I’m sorry, but I have to be blunt here. Donald Trump’s unreality show Thursday night is not what democracy looks like — or, at least, not what it has ever looked like before in America.
No president had ever used the South Lawn for a campaign speech. No president had ever used the White House — with Trump-Pence signage looming large — as a prop in accepting his party’s renomination.
No other president would, in a time of pandemic, on a day in which more than 1,000 Americans had died of COVID-19, hold an event for 2,000 people, against the advice of all medical science. If you watched, you saw the chairs scrunched together, the faces nearly all mask free, every chant of four more years potentially spreading the virus. Remember social distancing? Apparently Trump doesn’t.
The crowd on the White House lawn served at least two purposes, other than, of course, to cheer Trump on. One, to stick a finger in the eye of all Trump critics. Sure, he’ll misuse the White House. It’s his house. As Trump put it so clearly: “We’re here and they’re not.”
And two, to pretend that COVID is all but vanquished, even if he has to risk the lives of his supporters to make a case that, in fact, cannot be made. We heard time and again, over four days at the RNC, how Trump had immediately taken action once the “China virus” was unleashed upon us, only to ruin the best economy in American history. (Here’s some fact checking on both claims and on the rest of the speech.)
But no matter how many times he said it, it doesn’t make it any more true. America leads the world in COVID cases, in COVID deaths, in COVID presidential blame-shifting.
Over the last two days, as many people have died in America of the virus as were sitting on the South Lawn, where they didn’t belong, where this acceptance speech didn’t belong, where laws have been written to prevent political appointees from attending just such an event at just such a place.
The night is what medical science would call a super-spreader event.
And it’s what political science would call a super-propaganda-spreader event.
Over 70 minutes, Trump blasted Joe Biden, saying that the Democratic moderate who won the nomination by beating his party’s progressives, would be a “Trojan horse” for the American left, that America would not be safe with Biden as president, that socialists were not just hiding under the bed but marching in the streets. It was a lot to put on Biden, who was nominated only because Democrats considered him the safe choice. But that didn’t stop Trump, who even made a joke about the people Biden “kisses,” as if, you know, this was not the same Trump of pussy-grabbing lore.
The speech — a long, long, long teleprompter speech, with little poetry but many misstatements or, hell, let’s just call them lies — was borrowed directly from his inaugural American carnage speech, in which he promised that, under a Trump administration, he would end the reign of lawlessness in America that he and his supporters saw, but which many of us had missed.
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Well, it’s nearly four years into Trump’s presidency, and he is telling us again that America is unsafe while taking no blame himself, of course, but blaming it all on “Democrat”-run cities. If you didn’t buy Trump’s take, he was seconded by Rudy Giuliani, of all people, in a speech so loud you could have heard it from your front porch. But if Trump can’t control these cities now, why should we think he could control them over the next four years?
And yet, here’s what Trump said: “This is the most important election in the history of our country. This election will decide whether we save the American Dream or whether we allow a socialist agenda to demolish our cherished destiny.”
He would later add, “Your vote will decide whether we protect law-abiding Americans or whether we give free rein to violent anarchists, agitators and criminals who threaten our citizens. And this election will decide whether we will defend the American way of life or whether we allow a radical movement to completely dismantle and destroy it.”
And so it went. In the speech, Trump didn’t talk about racial injustice but he did say — I swear — that he had done more for African-Americans than any president since Lincoln. You could look it up.
He didn’t mention Jacob Blake, of course. Or George Floyd. Or Breonna Taylor. He didn’t mention the two demonstrators shot and killed in Kenosha or that police had charged a Trump-supporting, 17-year old vigilante with the killing. As several people have pointed out, Jacob Blake was shot by cops seven times in the back in front of his three children while Kyle Rittenhouse, the accused shooter, walked safely past a phalanx of cops, his gun slung over his shoulder, even as people were shouting that he was the shooter.
MORE: Read Mike Littwin’s coverage of the party conventions and other columns.
Sadly, Trump clearly sees the violence in the streets of Kenosha as a bonus for his flagging campaign. Kellyanne Conway, still his adviser, said as much in a Fox News interview earlier in the day.
As you’d expect, Trump didn’t mention the sports-world boycotts. Instead, he brought in every African-American he could find to speak at his convention to say that, whatever you might think and whatever Trump might have said, the president was not a racist. Meanwhile, Trump stamped LAW and ORDER, as he would tweet it, into every corner of his speech, and assured America that there’d be no law and order if Biden were elected.
Earlier in the day, Biden appeared ready for that charge, saying that “the problem we have right now is we are in Donald Trump’s America.”
“If you want to talk about safety, the biggest safety issue is people dying from COVID,” Biden said in an MSNBC interview. “More people have died on this president’s watch than at just about any time in American history, on a daily basis.”
More than 180,000 have died. That’s not a number you heard at the Republican convention. Trump pledged — promised, vowed — that we would have a vaccine by the end of the year, maybe earlier. Of course, we know about his promises, like his promise that hydroxychloroquine was a miracle drug. Currently, he seems to be overselling convalescent plasma.
The truest thing that Trump said all night was that “Americans are exhausted.” By the end of the speech — if you lasted all the way through, to see the fireworks spelling out “Trump 2020” with the Washington Monument as a backdrop — Trump certainly looked exhausted.
Now that the convention is done, the question is whether Trump made the sale. He wasn’t wrong when he said that the choice between him and Biden could not have been more stark. He’s right, too, I think, when he said that the future of America was at stake.
Before the convention began, Trump was around eight points down in the polls. Don’t be surprised if Trump sees a slight bump from the convention. By Nov. 3, of course, he would need a large bump.
I took some guidance from Trump’s introductory video, in which the narrator said Trump had accomplished more for America in four years than any president in the nation’s history. Yes, he really said that.
If Ivanka Trump had said something similar in her introductory speech, you could have written it off as a daughter/White House adviser praising her father/boss. But this was basically Trump praising himself, in words he had pretty much used before. And I wondered, as I beheld the spectacle that was playing out on my TV screen, what other president would have possibly said anything like that? Lincoln, of little note nor long remember? Washington? Jefferson? Reagan? Obama? Even Trump’s hero, Andrew Jackson?
No, Donald Trump said it. He meant it. And now, with fewer than 10 weeks to go to Election Day, we’ll see whether America buys it.
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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