Welcome to the Trump Show: Running notes

Welcome to the Trump Show: Running notes

Four years ago, when Republicans gathered in Cleveland for the party’s nominating convention, a palpable tension invaded the proceedings. There were skirmishes over everything from party rules to delegate commitments, a quashed floor fight and the undermining of invited speakers by the nominee himself.

Four years later, the convention looks completely different — and not just because of the limitations imposed by Covid-19.

Gone is the organized opposition to Trump. Purged are most of the delegates and party officials who voiced unease with his ascent. If the 2016 convention showcased Trump’s bloody conquest of the GOP, the 2020 convention will reflect the party’s surrender to him.

The president’s total makeover of the GOP has been so dramatic, so disorienting, that it sometimes can be difficult to understand what the party is doing and why. That’s where I come in. Here is a running analysis of the program.

10:19 p.m.

During a pre-taped roundtable conversation in which Trump sat with six Americans who were formerly held hostage overseas, only to be freed and brought home by his administration, the president sat listening to an American pastor who had been held in Turkey and faced a 28-year prison term.

After the pastor, Andrew Brunson, shared his gratitude for being brought home, Trump told him, “I have to say, that to me, President Erdogan was very good.”

That would be Recep Tayyip Erdoğan — the brutal Turkish dictator whose government had imprisoned Brunson in the first place.

Trump went on, “I know that they had you scheduled for a long time, and you were 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, who had stared straight forward, motionless, during Trump’s commentary, replied, “We love the Turkish people.”

Trump has gotten himself in hot water before with his paeans to tyrants. But this was especially cringe-worthy, given how Trump’s bizarre annotation distracted from what otherwise was shaping up as powerful, unifying moment.

10:01 p.m.

Trump’s reelection campaign entered this year believing it could peel away a statistically significant chunk of Black voters in 2020, with a particular focus on younger and middle-aged Black men. But that hasn’t panned out. If anything, top strategists in both parties say, the president’s handling of Covid-19 has been so widely panned in the Black community that his performance in cities like Detroit, Milwaukee and Philadelphia could be markedly worse than it was in 2016.

That’s a five-alarm fire for the GOP. To put it plainly: If Biden runs up the score with Black voters, on the strength of huge turnout in the industrial Midwest, Trump’s path to reelection vanishes.

To neutralize this threat, Trump’s campaign is invoking a testimonial strategy. They realize it’s not always compelling to hear white politicians denying accusations of racism; so they’re turning to people who might carry more weight.

The first hour of programming saw appeals from three Black Trump supporters: congressional candidate Kim Klacik, retired football star Herschel Walker and Georgia state representative Vernon Jones.

Their pitch was simple enough: Democrats have taken the Black community for granted — and therefore, have failed them with bad policies. But there was also something more at work. Each of the them — particularly Walker, a longtime friend of Trump’s and easily the best-known of the three — was vouching for the president, insisting that he’s not the racial bigot the left makes him out to be.

Walker’s key passage: “I take it as a personal insult that people would think I would have a 37-year friendship with a racist. People who think that don’t know what they are talking about. Growing up in the deep south, I have seen racism up close. I know what it is. And it isn’t Donald Trump.”

From a strategic standpoint, these sorts of testimonials aren’t about swinging massive numbers of Black voters toward Trump. They’re about preventing a massive swell of intensity against Trump.

9:31 p.m.

Jim Jordan, the arch-conservative congressman and one of Trump’s fiercest allies on Capitol Hill, took an interesting approach to his convention speech.

Republicans are eager to challenge suburban voters’ perceptions of the two parties — specifically, that Democrats are empathetic and compassionate while Republicans are cold and callous. Jordan took a whack at both, deploying a two-part pitch that could be a blueprint for other speakers to follow.

Part One: “Look at what’s happening in America’s cities — all run by Democrats. Crime, violence, mob rule. Democrats refuse to denounce the mob. And their response to the chaos? Defund the police, defund border patrol, defund the military. And while they’re doing all of this, they’re also trying to take away your guns. Democrats won’t let you go to church, but they’ll let you protest. Democrats won’t let you go to work, but they’ll let you riot. Democrats won’t let you go to school, but they’ll let you loot.”

Part Two: “I love the President’s intensity and his willingness to fight. But what I also appreciate is something most Americans never see — how much he truly cares about people. Our family’s seen it. Two years ago, our nephew Eli was killed in a car accident.” After explaining that he was on a call with Trump while walking into the bereaved family’s house, Jordan told of how Trump got on the phone with Eli’s father. “For the next five minutes, family and friends sat in complete silence, as the President of the United States took time to talk to a dad who was hurting. That’s the President I know. That’s the individual who’s Made America Great Again and who knows America’s best days are in front of us.”

It was a surprising anecdote from Jordan, who’s perhaps the least outwardly emotional politician I’ve covered. But clearly, he felt the story was important to tell; it certainly added dimension to a speech that was otherwise aimed at assailing Democratic policies.

