The third night of the Republican convention paid tribute to the country’s “heroes” — from workers on the frontlines of the pandemic, to members of the military, to law enforcement.
But in paying tribute to what speakers said makes the country great, the program underscored two Americas: one that is reeling over the police shooting of a 29-year-old Black man in Wisconsin on Sunday, and another that sees society being torn apart by protests and instances of looting and violence.
The RNC speakers strongly rallied behind law enforcement, criticizing the recent unrest in cities across the country since George Floyd’s killing in May, and reignited when Jacob Blake was shot in the back seven times by a police officer in Kenosha, Wisconsin, this past weekend. Vice President Mike Pence ended the night with a familiar demand for law and order.
“Too many heroes have died defending our freedoms to see Americans strike each other down,” Pence said. “We will have law and order on the streets of America.”
Jacob Blake’s name is absent
In multiple speeches that condemned incidents of looting and violence in the aftermath of police killings and use of force, not one person on Wednesday mentioned Blake. While protests and unrest have continued throughout the summer in the wake of Floyd’s death, the recent shooting has further fueled racial turmoil and demands for police reform. But none of the speakers discussed either man on Wednesday or the incidents that gave rise to the unrest they spoke of, instead doubling down on their support for law enforcement.
While defending the police and the military, Tennessee Sen. Marsha Blackburn said “leftists want to turn them into villains. They want to cancel them.”
“[Democrats] say we can’t gather in community groups, but encourage protest, riots and looting,” Blackburn said, also taking aim at COVID-19 social distancing guidelines and mischaracterizing the views of Democratic leaders who have spoken out against violence and looting.
Speakers throughout the convention have particularly mischaracterized Joe Biden’s stance on police. It’s become a common refrain from the party that he supports defunding the police, which he has explicitly, repeatedly said he does not.
Michael McHale, president of the National Association of Police Organizations, specifically named Portland, Minneapolis, Chicago and New York City as cities with “failed officials” who do not support law enforcement.
Vice President Mike Pence was the only speaker to mention Kenosha in passing while delivering a strong rebuke of the unrest and voicing support for police. “Let me be clear: the violence must stop — whether in Minneapolis, Portland, or Kenosha,” Pence said. “The American people know we don’t have to choose between supporting law enforcement, and standing with African American neighbors to improve the quality of life in our cities and towns.”
The decision to omit any sympathetic remarks for Black victims of excessive police force was particularly striking on Wednesday, the same day that a white teen was charged with first-degree intentional homicide in connection with a shooting that killed two people during Kenosha demonstrations. A number of NBA teams also refused to play in their playoff games in an effort to demand justice for Blake.
The grievance politics continue
Three days of existential foreshadowing of Democratic leadership have aimed to stoke fear in voters about what they stand to lose in November.
On Monday, Turning Point USA founder Charlie Kirk warned that “this election is a decision between preserving America as we know it and eliminating everything that we love.” On Tuesday, Eric Trump said his father ran for office to fight for the people “left behind” by political leaders.
That message continued Wednesday, when 25-year-old Madison Cawthorn, a Republican nominee for North Carolina’s 11th Congressional District, spoke about the car accident that left him paralyzed from the waist down. Detailing his struggles with feeling invisible, Cawthorn said he realized he could still make a difference. “I say to people who feel forgotten, ignored and invisible, ‘I see you. I hear you,’” he said, adding that Americans should fight for the future in November rather than “giving up on the American idea.”
Throughout the Republican convention, speakers like Cawthorn have said they are working for all Americans, while Democrats are trying to destroy the country. Cawthorn, who is white, accused Democrats of radicalizing identity politics in a way “that rejects Martin Luther King’s dream.” “MLK’s dream is our dream for all Americans to be judged solely on their character,” Cawthorn said. But he left out King’s promotion of civil disobedience like the protests currently happening around the country, and the fact that he was arrested many times fighting for civil rights and faced surveillance and blackmail by the FBI.
