The White House. (Unsplash)

The Republican National Convention wrapped up on Thursday night after four days on relatively familiar ground. And even President Donald Trump’s nomination acceptance speech was pretty similar to his other recent addresses. But the way he delivered it — with violations of norms, laws and advice — was what stood out. And that was the point.

Up until that speech, Republicans, to their credit, managed to pull off a relatively normal and professional-looking convention in a year that makes that very challenging.

Unlike the Democratic convention, which included a number of charming but amateurish home videos from people shot on cell phones, the GOP decided to go with a more polished look, bringing their speakers to a few public stages in Washington, D.C.

Seth Masket

The lack of an audience for most speeches was notable, and the fact that many speeches were pre-recorded made some seem very out of touch from a week filled with news.

But it was still possible for a range of convention speakers to deliver punchy speeches echoing Republican talking points on the evils of abortion and environmental regulation, the blessings of school choice and the police, the dangers of radical socialists and the inspirational leadership of Donald Trump. 

But it was the final speech by the president that really stood out, and for a number of reasons.

First, notably, it took place on the South Lawn of the White House. Yes, that was a dramatic setting and a massive break from tradition, as no president has ever accepted his party’s nomination from the White House before. It was also almost certainly a crime.

The Hatch Act of 1939 prohibits the use of government employees and property for explicit campaign purposes. No, the president himself is not bound by the Hatch Act, but other federal employees are.

A striking number of other White House staffers spoke during the convention, including White House Press Secretary Kayleigh McEnany, Presidential Adviser Kellyanne Conway, National Economic Council Chairman Larry Kudlow, Presidential Assistant Ja’Ron Smith, and of course Presidential Adviser Ivanka Trump.

The guidelines on whether convention speeches by White House staff are permissible are a bit contradictory. But whether the White House itself, maintained by government staff, can be used as a political prop really isn’t in doubt.

And Trump made a point of it in his speech. “We’re here, they’re not,” Trump proudly proclaimed, indicating the White House behind him. If the Democrats last week accused Trump of only being president for his own party and his own supporters, Trump seemed to be proudly agreeing to that.

A second way the speech stood out was that it was in front of a large, live audience. Nearly two thousand people sat on the South Lawn to hear the president’s speech. Judging from news coverage, they were seated very close together, few were wearing masks, and none were required to undergo COVID testing prior to attending.

This is deeply irresponsible,” said Ashish Jha, director of the Harvard Global Health Institute. “It goes against all that we know about keeping people safe. We should expect better from our national leaders.”

On CNN, Sanjay Gupta agreed, “There will be people who became infected as a result of that event last night, and there’ll be people who will spread it and possibly require hospitalization, may even die.”

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It was not clear whether the people who attended shared the president’s confidence that a cure is very nearly at hand, or whether they shared a senior White House official’s pessimism that “everybody is going to catch this thing eventually.” But it was a striking conclusion for a convention that largely ignored the 180,000 American deaths that have occurred at the virus’ hands since March.

If the gathering was irresponsible, it was also illegal. Washington, D.C.’s guidelines prohibit mass gatherings of more than 50 people and encourage visitors from some high-risk states to quarantine for 14 days.

So what should we make of the fact that the president’s nomination acceptance speech, the highest profile event of his reelection campaign thus far, explicitly flouted tradition, expert recommendations and the law?

This is entirely the messaging Trump has been using since he first declared his candidacy in 2015. It is not simply that he sees himself as exempt from laws and traditions; he views it as his role to smash those. Indeed, recent reporting suggests that he “enjoyed the frustration and anger he caused” with Thursday’s speech and “relished the fact that no one could do anything to stop him.”

There is a longstanding strain of populism in American politics that views rules as inherently elitist and corrupt, and the undermining of those rules as somehow a move toward equality and fairness.

It’s the same spirit that President Andrew Jackson tapped into when he threw open the doors of the White House to large crowds for his Inauguration party, and the same spirit we see playfully displayed in films like “Animal House.”

It’s also the kind of ethos that has long motivated and sustained authoritarian leaders around the world, with the idea that they truly understand “the people” and are “freeing” them by destroying the rules.

Rule-breaking, norm-undermining behavior is hardly new in American politics, but traditionally, it comes from outside the government. Incumbent leaders are often the ones that seek to protect American institutions and traditions. Trump’s real innovation is that he seeks to undermine those things from within, and makes this effort central to his reelection message.

In fact, typical American voters likely don’t venerate or despise American political traditions as much as government officials do. But for some, if not a majority, undermining those traditions is enough of a campaign message.

Seth Masket is a professor of political science and director of the Center on American Politics at the University of Denver. He is the author of Learning from Loss: The Democrats 2016-2020.

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