The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Opinion Trump’s convention was repulsive and dishonest. I fear it was also effective.

The South Lawn of the White House served as the setting for President Trump’s remarks to the Republican National Convention on Thursday.
The South Lawn of the White House served as the setting for President Trump’s remarks to the Republican National Convention on Thursday. (Jabin Botsford/The Washington Post)
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The Republican convention just concluded was repulsive, dishonest — and, I fear, effective.

Start with the hijacking of the White House for the most partisan of political purposes, in the most nakedly partisan way.

I had been prepared to grant convention planners some pandemic leeway. Silly me. To see the supporters packed onto the South Lawn, unmasked cheek by undistanced jowl, for the president’s acceptance speech Thursday night was to underscore that the night was about deploying the venue in the service of reelection. President Trump was triumphant about it: “The fact is, we are here and they are not.”

The gross misuse of public resources — more than that, of public symbols and presidential authority — was beyond imagining. Trump turned core executive powers into made-for-television, partisan spectacles. He commandeered newly minted citizens in a naturalization ceremony that belied the anti-immigrant fever central to his presidency.

Having spent his tenure debasing the power of clemency to reward political allies, he turned it into reality TV, once again helping himself rather than dispensing justice. By the time the fireworks ignited over the Washington Monument, spelling out “Trump” and “2020,” the death of outrage was complete.

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At this stage of the Trump presidency, dishonesty is built so thoroughly into the baseline of who he is and what he does that it is tempting to ignore. So skip quickly through the usual galling array of factual misstatements. Like this, from the president who has spent his administration trying to dismantle the Affordable Care Act in Congress and the courts, without offering an alternative: “We will always and very strongly protect patients with preexisting conditions.”

Ignore, too, the chest-thumping — “the greatest economy in history”; “I say very modestly I have done more for the African American community than any president since Abraham Lincoln” — and his allies’ smears against the Democratic nominee. Those whizzed by too fast to digest, which was also by design. (One remark by one surrogate stands out for its calumny: former Notre Dame football coach Lou Holtz, slandering Joe Biden as a “Catholic in name only,” a slur so outrageous that Notre Dame’s president was moved to rebuke Holtz.)

Concentrate, instead, on two areas of core misdirection: that Trump has handled the coronavirus pandemic brilliantly, and that Biden is a scary socialist. For all the convention’s flagrant disregard of public health guidelines, its speakers were even more flagrant in ignoring the extent and damage of the pandemic (economic adviser Larry Kudlow spoke of it in the past tense, on a day when 1,152 additional deaths were reported) and in praising the president’s supposedly effective handling of a virus whose danger he diminished and whose spread he permitted to flourish.

Trump, of course, outdoes all the rest. “To save as many lives as possible, we are focusing on the science, the facts and the data,” he proclaimed Thursday night — this on a day when his administration was forced to backtrack on its advice against testing for those exposed to covid-19 and not showing symptoms.

And then there was the sliming of Biden. “The hard truth is, you won’t be safe in Joe Biden’s America,” Vice President Pence warned on Wednesday — and then Trump took it up a notch.

The typical approach, especially for an incumbent president, is to rise above, to speak blandly of “my opponent” without deigning to name names. In acceptance speeches dating back to Richard Nixon, the eight incumbent presidents combined to mention their opponents by name only a dozen or so times, often with a measure of graciousness. Biden didn’t utter Trump’s name once during his speech; Trump named-checked him 40 times, as a weak-willed, job-destroying, tax-hiking, China-cosseting, police-hating radical.

“Biden is a Trojan horse for socialism,” Trump warned.

That this bears no resemblance to the actual Biden, to his lengthy record or his current platform, is of no import to Trump or his supporters.

Which brings us to the question of effectiveness. The convention represented a concerted exercise in packaging — or repackaging — two very different Trumps: empathetic, big-tent, Trump and “American carnage” Trump.

Empathetic Trump loves his grandchildren (says Ivanka Trump), champions women (says Kellyanne Conway) and worries over his aides (says Kayleigh McEnany). This ostentatious inclusiveness — there had to have been more Black speakers at the convention than in the audience Thursday night — betokens (pun intended) a big heart. This has the potentially dual benefit of appealing to suburban women turned off by Trump’s antics and to Black men in battleground states.

Carnage Trump, seizing on “the rioting, looting, arson and violence we have seen in Democrat-run cities,” ignores the actual damage that actual Trump has wrought and invokes imaginary damage that Biden and his crowd would bring.

If this line of argument, which elides the police actions that sparked such protests, might not sit so well with Black men, consistency has never been Trump’s strong point. The clear goal is to rile up the GOP base and scare the wits out of those suburban women. “The more chaos and anarchy and vandalism and violence reigns, the better it is for the very clear choice on who’s best on public safety and law and order,” Conway told “Fox & Friends” before Trump’s speech.

Will this work? Even in normal times, even with normal levels of viewership, conventions themselves have limited impact. But the convention message offers an unsettling glimpse of the ugly weeks to come — and a challenge to Biden and Democrats to craft an effective response.

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Read more:

The Post’s View: Trump desecrates a public monument in the finale to a convention of lies

Paul Waldman: So far, Trump’s fearmongering about Biden destroying America isn’t working

Hugh Hewitt: I didn’t think the GOP had a great virtual convention in it. But it did.

Dana Milbank: Trump presented the mother of all fabrications on the White House lawn

Marc A. Thiessen: The RNC did what it needed to: Give reluctant voters permission to pick Trump