The first night of the 2020 Republican National Convention is in the books. The event was supposed to be in Charlotte, North Carolina (then Jacksonville, Florida), but mostly featured speeches delivered from a podium in Washington, DC. It felt a little odd, and not just because of the virus-required distancing.
In theory, Monday’s programming was supposed to tell a story about the Republican Party and its ideals and values. In reality, it was mostly about the evils of the Democratic Party — and the one man, Donald J. Trump, that could protect you from it. It told a dark story about America, a place wracked by violence and threatened from within by a corrupt elite, and then asked you to reelect the man who is currently in charge of that country.
And when it touched on the biggest challenge we face — the Covid-19 pandemic — it told a story of a president who confronted the virus and kept us safe, farcical messaging that couldn’t possibly withstand contact with the country’s actual, depressing reality.
Sometimes, the programming buckled under the weight of these tensions. Sometimes, though, things worked the way that Team Trump probably hoped it did. Here’s our rundown of which parts fell into which of those two buckets — and other winners and losers from RNC night one.
Winner: The Fox News cinematic universe
Night one of the Republican National Convention was an evening of fan service. While some of the speakers may have been unknown to casual observers, viewers who spend a significant amount of time watching Fox News (or, following the president’s direction, OANN) would have recognized any number of returning guest characters.
There was Turning Point USA president and frequent Fox News guest Charlie Kirk (the fate of the Falkirk Center, his think tank endeavor with embattled Liberty University President Jerry Falwell Jr. remains unclear). There were personal-injury attorneys Mark and Patricia McCloskey (best known for waving guns at Black Lives Matter protesters and destroying beehives that belonged to the neighboring Jewish Central Reform Congregation). And there was Kimberly Klacik, a Black Republican running to replace the late Rep. Elijah Cummings (D-MD), using an ad produced by Turning Point’s Benny Johnson that got her an interview with Fox News’s Laura Ingraham.
Even the aesthetic was familiar: the shiny lights, smooth hair and unbridled — and occasionally, unhinged — enthusiasm for Donald Trump, all hallmarks of Fox News.
Political conventions always appeal, at least in part, to the party faithful. But if you were an on-the-fence voter, forced to decide between Donald Trump and Joe Biden and tuning into the Republican National Convention for guidance and a path forward, you may have been somewhat unmoored. Who are these people, you might ask, and why are they yelling at me?
If you were a dedicated fan of the Fox News channel — and already planning to vote for President Donald Trump — you would have felt right at home. In short, it was a night for the base. (That is, unless you missed any part of it because Fox News cut away.)
Winner: Nikki Haley
After a parade of speeches by Fox News personalities, viral video stars, and personal injury lawyers known only for threatening political protesters with firearms, former United Nations Ambassador Nikki Haley’s speech felt weirdly normal. She spoke in complete sentences, and in an indoor voice. And she made her case for Trump in a tone normally associated with former governors and not with used car salesmen.
Sandwiched between a video montage warning of the “radical left” and a speech in which a watery-eyed Donald Trump Jr. compared Democratic nominee Joe Biden to the “Loch Ness monster,” Haley’s calm, lawyerly demeanor felt like something from a different convention — or perhaps something from the Republican Party of another decade.
Substantively, Haley’s speech mixed well-trodden Republican talking points from that previous era (Democrats “want a government takeover of health care”), with some of the Trump-era GOP’s greatest hits (Trump “knows that political correctness and cancel culture are dangerous and just plain wrong”). But it also felt like the kind of speech a presidential hopeful delivers to introduce themselves to the nation — including a riff about Haley’s background as the “proud daughter of Indian immigrants.” Haley is widely viewed as a potential contender for the presidency.
Haley, in other words, appears to be betting that, after four or eight years of being governed by Trump’s Twitter feed, Americans will be eager for something calmer and more predictable in 2024. Haley’s speech placed her firmly in a conservative tradition that would continue the Trump White House’s policies if she got that chance. But she also brought a seductive normalcy that’s likely to distinguish her from other Republicans eager to run the same bombastic playbook pioneered by Trump.
