Ronald Reagan, the candidate Donald Trump most aspires to be, cheerily conjured the image of “Morning in America” in both of his winning presidential campaigns, blunting the edge of the harder-angled conservatism of his earlier career. On the first night of Donald Trump’s Republican National Convention — personally stage-managed by the nominee — a blackout curtain of unrelenting gloom was lowered on the Quicken Loans Center in service of his slogan “Make America Safe Again.”
A majority of Americans see the country on the wrong track, for sure, but polls don’t illustrate a population gripped by widespread death-metal doom. Yet for about two prime-time hours, viewers were hit with a relentless recitation of death, anger, danger, helplessness, blood, murder, fear and terror – graphic stories about Benghazi, crimes committed by illegal immigrants and out-of-control terrorism abetted by Hillary Clinton.
It was no surprise, given the country’s-on-fire tone of Trump’s primary message (His campaign book was titled “Crippled America,” after all) and to some extent it was an unconventional rendition of a conventional convention tactic: Vividly illustrating the perils so that the nominee, who speaks on Thursday, can offer his white-horse optimistic solution to the nation’s problems.
Still, laying out the case for Trump in such stark terms illustrated the weakness of a campaign he calls “a movement” bigger than himself. There’s a fragility to Trumpism in the absence of Trump’s personal presence — what a bummer it was hearing all that lousy news without the leavening of the candidate’s offbeat humor and the power of his personality.
Finally, someone made the convention feel conventional.
After two nights of unusual programming — a blend of obsequious Trump tributes, apocalyptic warnings and inspired testimonials from average Americans — first lady Melania Trump restored a sense of normalcy Tuesday night, closing the GOP convention’s second act with a speech that was remarkable for its restraint and deliberate adherence to etiquette.
"I don't want to use this precious time attacking the other side, because as we saw last week that kind of talk only serves to divide the country further,” she said. "I’m here because we need my husband to be our president and commander in chief for four more years.”
The first lady showed self-awareness in presenting herself as the calm, soothing counterpart to her famously (but, she stressed, not dangerously) volatile husband. Perhaps sensing that the country is desperate for a break from the gusher of bad news, for a reprieve from the polarization and tribal politics that invited her relocation to Washington four years ago, Melania Trump embraced the role of stateswoman on Tuesday, offering a pacifying commentary that could have easily been spoken by any former first lady.
"I'd like to call on the citizens of this country to take a moment, pause, and look at things from all perspectives. I urge people to come together in a civil manner so we can work and live up to our standard American ideals,” she said. “I have reflected on the racial unrest in our country. It is a harsh reality that we are not proud of parts of our history. … Stop the violence and looting being done in the name of justice, and never make assumptions based on the color of a person’s skin.”
Perhaps recognizing how inconsistent such ideals are with her husband’s own record of conduct and rhetoric, the first lady noted, "We all know Donald Trump makes no secret about how he feels about things. Total honesty is what we as citizens deserve as president; whether you like it or not, you always know what he’s thinking, and that is because he’s an authentic person who loves this country and its people.”
These are tough times to sell a product like Donald Trump, an incumbent president struggling to handle multiple overlapping crises. What Melania Trump showed Tuesday night was that, for all the doubts of her political acumen, she can make lemonade better than anyone — using the perch of the president’s office to preach the sort of unity her husband struggles with, explaining that the words on her lips are really a reflection of his heart.
America was introduced tonight to a man they’re not familiar with — the Donald Trump of Mike Pence’s imagination.
More than anyone else in today’s Republican Party, the vice president has mastered the ability to describe his boss in ways that both flatter him and defy realities apparent to anyone who has watched or listened to the president himself.
From the moment he joined the ticket in 2016, Pence has sought to sand off Trump’s rough edges and add shine to his partner’s unvarnished statements. What began as an exercise in translation, however, quickly morphed into a routine of misrepresentation. When Pence spoke at the 2016 convention, and when he represented the ticket during the vice presidential debate that year, he could be mistaken for believing his running mate was Jeb Bush or John Kasich. Pence didn’t just defend Trump from controversy; he often furrowed his brow in confused disbelief, carrying on as if the controversy had never happened, speaking of his running mate as a man who could never be characterized as the sort of demagogue he was made out to be.
Make no mistake: This is a role Pence is playing. The vice president knows full well how Trump has inflamed racist and xenophobic instincts on the right because, back in 2015, he called Trump’s proposed Muslim ban “offensive and unconstitutional.” He knows exactly how crude and misogynistic the president can be because, after the “Access Hollywood“ tape dropped in October 2016, Pence went into a bunker and contemplated quitting the campaign.
