The crowd, decorations and chants were familiar for a convention, but the location was unprecedented. President Donald Trump officially accepted his party’s renomination during the final night of the Republican National Convention on Thursday in front of a crowd of hundreds of people gathered on the South Lawn of the White House.
The theme of the night was a “land of greatness,” but the overarching focus was on tearing down Joe Biden’s decades-long career in politics. “Joe Biden is weak,” Trump asserted. “He takes his marching orders from liberal hypocrites who drive their cities into the ground while fleeing far from the scene of the wreckage.”
Over the course of his 70-minute long speech, Trump accused Biden of being soft on China, crime and immigration, and criticized him for voting for the Iraq War, proposing to raise taxes and a temporary moratorium on deportations, though many of Trump’s claims were misleading.
Trump’s own party didn’t put together a platform this year, and it showed, as much of the week was short on specifics. But amid the attacks on Biden and broad appeals to his base more on principle and personality than policies, he laid out a few goals for his second term, among them: ban sanctuary cities, create 10 million jobs in 10 months, hire more police and continue defending the Second Amendment.
As the not-socially-distanced, largely maskless crowd cheered at the White House and chanted for four more years, protesters just blocks away blew horns and carried signs criticizing Trump’s coronavirus response and demanding an end to police brutality and systemic racism, which didn’t get a mention in the president’s speech.
An acknowledgement of Jacob Blake
The police shooting of 29-year-old Jacob Blake, a Black man, on Sunday in Kenosha, Wisconsin, added fuel to the still simmering unrest that has roiled the country all summer. Blake was hospitalized after an officer shot him in the back seven times.
In a convention that regularly alluded to the largely peaceful protests around the country, which were characterized as violent riots, looting and lawlessness, Blake’s name was noticeably absent from the conversation in the first few days. But on Thursday, speakers gave fleeting acknowledgements of Blake’s story, beginning with the opening prayer that called for “healing for Jacob Blake and his family.”
Housing and Urban Development Secretary Ben Carson also expressed sympathy for the Blake family. “Our hearts go out to the Blake family and the other families who’ve been impacted by the tragic events in Kenosha,” he said, before shifting to the administration’s usual line on the protests calling for racial justice and police reform. He did not mention the killing of two Kenosha demonstrators, nor the white teen charged with homicide for their shooting deaths, whose social media accounts promoted the police and Trump’s reelection. Carson also urged Americans to come together. “America is great when we behave greatly,” Carson said.
Trump’s address praised law enforcement and made no mention of Blake; it also falsely accused Democrat-led cities of promoting violence and looting, despite multiple Democratic leaders, including Biden, speaking out against the acts of violence that drew attention in otherwise peaceful protests.
The limited mentions of Blake or the grievances at the center of the protests were a missed opportunity for the campaign to show more understanding to people of color disproportionately affected by excessive use of force by police. By ignoring the root problem at the heart of the protests, Trump was able to play to his base with his usual tough on crime, “law and order” rhetoric, but he missed an opportunity to make a broader appeal to voters who may be less sure about him.
Democrats come out for Trump
A key feature of the Democratic convention last week was a showcase of numerous longtime Republican voters and former officials urging the country to vote for Biden. On Wednesday, the Trump campaign offered a response with a diverse cast of former Democratic voters who will support Trump in November.
Among them was New Jersey Rep. Jeff Van Drew, who notably switched his party affiliation from Democrat to Republican after becoming a vocal opponent of Trump’s impeachment last winter and voting against both articles of impeachment, one of only two House Democrats to do so.
“I vote ‘no’ on impeachment, and it was an easy call. Soon after, I met with President Trump, and he made me feel more comfortable and welcome in the Oval Office than [House Speaker] Nancy Pelosi ever made me feel in her caucus,” he said.
The inclusion of these voters appeared to target “silent” Trump supporters who might be wary of sharing their political preferences publicly. Trump will need to chip away at some of Biden’s support with independent and moderate voters in order to win in November. Overall, 54 percent of U.S. adults disapprove of the job Trump is doing in office, compared to 39 percent who approve, according to a PBS NewsHour/NPR/Marist Poll from August. That same survey found that 56 percent of independents disapprove of the job Trump is doing in office, compared to 32 percent who approve.
Ivanka makes the case for her father
Ivanka Trump has long been one of her father’s more effective representatives, especially in helping him appeal to women voters. In her address Thursday night, Ivanka cast her father as the “people’s president,” and shared stories that attempted to soften his image.