Trump’s base is overwhelmingly white, and his support among Black Americans is in the single digits. The Republican Party’s choice of guests for their convention, aside from several Black speakers, has largely been white as well. Limited acknowledgements of the country’s history with racism and discrimination have been drowned out by criticism of today’s protests against biased policing and systemic racism and the invocation of President Abraham Lincoln, a Republican, as proof that the party is on the right side of racial issues. Multiple speakers, including Mike Pence, have downplayed the idea that systemic racism currently exists in the U.S.
Speakers even failed to mention that, in the wake of Floyd’s death, Trump actually issued an executive order pushing limited police reforms — a fact they could have used in their appeals to Black voters.
Gaps in the RNC statements reinforce some criticism about who the party is targeting with their messaging.
Women featured prominently
A large proportion of Wednesday’s speakers were women who characterized the president as a sympathetic person who gives women opportunities to lead in top positions.
White House press secretary Kayleigh McEnany said Trump has supported her “both as a new mom and as an American with a preexisting condition.” She shared her experience going through a preventative mastectomy and how it made her stronger. During that difficult time she said the Trump family rallied behind her.
“As I came out of anesthesia, one of the first calls I received was from Ivanka Trump. As I recovered, my phone rang again: it was President Trump, calling to check on me. I was blown away,” McEnany said.
Her remarks offered a humanizing story about Trump during a convention that has been short on personal narratives about the president.
White House counselor Kellyanne Conway spoke to how she feels Trump has empowered her and other women. “President Trump helped me shatter a barrier in the role of politics by empowering me to manage his campaign to its successful conclusion,” Conway said. “For many of us, ‘women’s empowerment’ is not a slogan. It comes not from strangers on social media or sanitized language in a corporate handbook. It comes from the everyday heroes who nurture us, who shape us, and who believe in us,” she continued.
Lara Trump, an adviser for Trump’s 2016 and 2020 campaigns and wife to his son Eric, said Trump gave key opportunities to women at the Trump Organization. Multiple news reports citing women who worked for Trump businesses indicate he has a mixed record on his treatment of women employees. She asserted that Trump has continued hiring and elevating women in his presidency. Of Trump’s 23 cabinet members, four are women.
Overall, the convention lacked detail on specific policies that have helped women during the president’s time in office. Speakers also did not discuss proposals that would help women going forward.
Trump’s pointed outreach to women voters comes at a time when polling indicates he is on shaky ground, even among white women who buoyed him in 2016. A recent PBS NewsHour/NPR/Marist Poll found that 59 percent of women disapprove of the job Trump is doing in office, compared to 34 percent of women who approve.
Focus on military more than foreign policy
Members of the armed forces received the bulk of the attention Wednesday; the theme of the night was “Land of Heroes,” after all. CNN exit polling showed that about 60 percent of veterans supported Trump over Hillary Clinton in 2016, so the messaging was a clear play to his base.
Retired Army Lt. Gen. Keith Kellogg, who is Pence’s national security adviser, commended Trump for reinvesting in the military, killing terrorist leaders and taking a strong stance on the North Atlantic Treaty Organization, though reporting suggests Trump’s repeated criticism of other country’s contributions has sowed discord among members. “President Trump has reversed the decline of our military and restructured our national security strategy,” Kellogg said.
Second lady Karen Pence, the mother of two sons in military service, spoke about her efforts to “elevate and encourage military spouses.” “President Trump and Vice President Pence have been supporting our United States armed forces, including our military families, on a significant scale,” she said, pointing to a 2018 executive order seeking to help military spouses find employment by increasing federal job opportunities.
Rep. Dan Crenshaw, R-Texas, a former Navy SEAL injured in Afghanistan, described the U.S. as “a country of heroes,” but amid his praise for the armed services, did not mention Trump once by name, nor his administration’s efforts to support military members.
The vice president also heaped praise on on the military in his address, citing the administration’s efforts to fight terrorism as well as opening an American embassy in Jerusalem, in 2018, an official endorsement of the city as the capital of Israel. He criticized Joe Biden’s foreign policy record, quoting Robert Gates, a former Defense secretary under George W. Bush and Barack Obama, who said in 2014 that Biden “has been wrong on nearly every major foreign policy and national security issue over the past four decades.”
Pence repeated several purported administration victories discussed by other speakers, but did not provide additional detail or proposals for his second term.