Opposite Night at the RNC

Trump was portrayed as the empathy candidate who confronted COVID and earned Black voters’ support. Some of it … could work?

Kimberly Guilfoyle smiles and holds her arms out wide from behind a podium that says Trump Pence.
Kimberly Guilfoyle sure gave a speech. Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images

Lili Loofbourow: So, Jordan, we’re not exactly sure whether the first day of the Republican National Convention is over, but it seems to be? My first thought after watching several people testify to Trump’s exceptionally caring nature—which he conceals from the public out of modesty, presumably—was disbelief. Is the RNC trying to make Donald Trump … the Empathy Candidate? Republican National Committee Chair Ronna McDaniel said “she’s seen up close a man who has a deep love for family” and “deep reverence for the office of the presidency.” Rep. Jim Jordan said Trump comforted a member of his family over the loss of his son. Legends of Trumpian empathy were everywhere. It seemed obviously derivative and also—given the blood-and-guts histrionics his base enjoys (hi Kimberly Guilfoyle!)—pretty unlikely to work. Caring about others isn’t what Trump is best known for. What did you make of these wedged-in descriptions that borrowed from the case the DNC made for Biden? Strategically speaking, is this better or worse than Melania plagiarizing from Michelle Obama’s speech?

Jordan Weissmann: Insofar as it is possible to make Donald Trump seem like an empathetic human being, I think the Republican Party did a surprisingly good job tonight. They might have undermined it a bit by having Don Jr.’s girlfriend scream at America like she was about to lead a panzer division into battle. But those soft-focus segments where Trump sat around, talking with voters, were actually a reminder that he can be charming, and that there are people out there who really, truly believe he cares about them, and people like them.

I even found some of them kind of charming in a perverse way. Like, was it objectively appalling when he started yukking it up about hydroxychloroquine? Yes.

Lili: Or when he praised Erdogan to the pastor Erdogan imprisoned?

Jordan: Not great! But also, everyone in those segments seemed to be happy to be around him, and he seemed to be having a relatively good, light-hearted time in the presence of actual human Americans. But I don’t really think that the main point of the night, overall, was to soften Donald Trump’s edges. Instead, it seemed like the RNC was mostly just trying to address his weaknesses, and wherever possible, turn them into strengths.

Lili: If we’ve learned anything since 2016, it’s that Trump’s base doesn’t mind contradictions. That seemed no less true for the “HE CARES” message we were being asked to buy tonight. It wasn’t great! But if you’re in Trumpland, I don’t think it mattered that Herschel Walker—who spoke of his “deep, personal friendship” with Trump—didn’t exactly make an airtight case for Trump’s caring nature. The examples he offered of Trump’s were a) Trump learning about the history of his football team; b) watching Trump answer a phone call from his kid while standing in a boardroom; and c) Trump joining an excursion to Disney World while wearing a suit—this last seemed to imply that Trump was a truly extraordinary father. Does it matter that I do not find these persuasive? Probably not. Jim Jordan offered the most convincing story (of Trump consoling a relative after his son died). But I’m not really sure why they were working that angle so hard.

Jordan: Again, I think it was really just taking the case against Trump and flipping the script. Most of America thinks Donald Trump botched the coronavirus response. Therefore, we got a segment about how he boldly saved American lives with telehealth and by speeding up some therapeutics. Most Americans do not think Donald Trump is a particularly kind and empathetic human being. So we got a number of segments where he sat down and chatted with postal workers and nurses who felt he’d touched their lives (which conveniently gave him an opportunity to explain that he wasn’t really trying to sabotage the mail). Donald Trump does terribly with Black voters and poorly with Hispanics. So we saw a number of Black and Hispanic conservatives show up to vouch for him.

And of course, you and I are going to be skeptical of all that, because our minds are made up about this man. But insofar as there are persuadable voters, it doesn’t strike me as crazy to try to flip those storylines on their head (the other option is to pretend that his downsides are actually good things, but I’m not sure how far you get trying to convince people they should vote for a narcissist responsible for 180,000 deaths). Basically, tonight was opposite night. For you and me, that’s crazy-making. But maybe it worked for some swing voters out there.

