The Trump Show finale and identity politics: Running takeaways

The Trump Show finale and identity politics: Running takeaways

It’s the season finale of The Trump Convention Show, but don’t hold your breath for a surprise ending.

When Donald Trump accepts the Republican Party’s nomination for president on Thursday night, capping the 2020 GOP convention, he will in many ways be back to where he started five summers ago: observing the wreckage of a battered society, decrying the incompetence of America’s political class and declaring himself the cure to the country’s many ailments.

The difference between tonight and his 2015 campaign announcement — or his 2016 convention address, or his 2017 inaugural, for that matter — is that Trump is no longer the outsider. This government and this political culture and this Republican Party are his. So, while it may still be modestly useful to rail against crooked politicians and violence in the streets, Trump can’t simply fall back on complaining about the status quo. He is the status quo.

Similarly, there are diminishing returns on any attempt to live off the memories of a pre-coronavirus world. It’s true that Trump was in much better shape back in February — as was the economy and the national bill of health. But it’s also true that Covid-19 has changed the country and the electoral equation in fundamental ways.

A reelection campaign is always going to come down to the question, “Are you better off now than you were four years ago?” Earlier this year, the answer for most voters was probably yes. But today it’s an overwhelming no. To that end, Americans don’t want to hear about how well they were doing back in February; they want to hear about how well they’ll be doing next February.

This has been the Achilles heel of the convention: None of the featured speakers, not even Vice President Mike Pence, have attempted to articulate in concrete terms the value proposition of another four years of Republican rule. It would certainly be a plot twist if Trump, perhaps the least policy-minded president in American history, swooped in and rescued the party in this regard, wrapping the convention with a visionary speech that detailed the ways in which he would improve voters’ lives if given a second term in office.

But that seems unlikely. Trump is going to do what he has done in every big moment since gliding down that gilded escalator in the summer of 2015. He’s going to instigate and exaggerate. He’s going to lift up grievances and put down adversaries. He’s going to tie his message together by driving Americans apart. It ultimately doesn’t matter that his campaign has been disrupted by a global pandemic or that his once-humming economy has been crippled because of it. It ultimately doesn’t matter that he’s down big — because even if he were up big, the message would be the same.

Donald Trump is determined to win or lose as Donald Trump.

10:16 p.m. ET

Winning a national campaign requires building a coalition, and having a coalition often requires the reconciliation (or at least, the coexistence) of sharply diverging views. That dynamic was on display Thursday night with regards to two of the final three speakers: Senator Tom Cotton and criminal-justice reform advocate Alice Johnson.

Johnson, who served more than two decades in federal prison, is free today thanks to Trump commuting her life sentence for drug trafficking. In her speech to the RNC, Johnson said, “Six months after President Trump granted me a second chance, he signed the First Step Act into law. It was real justice reform. And it brought joy, hope, and freedom to thousands of well-deserving people. I hollered Hallelujah! My faith in justice and mercy was rewarded. Imagine getting to hug your loved ones again. It’s a feeling I will never forget. And to think, this first step meant so much to so many. I can’t wait because we’re just getting started.”

Interestingly, just 10 or 15 minutes earlier, that same lectern in Washington was occupied by Cotton. The Arkansas senator was the single most outspoken opponent of the First Step Act, both in public and private settings. When the fate of the bipartisan legislation hung in the balance, with Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell debating whether to bring the bill to the floor, Cotton warned McConnell — and any other Republican lawmaker who would listen — that they would “get Willie Horton’d” in their next campaign, a reference to the infamous television ad that played on white fears by telling the story of a black parolee who raped and murdered a woman.

Cotton isn’t just against legislation to lighten sentencing for non-violent criminals; he is for measures to make laws even harsher and penalties even stiffer. “If anything,” Cotton said in a 2016 speech, “We have an under-incarceration problem.”

Politics has always been a game of strange bedfellows. And there’s nothing unusual about a senator breaking sharply with the policy of a president of his party. Still,. hearing from Cotton and Johnson in the space of 15 minutes was a stark reminder of the competing interests that exist inside of the party on issues of race relations and criminal justice.

Come on, man

“President Trump does not dabble in identity politics.”

That was a line spoken by Ben Carson, the world famous neurosurgeon turned presidential candidate turned secretary of Housing and Urban Development, during his address to the Republican National Convention on Thursday night.

Carson is right. Trump does not dabble in identity politics; he dives in head first.

A strong case could be made that Trump has exploited identity politics in ways that no American politician ever has.

Whether it’s telling four congresswomen of color to go back to their countries, or describing majority-Black cities as “infested” by sinister things, or accusing the nation’s first black president of being born in Kenya despite documentary evidence to the contrary, Trump’s political rise is inextricable from his manipulation of racial animus and overt appeals to white grievance.

Carson knows this better than most. Back when they were rivals for the Republican presidential nomination in 2016, Trump, noting that he was a Presbyterian — a “middle of the road” denomination — called into question the legitimacy of Carson’s church. “I mean, Seventh-day Adventist, I don’t know about,” Trump told a crowd. Carson, responding to these remarks a few days later, told the AP: “Donald Trump is Donald Trump. It doesn’t surprise me that he’s doing that. I would only be surprised if he didn’t.”

There is no shortage of hyperbole being deployed at this GOP convention, and more than a few outright lies. But it’s tough to think of any statement more preposterous than, “President Trump does not dabble in identity politics.”

