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Republicans used the first night of their convention Monday to paint a bleak picture of what the country might look like if Democrats win the November election.
The packed lineup of speakers that kicked off the Republican National Convention included small business owners, members of Congress and well-known conservative personalities, who portrayed a Democratic-led America as lawless, economically bankrupt and culturally immoral.
“I am here tonight to tell you, to warn you that this election is a decision between preserving America as we know it and eliminating everything that we love,” said Turning Point USA founder Charlie Kirk, who described President Donald Trump as the “bodyguard of Western civilization.”
Monday’s programming was notably different from the Democratic convention last week, which relied on highly produced video montages and remote speeches from various locations. Republicans had their own video segments, setting a similar tone to Trump campaign ads, but leaned more into speeches, most of which were delivered in the same auditorium in Washington, D.C., despite the lack of an audience.
Beginning with Kirk, speaker after speaker on Monday warned against a threat to American values.
California public school teacher Rebecca Friedrichs accused teachers unions of “subverting our republic so they try to undermine educational excellence, morality, law and order.” She also accused them of promoting lenient discipline policies that have turned schools into “war zones.” She touted charter schools as a solution for education disparities among low-income students, though research shows mixed outcomes of that model.
Florida Rep. Matt Gaetz, a vocal supporter of the president, depicted life under Democratic leadership as a “horror film” during which people’s guns would be taken away and gang members would run the streets. “We must fight to save America now or we may lose her forever,” Gaetz said.
Ohio Rep. Jim Jordan’s speech expressed a similar sentiment. “Democrats won’t let you go to church, but let you protest. Democrats won’t let you go to work, but let you riot. Democrats won’t let you go to school, but they’ll let you go loot,” Jordan said, criticizing stay at home orders meant to quell the coronavirus pandemic and exaggerating the looting and violence that have occurred during largely peaceful protests against racism and police brutality in the wake of George Floyd’s death. Democratic leaders including Biden have spoken out against such incidents of violence and looting.
In the days leading up to the conventions, Republican strategists told the PBS NewsHour that broadening support for Trump to establishment Republicans and moderates will be key to his reelection. These remarks and others throughout the night, attacking not just Biden but Democrats and a funhouse mirror reflection of their policies, appeared more targeted to Trump’s already loyal base rather than seeking to expand Trump’s appeal to other voters.
One group to which the party did specifically appeal Monday night was Black voters. Kim Klacik, a Maryland congressional candidate, likened herself to former Democratic congresswoman Shirley Chisholm, but criticized Democrats’ decades-long leadership of Baltimore city; she argued taxpayers are “paying for decades of incompetence and corruption.” Baltimore has struggled with crime, education inequality, police use of force and government corruption for years. Klacik is seen as a long-shot candidate running in a deep blue district for the seat once occupied by Black Democratic Rep. Elijah Cummings, who died last year.
Vernon Jones, a Democratic state representative from Georgia, accused his party of wanting to keep Black people in a “mental plantation.” “I have news for Joe Biden,” he said. “We are free. We are free people with free minds.” The idea of the Democratic Party subjugating people of color in economic hardship is a common refrain for prominent Black conservatives.
READ MORE: Inside the Trump campaign’s strategy for getting Black voters to the polls
Jones commended Trump’s funding for historically Black colleges and universities. Last year, the president signed a bill to permanently provide $250 million a year to HBCUs and other institutions that serve large populations of minority students after funding lapsed. During the pandemic, Trump also signed legislation providing about $1.4 billion in emergency funding to HBCUs and minority serving institutions.
Jones also praised the president for ending mass incarceration of Black people, a misleading claim likely referring to the 2018 First Step Act, a major bipartisan criminal justice bill that seeks to reform sentencing policies that disproportionately affected Black communities.
The night ended with Tim Scott, the only Black Republican member of the Senate, who shared his personal story overcoming poverty in South Carolina and running for Congress as a testament to the hope America can offer. Though Trump boasts a strong record with Black voters, polling indicates their support for him is in the single digits, which means outreach to them will likely continue to be a theme of his campaign.
During a time of widespread protests against systemic racism and police brutality, Scott and former United Nations Ambassador Nikki Haley painted a picture of a country that has mostly overcome its past evils.
“In much of the Democratic Party, it’s now fashionable to say that America is racist,” Haley said. “That is a lie. America is not a racist country.” She then detailed her personal experiences with discrimination as the child of Indian immigrants in a small Southern town, but noted that she went on to become South Carolina’s first woman and person of color elected governor.
