What we learned from Night 1 of the Trump ShowAugust 25, 2020
The opening act of the 2020 Republican National Convention featured a few strong individual performances but lacked a cohesive theme — like a stage play in which actors read from different versions of a script.
Feeling the heat after last week’s Democratic convention went off without much of a hitch, Republicans produced an effective piece of programming that interwove personal testimonies with roundtable-style conversations hosted by President Donald Trump. Many of the headliners spoke from a lectern in Washington, giving the event a consistency in style that was sometimes missing in substance.
There was talk of heroes and hostages, guardians and destroyers, dreams and nightmares. For two and a half hours in primetime, a procession of politicians, activists, family members and friends made their case for President Trump to receive another four years in office. The arguments in his favor — his economic prowess, his personal fortitude, his leadership vision — were not so much in conflict as they were disconnected, forcing viewers to zig and zag between themes.
Though the start of the proceedings may have been slow, Republicans felt good after finishing the night on a high note. The closer, South Carolina Senator Tim Scott, delivered easily the best speech of the evening, sharing his family’s triumphant story of rising “from cotton to Congress” and injecting much-needed flavor of hope into the production. For all the GOP hand-wringing last week about how dark and gloomy the Democratic convention was, the tone for much of Monday night was every bit as bleak. Had Scott not closed with such a powerful, aspirational message, the first episode of the GOP show might have been a total downer.
Here are my other observations from the night, recorded in real time:
Along with Scott, former U.N. Ambassador Nikki Haley delivered a standout performance. She spoke movingly of a being “a brown girl in a Black and white world,” a daughter of Indian immigrants who faced discrimination in their quaint southern town. She also launched a more coherent attack on Joe Biden’s policies than any of her Republican peers, describing how Democratic rule would devastate the domestic economy and invite trouble abroad.
Haley also brought in the phrase “cancel culture,” saying that Trump “knows that political correctness and ‘cancel culture’ are dangerous and just plain wrong.” This observation ignores some of Trump’s own rhetoric: He recently called for a boycott of Goodyear Tire, and has launched similar broadsides against Apple, General Motors and Macy’s, to name a few corporate targets. He also has gone after celebrities who criticize him and called for countless television and print journalists to lose their jobs.
Haley used a conspicuous turn of phrase that deserves real scrutiny. Remembering the 2015 massacre at Emanuel AME Church in Charleston, S.C ., the former governor described how a white man murdered nine Black parishioners in cold blood. Then, she recalled the brightest moment in her political career: leading the charge to remove the Confederate Flag from the statehouse grounds in Columbia.
It was controversial — and exceptionally risky for someone with the grand aspirations of Haley. But she didn’t flinch. The flag was taken down. And Haley’s political celebrity took on whole new dimension because of it. Which made it strange to hear her on Monday night describe it this way: “After that horrific tragedy, we didn’t turn against each other. We came together—Black and white, Democrat and Republican. Together, we made the hard choices needed to heal—and removed a divisive symbol, peacefully and respectfully.”
“A divisive symbol” is… well, one way to describe the Confederate Flag. It’s certainly divisive in places like Boston and Pittsburgh. But in South Carolina? Well, it’s something more than divisive. It’s a cultural fault line, the subject of a century-and-a-half of hard feelings. Haley knew that when she staked her reputation — and her future — on eliminating it from public view in Columbia. So why the vague language? Why not call it what it is?
I don’t have any special insight into her choice of words. But I do know that Haley—and every other speaker at this year’s convention—is wary of not showing up President Trump. This is his show, and anything seen as self-promotional at his expense could be costly. It’s absurd to think of the Confederate Flag in that way; to think that Haley could be damaged politically by invoking her crusade against that “divisive symbol” just because Trump has embraced it. But the truth is, this goes beyond Trump. He has defended the Confederate Flag for a reason—because he knows a not-insignificant chunk of his base wants him to. Haley was able to split the difference tonight, telling a story that portrays her as being on the right side of America’s racial-justice divide while avoiding anything that could antagonize people on the other side. But if she runs for president in 2024, that approach will quickly prove unsustainable.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.