Welcome to the Trump Show. What to watch on Night 1 of the Republican conventionAugust 25, 2020
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.
The friction, which at times boiled over into screaming matches and near-physical confrontations, could be traced to a single source: Donald Trump. Having secured the Republican nomination with a scorched-earth primary campaign, Trump alienated many of the party regulars and arrived in Cleveland with a target on his back. The mood on the convention floor, a mix of ecstasy and dread, reflected the GOP’s internal anxiety with its new standard-bearer.
Four years later, the convention will look 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.
Over the next four days, the extent to which Trump has remade the Republican Party in his own image will be on full display. None of the party’s past presidents, presidential nominees or elder statesmen will address the nation on behalf of the party. Rather than George W. Bush and Mitt Romney, the party of Trump will trot out characters such as Florida Congressman Matt Gaetz and Turning Point USA chairman Charlie Kirk.
Meanwhile, with the party’s policy tank running on empty — as I wrote this morning, they didn’t even bother updating the platform for 2020 — and Republicans will rely heavily on Trumpian rhetoric to sell voters, whether it be exaggerating the progress made on constructing a border wall or sounding false alarms about massive voter fraud via absentee ballots.
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. As Republicans gather this week in Charlotte — not to mention in Washington, D.C., and numerous other places across the country — I’ll be publishing a running analysis in this space, focused on contextualizing the key moments and big takeaways.
With Night One of the convention nearly upon us, here are three 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.
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.