Or, to put it another way—imagine what we’d say if he didn’t try to flip those narratives. We’d be criticizing him for just playing to the base!

Lili: The weirdest example of script-flipping, to me, was the well-worn Republican emphasis on safety—which hits pretty differently in a pandemic. But you’re right, we aren’t the audience. Still, it’s weird to watch Matt Gaetz inform the American public that Democrats want to “empty the prisons” and “invite MS-13 to live next door.” Or gas executive Maximo Alvarez warn with great emotion and without apparent irony that Joe Biden—Joe Biden!!—has given every indication of being the next Fidel Castro. I have more than a couple of kooky great-uncles capable of making a similar argument (though with reference to Chile, not Cuba), but when I mentioned the comparison on Twitter as self-evidently bananas, one Trump-supporting QAnon follower replied that Alvarez was quite right: “they’re both communist Dictators who rape children and do #childtrafficking, and work for the Cabal, not the people.” Now, that’s the audience, I guess. And I don’t have much insight into that mindset. But it seems to me objectively true that America has never (in my lifetime) been as unsafe as it is right now—I mean, my God, going to a bar means risking your life! People can’t visit their families for fear of making them ill! This is a genuine safety crisis.

Jordan: I think you’re picking up on the fundamentally discordant thing about tonight’s programming, which is that it paired a lot of the script-flipping with segments that were clearly red meat for the base. So one moment, Hershel Walker is testifying about how his friend Donald Trump is not really a racist. Then we smash-cut to the worst people in St. Louis explaining how Donald Trump is also trying to prevent the suburbs from being overrun by poor folks and crime (subtext: He’s keeping the Black people out).

I’m not saying it all made sense as one package. But I do see why they tried so hard to work seemingly impossible angles.

Lili: Right. Trump infamously refused to do much about the coronavirus. He said it was like the flu, he said it would go away, he said it was the governors’ problem and blamed them for any action they took so he could remain in his base’s good graces. But in the RNC’s universe, it was the Democrats who downplayed the dangers of the coronavirus. Trump saw the gravity of the situation right away! He took “swift action”!

Jordan: And what else is he going to say? My bad? Obviously he’s going to try and reality-distortion-field his way out of this one.

To me, the most interesting parts of tonight were actually the RNC’s appeals to Black men. I think the most important context to understand for it is that, recently, there’s been some polling suggesting that Biden’s support is a bit softer among Black men than Black women. There was a Wall Street Journal poll a while back that showed 92 percent of Black women backed Biden, but only 80 percent of Black men do.

Lili: Is that why so many GOP operatives are working on Kanye West’s candidacy?

Jordan: My guess: absolutely. But the GOP is clearly trying to make a play for them, too. Part of the message is cultural—the “mental plantation” argument that Georgia state Rep. Vernon Jones made, suggesting that Democrats take them for granted, harping on Biden’s “you’re not Black” comment, which was just a totally boneheaded gaffe.

Lili: Yeah, Maryland House candidate Kim Klacik seemed to be making a similar bid when she said, “Joe Biden believes we can’t think for ourselves.”

Jordan: Likewise, they featured a lot of Black faces, for such a lily-white party. There was Walker. Tim Scott as the keynote. They also talked up an actual policy achievement on criminal justice reform. It might be an incremental step forward, but it’s a step. And even though that’s arguably as much a Democratic accomplishment as a Republican one, Trump signed the bill.

Lili: And yet Charlie Kirk started the evening off by calling Trump the “defender of Western civilization.” Very much a both-and approach, I guess.

Jordan: Absolutely. It was like a restaurant where half the menu was vegan and half of it was raw meat you had to tear apart with your bare hands. But all of it was united, in some way, by the idea that Democrats hate and disrespect you, and Trump cares about you. This is the GOP’s version of being a big-tent cult of personality.