9:12 p.m.

Even after everything I have seen and heard while reporting on Republican politics for the last decade, there are still some things that make me stop and do a double-take in disbelief.

Charlie Kirk batting leadoff at the GOP convention is one of those things.

The first speaking slot on the first night of the convention is a chance to grab America’s attention and not let go. Instead, Kirk, the 26-year-old founder of the young conservative organization Turning Point USA, gave meandering remarks that included calling Trump “the bodyguard of Western civilization.”

In one particularly memorable passage, Kirk observed, “This election is the most critical since 1860, when a man named Lincoln was elected to preserve the union from disintegration. This election is not just the most important of our lifetime—it is most important since the preservation of the Republic in 1865.” Hyperbole is part of politics, but Kirk’s commentary foreshadowed just how much of it we’re in for over the coming four days.

Rather than following Kirk with a big name, someone to lend gravitas to the proceedings, Republicans lined up two unknowns: a California school teacher, Rebecca Friedrichs, and a Montana small businesswoman, Tanya Weinreis. (Friedrichs stood on Kirk’s rhetorical shoulders, saying Democrats’ “lenient discipline policies morphed our schools into war zones” and accusing teachers’ unions of “subverting our Republic, so they undermine educational excellence, morality, law and order.”)

It’s important to elevate the voices of the grassroots, but it may have come at the expense of grabbing viewers’ attention at the top of the program.

9:09 p.m.

Fittingly, the first high-profile of the 2020 convention was Matt Gaetz, the Florida congressman whom former Speaker Paul Ryan once dismissed as “an entertainer.”

Gaetz, a Trump loyalist, did not disappoint, giving an impassioned if meandering speech that toggled between questioning Joe Biden’s mental health and hailing Trump as a “visionary.” The most memorable remarks from Gaetz—who self-identified as “a Florida man,” perhaps unintentionally nodding to the bizarre behaviors of Sunshine State citizens — came at the end of his speech, when he tried to justify the president’s own uncouth conduct.

“President Trump sometimes raises his voice—and a ruckus,” Gaetz said. “He knows that’s what it takes to raise an army of patriots who love America and will protect her.”

After a most forgettable kickoff to the convention programming, at least Gaetz got to the point Republicans need to drive home with swing voters: You don’t have to like Trump, you just have to agree that he loves America and will keep you safe.

Here are other things I’ll be watching closely tonight:

A tale of two parties

Tonight will probably offer the sharpest in-program contrast of the week’s planned events.

On the one hand, you’ve got certain speakers on the schedule, such as Gaetz and Kirk, who have zero interest in projecting a serious vision for governing the country and are mostly consumed with amplifying their celebrity on the right. Channeling their inner Trump, they will lean into the politics of identity and grievance to make the case for Republicans as the bulwark against a world gone mad.

On the other hand, Americans will hear from a couple of Republicans, former Ambassador to the U.N. Nikki Haley and Sen. Tim Scott, who have policy blueprints for running the country.

Scott, in particular, has distinguished himself as one of the most thoughtful and decent members of the party. Look for the South Carolinian — the product of poverty in North Charleston, and the only Black person ever to serve in both chambers of Congress — to highlight an agenda that would provide social mobility to the Americans who need it most.

Setting the Tone

Night One will go a long way toward telling us what kind of story Republicans are going to tell America.

Will the message be positive — a celebration of tax cuts implemented, regulations slashed, conservative justices appointed and an economy strengthened for much of the president’s first term?

Will it be sour and cynical — a parade of grievances against the media, the Democrats, the globalists, the Deep State and anyone else who opposes Trump?

Will it be downright dark — a festival of fear-mongering that portrays a coming apocalypse of violence and anarchy that can be thwarted only by reelecting Trump?

In reality, we’ll probably get a healthy combination of all three. But the proportionality is important. Republicans would do well to remember that they are the incumbent party, and that too much moaning about America’s present circumstance is ultimately counterproductive.

2024 vision

This will be a recurring theme all week. Whether President Trump wins a second term or loses to Joe Biden this November, the race to lead the GOP in 2024 will commence in earnest the morning after Election Day. And for a number of aspiring leaders of the free world, this week’s convention amounts to their biggest audition to date.

Throughout the week, Americans will hear from no fewer than 10 potential future presidential candidates. The ways in which these individuals use their time — how they sell voters on Trump, and how they sell themselves — will give us a good window into their theories on the short-term future of the Republican Party and their places in it.

Tonight, the spotlight will shine on Haley in this regard. Scott is also getting some buzz as a sleeper contender for 2024. But the biggest question mark is Donald Trump Jr. The president’s son and namesake has, more than anyone else in the family, displayed a real interest in cultivating political relationships and collecting favors. As Jason Zengerle wrote today in the New York Times Magazine, Don Jr. “has grown into arguably his father’s most valuable political weapon.” If there is to be a Trump dynasty in the Republican Party, tonight could be Don Jr.’s coming out party.

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