“When Jared and I moved with our three children to Washington, we didn’t exactly know what we were in for. But our kids loved it from the start,” she said. “My son Joseph promptly built grandpa a Lego replica of the White House. The president still displays it on the mantel in the Oval Office and shows it to world leaders, just so they know he has the greatest grandchildren on earth.”
Hers was the first and most personal anecdote of the convention, portraying a softer side of the president, a man who from her telling cares deeply about the people he serves. “I’ve been with my father and seen the pain in his eyes when he receives updates on the lives that have been stolen by this plague,” she said, referencing the coronavirus.
Highlighting what she sees as the successes of her father’s administration, Ivanka Trump also built up his unconventional behavior as a strength. “I recognize that my dad’s communication style is not to everyone’s taste. And I know his tweets can feel a bit unfiltered,” she said. “But the results speak for themselves.”
Ivanka’s speech was one of several during the convention that sought to humanize the president and seemed targeted toward women specifically, a group with which Trump has been losing favor, according to recent polling, and which will be critical to his reelection effort.
A recent PBS NewsHour/NPR/Marist Poll found that while men were more evenly split on the president, with 48 percent disapproving of him and 44 percent approving, Trump was struggling with women — 59 percent disapproved of the job he is doing in office, compared to 34 percent of women who approve. Polling numbers are even worse among suburban women, who he has been trying to win over with appeals to the “suburban housewife”; 68 percent of suburban women disapprove of Trump’s job performance and 27 percent approve.
Taking aim at Biden
Biden’s 47-year political career was a major target on Thursday. Arkansas Sen. Tom Cotton zeroed in on China, saying China is “rooting” for Biden and alleging that Biden “aided and abetted China’s rise for 50 years with terrible trade deals that closed our factories and laid off our workers.”
Former New York City Mayor Rudy Giuliani continued to stoke fears of violence and lawlessness if Biden wins in November, using the ongoing unrest and other recent crime incidents in cities like New York to sharply criticize the Black Lives Matter movement and warn against Democratic leaders.
It’s a frequent talking point for Republicans, but a tricky argument to navigate when the violence they criticize is taking place now, with Trump in the White House. Trump, too, has blamed Democratic leaders of major cities for not doing more, but so far has not been able to contain the protests, which have not actually resulted in skyrocketing violent crime rates in major cities like New York, as Giuliani suggested.
Trump’s address was the final bout, as he dinged Biden for being a weak, ineffective leader who would be a puppet of the progressive left — a common refrain from him and others speaking on his behalf during the convention. “Joe Biden is not the savior of America’s soul,” Trump said. “Joe Biden may claim he is an ‘ally of the light,’ but when it comes to his agenda, Biden wants to keep you completely in the dark.”
Trump noted Biden’s many years in government and accused him of going against the interests of the American public, making a string of misleading or exaggerated claims about Biden’s record.
Polling numbers indicate Biden leading over Trump in some battleground states and among key demographic groups. Recognizing that threat, Trump and RNC speakers have gone on the attack throughout the convention, using fear as a means to fuel Trump’s base.
Bold defiance of public health guidelines
The closely packed, largely maskless crowd at Trump’s acceptance speech was a striking sight amid a coronavirus pandemic that has claimed the lives of more than 180,000 people in the U.S.
Trump in his speech expressed sympathy for the thousands who have lost their lives to the virus. “As one nation, we mourn, we grieve, and we hold in our hearts forever the memories of all of those lives that have been so tragically taken. So unnecessary. In their honor, we will unite. In their memory, we will overcome,” he said.
But he touted his administration’s handling of the pandemic — which has been heavily criticized for being delayed, inconsistent, and insufficient — while defying public health guidelines promoted by his own government meant to slow the spread of the virus. In that way, Trump’s White House acceptance speech and the surrounding scene reflected the rollercoaster of confusion and mixed messaging the public has received from his administration since March. Most recently, this week the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reversed its testing guidelines, saying that asymptomatic people exposed to COVID-19 “do not necessarily need a test,” though the CDC’s director later walked back the recommendation.
The choice to use the White House as the backdrop for Trump’s acceptance speech has also drawn ire from critics who say holding a campaign event on public property violates the Hatch Act. The words of his speech were familiar criticisms of China, immigration, terrorism and Democratic leadership. But what Trump’s address lacked was any attempt to level with his critics by acknowledging missteps of his presidency — including on the pandemic — or presenting a plan for improvement in his second term.