Winner: Sen. Tim Scott
Sen. Tim Scott (R-SC) was one of two people to mention the death of George Floyd on Monday night (the other was Donald Trump Jr.) and the only speaker to mention the death of Breonna Taylor, who was killed at the hands of Louisville police during a botched no-knock raid. He is also the only Black Republican currently serving in the Senate; during his remarks at the Republican National Convention, he noted that history, saying, “Our family went from cotton to Congress in one lifetime.”
Unlike many made on Monday night, Scott’s speech was, like the senator, seemingly measured. While other speakers warned that Vice President Joe Biden would usher in a lawless, police-free America, Scott decried Biden’s involvement in the 1994 crime bill. While he criticized the impact of Biden’s economic policies, he stopped short of arguing Biden would put voters’ lives at risk as president.
Scott, who is not a populist, instead struck a more inclusive note: He discussed Opportunity Zones, a favored program of his (and of Ivanka Trump and Jared Kushner) that intends to encourage investment in low-income urban and rural communities by giving preferential tax treatment to those who choose to build and invest. He argued that President Trump had created the “most inclusive economy ever” (a debatable point). And he said that the election was far bigger than either Biden or Trump, adding, “It’s about the promise of America.”
Then he denounced cancel culture because, after all, this was still the Republican National Convention.
Scott’s speech wasn’t a work of soaring rhetoric. But on a night aimed squarely at Trump’s base, his remarks were among the few to focus on an audience beyond Fox News.
Winner: Recep Tayyip Erdogan
One of the Trump administration’s few genuine foreign policy accomplishments is its record on US hostages abroad. The president and his team have struck deals to free a number of Americans held by authoritarian states, and they deserve credit for it.
During the convention, Trump assembled six of these freed Americans and spoke with them in a panel format. It seemed like a good way to highlight a real bright spot — but then Trump turned to Pastor Andrew Brunson, an American who had been detained by Turkish President Recep Erdogan’s government, and praised his captor:
TRUMP: 28 years, right? They had you scheduled for a long time, Andrew. We had to get you back. I have to say that, to me, President Erdogan was very good. You are a very innocent person. And he ultimately, after we had a few conversations, he agreed. So we appreciate that. And we appreciate the people of Turkey. And you still appreciate the people of Turkey, I understand, right?
BRUNSON: I love the Turkish people.
TRUMP: That’s good. It’s great to have you back, Andrew.
Erdogan, Turkey’s strongman leader, personally accused Brunson of having “dark ties to terror group” in order to justify his detention. And here’s Trump, on national television, talking to Brunson about how great he was to Trump personally.
This isn’t unusual: Trump seems to genuinely love President Erdogan. According to reporter Carl Bernstein, he’s one of Trump’s favorite leaders to speak to on the phone:
By far the greatest number of Trump’s telephone discussions with an individual head of state were with Erdogan, who sometimes phoned the White House at least twice a week and was put through directly to the President on standing orders from Trump…
Two sources described the President as woefully uninformed about the history of the Syrian conflict and the Middle East generally, and said he was often caught off guard, and lacked sufficient knowledge to engage on equal terms in nuanced policy discussion with Erdogan. “Erdogan took him to the cleaners,” said one of the sources. The sources said that deleterious US policy decisions on Syria — including the President’s directive to pull US forces out of the country, which then allowed Turkey to attack Kurds who had helped the US fight ISIS and weakened NATO’s role in the conflict — were directly linked to Erdogan’s ability to get his way with Trump on the phone calls.
So it makes sense that Trump would praise Erdogan in this extremely incongruous setting. It’s what he always seems to do: treat dictators as personal friends, and himself as the protagonist of every story (a trait frequently on display Monday).
Though President Trump promised that the RNC would be a hopeful and uplifting affair, Charlie Kirk kicked off night one by calling Democrats “bitter, deceitful, and vengeful.” Things didn’t get much more positive from there.
With the exceptions of Covid-19 magical thinking and Sen. Tim Scott’s (R-SC) remarks, which absurdly praised Trump for healing racial wounds in the country, the case for the president’s reelection was mostly framed in negative terms during the first night of the RNC.
