U.S. first lady Melania Trump delivers her live address to the largely virtual 2020 Republican National Convention from the Rose Garden of the White House in Washington, U.S., August 25, 2020.
Kevin Lemarque | Reuters
WASHINGTON — The second night of the virtual Republican National Convention was focused squarely on energizing President Donald Trump‘s most loyal voters around the issues they care about.
Restricting access to abortion, protecting Confederate monuments, nominating conservative judges, loosening environmental regulations, attacking the media and protecting the rights of Christian business owners to refuse service to LGBTQ people all received attention from speakers during the two and a half hour program.
The evening was loaded with emotional appeals to the conservative, white Christians who make up Trump’s most dedicated voting bloc, or as the president likes to call them, “my people.”
Polls show that many of these voters see Trump as a crusader for them, someone who shares their fear that America is becoming too progressive and too diverse.
If the first night of the convention felt like a paean to Trump, the second night felt more like a Trump rally. The audience this time wasn’t Trump — it was Trump’s base. And there was something there for everyone: unfounded claims about Democratic nominees Joe Biden and Kamala Harris, questionable economic predictions and personal anecdotes packaged to look like trends.
Fear and loathing
“Biden has pledged to Defund the Police and take away our Cherished Second Amendment,” Eric Trump, the president’s son, falsely claimed in his speech Tuesday. In reality, Biden has repeatedly said he would not do either of those things.
“The Biden-Harris vision for America leaves no room for people of faith,” Cissie Graham, the granddaughter of televangelist Billy Graham, claimed during her speech. In reality, both Biden and Harris are Christians: Biden is Catholic and Harris identifies as Baptist.
But that didn’t deter Graham. “Whether you’re a baker, a florist, or a football coach, they will force the choice between being obedient to God, or to Caesar. Because the radical Left’s god is government power,” she said.
For conservative Christians listening to Graham, her reference to the “baker” and the “florist” would have been a crystal clear: Two landmark court cases regarding so-called religious liberty centered on whether a Christian baker and a Christian florist could deny service to gay people.
Other speakers attacked the media, a favorite pastime of the president’s. Trump’s daughter Tiffany Trump told viewers to “recognize that our thoughts, opinions, and even the choice of who we vote for are being manipulated and invisibly coerced by the media and tech giants.”
Even more extreme was Nick Sandmann, whose interaction with a Native American protester at a rally went viral in 2018. Sandmann claimed he was the victim of “the full war machine of the mainstream media revved up into attack mode,” and accused news outlets of pushing an “anti-Christian, anti-Conservative, anti-Donald Trump narrative” at the expense of the truth.
He sued several outlets over coverage of the incident and settled out of court with two of them, The Washington Post and CNN, which both stand by their reporting.
But there was one element of the night that made it very different from a Trump rally: The iconic backdrop of the White House.
Blurring ethical lines
Trump appeared three times during the night, always at the White House, and in each appearance, Trump used the power of the office itself to reinforce the perception of his political power as a candidate. Using the White House as a prop for a political convention represents a dramatic departure from previous administrations and from ethical norms, both of which sought to keep re-election campaigning separate from taxpayer funded day-to-day life of the president.
In one video, recorded earlier but shown as part of the convention broadcast, Trump pardoned a former bank robber turned non-profit leader, Jon Ponder, in a scene that felt like deliberate counterprogramming to Trump’s election year “tough on crime” message.
In another video, Trump performed a naturalization ceremony inside the White House for several immigrants who were becoming U.S. citizens. Assisted by the setting of Trump’s official residence and his presidential powers, this event, too, felt like it was orchestrated to push back against critics of Trump’s draconian immigration policies.
Trump wasn’t the only one Tuesday who used the trappings of their official taxpayer funded office to campaign: Secretary of State Mike Pompeo did too, with his choice to deliver his pre-taped convention speech from Jerusalem, where he was on official diplomatic travel.
Few locales are more meaningful to conservative Christians than the Holy Land, a fact that surely was not lost on Pompeo.
A rosy picture
While most of the speakers leaned into the anger that has long animated Trump’s base, a few standouts rewrote history in order to portray Trump’s presidency as a great success story, including Pompeo, White House economic adviser Larry Kudlow and the first lady, who delivered what was likely her longest public speech ever.
Pompeo praised Trump’s foreign policy, saying his own family was “more safe, their freedoms more secure, because President Trump has put his America First vision into action.”
In a nod to the damage Trump has inflicted on ties with traditional U.S. allies, Pompeo said, “It may not have made him popular in every foreign capital, but it has worked.” He went on to claim several questionable foreign policy victories for Trump, including that the Islamic State is now “wiped out,” because Trump authorized the killing of ISIS leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi.
Kudlow, too, offered a rosier picture of the where the country is today than many Americans are actually experiencing.
“There’s a big change in attitude happening. The American Spirit is picking up,” Kudlow said after listing several coronavirus economic aid programs that Congress passed and Trump signed this spring. “Car sales are booming. Retail spending is booming. And workers are going to have to produce new inventory to restock those shelves. That means get ready for a big third and fourth quarter, folks,” said Kudlow. “The jobs numbers just keep coming out better than anyone expected.”
But that’s not entirely true. While some companies are bringing workers back, a virus resurgence this summer effectively ended the recovery the began late this spring. Last week alone, 1.1 million Americans filed first-time unemployment claims, a number that was worse than analysts had been expecting.
And while equities markets have recovered much of the value they lost this spring, this doesn’t help the 31 million Americans who are currently receiving some kind of unemployment benefits.
Exactly six months ago to the day from Tuesday, Kudlow claimed in an interview that “We have contained [coronavirus]. I won’t say airtight but pretty close to airtight.”
In the six months since he said that, more than 175,000 Americans died from Covid-19.
The most moving speech of the night was delivered by Melania Trump, all the more memorable for the stark departure it offered from the rest of the convention speakers this week.
She began by addressing the families of people who have died from Covid-19. “Deepest sympathy,” she said, “to everyone who has lost a loved one.”
“My prayers are with those who are ill or suffering,” she said. “I know many people are anxious and some feel helpless, and I want you to know you are not alone.”
On a night when hardly any of the speakers focused on the pandemic, the first lady’s words had an almost calming quality.
She went on to tell her personal story of being an immigrant to the United States, but drew a contrast between her legal process of immigration and the undocumented immigrants her husband has vilified since the first day of his presidential campaign in 2015.
Trump also waded into the racial justice protests that have gripped U.S. cities this summer, and called on Americans to pause and reflect.
“We are not proud of parts of our history,” she said, adding, “I urge people to come together: stop the violence and looting, though done in the name of justice. Never judge anyone based on the color of their skin.”
“Take a moment, pause, and look at things from all perspectives,” said Trump, and “come together in civil manner so we can work and live up to our standard American ideals.”
Trump delivered her speech from the Rose Garden, offering yet another example of an official White House backdrop being used in the service of a political convention.