The president flew into Charlotte at midday for an unannounced but not unexpected visit after delegates had nominated him and Vice President Pence for a second time. He quickly set the tone just the way he wanted it, launching into a warning about the Democrats by claiming without any evidence that they are going to try to steal the election in November.
“We caught them doing some really bad things [in 2016],” he said. “We have to be very careful because they’re trying it again with this whole 80 million mail-in ballots that they’re working on.” Later he asserted, “The only way they can take this election away from us is if it’s a rigged election.”
Those are not the words of a confident incumbent, and for good reason. Trump and his campaign have been struggling for months. No matter what they have tried, their efforts have moved polls only marginally, with Biden still in the lead. Trump trails nationally and in battleground states, by margins wide enough that if the election were held now, he would probably lose.
That’s not to say something can’t happen between now and November, but this is the week that Trump needs a reboot. Because it’s not likely he can change impressions voters have of him, whether pro or con, he and others by necessity will have to try to tear down Biden. On opening day of the convention, much of the focus appeared aimed primarily at energizing the already energized. It was left to a few of the final speakers to reach more broadly.
But this convention is Trump’s show. He is the inspiration, the reality TV impresario and, of course, the star of the week. The rest of his party is along for the ride. This one should be called the Trump National Convention.
The 2020 GOP platform, normally a document that highlights a party’s principles, values and policy priorities, consists of one plank: a full-throated endorsement of Donald Trump. His second-term agenda, released Sunday night, consists of a bulleted list of dozens of items, but with no details.
Many of the opening night’s speakers took the fight directly to Biden and his running mate, Sen. Kamala D. Harris (D-Calif.). Last week, Democrats made the choice about character and temperament. The Republicans focused on ideology and culture, warning that Biden and Harris would fundamentally change the country for the worse.
Biden and Harris were attacked as part of a Democratic Party now controlled by its far-left wing who would embrace a socialist agenda, allow rioters to rampage across American cities and seek to defund the police (which is false, as Biden has said repeatedly).
The attacks came from prominent political leaders and from ordinary citizens, from Donald Trump Jr., former U.N. ambassador Nikki Haley, Sen. Tim Scott (R-S.C.) and House Minority Whip Steve Scalise and from Mark and Patty McCloskey, the St. Louis couple who brandished weapons outside their home when demonstrators protesting the police killing of George Floyd passed through their neighborhood.
Haley said a Biden-Harris administration would be worse than the Obama-Biden administration. “Last time, Joe’s boss was Obama,” she said. “This time, it would be [House Speaker Nancy] Pelosi [D-Calif.], [Sen. Bernie] Sanders [I-Vt.] and the ‘Squad.’ Their vision for America is socialism. And we know that socialism has failed everywhere.”
Trump’s son attacked Biden and the Democrats by claiming against the evidence that they want to “cancel the founders” of the nation. “Joe Biden and the radical left are also now coming for our freedom of speech and want to bully us into submission,” he said. “If they get their way, it will no longer be the ‘Silent Majority.’ It will be the ‘Silenced Majority.’ ”
Last week, Democrats warned that, if Trump wins a second term, the foundations of democracy would be at risk. On Monday night, Charlie Kirk, president of Turning Point USA, cast the election as a choice between “preserving America as we know it and eliminating everything that we love.”
The president and his allies have many things to say this week about a record they think is underappreciated. The positive message is that he has kept many of the promises he made in 2016, though that sweeping assertion does not hold up to close scrutiny.
Trump appeared twice from the White House on Monday night, first with front-line workers who have tried to help keep other Americans safe and the economy functioning during the pandemic and later with half a dozen people who had been held hostage in other countries but who were released during Trump’s presidency. The first attempted to show Trump as empathetic and appreciative, the second as strong and effective as a leader.
Trump’s broad message on Monday was that things in this country were good — no, great — before the coronavirus pandemic arrived, with the lowest unemployment rate in half a century, and that things will be great again, and soon.
The missing piece in that message was the here and now — the fact that 173,000 Americans have died of the disease and that there have been more than 5.7 million U.S. cases; the fact that the virus has continued to spread; and the fact that government scientists say the country faces a perilous autumn and winter in the absence of an effective and widely distributed vaccine.
It is that which Trump cannot adequately address. The pandemic is not under control. Millions of Americans are out of work and many have lost benefits they were receiving earlier in the summer. Most schoolchildren are still learning remotely. Colleges and universities that invited students back to campus have been forced to reverse course after virus outbreaks. The stock market, as Trump notes, is doing fine but not yet the country.
The convention aired a video trumpeting what it claimed were effective steps led by the president. What it left out were the false statements — suggesting the virus would magically disappear or suggesting that injecting disinfectants into people could stop it. Missing were the zigs and zags that he took from winter to spring to summer, contradicting experts, berating state leaders who disagreed with him, urging early reopening of state economies that boomeranged.
Americans have judged his erratic handling of the pandemic harshly. Under his leadership, there has been no effective national strategy. A majority of Americans do not trust what he says about the biggest issue of the election.
That is the obstacle that he must try to overcome, starting this week. He and his allies have a story they want to tell this week, one that runs counter to that which the Democrats told last week. For his political future, he must hope that enough Americans will listen with an open mind.