Something very strange happened late in the evening of the second day of the Republican National Convention.
We were given a glimpse of America as it actually looks today, not the pre-COVID-19 America, not the pre-police-killing-of-George-Floyd America. But this America. The August 2020 America.
And, strangely, the person who delivered that message was Melania Trump, in a speech that was different, certainly in tone, from every speech we’ve heard from the Republican convention, including three from the other members of the Trump family. Over two nights, the Trump adult children took turns attacking the media, attacking Democrats and giving speeches one more grievance-filled than the last.
I couldn’t tell whether the First Lady’s speech, which CNN reported was not vetted by the White House, was a rebuke of her husband’s policies — sometimes it sounded that way — or simply a recognition that the convention was badly missing the mark and that she needed to offer a corrective.
She walked, notably alone, from the White House to the Rose Garden — another prop used by the Trumps in a norm-busting night of props, ranging from different sites at the White House to one as far away as Jerusalem — to deliver a speech to a small audience of, naturally, largely mask-free supporters.
But here’s what it got strange. Melania Trump spoke to a nation which has, yes, seen more than 178,000 die from the coronavirus. And she spoke to the millions who have been affected by the disease. We know what Donald Trump has said about the death total: “It is what it is.”
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And not only Trump. Most of the speakers at the convention, if they mention the virus at all, speak of it in the past tense, as if parents weren’t facing the difficult issue of sending their children back to schools, as if America didn’t lead the world in coronavirus deaths, as if hotspots didn’t keep flaring, as if colleges weren’t struggling to keep their doors open, as if the fall flu season won’t likely hit us hard, as if the economy weren’t in shambles.
That’s not how Melania Trump spoke. She said that everything has changed in America since the virus struck. And, no, she didn’t call it the China virus.
“The invisible enemy, COVID-19, swept across our beautiful country and impacted all of us,” she said. “My deepest sympathy goes out to everyone who has lost a loved one and my prayers are with those who are ill or suffering.”
And then she added: “I know many people are anxious and some feel helpless. I want you to know, you are not alone. My husband’s administration will not stop fighting until there is an effective treatment for a vaccine available to everyone.”
The words themselves hardly seem noteworthy. Anxious. Helpless. Alone. They’re the words that any president, at any other time in the nation’s history, would have spoken long ago. But empathy, as we know, is not the strong suit of the current president. And neither is owning up to any kind of troubling reality, like, say, the economy having turned upside down and all those suffering because of it.
But then she took it another step, if not nearly as large a step as she might have, when she went to the topic of racial injustice. She didn’t mention George Floyd. Only in the night’s opening prayer did anyone mention Jacob Blake. But she did talk about it, and not simply to blame late-night rioting, although she did mention that, too. And she does have her own history, having supported Trump in his ugly birtherism conspiracy.
MORE: Read Mike Littwin’s coverage of the party conventions and other columns.
“Like all of you,” she said, “I have reflected on the racial unrest in our country. It is a harsh reality that we are not proud of parts of our history. I encourage people to focus on our future while still learning from our past. You must remember that today we are all one community, comprised of many races, religions, and ethnicities. Our diverse and storied history is what makes our country strong, and yes, we still have so much to learn from one another.
“With that in mind, I would like to call on the citizens of this country to take a moment, pause, and look at things from all perspectives. I urge people to come together in a civil manner so we can work and live up to our standard American ideals.”
She asked for people to stop the violence “done in the name of justice.” Again, her few words on racial injustice were something that are so obvious and something that any other president would have addressed. Her words stopped well short of getting anywhere near the root of the problem of systemic racial injustice. But at least she said something.
It is something that Republicans, who have run out every Black GOP official they could find, have largely avoided, although the African-American attorney general from Kentucky, Daniel Cameron, did mention Breonna Taylor Tuesday night while also making a very effective takedown of Joe Biden’s if-you-don’t-vote-for-me-you-ain’t-black gaffe.
It isn’t as if Trump didn’t praise her husband. She did repeatedly. She urged his re-election. She said the country needed him. But I couldn’t help noticing that one of the ways in which she praised him was for his honesty. From anyone else, I’d swear that was trolling.
And the fact that Melania Trump gave the speech from the Rose Garden was, of course, problematic in and of itself. It is a political norm that you don’t use the White House as a prop during a political convention. But this was hardly the only time.
We saw a video in which Trump, from the White House, officially pardoned Jon Ponder, a three-time felon who heads a program that helps those in prison transition to life outside. In another video, we watched Trump, the most anti-immigrant president of our time, speak after a naturalization ceremony — some of the new citizens, by the way, hailed from Trump’s list of shithole countries — conducted by acting Department of Homeland Security head Chad Wolf. Some are saying Wolf’s presence violated the Hatch Act, which doesn’t allow administration officials to use their office in a political role.
And then, of course, there was Mike Pompeo, who gave a speech from Jerusalem, where he had been traveling in his role as secretary of state, busting a norm that apparently goes back decades. And, in fact, the State Department had recently issued a memo warning against political appointees engaging in politics. By the way, for all the turmoil Pompeo’s speech has caused, the speech itself was entirely forgettable, as, I’d guess, is his hoped-for shot at a 2024 presidential run.
There were other stories of the night. Pam Bondi, the former Florida attorney general, attacked Hunter Biden and Joe Biden for corruption and nepotism. It’s almost funny to think of the Trumps attacking anyone else for corruption and nepotism.
It gets worse. One of the scheduled speakers, Mary Ann Mendoza was, uh, canceled, because she had tweeted earlier in the day advising followers to read a virulently anti-Semitic thread about a supposed Jewish plot to enslave the world. Don’t bother to Google it. It’s just ugly, old-time anti-Semitism that’s right in line with the QAnon conspiracy theory that Trump is somehow embracing, because, he heard, the Q people like him.
In fact, he has invited GOP congressional candidate Marjorie Taylor Greene, a QAnon follower, to watch his acceptance speech Thursday night at the White House. (Where else?) If you’re not familiar with QAnon, we can sum it up thusly — a conspiracy in which Democrats run a human-trafficking and pedophilia ring. You know, pizza-gate. Greene is apparently a sure thing to go to Congress, and Trump has predicted she will be a GOP star. Yes, he has. Trump also invited Colorado’s own Lauren Boebert, running for Congress from the third CD, who has, of course, flirted with QAnon herself.
It was not something, I noticed, that Melania Trump or, in fact, anyone else at the convention would mention. That’s the Trump — the crazy conspiracy-theory-embracing president — that the entire convention has been framed so that no one would see. Bizarrely, the only person who wants us to see that side of Trump is, well, Trump himself. Yes, he wants us to see that in today’s America. And now that I think of it, after watching one more strange convention night, that doesn’t seem strange at all.
Mike Littwin has been a columnist for too many years to count. He has covered Dr. J, four presidential inaugurations, six national conventions and countless brain-numbing speeches in the New Hampshire and Iowa snow.
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