She also spoke about the 2015 Charleston church shooting by a white supremacist who killed nine Black parishioners at an African Methodist Episcopal church, but noted that the event didn’t spur the divisions and protests that America has experienced in the wake of George Floyd’s death at the hands of police.
In his address, Scott shared his family’s story “from cotton to Congress” in an effort to highlight how he is the embodiment of the American dream. “In an overwhelmingly white district, the voters judged me not on the color of my skin but on the content of my character,” he said. “We live in a world that only wants you to believe in the bad news — racially, economically and culturally polarizing news.”
Scott and Haley shared similar messages: “America is a story that’s a work in progress,” Haley said. There’s still “work to do,” Scott said. Both used their personal ascension in the political world as evidence of a country that has made significant strides when it comes to race, even as communities of color face disproportionate health disparities and economic instability during the pandemic, as well as discrimination in housing, education, policing and other institutions, none of which were touched on in their speeches.
The remarks attempted to both acknowledge the country’s unmistakable history with racism while also offering a more positive vision of the current reality than the one described by protesters and Democrats at last week’s convention.
“The truth is, our nation’s arc always bends back towards fairness,” Scott said. “We are not fully where we want to be, but I thank God almighty we are not where we used to be.”
The St. Louis couple who garnered national media attention when they pointed guns at Black Lives Matter protesters outside their home has since faced criminal charges for their actions, but have remained resolute, citing their Second Amendment rights in pre-recorded statements that aired Monday night.
“What you saw happen to us could just as easily happen to any of you who are watching from quiet neighborhoods around our country,” Patricia McCloskey said in video shot from the couple’s home.
READ MORE: What is the ‘defund the police’ movement? 5 questions answered
They criticized efforts to defund police departments and end cash bail, actions for which Black Lives Matter activists and some 2020 presidential candidates have advocated. “It seems as if the Democrats no longer view the government’s job as protecting honest citizens against criminals,” Mark McCloskey said.
The McCloskeys’ role in the RNC programming and their four-minute speaking slot, more time than both Jordan and Gaetz were allotted, speaks to the value they offer Republicans who have positioned the 2020 election as a culture war. But amid the racial unrest, the McCloskeys’ message contrasted with the party’s attempts to win support from Black voters.
Trump has been criticized for his response to the coronavirus pandemic since day one — for his delayed response, repeatedly downplaying the significance of the pandemic,pushing unproven COVID-19 treatments, not expanding testing capacity faster, pushing for early re-opening before the virus was contained, and more. The coronavirus has now claimed the lives of more than 177,000 in the U.S.
But Trump has defended his administration’s response to the pandemic, and in a surprise appearance earlier Monday in North Carolina, where delegates were participating in roll call, he repeated the claim that he and his coronavirus task force prevented “millions” of coronavirus-related deaths.
Speakers featured on Tuesday evening echoed Trump’s claims that the pandemic has been well-handled by his administration. Amy Johnson Ford, a nurse from rural West Virginia, praised Trump for expanding telehealth services to rural and low-income patients through Medicare.
READ MORE: Trust in Trump sinks over COVID-19 as Biden support grows
“As I contended with the challenges of treating our patients who had their worlds turned upside down, I noticed a positive change in our health-care system,” Ford said, adding that Trump made “rapid policy changes” in response to the pandemic. In March, the administration eased telehealth regulations during the pandemic, allowing Medicare patients to receive coverage for such services. This month Trump signed an executive order extending that flexibility indefinitely.
G.E. Ghali, an oral surgeon and chancellor of Louisiana State University’s Health Sciences Center in Shreveport, praised Trump’s “decisive” leadership in clearing away “red tape” on things like rapid testing and drug approval, which he claimed, enabled him to quickly diagnose and treat his own COVID-19 symptoms. Ghali also praised the administration’s “operation warp speed,” which aims to deliver 300 million doses of a COVID-19 vaccine by January 2021.
But recent polling indicates that many Americans do not have the same confidence in Trump’s pandemic response. A PBS NewsHour/NPR/Marist poll found that 53 percent of respondents trust Biden to handle the pandemic better than Trump. Thirty-seven percent trust Trump over Biden, 5 percent trust neither candidate and 5 percent were unsure.
Candice Norwood is a former digital politics reporter for the PBS NewsHour.
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