“We’re here,” he ad-libbed, gesturing to the White House behind him. “They’re not.”
Trump’s 71-minute speech delivered a version of reality that he wanted America to see, one that diverged from what many Americans are experiencing in a turbulent year but fit a version of MAGA success he’s sold to his base. He and dozens of speakers heralded an outdated record on jobs, congratulated themselves for ending wars that remain ongoing and proclaimed victory against the coronavirus — often referring to it only as the “China virus” or the “invisible enemy.”
“Like those brave Americans before us, we are meeting this challenge,” Trump said, flanked by flags and facing dozens of political appointees shrugging off prohibitions against using government property for politicking.
It was a theme that stretched across all four nights of the Republican National Convention. Many speakers didn’t mention coronavirus at all, even as the outbreak itself forced them to speak in a large empty auditorium. Some merely alluded to troubles the country has faced. Others spoke about the virus in the past tense or in the passive voice. “It was awful,” White House economic adviser Larry Kudlow said in his speech. Rep. Elise Stefanik (R-N.Y.) never uttered the word “coronavirus” or “covid,” but she praised Trump for working to safely reopen our “main street economy.”
And just over nine weeks from Election Day, Vice President Mike Pence focused on opening the country back up despite fears in communities across the nation. “After all the sacrifice in this … year like no other — all the hardship — we are finding our way forward again,” he declared Wednesday.
On Thursday night, speakers spent much of their time discussing one of Trump’s favorite topics — restoring “law and order” in the nation’s Democratic-run cities, some gripped by protests against police brutality and systemic racism. There was a visceral diatribe from Trump attorney Rudy Giuliani about the “vicious, brutal riots” he claimed were plaguing cities. There was an emotional recounting from Ann Dorn of the night her husband, a police captain, was shot and killed during looting at a St. Louis pawn shop.
It was reflective of the entire week that at times seemed to focus on everything but a disease that could determine the election — highlighting school choice, abortion, criminal justice reform, trade, the economy, terrorism, crime.
Trump has been known to engage in revisionism, omission and hand-picking facts. He tends to fixate on specific flattering figures or singular decisions, then reliably hammers those when questioned about any shortcomings. With the coronavirus, the focus has often been on the world-leading number of tests American has conducted — ignoring the country’s lag in per capita testing — and Trump’s decision to restrict travel from China — ignoring the uneven implementation of that ban and the fact that much of the virus transmission came from elsewhere.
On Thursday night, Trump hit on the same themes, touting his travel bans, bragging about the country’s testing prowess and recounting the vast amount of medical supplies his administration has distributed, even though state and local officials said the disbursement has been uneven and not always timely.
Trump hasn’t outlined a national strategy to conquer the virus, despite pressure from his allies to do so, but on Thursday he tried to draw a sharp contrast between his response to the pandemic to what his 2020 rival Joe Biden’s would be if he is elected.
He argued Biden wants to inflict a “painful shutdown” on the entire country that would drive Americans to drug, depression and alcohol, leading to suicides, heart attacks and economic devastation.
“Joe Biden’s plan is not a solution to the virus, but rather a surrender,” he said.
Trump was introduced by his daughter, Ivanka Trump, a senior White House adviser, who offered her sympathies and prayers for those impacted by the virus but insisted it was “more clear than ever” why Trump was right to engage in his trade wars, which she claimed would bring jobs, factories and medicine production back to the U.S. during the pandemic.
The rhetoric was a departure from how the coronavirus was addressed at last week’s Democratic National Convention. There, speakers discussed what the Democrats would do to combat the virus, using the past tense to disparage Trump’s handling of it so far. Biden pledged to implement a national strategy to develop and deploy rapid tests, produce medical supplies and equipment, provide schools the resources needed to open and mandate mask wearing.
The two approaches reflect the chasm between the two parties ahead of the November election, coming amid a pandemic that has already killed more than 180,000 Americans and infected nearly 6 million others — the most of any country. Nearly 30 million Americans — 20 percent of workers — are seeking government unemployment aid as the economy struggles under social-distancing guidelines.
