s support of the 1994 crime bill and touted the criminal justice reform bill Trump signed in 2018 as having “fixed many of the disparities Biden created.”
Earlier, Vernon Jones, a Democratic state legislator from Georgia, opened his speech with a proverbial bomb that established politicians like Scott wouldn’t dare to throw: “The Democratic Party does not want Black people to leave the mental Plantation they've had us on for decades,” said Jones. “We are free people with free minds.”
And the first down-ballot candidate for office spotlighted by the RNC was not one hoping to defeat one of the dozens of Democrats who took red and purple districts from the GOP in the 2018—but a candidate running in a Baltimore seat Trump lost by 54 points in 2016. “Joe Biden believes we can’t think for ourselves—that the color of someone’s skin dictates their political views,” said Kim Klacik, the GOP nominee in Maryland’s 7th District. “We’re not buying the lies anymore—you and your party have ignored us for too long.”
Set against these pleas, however, were other messages on race—the St. Louis couple, Mark and Patty McCloskey, photographed brandishing weapons against a crowd of largely Black protesters outside their home, gave a taped address saying that Biden was going to “abolish the suburbs” by bringing “crime, lawlessness and low-quality apartments into thriving suburban neighborhoods.”
“In all seriousness, what you saw happen to us could just as easily happen to any of you who are watching from quiet neighborhoods around our country. And that’s what we want to speak to you about tonight,” said Patty McCloskey. “These are the policies that are coming to a neighborhood near you. So make no mistake: No matter where you live, your family will not be safe in the radical Democrats’ America.”