The odds were stacked against Donald Trump and Republicans and their seemingly star-crossed convention. In the last two months the venue was changed twice as coronavirus cases spiked in the Sun Belt after an earlier flattening. Midsummer brought no relief from either police violence against African Americans or the violent response from protesters. As if to cue up the chaos, police officers in Kenosha, Wis., shot a black man in the back Sunday night. It was a depressingly familiar scene, caught on videotape, as was the demoralizing response: rioting and arson.
At the Democrats’ first-ever virtual presidential nominating convention, the focus was on social justice and the underlying causes of unrest. Republicans, it could be inferred from President Trump’s statements, would draw more attention at their convention to the looting and violent crime that is plaguing American cities. Actually, the Republicans’ online convention — at least on the first night — sought to strum more uplifting chords.
Democrats earned favorable reviews for presenting compelling stories from average Americans of every race and creed. Republican image-makers know how to do that, too, but there were whispers that Trump wasn’t relinquishing control of the four-day virtual convention to the event’s producers — that he would rely too much on himself and his reality-television persona to carry the day. His freewheeling populist/unapologetically vainglorious approach worked great for a game show designed to harshly whittle down GOP candidates, and then swept him into the White House. But considering all 2020 has had to offer, the strategy hardly seemed the antidote for a nation still reeling amid a national pandemic and racial unrest.
Trump’s coronavirus task force briefings featuring the same Trump-centric approach were abruptly aborted months ago, only to be replaced weeks later by a more tightly scripted, shorter version still largely defined by the mainstream media’s attacks on him. With mayhem in the streets and pandemic fears on the uptick again, Joe Biden’s lead in the polls expanded to nearly double digits.
At the end of Monday night, however, the consternation and private hand-wringing seemed misplaced. The first night of the Republican convention was a dynamic rebuttal of Democrats’ attempts to cast Trump as an incompetent racist directly responsible for the 170,000 coronavirus deaths America has suffered this year.
Despite the new virtual format and all its constraints, the lineup of live speakers, interspersed with pre-packaged RNC videos and Trump interviewing everyday Americans, smoothly transitioned from one segment to the next at a lively pace and without a noticeable hitch. Republicans also proved capable of presenting compelling, real-life, and eminently relatable Americans telling heartfelt stories about why they not only believe in Donald Trump, but want him in office for another four years.
The standout speakers included bone cancer survivor Natalie Harp discussing Trump’s support for right-to-try access to certain unapproved medicines. Harp was preceded by a captivating testimonial from college and professional football great Herschel Walker, who is a longtime personal friend of Trump’s, and Andrew Pollack, the father of a Parkland school-shooting victim.
Pollack doesn’t blame guns, the National Rifle Association, or Republicans for his daughter Meadow’s death. He blames the school district’s liberal “restorative justice” policies — actively encouraged nationwide by the Obama administration — of avoiding profiling problem students with serious mental health issues.
“I learned that gun control didn’t fail my daughter, people did,” Pollack said. “The school didn’t just miss these flags, they knowingly ignored them,” he contended. He also ridiculed a liberal new policy the school system had implemented, implying it contributed to the shooting rampage.
“I was good with the old version of discipline and safety. It was called discipline and safety,” he deadpanned.
Several of Monday night’s speakers directly challenged the racism charges so often lobbed at Trump last week and throughout his 3½ years in office. Walker said he’s from the Deep South and has seen racism up close and knows what it looks like.
“It isn’t Donald Trump,” he said.
Democratic state Rep. Vernon Jones of Georgia concurred and he punched back harder at his own party.
“The Democratic Party does not want black people to leave the mental plantation,” Jones said. “We’ve been forced to be there for generations and generations. But I have news for Joe Biden. We are free people with free minds.”
It was a stinging rebuke of Biden’s embarrassing comment that “you ain’t black” if you’re still deciding who to vote for. The Democratic nominee for president has said he regrets the remark, but Republicans haven’t let his campaign forget it.
Nikki Haley, a potential 2024 GOP presidential candidate, delivered a polished endorsement of Trump that played upon her status as the daughter of Indian immigrants who grew up in South Carolina and went on to become the state’s governor and then U.N. ambassador.
