The good news for lefties was that their long-range nightmare of a Trump political dynasty took a huge hit as Donald Trump Jr. and his romantic partner Kimberly Guilfoyle delivered two of the worst speeches ever. But the near-term Democratic nightmare — four more years of Trump Sr. — feels more likely after a program that was otherwise sharp and strong.
I don’t expect everyone to like this assessment. Political conventions aren’t intended for “everyone.” That’s certainly true of a convention stage-managed by President Trump. His métier is conflict. The more it leaves Democrats spluttering with outrage, the happier Team Trump will be.
The opening night was not just provocative. It was audacious at a time when half-measures would doom the struggling president. The GOP went straight to work on Trump’s gaping wounds.
First were the pandemic and the economic damage done. To have any chance in November, Trump must find a way around this terrible news. In multiple forms on Monday — from regular-person testimonials to cunningly edited videos — a story was spun, not entirely true (conventions never are). But it hung together and went like this: The virus didn’t simply emerge from China. It was a deliberate attack by the Chinese Communist Party against the one man on Earth willing and able to stand up to it: Trump. And Trump moved quickly to fight back with new therapies, innovative telemedicine and billions of dollars for a vaccine.
Like Obi-Wan Kenobi playing the Jedi mind trick, the convention thus stepped in front of the rising covid-19 death toll and Trump’s six-month blooper reel of dismissive comments about the virus. “These aren’t the droids you’re looking for,” Republicans told us. Likely, any Americans willing to be so diverted will also be buyers of Trump’s economic argument. To wit: The Chinese coronavirus attack kneecapped what had been a great economy, the architect of which should be rehired to build it back.
Will this work? It is a key question for the fall campaign. Trump is hugely vulnerable on covid-19 and double-digit unemployment. On the other hand, in my conversations with potential Trump voters, his self-crafted profile as a China-fighter is one of his greatest strengths.
Race was the second problem addressed on opening night. Trump’s long record of race-baiting earned him former Ku Klux Klan leader David Duke’s endorsement in 2016, and he recently reached the dismal low of warning “suburban” (read: White) women that New Jersey Sen. Cory Booker (read: large Black man) is menacing their neighborhoods. Three African Americans speaking on Trump’s behalf on Monday won’t erase that record in the minds of Black voters.
But there was another audience in play: White voters who don’t want to believe they are voting for a racist. Even less do they want to believe they themselves are racist. Again, from my conversations with voters, I find a lot of folks who are torn between disgust at continued examples of excessive police violence, and pushback against the idea that American racism goes bone-deep. Strong messages from people of color absolving Trump — and the nation — were aimed directly at those White voters, to help them feel better about voting again for Trump.
The line of the night for them likely came from former South Carolina governor Nikki Haley, the daughter of Indian immigrants. “In much of the Democratic Party, it’s now fashionable to say that America is racist. That is a lie,” she said. “America is not a racist country.” And the speaker of the night was surely Sen. Tim Scott (R-S.C.), the GOP’s only Black senator and, we saw, a force to be reckoned with.
Issue three was Trump’s style. For swing voters, life in Trump’s America resembles the guy hitting his own head with a hammer. Asked why, he replies: “Because it feels great when I stop.” An important part of Joe Biden’s appeal is that he promises to stop hitting us with a hammer.
In this rough world, the Republicans replied, America needs a man who swings a heavy hammer. “Everyone knows he can be tough,” said Republican National Committee Chair Ronna McDaniel of the president. “Tough when he takes on China. Tough when he works to fix our unfair trade deals. Tough when he fights to secure our borders.”
I’m writing this with three more nights to go. Things could get worse for the GOP, but not much better. They proved on opening night that they know where their foundering vessel is leaking, and they manned the pumps rather than abandoning ship.
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