A change in script

But when he delivered the speech, Reyes altered the wording in a slight yet significant way. “When he passed, he had by his bedside his scriptures, family photos, and a pen President Trump gave me to give him.”

Removing a reference to the Book of Mormon — and substituting the word “scriptures,” lingo familiar to evangelical viewers at home — could be coincidental. But probably not.

During his runs for president in 2008 and 2012, Mitt Romney’s membership in the Mormon church was a serious liability with Christian conservative voters. The attempts to demonize Romney for his faith ranged from whisper campaigns on the religious right to crude comments from his rivals, such as when Mike Huckabee, who was his biggest competitor in the Iowa caucuses, said to a reporter from The New York Times, “Don’t Mormons believe that Jesus and the devil are brothers?” At another point in the campaign, Robert Jeffress, the prominent pastor of a Dallas megachurch, denounced Romney’s religion as a “cult” and implored evangelicals to oppose him.

Jeffress’s view of Mormonism was not out of the mainstream of protestant Republican thought back then. And it’s hard to imagine attitudes have changed much since. Given the obstacles that faced Romney—even as the party’s nominee in 2012, Christian activists expressed uneasiness with his religion—it wouldn’t be surprising if Reyes thought at the last minute to strike that reference from his speech, or if a party official either asked him to.

9:08 p.m. ET

One thing continues to strike me throughout this convention — how the duty of humanizing President Trump has been embraced by his staffers rather than his family members.

Tonight, so far, we’ve heard testimonials from two White House staffers that were more intimate than anything offered by the president’s wife or children. Dan Scavino, the White House social media director, told of meeting Trump three decades ago while working at a golf course: “Donald Trump believed in me when I was a teenage golf caddie and he was already one of the wealthiest, most famous people on the planet. He saw my potential, even when I couldn’t. … He saw potential in me. A spark. The possibility that I could be more, do more, and achieve more than even I thought was possible.”

Ja’Ron Smith, a deputy assistant to the president, and one few Black staffers at the White House, told of how Trump has responded to tragedies involving the Black community: “In the wake of the murder of Breonna Taylor, George Floyd, and LeGend Taliferro — a moment of national racial consciousness—I have seen his true conscience. I just wish every American could see the deep empathy he showed to families whose loved ones were killed in senseless violence.”

As I wrote last night, it’s odd that the president’s family members haven’t used their remarks to help give a window into Donald Trump the person. Filling that void tonight—and throughout the convention — has been the job for others.

Here are three other things I’m watching:

More Black voices than ever

An unprecedented number of Black speakers have already been featured at the 2020 Republican convention, part of a strategy designed to not only chip away at Joe Biden’s huge advantage with Black voters but to defang allegations of racism that have turned many college-educated white voters against President Trump.

Republicans will be sprinting through the finish line in this regard. At least three additional Black speakers will be prominently featured Thursday night: White House adviser Ja’Ron Smith; HUD Secretary Ben Carson; and criminal justice activist Alice Johnson.

It can’t be overstated how unique this effort has been. Never in the GOP’s modern history have Black voices been elevated like at this convention. It remains to be seen whether these sustained attacks on Biden’s racial rhetoric help neutralize Trump’s vulnerability on the issue, but Republicans were smart to have Black surrogates leading this effort instead of the president himself.

Like father, unlike daughter

Ivanka Trump doesn’t try to go viral like Donald Trump Jr. or go negative like Eric Trump. Nor does she shy away from the spotlight like Tiffany Trump or Barron Trump. If there’s one Trump child who exerts a normal, steadying — if not always consistent — influence on their father, it’s the president’s oldest daughter.

What Ivanka offers behind closed doors — a mature, cosmopolitan attitude of moderation — is not always (or even often) effective at shaping policy. That much is evident in the president’s rhetoric and behavior, let alone his decisions.

And yet, while he may ignore that voice of relative reason in private, Trump is smart enough to know that it sells in public. This is especially true when it comes to the demographic Republicans worry about most: college-educated white women. In trying to connect with these voters, people around the president say, there simply isn’t a Trump surrogate who compares to his oldest daughter.

For the second time, Ivanka will play the important role of introducing her father ahead of his speech at the convention. And for the second time, she will attempt to redefine his rough edges, presenting him as a man who is so caring and compassionate that sometimes his intensity gets the better of him. It’s not clear this strategy will sell — but if someone’s going to try, it might as well be Ivanka.

2024 vision

There’s only one aspiring president of the United States speaking Thursday night — Arkansas Senator Tom Cotton — and it’s no accident that he’s got the stage to himself.

Unlike many Trump allies in Washington, Cotton has no interest in restraining the president. Rather, he wants Trump unleashed, arguing for an even harder line on almost every issue than what the president’s advisers suggest. In this sense, Trump has come to view Cotton, perhaps more than any other Republican elected official, as a potential heir apparent to the MAGA empire, someone who understands the conservative base and believes in his bones the nationalism Trump preaches.

Cotton’s chief liability is charisma — to be precise, he doesn’t have any. This much has been clear throughout his rise on Capitol Hill. That said, 99 percent of Americans have never seen or heard Cotton during that time. This is his first impression on millions and millions of voters ahead of an almost-certain presidential campaign four years from now. The substance of Cotton’s speech matters, but arguably more important to his national future is the way he presents. He’s spent the past few years in training, working with top Republican consultants to refine his style and inject some life into his delivery. Tonight will be remembered as the launch of the next phase of his career — for better or worse.

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