WASHINGTON — President Trump officially accepted the Republican nomination Thursday evening and framed the upcoming election as a stark choice between law and order or anarchy.
“At no time before have voters faced a clearer choice between two parties, two visions, two philosophies, or two agendas,” Trump said, largely sticking to a Teleprompter script while delivering his 70-minute address. “This election will decide whether we save the American Dream, or whether we allow a socialist agenda to demolish our cherished destiny.”
Despite the ongoing pandemic, a new flare of police violence that spurred more civil unrest, and a Category 4 hurricane, Republicans worked to project an image of a president firmly in control of what they portrayed as a largely coronavirus-free country on the rise. More than 1,000 supporters packed the White House grounds on Thursday evening to watch his speech, with few masks in sight, in a spectacle that flouted social distancing guidelines.
The president repeatedly slammed Democratic nominee Joe Biden, calling him “weak” and a “career politician” who would not be able to steer the country out of the current crisis. “Biden is a Trojan horse for socialism,” Trump claimed. “Given the choice he will be the destroyer of America’s jobs.”
The president mounted a fierce defense of “law and order,” claiming unrest following several police shootings of Black people had made police officers afraid. “We have to give law enforcement, our police, back their power,” Trump said, while painting protesters with a broad brush as “anarchists.”
But the president, who gets low marks for his handling of race relations in polls, also boasted of his work for Black Americans, comparing himself to the president who abolished slavery.
“I say very modestly that I have done more for the African-American community than any president since Abraham Lincoln, our first Republican president,” he said.
With the White House glowing behind him, Trump portrayed himself as an outsider who disrupted “Washington insiders” with his trade and border security policies and “ended the rule of the failed political class,” painting a triumphant and upbeat vision of his administration despite the pandemic and its economic fallout. He praised his handling of the coronavirus, which has claimed more than 180,000 lives, and vowed a vaccine would be ready by the end of the year.
Trump trolled Biden for referring to himself as an “ally of the light” in his acceptance speech that framed the election as a crucial choice last week, but the president also portrayed the election as a dire moment. He warned his supporters that Biden would embrace “cancel culture,” threaten gun rights, and usher in socialism.
“If the left gains power, they will demolish the suburbs, confiscate your guns, and appoint justices who will wipe away your Second Amendment and other constitutional freedoms,” Trump said.
It’s unclear if voters will buy Trump’s version of Biden, a moderate Democrat who’s well known to the public.
Leveraging the power of incumbency, Trump delivered his address from the White House’s South Lawn — a first in convention history — followed by fireworks over the nearby National Mall. The made-for-TV spectacle was just one of the many ways the embattled president, who has lagged behind Biden in national and battleground state polls, has used the White House and Washington as a backdrop for the convention this week. The actions have blurred the lines between the president’s reelection efforts and official duties and sparked investigations on Capitol Hill into potential violations of the Hatch Act, which prohibits politicking by federal employees.
On the opening night of the convention Monday, Trump appeared in prerecorded videos shot in the White House’s East Room and the Diplomatic Reception Room. The next evening, he strode through the executive mansion to the tune of “Hail to the Chief,” and hosted a naturalization ceremony for five immigrant candidates in the Great Hall along with acting Homeland Security Secretary Chad Wolfe. First lady Melania Trump closed out the night with a speech in the newly renovated Rose Garden.
The constant reminders of his office appeared to clash with the message of Trump as a political outsider taking on what he called the “Washington establishment” that propelled him to an upset victory in 2016.
“It is a fine needle to thread,” said Doug Heye, a former communications director for the Republican National Committee, on Trump trying to run as both the incumbent and the outsider. “What we ultimately find might be that ‘outsider’ status is in the eye of the beholder.”
The message’s awkwardness was underscored when Vice President Mike Pence vowed Wednesday night that Trump would “Make America great again, again” — a play on the candidate’s original slogan that raises questions about why the goal wasn’t accomplished the first time around. Speakers often elided the ongoing pandemic or flat-out misstated the economic situation, as when Lara Trump praised the president for adding millions of jobs for women since taking office, a figure from March that has now gone into the negative millions due to the economic fallout of the virus. Thousands of Americans died from the coronavirus during the four days of the convention alone, but many speakers downplayed the threat.
Leading up to Trump’s speech, the convention featured emotional appeals attesting to his leadership, including from the widow of a retired police officer who was killed during a robbery amid protests in St. Louis. The parents of Kayla Mueller, an American killed after she was captured by ISIS, said Trump showed “empathy” to them that they did not receive from the Obama administration. Alice Johnson, a Black woman whose sentence was commuted by Trump after celebrity Kim Kardashian interceded on her behalf, said Trump showed “compassion” for her.
Ivanka Trump, introducing her father, admitted that his tweets can be “unfiltered” but said that the “results” he’s delivered for Americans “speak for themselves.”
At times, the convention’s attempts to appeal to a wider audience than Trump regularly seeks led to dissonant moments. On Wednesday night, the president of a police union, Michael McHale, slammed Biden and his running mate, Senator Kamala Harris, alleging she made moves to “restrict” police in the past, while Pence later criticized Biden for saying there is systemic racism in the criminal justice system. McHale was followed by former NFL player Jack Brewer, a Trump supporter who is Black, who accused Harris and Biden of “locking up” Black men with their policies — a charge that ran counter to McHale’s argument and would underscore the systemic racism Pence summarily rejected.
Nevertheless, the convention showed the Trump campaign attempting to soften his image from a culture warrior inflaming his mostly white base with tweets about the Confederacy to one of a hard-at-work president setting aside partisan battles to help a broader coalition of Americans. Several female speakers attested to his personal warmth and support for women, perhaps with an eye to Trump’s historically large deficit with female voters against Biden in recent polling, and Black speakers vouched for his commitment to equality. The naturalization ceremony was aired despite his administration’s crackdowns on legal and illegal immigration.
“The campaign clearly recognized that they need to do better in the suburbs,” said Alex Conant, a Republican strategist who worked on Senator Marco Rubio’s 2016 presidential run. “The convention has its share of red meat, but the overriding theme is one that would appeal to suburban voters.”
The convention also featured outreach to Black and Latino voters, as well as softer appeals to independent voters from South Carolina Republican Senator Tim Scott and former UN ambassador Nikki Haley. But the prime goal appeared to be shoring up support from people who backed Trump in 2016 but have since developed doubts. In recent months, Trump has struggled with older voters and non-college-educated white women who were key to his victory last time, and has faced fierce opposition from many educated white voters in the suburbs.
“The programming is geared at bringing people back in the orbit who were drifting out of the gravitational field,” said Ian Russell, a Democratic strategist. They are generally Republicans who want their stock market portfolios to do well but “don’t like it when the dog whistle and racism becomes an entire horn section.”
But some political analysts doubted the convention would resonate beyond Trump’s base. Ratings lagged behind last week’s Democratic convention on two of its first three nights. Viewership has been down for both conventions compared to four years ago.
“Is it working? Absolutely, it is a good cheerleading section for people who already live in this bubble,” said Mike Madrid, cofounder of the Lincoln Project, a political action committee created by current and former Republicans to prevent Trump’s reelection. “Are they expanding beyond that? I don’t think that is having the effect that they think it is having.”
Follow her on Twitter @lizcgoodwin.