What Donald Trump couldn’t bring himself to say: Takeaways from RNC night 4August 28, 2020
President Donald Trump had a lot to say Thursday night — and he took his time saying it.
In accepting the Republican Party’s nomination for the presidency, Trump spoke for one hour and nine minutes to an audience of friends, family and political allies gathered on the South Lawn of the White House (and no, most attendees were not wearing masks). His speech consisted of 5,680 words — and that was the prepared text, sans rhetorical side streets.
It wasn’t a terribly effective address. The speech lacked structure and thematic discipline. The president swerved between topics, some of which felt beneath the occasion, and appeared so drained by the marathon effort that he failed to punch through what should have been the most impactful moments. (”Really needed to be edited down and reorganized. A lot of stuff that could’ve been left on the cutting room floor diluted the powerful parts,” tweeted Scott Jennings, the conservative CNN commentator and Trump supporter.)
Trump covered everything he possibly could have wanted to cover: protests and policemen, vaccines and immigrants, trade deals and stock portfolios. He talked tough on China, promoted U.S. manufacturing, promised more school choice and more tax cuts and more world-rocking economic growth, all while reminiscing about winning wars and putting a man on the moon.
This hodgepodge of oratory was wrapped around a warning to America — that Joe Biden, “a Trojan horse for socialism,” would destroy this country as we know it. The president was not content to attack his opponent’s policies, judgment and credentials for the job. He also insinuated that Biden was something of a sexual predator, drawing out a scripted line about his rival giving “hugs and even kisses” to his constituents.
Just about everything Trump has said or done during his presidency was reflected in the address. To use a bit of sports terminology, the president left it all on the field.
But despite the statements and overstatements, Trump’s speech was most notable for what it lacked. Call it humility. Or self awareness. Or introspection. What the president failed to do Thursday is what he’s refused to do throughout his presidency: acknowledge the thing that makes so many people dislike him.
“I want you to know that every moment of every day — late at night, early in the morning — I’m always fighting for you,” Trump might have told the nation. “And yes, every so often, that fighting spirit gets the better of me. But I want you to know, America, that every statement, every conflict, every tweet — even the ones I wish I could take back — comes from a place of love for this country, love for its people, and an unwavering resolve to protect them.”
Imagine Trump saying that. It would lead every broadcast. It would challenge every caricature. It would cause voters to sit up and take notice. No such utterance would negate three and a half years of presidential malfeasance. Purely as a matter of political tactics, however, it could succeed in helping certain voters to move beyond it.
Having spent the past four years talking with voters across the country, I honestly can’t recall a single conversation — be it with a #resistance member or MAGA loyalist — that hasn’t touched on the topic of Trump’s personal comportment. It’s front-and-center no matter where you go or whom you’re talking to. Even the president’s most fervent supporters, after explaining their affinity for him, will stop and say something to the effect of, “His tweets drive me nuts” or “I would never speak the way he does.”
There’s a reason this week’s convention featured a long procession of speakers, from Matt Gaetz on Monday night to Ivanka Trump on Thursday night, explaining Trump’s actions as a means to an end and justifying it as the ugly business of getting stuff done. It’s a recognition that this is the president’s greatest liability — something that is on the mind of voters and permeates the public’s view of everything he touches, from the economy to the coronavirus.
For all the talk of a reality-show presidency, for all the volatility that engulfs the administration on a near-daily basis, the truth is that Trump has become utterly predictable. His unwillingness to change is reflected in the long-hardened views of him on a personal level. That people love Trump or hate him is not unusual, given the job he holds. What is unusual is Trump’s apparent disinterest in challenging those views. Every successful politician adapts and evolves on the job, modulating their disposition to shore up their flank and meet the demands of the moment. This president refuses to budge.
With more than 180,000 Americans dead from a raging pandemic, with tens of millions of taxpayers out of work, with the streets convulsing in anger and heartbreak and violence, the table was set for the president on Thursday night. He could have promised to tame the country by first pledging to tame himself. He could have turned a weakness into a strength, like any savvy job applicant, explaining that his biggest flaw is that he cares too much. Even if insincere, a tacit admission of his own shortcomings — and a vow to improve — could have worked political wonders.
But Trump can’t bring himself to do it. There will be no plot twist at the end of this saga. The leading man is who he is, for better or worse.
Here are other takeaways from the night:
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
Something noteworthy in the speech by Utah Attorney General Sean Reyes: In his prepared remarks, Reyes, recalling the recent death of his father, was set to say: “When he passed, he had by his bedside his Bible, Book of Mormon, family photos and a pen President Trump gave me to give him.”
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.
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.
Ivanka Trump tried to smooth the president’s 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.