On the second night of the Republican National Convention, Donald Trump resorted once again to the favorite trick in his bag: a televised surprise.
An impromptu naturalization ceremony put on as part of the Tuesday night festivities was, as a political matter, an attempt to show a softer side of a president with one of the most anti-immigration records in recent memory.
It also appeared to be a finely tuned bit of trolling; the act itself was likely a violation of federal law that prohibits government employees from using taxpayer resources for political purposes (though the White House insisted it wasn't). And it gave Trump and his legions of devoted fans a reason to tweet American flag emojis and make fun of political reporters who noted the flagrant misuse of taxpayer resources.
In fact, Trump’s aides and advisers revel in their increasingly frequent violations of the Hatch Act. Senior Trump administration officials widely view the law as a joke, and have often traded quips over how consequence-free their infractions have been and how much Democrats harp on the violations, two ex-officials said. Some Trump lieutenants have privately bragged about their alleged violations as a proud rite of passage.
Tuesday night’s naturalization ceremony, which featured acting Department of Homeland Security chief Chad Wolf acting in an apparently official capacity, was the most egregious flouting of the law during the festivities. But it was just one of a handful of convention events that blurred the line between the Trump administration and its political machine. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo’s televised speech from a Jerusalem rooftop also drew allegations of Hatch Act violations, and early on in Tuesday evening’s programming, Trump touted his pardon power and its beneficiaries as a political selling point while standing inside the White House.
The flouting of the law fit neatly with the message of the night. Tuesday’s programming wasn’t so much about attacking Joe Biden or promoting Trump as it was to exhibit abhorrence of liberalism, defiance of elitist norms, and a big middle finger to media-driven conformity. If the press was triggered into a fit of hyperventilation in the process, all the better. The average American voter doesn’t know or much care what the Hatch Act is anyway.
Over the course of the evening, speakers denounced tech giants and political correctness. They painted the press corps as corrupt and framed the president as a culture warrior whose appetite for fighting was a virtue not a detriment.
“I’m proud to watch you give them hell,” Eric Trump, the president’s son, said at one point, directly addressing his father.
But perhaps no speaker on Tuesday more clearly exemplified the goal of the night than Nicholas Sandmann. The recent Kentucky high school graduate recounted how he found himself a culture war lighting rod when he donned a “Make America Great Again” hat and stared down a Native American activist during a demonstration at the March for Life last year. After a day of denunciations from pundits and politicians who claimed he incited the confrontation, video emerged undercutting the story, and Sandmann sued a host of media outlets for defamation over the episode. He’s won settlements from CNN and The Washington Post, with additional litigation ongoing.
“I learned that what was happening to me had a name. It was called being canceled,” Sandmann said on Tuesday. “Canceled is what’s happening to people around this country who refuse to be silenced by the far left... I will not be cancelled.”
The denunciations of “cancel culture” were echoed in some form by other convention speakers.
“If you care about living your life without restraints, about rebelling against those who would suppress your voice, and building YOUR American Dream,” Tiffany Trump, the president’s daughter, said at one point, “then the choice in this election is clear.”
It’s a theme that’s expected to continue through Thursday, when the convention wraps up, and its prominence is due largely to Trump’s view—and that of his pollsters and political advisers—that it’s an issue that could help get him over the electoral finish line.
According to two people with knowledge of the situation, Team Trump had recently commissioned polling specifically on the topic of “cancel culture,” and found numbers they saw as reassuring. Polling was conducted in July and August and focused on questions on political correctness and “cancel culture” in Big Tech, entertainment, and news media and on college campuses, one of the sources said. The data was presented directly to the president multiple times, including earlier this month. And he has privately delighted in the numbers, insisting that this could be an issue that speaks to voters beyond his standard GOP and conservative base voting blocs.
“President Trump made clear that he believes that we can win [in part based on the internal data] on this issue, law and order, tax cuts, and China and the virus,” one of the knowledgeable sources said. “He thinks cancel culture is tearing communities apart and suppressing conservative voices.”
That anti-“cancel culture” theme, though, didn’t save one of Tuesday evening’s scheduled speakers from being canceled at the hands of the convention itself. Hours before the evening’s festivities began, The Daily Beast reported that Mary Ann Mendoza, a Trump campaign advisory board member and scheduled convention speaker, had, on Tuesday morning, urged her Twitter followers to look into an anti-Semitic conspiracy theory involving Jewish world domination. The Republican National Committee subsequently pulled her video address from the event.
In her prepared remarks, which were never actually delivered, Mendoza hailed the “brighter future that President Trump will continue fighting for when we re-elect him on November third.”