Will any of it work? Who the fuck knows.

Lili: I think Kirk bothered a lot of people the most, and I can see why. The contradictions were too thick, the projection was going full-blast. Kirk—for the happily uninformed—heads up Turning Point USA (the co-founder of which died of COVID-19 complications and went unmentioned) and started the night by condemning those who “preserve their own power and enrich themselves, all while rigging the system to hold down the good, decent middle-class patriots striving to build a family and pursue a decent life.” I found it to be a decent enough description of Trump, but of course, he meant Trump’s enemies. And the frantic insistence on distracting from Trump’s mistakes meant that accidental echoes just kept happening. “The American way of life means you follow the law, you work hard,” Kirk said. So far, seven Trump aides have been criminally charged for breaking the law. That includes two of the top advisers from his 2016 campaign. Then there’s a host of others, including Rick Gates, Michael Flynn, George Papadopoulos, Michael Cohen, Roger Stone, and a bunch of smaller fries—for things like conspiracy to obstruct justice, illegally funneling foreign money into Trump’s inaugural committee, and campaign finance violations. Trump has zero interest in following the law. Neither do those closest to him. If that’s what the American way of life means, we’re not exactly on course. Again: That won’t matter to hardcore Trump supporters. But it does actually matter when you’re analyzing a piece of rhetoric.

Jordan You know, I’m noticing an interesting difference in how you and I processed this convention.

Lili: Tell me.

Jordan: You actually appear to have been paying attention to the words, whereas I mostly just sort of watched for the faces and what they sounded like, which I think is how Trump and most Fox News producers watch TV.

Lili: Ha! I’ll try not to make that mistake again.

Jordan: And from that slightly tuned-out perspective, most of it seemed pretty OK, except when it sounded like Kimberly Guilfoyle was about to lead a beer hall putsch.

Lili: Oh yeah, that was intense. I particularly enjoyed it when she slammed California (which is having horrible wildfires right now—I write to you from the smoke) at least partly in order to slam her ex, Gavin Newsom.

Jordan: I want to read an entire book about that relationship.

Also, what was up with crying Don Jr.? That’s going to be a meme now, right?

Lili: That Don Jr. speech was evidently pretaped and I can’t believe they let that be the version they aired. He was almost weeping!

Jordan: It looked like his father had just slapped him and told him to put a suit on.

Lili: I enjoyed it when Don Jr. proudly credited his father with providing “P, P, and E” to health care workers. And I was intrigued by the West Virginia nurse who just really, really liked telehealth. Guilfoyle provided a hell of an incantatory spectacle, but I honestly found it hard to focus on what she was saying. I thought Tim Scott was the most traditional speaker in the bunch; he opened by acknowledging that elections are times when Americans come together—unusually refusing to instantly demonize the other side—and his was the least brimstone-laced vision of the republic.

Jordan: I do think you can kind of link Don Jr. to Tim Scott to Hershel Walker to the McKloskeys with one thread, which is political correctness. The white people at this convention wanted you to know that Democrats are putting political correctness ahead of safety or health (there was a clip of Nancy Pelosi early in the crisis making a trip to Chinatown). And the people of color at the convention—and especially the Black men—wanted other people of color to know that not only was it OK to vote Republican even though it’s not politically correct, but that it would be a brave act of defiance against their intellectual and cultural oppressors in the Democratic Party.

Lili: Right, it’s the familiar GOP argument that political correctness, like affirmative action, is condescending toward the people it aims to serve. (Here, for those who don’t know this stupid talking point, is what really happened with that Pelosi visit to Chinatown.) The pitch is that for Black men, political correctness is a bigger concern than police brutality.

Jordan: But let’s not get distracted from the most important story here. It felt like tonight was a bet that there’s a silent majority of Americans of all colors who think that political correctness is a bigger threat than the coronavirus. At least in swing states.

Lili: And massive unemployment. And the mass evictions that are coming.

Jordan: And you know—I’ve been American long enough that I wouldn’t put it past us.

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