President Donald Trump accepted the Republican nomination Thursday night before a large crowd on the White House South Lawn, casting himself as an insurgent rather than an incumbent, and recasting his first-term record as a resounding success despite a historic collision of national crises.
Leveraging all the trappings of the presidency, Trump addressed a crowd of more than 1,500 people on the South Lawn, ignoring ethics rules about using the White House for partisan events and public health guidelines about social distancing and avoiding large gatherings during the COVID-19 pandemic.
Sitting close together in narrow rows of chairs, the crowd was mostly unmasked and only slightly larger than the number of Americans who died of COVID-19 on Wednesday.
With nearly the entire country still partly locked down from the pandemic, images of the crowd, gathered before rows of flags and the Truman Balcony bathed in lights, offered television viewers a vivid symbol of White House defiance of public health experts.
Trump is hoping to convince independent voters that he can somehow fix the nation’s devastating health, economic and social crises in a second term that he failed to fix _ and in some cases exacerbated _ in the first. Trump’s latest campaign slogan even acknowledges the need for do-over: “Make America Great Again. Again.”
The night’s speakers largely showcased scary stories about violent mobs in a handful of cities and dire warnings of urban mayhem, but not the pandemic that has killed more than 180,000 Americans and put up to 30 million Americans out of work.
Several high-profile speakers shared the evening’s undercard, including Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., Sen. Tom Cotton, R-Ark., House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy, R-Calif., the president’s daughter and adviser, Ivanka Trump, and Rudolph Giuliani, the president’s personal attorney.
But those willing to shower Trump with unadulterated praise got the most time, including Dan Scavino, his social media director, and Dana White, the CEO of Ultimate Fighting Championship.
Most reelection contests are a referendum on the incumbent, but Trump sought to focus on his opponent instead. He unleashed a fierce attack on the Democratic nominee, former Vice President Joe Biden, according to an excerpt of his remarks released by his campaign.
“At no time before have voters faced a clearer choice between two parties, two visions, two philosophies, or two agendas,” Trump said.
“We have spent the last four years reversing the damage Joe Biden inflicted over the last 47 years. At the Democrat convention, you barely heard a word about their agenda. But that’s not because they don’t have one. It’s because their agenda is the most extreme set of proposals ever put forward by a major party nominee.”
After trailing in polls for months, Trump mixed grievance-laden appeals to his base with more optimistic rhetoric aimed at winning back wavering Republicans and swing voters. He Trump sought to separate his administration’s accomplishments from his polarizing personality and to convince a fractious, nerve-jangled country that his presidency has succeeded.
“The Republican Party goes forward united, determined and ready to welcome millions of Democrats, independents and anyone who believes in the greatness of America and the righteous heart of the American people,” Trump said.
Trump took the stage hours after Hurricane Laura hit parts of Louisiana and eastern Texas, leaving at least four dead and widespread damage, and as the capstone of a four-day convention where nary a speaker acknowledged the growing danger of human-caused global warming, a phenomenon that Trump has dismissed.
Speakers tried to make the case that Biden, a relative moderate in the Democratic Party, “would be nothing more than a Trojan horse for a radical left,” as Vice President Mike Pence said Wednesday.
None acknowledged Trump’s racially charged rhetoric, including his dire warnings of a “war on our suburbs,” after a summer of mostly peaceful protests of systemic racism and police abuses around the country.
The protests, and scattered vandalism, intensified this week after police in Kenosha, Wisconsin, shot Jacob Blake, a Black man, seven times in the back at close range in front of his children.
Although the protests erupted on Trump’s watch, the speakers uniformly blamed Democrats, warning that Biden would make the country less safe.
“You can have four more years of President Trump,” said Pat Lynch, president of New York City’s police union. “Or you can have no safety, no justice, no peace.”
Ann Dorn, the widow of a retired St. Louis police captain who was killed during looting in St. Louis, provided the emotional core of the night’s program. Ann is white; her late husband David was Black.
“Violence and destruction are not legitimate forms of protest,” she said as a single tear trickled down her left cheek. “They do not safeguard black lives. They destroy them.”
Supporters on the South Lawn responded with applause, but Dorn’s appearance was controversial within her own family. David’s daughters told the St. Louis American, a Black newspaper, that their father opposed Trump and wouldn’t want his widow speaking at the convention.
And in a fiery, high-volume speech, former New York City Mayor Rudy Giuliani, the president’s personal lawyer, railed about rampant crime, but his concluding call to action again _ “Mr. President, make our nation safe again!” _ served as a reminder that any current unrest in America is happening on Trump’s watch.
Kellyanne Conway, a counselor to the president, was blunt during a TV interview Thursday morning, explaining that Trump and his campaign view the protests as politically advantageous for the president.
“The more chaos and anarchy and vandalism and violence reigns, the better it is for the very clear choice on who’s best on public safety, and law and order,” she said.
Biden, in his first public appearance of the week, blamed Trump for inciting violence and provoking more protests by sending armed troops into cities.
“He just keeps pouring fuel on the fire. He’s encouraging this. He’s not diminishing it at all,” Biden said on MSNBC, rejecting Pence’s claim in his acceptance speech that people “won’t be safe in Joe Biden’s America.”
“This happens to be Donald Trump’s America. Donald Trump’s America,” Biden said. “The biggest safety issue is all the people dying from COVID. We’re worse off than any other country in the world.”
After lying low for the first three days of the RNC, Biden’s appearances on MSNBC and then CNN, both arranged only Thursday morning, reflected growing concern by Democrats that Trump’s messaging barrage could be registering with swing voters, especially on the question of protests and policing.
Trump took the stage after days of mixed messages on race. Organizers hope that if they can’t draw Black support for Trump, they can lower enthusiasm in Black communities for Biden.