Many Republicans praised Trump for talking about the pandemic, both by touting his own accomplishments, as is expected of an incumbent, and by clearly distinguishing himself from Biden.
For example, Trump claimed credit for saving lives with his China travel ban, a set of restrictions that still let tens of thousands of people into the U.S. from China. While Biden didn’t outright oppose the action, he did criticize Trump for “xenophobia and fear mongering,” a fact that RNC speakers reminded viewers again and again.
In a video that aired the first night of the RNC, the party blamed Democrats, the media and the World Health Organization for bungling the coronavirus outbreak. “One leader took decisive action to save lives, President Donald Trump,” the narrator said. “Banning travel from China and coronavirus epicenters, Biden charged xenophobia. But President Trump was right.”
“I was so relieved that we are clearly back on track,” said Ben Marchi, a convention delegate from Maryland and owner of a business which provides health care to seniors who attended the speech Thursday. “The Democrats and the media, in large part, have done their level best to throw this president off balance.”
A former White House official said Trump had been expected to barely acknowledge the coronavirus but was right to talk about it. “I think it was spot on,” the person said. “He acknowledged the suffering, didn’t gloss over it.”
While Trump’s approach earned him praise from supporters, it’s unclear whether moderate Republicans and swing voters will think he went far enough to address what many consider the biggest issue facing the country.
In another convention video this week, Trump praised a handful of essential workers he spoke to at the White House, but reverted back to his old language. “We just have to make this China virus go away, and it’s happening,” he said.
Much of Trump’s decline in the polls over the past several months can be attributed to his handling of the coronavirus, with some recent surveys showing about two-thirds of Americans disapproving of his efforts.
First Lady Melania Trump was one of the few RNC speakers who struck a decidedly different tone, skipping the typical Democratic attacks and instead expressing her “deepest sympathy” for those who had lost a loved one and acknowledging the pain of families whose lives had been upended. “I want you to know you are not alone,” she said.
Republican pollster Frank Luntz said the first lady handled coronavirus the way Republicans should handle it.
“Express concern, empathy and sympathy for those who have suffered and those who have died,” he said. “Ignoring it doesn’t make it go away.”
While House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy kicked off Thursday night with two mentions of the pandemic — even using the future tense to proclaim, “we will defeat it” — Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell omitted any reference to the virus.
Biden has at times tried to make the 2020 race a referendum on Trump’s response to the coronavirus — alleging a sluggish response and a failure to send enough medical supplies and tests to states, while noting the ongoing lack of a comprehensive contact tracing program. Trump argues that every state received adequate supplies and that he acted swiftly.
Biden has also hammered Trump over his repeated proclamations that the virus would “disappear,” his promotion of unproven treatments and his scapegoating of governors, other countries and the previous administration for any shortcomings in his response.
Trump has also flouted social-distancing conventions during the pandemic, even attempting to hold his mega-rallies with tens of thousands of people, lashing out when others criticized him.
“Unfortunately, from the beginning, our opponents have shown themselves capable of nothing but a partisan ability to criticize,” he said Thursday.
Biden has recently argued that the only way to open the country safely is to tackle the coronavirus first — a dig at Trump, who almost immediately began to focus on restoring the economy within weeks of the pandemic lockdowns, pushing schools and business to reopen even though most states had not yet met benchmarks for easing social-distancing guidelines.
This week, the Democratic Party released a video accusing Trump of failing to meet the moment “with job-destroying incompetence and deadly mismanagement,” and projected a slideshow criticizing the president’s handling of the pandemic on the side of a building near the Mellon Auditorium, where most of the RNC speeches were delivered.
“Unlike the Democratic convention, which was very clear-eyed about the challenges we are facing and how we will tackle them … the Republican convention is designed for one purpose — to soothe Donald Trump’s ego,” said Sen. Kamala Harris, the Democratic vice presidential nominee, in a speech in Washington to preemptively rebut Trump’s acceptance speech. “To make him feel good.”