The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

3 takeaways from the first night of the Republican National Convention

Sen. Tim Scott (R-S.C.) on Aug. 24 said that Joe Biden and Kamala D. Harris will transform America into a "socialist utopia." (Video: The Washington Post, Photo: Jabin Botsford/The Washington Post)

The Republican National Convention began Monday, with a slate full of future leaders of the GOP speaking in favor of President Trump.

Below, some takeaways.

1. A promise of optimism, quickly abandoned

The GOP claimed that this convention would be significantly more optimistic than Democrats’ last week. Most of what we got Monday was decidedly not that.

“The big contrast you’ll see between the Democrats’ doom-and-gloom, Donald Trump-obsessed convention will be a convention focused on real people, their stories, how the policies of the Trump administration have lifted their lives, and then an aspirational vision toward the next four years,” Republican National Committee Chairwoman Ronna McDaniel said over the weekend.

McDaniel got things rolling Monday by saying that “ ‘nice’ guys like Joe [Biden] cared more about countries like Iran and China than the United States of America.”

A medical professional warned that some Democrats’ proposal for government-run health care would mean “we’d be lucky if we could see any doctor.” (Biden doesn’t support single-payer health care, as some Democrats do.)

Former Fox News host Kimberly Guilfoyle, the partner of Donald Trump Jr., offered a particularly bleak picture, saying Democrats “want to destroy this country and everything that we have fought for and hold dear. They want to steal your liberty, your freedom.”

Trump Jr. said, “Biden also wants to bring in more illegal immigrants to take jobs from American citizens,” as if that were Biden’s goal. He added that Democrats are “attacking the very principles on which our nation was founded: freedom of thought, freedom of speech, freedom of religion, the rule of law.”

Even Trump Jr.’s more aspirational messages were repeatedly punctuated by warnings about what Democrats would do.

Cuban American immigrant Maximo Alvarez, in an impassioned speech, suggested Democrats and possibly even Biden are secretly putting the country on a path to communism.

“I’m speaking to you today because I have seen people like this before. I’ve seen movements like these before,” Alvarez said, adding that things he heard from some Democrats “don’t sound radical to my ears; they sound familiar. Fidel Castro was asked if he was a communist. He said he was a Roman Catholic.”

Some of the headliners were less about the “doom and gloom,” notably former U.N. ambassador Nikki Haley and fellow South Carolinian, Sen. Tim Scott (R). Attacks are standard fare for conventions like this, but the thrust of the night was not as advertised.

2. A focus: Combating allegations of racism

One of the focal points — both in the choice of speakers and what some of them said — was the perception that Trump is a racist and that there is a racism problem in the GOP and the country.

The bluntest comments on the former front came from former National Football League running back Herschel Walker, who spoke of his decades-long close relationship with Trump.

“It hurt my soul to hear the terrible names that people called Donald: The worst one is ‘racist,’ ” said Walker, who is Black. “I take it as a personal insult that people would think I’ve had a 37-year friendship with a racist. People who think that don’t know what they’re talking about. Growing up in the Deep South, I’ve seen racism up close. I know what it is. And it isn’t Donald Trump.”

Walker was joined by other Black Trump supporters, including White House staffer Ja’Ron Smith, Georgia state Rep. Vernon Jones (D), Maryland congressional candidate Kim Klacik (R) and Scott (R-S.C.).

Jones provocatively made the case that it was Democrats who were harming African Americans: “The Democratic Party does not want Black people to leave their mental plantation. We’ve been forced to be there for decades and generations.”

Haley, the first Indian American female governor in the country, took a broader pass at the issue, denouncing the idea of systemic racism.

“Here is one more important area where our president is right: He knows that political correctness and cancel culture are dangerous and just plain wrong,” Haley said. “In much of the Democratic Party, it’s now fashionable to say that America is racist. That is a lie. America is not a racist country.”

Haley notably took a stand against the Confederate battle flag at the South Carolina State House after the 2015 mass shooting in Charleston.

Scott spoke of the “evolution of the Southern heart,” suggesting it helped him win election.

Polls have shown half of Americans or more believe Trump is a racist. Trump has suggested that minority congresswomen should “go back” to their countries (despite most of them having been born here) and called a judge of Mexican descent biased against him, which then-House Speaker Paul D. Ryan (R-Wis.) called “the textbook definition of a racist comment.” He also recently retweeted a video that included a supporter saying “White power,” later deleting it but declining to disavow it.

3. Rewriting history on the coronavirus

The novel coronavirus is the issue Trump would rather not have looming over him. Polls show his approval rating on the pandemic dropping into the low to mid-30s, as the death toll climbs ever closer to the upper bound of what Trump himself would constitute a successful response.

But the convention began its prime hours Monday night by focusing on the unavoidable topic — and in one major way attempting to rewrite history.

The convention played a video featuring Democrats and others who, at one point or another, downplayed the severity of the outbreak.

“From the very beginning, Democrats, the media and the World Health Organization got coronavirus wrong,” the narrator said. “The World Health Organization said authorities have found no clear evidence of human-to-human transmission.”

The video then played the following clips:

  • NBC News medical expert John Torres: “Overall, most people should not be terribly concerned about it.”
  • House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.): “Everything’s fine here. We do want to say to people, come to Chinatown. Here we are. Come join us.”
  • New York Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo (D): “We don’t even think it’s going to be as bad as it was in other countries.”
  • New York Mayor Bill de Blasio (D): “Go about your lives. Go about your business.”

The narrator then compared this with Trump: “One leader took decisive action to save lives.”

Left unsaid: All of these comments downplaying the threat came as Trump was doing precisely the same thing — often more forcefully and weeks before he would stop doing so. Some of them also left out crucial context.

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The WHO’s comment was from Jan. 14, very early in the outbreak, and it allowed for the possibility that evidence of human-to-human transmission would arrive, as it soon acknowledged. Torres’s comment was from Jan. 24, the same date we got the country’s second confirmed case, and he followed it up by saying, “You definitely want to pay attention.” Pelosi’s comment was from Feb. 24. Cuomo’s and de Blasio’s were both from March 2.

In fact, Trump would continue to downplay the coronavirus threat for weeks after the latest of those clips — comparing it to the flu, saying on several occasions that it would “go away” and even saying on March 15 that “it’s something that we have tremendous control over.”

Republicans point to Trump’s travel restrictions from China as evidence of his concrete action. But going down the road of “got coronavirus wrong” is a slippery slope.