Maximo Alvarez compared Joe Biden to Fidel Castro. Kimberly Guilfoyle said Democrats “want to destroy this country and everything that we have fought for and hold dear,” adding that “they want to steal your liberty, your freedom, they want to control what you see and think. Natalie Harp went as far as to accuse Biden of wanting to abolish doctors.
The message was less that a second term of Trump will help people, and more that one term of Joe Biden will end America as we know it. Instead of selling hope, Republicans sold fear.
Loser: The GOP beyond Trump
Nikki Haley and Tim Scott gave the two best speeches of the night, but the reason they stood out is that they felt out of step with the rest of the two-and-a-half-hour convention.
Speaker after speaker tonight leaned into contentless culture war bromides, conjuring up a vision of inescapable and deep civil conflict that’s defined the Trump era and that’s aimed squarely at the Fox-watching base. Rep. Matt Gaetz, for example, warned that “the woketopians will settle for Biden because they will make him an extra in a movie.” Others accused Democrats of wanting to not only defund the police — a policy the national party has explicitly chosen not to embrace — but of aiming to “abolish the suburbs.”
The spectacle made clear one fact that’s become evident these last four years: This is a party that no longer knows what it stands for, other than hating Democrats and loving Trump. The GOP on display Monday night wasn’t a party engaged in a real battle of ideas with their political opponents. The RNC is a vehicle for the Trump show, a one-man performance of cultural grievance fueled by lies about Democrats.
Haley and Scott’s speeches weren’t that impressive on their own: They were basically normal political speeches that you’d hear at a normal convention. That they felt beamed in from another time and place indicates the current sorry state of the GOP. The Republican Party might want you to think their party after Trump will look like Haley and Scott, but two-and-a-half hours of Trump cheerleading and red-meat rhetoric — and several years of a politics of pure resentment — suggest otherwise.
If you listened to the speakers at the RNC’s first night, you would have heard a story of Trump’s triumph over Covid-19. But as my colleague German Lopez details, reality tells a different story — Covid-19 is winning, and Trump has allowed it to win. And nothing that was said Monday suggests the situation will change soon.
The president is not responsible for Covid-19’s existence. And other countries struggled with their outbreaks initially. But America’s response to the novel coronavirus is one of the worst in the world.
Foreign Policy’s Covid-19 Global Response Index puts the US among the worst-performing countries, along with Mexico, Turkey, Indonesia, Iran, and China. The US has performed more poorly than most of Europe, Australia, Canada, and New Zealand, and several African countries.
Under Trump, the CDC’s top officials have often been sidelined. He resisted masks for months, even as a consensus grew among experts that they could stem the spread of the novel coronavirus. As the New York Times reported, the White House was hoping in the spring and early summer that it could delegate as much responsibility as possible to states. Then cases rose and deaths along with them, up to over 1,000 per day. That is twice what it was early July, though not as high as the peaks in the spring driven by the NYC outbreak.
State governments have gone their own way, with some more aggressively restricting business activity and others more resistant to recommended public health measures like mask-wearing. As some hot spots have cooled off, others have flared up after restrictions on certain business activities were eased.
The US response is, in other words, fundamentally incoherent.
“The biggest problem in the US response is there is not a US response,” Jeremy Konyndyk, who served in the Obama administration’s Ebola response and is now a senior policy fellow at the Center for Global Development, told Lopez. “There is a New York response. There’s a Florida response. There’s a Montana response. There’s a California response. There’s a Michigan response. There’s a Georgia response. But there is not a US response.”
When speakers brought up Covid-19 on the first night of the RNC, it was typically to praise Trump’s leadership, for removing regulatory barriers for drug approvals and vaccine development.
There is some optimism about getting an effective vaccine in what would be record time, with trials underway in the US and the UK. But we don’t yet know which ones will work or how well. And that optimism must be tempered by the cost of Trump’s often-times hostile attitude toward public health experts and blatant political interference in what are supposed to be public health decisions.
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