“America is not a racist country. This is personal for me,” she said. “I was a brown girl in a black and white world. We faced discrimination and hardship, but my parents never gave in to grievance and hate.”
In a deeply personal final keynote speech, South Carolina Sen. Tim Scott, the only black Senate Republican, drove the point home. Democrats, he said, are trying to paint America as racist because they think it benefits them politically.
But strangely enough, the Deep South produced Haley and Scott as two of its leading political stars.
The country isn’t perfect and still has work to do when it comes to racial justice, Scott asserted, but most Americans aren’t fundamentally racist, otherwise he could never have been elected statewide or even in his first House race.
“Because of the evolution of the Southern heart, in an overwhelmingly white district … the voters judged me not on the color of my skin but on the content of my character,” he said, referencing the main theme Martin Luther King Jr.’s famed “I have a dream” speech.
“The truth is,” Scott said, “our nation’s arc always bends back toward justice. We’re not fully where we want to be, but thank God we are not where we used to be.”
The pre-packaged section on Trump’s record of securing the safe return of 50 hostages from 22 countries was another highlight. Trump held a half circle talk with several of the released hostages. It was as humanizing as it gets for Trump, although the president awkwardly stepped on the moment with his remark to freed American pastor Andrew Brunson that Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, who kept him in bondage for nearly two years, was largely responsible for his release and worthy of praise.
“To me, President Erdogan was very good,” Trump bizarrely told Brunson.
There were two other major cringe-inducing performances. One was delivered by the president’s oldest son and namesake. Donald Trump Jr. not only delivered an instantly forgettable speech, it wasn’t even clear why he was chosen to address the convention in the first place. Moments earlier, Kimberly Guilfoyle, Junior’s girlfriend and a senior adviser to the campaign, channeled Evita to an empty hall, arm’s outstretched in triumph to punctuate the ending.
“Stand for an American president who is fearless, who believes in you, and who loves this country and will fight for her,” she bellowed at full volume.
“I heard Kim Guilfoyle’s speech and my TV’s not even on,” Daily Caller reporter Chuck Ross snarked in a tweet. Guilfoyle, an attorney and former Fox News television personality who was previously married to California Gov. Gavin Newsom, is half Puerto Rican, half Irish and often headlines Latinos for Trump events.
The head-scratching delivery later was followed by a much calmer, cheerier recorded package featuring two sisters’ endorsement of Trump. Latina millennials of mixed heritage, they said their parents taught them the values of hard work and self-reliance and to “love this country unapologetically.”
One of the sisters, Madeline Lauf, had started a company that benefited from a PPP loan when the coronavirus economic spiral hit and the company struggled to survive amid the lockdowns.
“It’s now more than ever so important to have a president and an administration that understands that small business is the backbone of our economy,” added Catalina Lauf, who ran for Congress earlier this year but lost her primary.
The pair directly contrasted their beliefs with those of another prominent Hispanic millennial, New York Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, whom they described as dragging the Democratic Party to the far left, at its own peril.
“I have decided to step up and say, ‘Well, we need a counter-voice to these women.’ There has been an assault on capitalism just generally,” Madeline Lauf said. “And I think it’s very scary to imagine a Biden world where the progressive wing of the ideas are starting to take front and center stage. That will really choke the American economy.”
But the speaker who made the most moving and convincing case against a national shift to toward socialism was a much older voice who had escaped Fidel Castro’s Cuba as a boy and lived most of his adult life thriving as a Florida businessman.
Biden and the Democrats last week painted four more years of the Trump administration as an existential threat to the American way of life. Maximo Alvarez flipped that warning with his own gripping tale of fleeing Cuba at age 13 as Castro and his communist regime took control of the island. He described Biden as “mostly concerned about power” and a far leftist masquerading as a moderate who would allow socialist policies to take root in America.
“I’ve seen movements like this before. I’ve seen ideas like this before. I am here to tell you – we cannot let them take over our country,” he said. “I heard the promises of Fidel Castro. And I can never forget all those who grew up around me, who looked like me, who suffered and starved and died because they believed those empty promises. They swallowed the communist poison pill.”
Monday night was the Republicans’ turn to meet their moment – and they got off to a strong start. Whether it’s enough to give Trump to give the convention bump he’d like remains to be seen. But if the next few nights follow suit, Trump’s supporters will get a much-needed shot the arm.