The president who prizes himself as a master showman put on, objectively, one of the most staid, boring convention nights in recent memory on Wednesday. Forced to downsize because of a pandemic, and hoping to sand down the rougher edges of his public image, the president’s team chose rote, recorded speeches in front of a line of American flags that may very well work politically but seemed utterly at odds with President Donald Trump’s reputation.
It also stood in stark contrast to the state of the country where an American city was on lockdown due to unrest after the shooting of a Black man by police followed by the murder of two protesters by an armed teenager—not to mention a raging pandemic and a Category 4, nearing Category 5, hurricane closing in on the Gulf Coast.
Wednesday night at the Republican National Convention featured barely any of that. COVID-19, once more, was hardly discussed. The chaos and protests in Kenosha were briefly mentioned by Vice President Mike Pence. He spent an estimated 42 seconds of a nearly 40-minute speech addressing the hurricane, promising a boilerplate of relief, thoughts and prayers. And no one could quite predict how the storm would impact Thursday’s speeches, of which Trump will be the headliner.
Earlier in the day, White House counselor Kellyanne Conway appeared to leave the door open to Trump postponing his address. But late Wednesday night, as Pence spoke, multiple Trump campaign aides and other officials insisted to The Daily Beast that, no matter the hurricane threat, President Trump would deliver his convention speech on Thursday evening as currently scheduled.
According to three individuals with knowledge of convention details, the comparatively few mentions of the virus and its ongoing horrors had long been the plan. “Our convention is forward-looking. People want to know what the country will look like after COVID,” said a source familiar with convention planning. “The president has shown he can build an economy up and he’ll do it again.”
Instead, the first portion of the evening felt almost like a breezy afternoon at a conference at the American Enterprise Institute. A good chunk of the night was devoted to female speakers insisting—against most available evidence—that Trump was a champion of expanded health care and an advocate for women’s rights. All of it was heavily doused in subtle and overt warnings that the issues of crime and violence that Trump himself had pledged to solve would now be made even worse if Trump was not re-elected.
“Joe Biden says America is systemically racist and that law enforcement in America has a and I quote, ‘an implicit bias’ against minorities,” Pence said during his speech Wednesday night. “When asked whether he’d support cutting funding to law enforcement, he replied, ‘Yes, absolutely.’ Joe Biden would double down on the very policies that are leading to violence in America’s cities. The hard truth is you won’t be safe in Joe Biden’s America.”
The attack on Biden that he wants to defund the police has been tried before by Republicans, but a fact check by Politifact of an ad with the comment found the video was incorrect and “edits Biden’s comment and takes it out of context.”
But the larger framework also raised questions that Trump may have to address as well. Mainly, why he is not to blame for the social unrest that his team is decrying.
Four years ago, Trump accepted the Republican nomination for president with a promise that violence in America’s cities—having fallen for years by that point—would be stamped out with him in office.
“I have a message to every last person threatening the peace on our streets and the safety of our police: When I take the oath of office next year, I will restore law and order our country,” Trump declared.
On Wednesday, the chaos that had erupted in the aftermath of yet another police shooting had led to the halt of the NBA playoff games that night. And it threatened to reverberate throughout the remainder of the convention as well.
A graphic video on Sunday in Kenosha, Wisconsin, showed Jacob Blake, a 29-year-old Black man, walking away from police officers and trying to get into a car before a law enforcement officer fired shots into his back. As protests rocked the city, a white 17-year-old was arrested and charged with murder for allegedly shooting two people to death on Tuesday night
Just outside of the White House, security personnel were already preparing for what is expected to be a significant presence of protesters demonstrating President Trump’s Thursday night acceptance speech delivered on the grounds of The People’s House.
But on Wednesday, ensconced at Fort McHenry, Pence, Trump and their guests seemed content to live in the America they created in that moment, smiling as maskless guests—reportedly untested for COVID—shook hands and hugged all around them. After it was all over, Trump and Pence worked the rope line, the latter offering an occasional fistbump to attendees.
—With additional reporting from Pilar Melendez, William Bredderman, and Grace Del Vecchio