That Pence personally knows Trump‘s innumerable flaws but professionally describes him as flawless illuminates not only Pence’s loyalty to Trump but Trump’s loyalty to Pence. For all the breathless intra-party speculation about the president replacing his No. 2 in dramatic fashion, perhaps elevating Nikki Haley to the ticket, that was never going to happen, and for one simple reason: Trump sees Pence as his most reliable, most steadfast surrogate, someone who puts on a positive face no matter how negative the circumstances.
Pence rewarded that faith tonight by doing what he does best: paying homage to the valiant, faultless president most Americans have never heard of.
President Donald Trump had a lot to say Thursday night — and he took his time saying it.
In accepting the Republican Party’s nomination for the presidency, Trump spoke for one hour and nine minutes to an audience of friends, family and political allies gathered on the South Lawn of the White House (and no, most attendees were not wearing masks). His speech consisted of 5,680 words — and that was the prepared text, sans rhetorical side streets.
It wasn’t a terribly effective address. The speech lacked structure and thematic discipline. The president swerved between topics, some of which felt beneath the occasion, and appeared so drained by the marathon effort that he failed to punch through what should have been the most impactful moments. (“Really needed to be edited down and reorganized. A lot of stuff that could've been left on the cutting room floor diluted the powerful parts,” tweeted Scott Jennings, the conservative CNN commentator and Trump supporter.)
Trump covered everything he possibly could have wanted to cover: protests and policemen, vaccines and immigrants, trade deals and stock portfolios. He talked tough on China, promoted U.S. manufacturing, promised more school choice and more tax cuts and more world-rocking economic growth, all while reminiscing about winning wars and putting a man on the moon.
This hodgepodge of oratory was wrapped around a warning to America — that Joe Biden, “a Trojan horse for socialism,” would destroy this country as we know it. The president was not content to attack his opponent’s policies, judgment and credentials for the job. He also insinuated that Biden was something of a sexual predator, drawing out a scripted line about his rival giving “hugs and even kisses” to his constituents.
Just about everything Trump has said or done during his presidency was reflected in the address. To use a bit of sports terminology, the president left it all on the field.
But despite the statements and overstatements, Trump’s speech was most notable for what it lacked. Call it humility. Or self awareness. Or introspection. What the president failed to do Thursday is what he's refused to do throughout his presidency: acknowledge the thing that makes so many people dislike him.
“I want you to know that every moment of every day — late at night, early in the morning — I’m always fighting for you,” Trump might have told the nation. “And yes, every so often, that fighting spirit gets the better of me. But I want you to know, America, that every statement, every conflict, every tweet — even the ones I wish I could take back — comes from a place of love for this country, love for its people, and an unwavering resolve to protect them."
Imagine Trump saying that. It would lead every broadcast. It would challenge every caricature. It would cause voters to sit up and take notice. No such utterance would negate three and a half years of presidential malfeasance. Purely as a matter of political tactics, however, it could succeed in helping certain voters to move beyond it.
Having spent the past four years talking with voters across the country, I honestly can't recall a single conversation — be it with a #resistance member or MAGA loyalist — that hasn't touched on the topic of Trump’s personal comportment. It’s front-and-center no matter where you go or whom you’re talking to. Even the president’s most fervent supporters, after explaining their affinity for him, will stop and say something to the effect of, “His tweets drive me nuts” or “I would never speak the way he does.”
There’s a reason this week’s convention featured a long procession of speakers, from Matt Gaetz on Monday night to Ivanka Trump on Thursday night, explaining Trump's actions as a means to an end and justifying it as the ugly business of getting stuff done. It's a recognition that this is the president's greatest liability — something that is on the mind of voters and permeates the public’s view of everything he touches, from the economy to the coronavirus.
For all the talk of a reality-show presidency, for all the volatility that engulfs the administration on a near-daily basis, the truth is that Trump has become utterly predictable. His unwillingness to change is reflected in the long-hardened views of him on a personal level. That people love Trump or hate him is not unusual, given the job he holds. What is unusual is Trump’s apparent uninterest in challenging those views. Every successful politician adapts and evolves on the job, modulating their disposition to shore up their flank and meet the demands of the moment. This president refuses to budge.
With more than 180,000 Americans dead from a raging pandemic, with tens of millions of taxpayers out of work, with the streets convulsing in anger and heartbreak and violence, the table was set for the president on Thursday night. He could have promised to tame the country by first pledging to tame himself. He could have turned a weakness into a strength, like any savvy job applicant, explaining that his biggest flaw is that he cares too much. Even if insincere, a tacit admission of his own shortcomings — and a vow to improve — could have worked political wonders.
But Trump can’t bring himself to do it. There will be no plot twist at the end of this saga. The leading man is who he is, for better or worse.
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