Trump hopes to dial it up on Night 2 of the RNC: What to watchAugust 26, 2020
Is it time for a plot twist?
That’s the foremost question in my mind after the first night of the Republican National Convention failed to seize hold of America’s’ attention. Despite some stirring individual performances — chief among them, the nightcap speech given by South Carolina Senator Tim Scott — the program dragged for long stretches, lacking any cohesive theme. The proof was in the TV viewership numbers: 15.8 million people watched the first night of the GOP convention, compared to 18.7 million who tuned into the Democrats’ debut last Monday.
If we know one thing about President Trump, it’s that he doesn’t like to be upstaged—particularly when it comes to ratings. The question is: What can he do about it?
With apologies to Sean Spicer, there’s really no use arguing the numbers. What’s done is done. At this point, Republicans have three more nights to put on a compelling, dramatic production that captures the interest of the nation — and the president.
Because the convention is produced remotely — pieced together from different locations, spliced with pre-recorded segments to break up the speeches — it could be tough to improvise. But I’ve got a suspicion that Trump, a career showman who knows entertainment when he sees it, might have a trick or two up his sleeve. What that looks like is anyone’s guess. A surprise guest appearance? An unscripted live recital of of some sort? An impromptu press conference showcasing POTUS clashing with the media?
I don’t know what, if anything, Trump might do to jolt the proceedings to life. But I do know that another night of unimaginative programming — if it’s met with more modest viewership — is going to be poorly received inside the White House.
Here are three other things I’m watching for tonight:
We are family
Last night it was Donald Trump Jr. selling his father’s accomplishments and making the case for four more years. Tonight, his more low-profile adult son, Eric Trump, will take his turn in the spotlight.
Even more compelling will be the address from Tiffany Trump, easily the most private of Trump’s grown children. Because of her relative anonymity and apolitical profile, Tiffany may be better suited than any of her siblings to humanize her dad.
All of the family cameos are, of course, leading up to the grand finale later this week: Ivanka Trump, whom the president has long considered his ace in the hole, particularly when it comes to reaching white suburban women.
Parties always face a delicate balancing act when putting on a convention. They want to highlight the voices of everyday Americans, people from outside the political class who can demonstrate organic support for the party, without putting viewers to sleep. In short: How do you elevate unremarkable people without diminishing the star-power that draws eyeballs?
Republicans didn’t get that balance quite right on Monday. Backloading the biggest draws of the night — Nikki Haley, Donald Trump Jr., Tim Scott — wasn’t a bad strategy. But given the low profile of the other speakers on the GOP schedule, packing those three together made for long stretches of forgettable television earlier in the night.
A glance at Tuesday’s night tentative lineup suggests a similar dilemma. Six of the first seven speakers are people nobody has heard of (the exception being Kentucky Sen. Rand Paul), and honestly, it doesn’t get a whole lot better from there. Paul is the only federal lawmaker to speak; the only other active politicians are the Iowa governor, the Florida lieutenant governor and the Kentucky attorney general. It’s not to say these folks can’t give capable speeches; rather, that they won’t generate the pre-show buzz that attracts casual observers.
The underlying problem with tonight’s plan — and really, with the entire convention — is that Trump’s takeover of the GOP came at the expense of poor relations with many of the party’s most recognizable faces (the Bush family, Mitt Romney, Marco Rubio, Ted Cruz). Part of Team Trump’s strategic approach is to fill that void with everyday Americans, demonstrating the president’s populist aura and his political distance from “The Swamp.” But, as we’re finding out, that tradeoff comes at a price.
Unlike last night, Tuesday’s run of show features only one serious future presidential contender: Secretary of State Mike Pompeo.
It’s a strange — perhaps unprecedented — thing to have a sitting secretary of state address a party’s nominating convention. It also may violate a policy Pompeo approved, regarding Senate-approved appointees appearing at political events. The substance of Pompeo’s remarks will come under special scrutiny because of his role as America’s chief diplomat. Will he stick to foreign policy? Or will he dabble in domestic politics?
The truth is, despite being one of the most powerful men in America, Pompeo might as well be John Doe to the American voter. Most people wouldn’t know him if they saw him; even fewer have heard him deliver a speech articulating his worldview. That makes tonight the coming-out party for Pompeo, a man who by all accounts is very much interested in a future bid for the presidency. You only get one chance to make a first impression. Pompeo, who was gifted the final speech of Tuesday night, had better make the most of his chance.