By the time Donald Trump was impeached by the House of Representatives late last year, Democrats had reached a simple conclusion: He had inappropriately used the powers of his office to benefit his campaign. When the Senate acquitted the president weeks later, a number of Republicans had reached a conclusion of their own: Trump’s ouster was not needed because he had surely learned his lesson.
On Thursday night, Trump formally accepted his party’s re-nomination for president. And he did so in a manner that made abundantly clear that the only lesson he’d learned was that, in politics, the slap on the wrist is often worth it.
The president once more used the powers of the office to benefit his campaign, hosting a coronation speech at the South Lawn of the White House with Trump-Pence signs on jumbotrons that, from a distance, made it seem as if they were permanently emblazoned on the White House walls.
It was a setting that would have been unthinkable for his predecessors because the ethics officials would have deemed it so. But Trump could care less about those pesky pencil pushers. As his daughter, Ivanka, would say in her introductory speech: “Washington has not changed Donald Trump, Donald Trump has changed Washington.”
The president’s stated reason for hosting his speech at the White House was that the global pandemic prevented him from doing so at Charlotte, North Carolina, the original convention site. But Trump seemed intent on flouting even that threat. With the sun setting over Washington, photos of people filtering onto the South Lawn among white folding chairs crammed together in a decidedly pre-COVID, non-socially distant arrangement were posted on social media. More than 1,000 guests would sit and wait for hours until the president’s address late Thursday evening, many mingling close together. As they sat watching the taped portion of the broadcast in the nearly 90-degree heat, guests could be seen wiping sweat from their foreheads.
For days, Trump’s convention had glossed over the virus, which has claimed 180,000 lives. Aides said it was done, in large part, because the president wanted to keep the focus on friendlier topics. When it was his turn to speak, Trump briefly paid tribute to the victims. But he also waxed about it all as if the end was near. A night earlier, Vice President Mike Pence had said researchers were on track to produce a vaccine in 2020. On Thursday, Trump declared it a fait accompli that it would happen “before the end of the year” or—he added with a bit of hokey flair—”maybe even sooner.”
“To save as many lives as possible, we are focusing on the science, the facts and the data,” he added, looking out over a crowd that was doing precisely what the science, facts, and data said not to.
The unmoored optimism, the defiance of ethics laws, and the dismissiveness of public health protocols may have seemed particularly pronounced given the stakes of Thursday night. But they also underscored the defining characteristic of Trump’s time in office: No matter how much criticism he endures, or second-guessing he engenders, he is never chastened.
It was fitting, in that way, that two of the speakers on Thursday night were protagonists in the impeachment drama—Rep. Jeff Van Drew (R-NJ), who switched parties over the vote, and Rudy Giuliani, whose shenanigans in Ukraine sparked the investigations—as if Trump wanted to spotlight his and their survival of the process.
Even the words of Trump’s speech on Thursday showed a politician who is almost preternaturally incapable of changing his script. During his acceptance speech in 2016, he warned that “the attacks on our police, and the terrorism in our cities, threaten our very way of life.” Four years later, he declared that “this election will decide whether we will defend the American way of life.” In 2016, he had pledged that “ the crime and violence that today afflicts our nation will soon come to an end.” Four years later, he said, that the issue of “violence and danger in the streets of many Democrat-run cities throughout America” was a problem that “could easily be fixed if they wanted to.”
Joe Biden was accused of many of the same sins as Hillary Clinton: caving to China, supporting open borders, general lawlessness—of having a radical agenda that would increase taxes for middle-class Americans. Of weakness on the world stage. Trump said Clinton’s policies would “overwhelm your schools and hospitals” with immigrants. Four years later, he said, Biden would release “criminals onto your streets and into your neighborhoods” and “demolish the suburbs.”
Earlier in the night, Giuliani had implored Trump to “make our nation safe again” The phrase “Make America Safe Again” was the theme of the first night of the 2016 Republican convention.
That Trump refuses to moderate his message or approach is hardly a surprise to those who know him. Aides have described a boss who is supremely confident in his powers of intuition and strategic thinking—a person who believes that the primary solution to any one of his political problems is for him to merely spin it better.
It doesn’t mean that his approach is always rough-edged or incendiary. Thursday’s convention played on several accomplishments and themes that the president has long pointed to as evidence that he’s not the caricature that his critics paint. And it had its share of moving testimonials.
Ann Dorn, the widow of Officer David Dorn who was killed in St. Louis while protecting a pawn shop during rioting there in June, tearfully recounted the details of the night he died and the horror she has lived every day since.
“President Trump knows we need more Davids in our communities, not fewer,” she said.
Marsha and Carl Mueller described the terror they felt when their daughter, Kayla, an aid worker, was kidnapped in Syria in 2013 by Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi and the frustration of dealing with the Obama administration to try and rescue her before she was murdered in 2015. The couple said that after al-Baghdadi’s death during a U.S. raid in 2019 they learned that the Army special operators who conducted the mission named themselves “Task Force 814” after Kayla’s birthday.
But Trump has often overshadowed these moments. And his defiance has caused its share of electoral problems. Despite an election season filled with chaos and drama, the race against Biden has been defined predominantly by how steady Trump’s deficit has been. His path to re-election is narrow. And his strategy rests not on expanding his coalition of voters but on bringing out more of those who already support him.
To do that, even his own advisers concede, Trump must rely on the idea that there is out of control unrest and strife in America’s cities. And whether consciously or not, his presidency has, indeed, fanned those flames.
Just blocks from where Trump spoke, beyond the vast security barriers, protesters and Black Lives Matter activists passed out free horns, bells, whistles, and noise-makers. At Black Lives Matter Plaza and near Lafayette Square, demonstrators came out to protest the evening. They passed by blasting music on loudspeakers, aimed their airhorns in the president’s direction, banged pots and drums, and raised their middle fingers high at the White House, erupting into chants of “Fuck Trump,” “Vote blue,” “Defund the police,” and “Hands up, don’t shoot.”
The mood was largely jubilant and hopeful of the president’s swift, electoral removal come November. No one seemed to care about what Trump had to say or that he would likely try and use their frustrations and demonstrations as a cudgel against the Democratic Party and Biden.
“Who cares what he says?” said a protester who identified herself as a D.C. nurse named “Deb,” holding a “Black Trans Lives Matter” sign. “He’s a fascist and he’s gonna lose.”