Of course he had to have a crowd.
The definitive image of the fourth and final night of the 2020 Republican National Convention was President Donald Trump standing at the White House’s South Lawn in front of 1,500 adoring loyalists, packed tightly together, mostly without masks. In contrast to the static but intense close-up that framed Joe Biden during his closing speech at the DNC, Trump’s camera swooped and panned, flaunting the throng that had gathered to give the narcissist-in-chief a standing ovation every three minutes.
Yes, Trump’s team delivered much more spectacle in the night’s final hour than the DNC did in four days (and likely broke the law doing so). Yes, they gave us a taste of pre-pandemic normalcy, with chants of “Four more years!” and “USA! USA!” regularly rising from the crowd. Yes, they got the message across that COVID-19, which has killed 180,000 Americans, is no match for the “warrior in the White House,” as Ivanka Trump called her father during her speech. And yes, it looked like the superspreader event of the year.
Even for a political convention, the 2020 RNC has been a relatively dull affair, and Night 4 hardly picked up the pace. There were a few notable speakers, like Alice Johnson, whose life sentence for a nonviolent drug offense was commuted by Trump (at Kim Kardashian’s urging), and Carl and Marsha Mueller, whose pain at losing their daughter Kayla to an abduction, torture and eventual execution by ISIS is inconceivable.
But for the most part, the rage-inducing series of lies, hyperbole and obvious fear-mongering gave way to a numbing exhaustion. That was never truer than with Trump’s listless, droning, 70-minute speech, during which the candidate himself looked as bored sticking to the script as much of the audience at home. (For frame of reference, Biden spoke for 24 minutes.) In true Trump fashion, the president only showed signs of life when he was sniping at his opponent, taking jabs at the former vice president’s empathy (a word that loses all meaning when it comes out of this POTUS’ mouth).
Trump also clearly relished mocking Biden for giving his constituents “hugs and even kisses” — the latter two words dripping with an insinuating oiliness — apparently expecting the audience to forget the fact that he himself was caught on tape bragging about his pussy-grabbing and that dozens of women have come forward to accuse him of sexual harassment and sexual assault.
Ivanka Trump spent much of her speech, also in front of the White House, harping on the populist talking points that helped her father get elected in 2016. Railing against do-nothing “beltway elites” (presumably a dig at Biden, among others), she positioned herself and Trump as post-partisan, just-get-it-done figures. Her speech wasn’t just unconvincing, but neutralizing of the president’s follow-up address. Trump warned voters that Biden will “demolish the suburbs,” “[destroy] America’s greatness” and serve as a “Trojan horse for socialism” — a pretty full agenda for someone who ostensibly hasn’t done much but hug, kiss and campaign during his nearly five decades of public service.
After a few feints toward national unity at the beginning of his speech, Trump did little else but focus on culture-war issues and tout his (polarizing or not particularly impressive) achievements, including bragging about his handling of the novel coronavirus epidemic and the ensuing economic crisis. (Amid the aftermath of yet another police shooting of a Black man, Trump somehow said, with no trace of irony or shame, “I say very modestly that I have done more for the African American community than any president since Abraham Lincoln.”)
The last half-hour or so of his speech felt like he was reading the index of a book about the RNC, running through all the dead horses that had been relentlessly beaten throughout the convention (law and order, cancel culture, the outright lies that Biden supports defunding the police and the abortion of “defenseless babies right up until the moment of birth”).
It was, in other words, an hour and change of extreme, incendiary rhetoric — the kind of speech that will surely energize Trump’s base, but would likely have little persuasive power over the fence-sitters with an ounce of common sense and a halfway-grounded media diet. (A Google search yields in seconds, for example, an article titled, “Dear Donald Trump: I’m an OB-GYN. There are no 9-month abortions.”)
Trump seemed to acknowledge the shift that took place in the country after the killings of George Floyd and Breonna Taylor by cops by claiming, “When there is police misconduct, the justice system must hold wrongdoers fully and completely accountable.” But then he lost — or ignored — the new pulse of the nation when he followed up with, “and it will,” as if it isn’t precisely because of the fact that law enforcement acts with such impunity that protesters have taken to the streets.
What remains to be seen in November is whether Trump’s out-of-touchness will finally cost him, or whether he’ll once again bend reality to his will.