The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

As Trump prepares for GOP convention, Democrats plot their own counterprogramming

Joe Biden speaks in Wilmington, Del., on the final night of the Democratic National Convention on Thursday.
Joe Biden speaks in Wilmington, Del., on the final night of the Democratic National Convention on Thursday. (Toni L. Sandys/The Washington Post)

As President Trump prepares to seize the national spotlight next week for a Republican convention in which he will pitch himself as the country’s last defense against lawlessness and disorder, his Democratic rivals are mounting an aggressive countereffort to brand him as an agent of chaos.

Democrats are preparing to release videos each day highlighting what they view as Trump’s biggest failures and showcasing the stark contrast between the president and his Democratic rival Joe Biden. Top party officials, including House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.), Sen. Cory Booker (D-N.J.) and Gov. Gretchen Whitmer of Michigan, will speak each day.

The party is attempting to cast everything about Trump as chaotic and disruptive, from the way he runs the presidency to what appears on his Twitter feed, from his approach to the coronavirus pandemic to the speaking lineup for his nominating convention.

At the 2020 Council for National Policy Meeting in Virginia on Aug. 21, President Trump said he is "the only one" who can save the United States from "anarchy." (Video: The Washington Post)

“Whereas our themes, our unity and our speakers exude optimism and hope in the face of so many challenges, the Republican convention next week will be marked by chaos, chaos, chaos,” Tom Perez, the chairman of the Democratic Party, said Friday morning.

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With a heavy focus on the theme of law and order, Trump aides are attempting to use the four-day Republican convention to change the upcoming election from a referendum on his presidency and character into a stark choice between a second term and a precipitous national decline under Democratic leadership.

“I’m the only thing standing between the American Dream and total anarchy, madness, and chaos,” Trump said Friday during a speech to a gathering of conservative activists, the Council for National Policy, in Arlington, Va. Shortly after, he said, “If we don’t win, it’s all gone. Okay? It’s all gone.”

The Fix’s Aaron Blake breaks down how the Democratic and Republican conventions impact the 2020 elections and whether each party accomplished their goals. (Video: The Washington Post)

The pitched battle brewing in the days between the two national conventions comes as both parties are using nearly apocalyptic terms to describe the stakes of an election that is a little over two months away.

Democrats sought to rally their party faithful and some moderate Republicans by describing Trump as a threat to democracy, citing his attacks on mail-in voting in particular, and painting Biden as a good-hearted man who would restore integrity and decency to the Oval Office. They plan to continue going on the attack against Trump as he attempts to seize the narrative during four nights of prime-time television next week.

“He’ll do what he always does — lie, scare, distract, divide and make next week all about himself,” Perez said during a call with reporters. “Joe Biden, as you saw, made this past week about the American people, especially those who are struggling.”

Democrats are planning a war room of researchers who will attempt to counter what they expect will be a flurry of misinformation from the president and his supporters. They have themes for each day of the GOP convention, with plans to discuss families on Monday, the economy on Tuesday, health care on Wednesday and, on Thursday, the country as a whole.

Trump, who has taken the mantle of his party’s public response to the Democratic convention by barnstorming swing states this week, offered his most robust rebuttal yet on Friday.

“Where Joe Biden sees American darkness, I see American greatness,” Trump said, addressing a theme of the former vice president’s convention speech the day before. “They spent four straight days attacking America as racist and a horrible country that must be redeemed,” he added. “Joe Biden grimly declared a season of American darkness, and yet look at what we’ve accomplished.”

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After spending several minutes describing his record, in what amounted to a preview of next week’s programming, Trump slipped into a kind of comedy routine in which he mocked several of his political opponents.

He called Pelosi “crazy,” joked about former secretary of state John F. Kerry’s 2015 biking accident in which he broke his leg, described his 2016 rival Hillary Clinton as a “crazed lunatic,” and mocked Biden over the amount of time he spends in his Delaware home amid coronavirus concerns.

Following a Democratic convention that heavily featured testimonials to Biden’s character — with implicit and explicit comparisons to Trump’s brash and cruel language — the president downplayed an issue that some of his advisers see as a significant weakness for his campaign.

“Somebody said, ‘What’s the difference between Clinton and Biden?’ Should I say? Should I tell you?” he said. “Well, Clinton is much smarter, but not a likable person. Joe is not nearly as smart, but he’s more likable. So, you know, I don’t know, maybe I’d rather have the smarter person. Who cares about personality, right?”

With events and speakers next week designed to highlight the country’s cultural divisions and paint Democrats as socialists, Trump and his GOP allies are seeking to convince voters to look past his personality and focus on the policies of his opponents. Republicans have increasingly focused on taxes and the economy in recent messaging, seeking to highlight an area where the president is strongest with voters.

After a week in which Democrats painted Trump as a threat to democracy, Trump plans to plans to counter with a similarly foreboding message about Biden.

“The future of our country, and indeed our civilization, is at stake on November 3,” Trump said Friday, arguing that a victory by “the radical left” would spell permanent destruction.

“The damage that they inflict will not just last a year or an election cycle. It will last for generations and we may never be able to escape,” he said, offering up Democrats’ health care, energy and environmental policies as the catalysts for the dire outcome he described.

Trump plans to travel to North Carolina on Monday, where the official nominating process is taking place. He will deliver his acceptance speech on Thursday from the White House. The list of other speakers expected during the week includes former U.N. ambassador Nikki Haley; Sens. Tim Scott (R-S.C.) and Joni Ernst (R-Iowa); and Patricia and Mark McCloskey, the St. Louis couple who wielded guns at protesters on their private street in June.

The president has mocked Democrats for using taped speeches during their virtual convention, a sign that his events will be showcased live. Trump, who has obsessed over crowd size, is expected to have audiences during his speeches.

Perez drew a contrast in how the Democratic convention was run, with events that were socially distant and speeches given to largely empty rooms.

“I sure hope that the people participating in the convention next week are going to be safe,” he said.

Trump said he planned to use part of his acceptance speech Thursday to praise his administration’s response to the coronavirus. He claimed Friday that the virus, which has already killed more than 171,000 Americans, was “in good shape” and that “we have not been recognized for what we’ve done.”

Democrats are planning to showcase surrogates during the course of the week to offer rebuttals to the GOP convention, including Pelosi, Booker and Whitmer, as well as Rep. Val Demings (D-Fla.) and former South Bend, Ind., mayor Pete Buttigieg. Biden’s campaign declined to say whether Biden — or his running mate, Sen. Kamala D. Harris (D-Calif.) — would have any visible role next week.

Biden’s campaign is exuding confidence, giddy over what it feels were four days of well-produced virtual programming and speeches that helped crystallize its case for the November election.

“We know that the race will also tighten over the next two months,” said Symone Sanders, a senior adviser on the Biden campaign. “But I am here to tell you, we feel very good about our position going into September.”

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The virtual program that Democrats oversaw included a diverse array of speakers. One night, there was a single prominent White male speaker, Sen. Sherrod Brown (D-Ohio), with the visuals instead showcasing women and racial and ethnic minorities. Each night featured Republicans who were supporting Biden.

Trump on Friday attacked Democrats for what he said was a lack of focus on issues he plans to highlight.

“The biggest part of last night’s speech was what Joe Biden didn’t talk about,” he said. “He didn’t talk about law enforcement. He didn’t talk about bringing safety to Democrat-run cities that are totally out of control and they have no clue. China was never mentioned in any way, shape or form. China will own our country if he gets elected. They will own our country, and we’re not going to let that happen.”

Josh Dawsey contributed to this report.