The Problem With the New Trump Sales Pitch Is Trump

Night Four of the RNC ended with the same old president.

The Trump family stands in front of the White House at night. Their image is reflected in the screen of a teleprompter.
Donald Trump with Tiffany Trump, Melania Trump, Barron Trump, and grandson Theodore James Kushner after delivering his acceptance speech for the Republican Party nomination on the South Lawn of the White House on Thursday. Brendan Smialowski/Getty Images

Ben Mathis-Lilley: Jim, I’ve changed my mind. Let’s start this chat right now, while Trump’s speech is still going on. It’s 11:19 p.m. and there are so many words left in it, many of them—not a joke—about pioneers settling the Open Range.

Jim Newell: Good idea. It is 11:22 p.m. and our president has 300,000 words left about the “campus cancellation” of Buffalo Bill. Let’s remember back several hours to the beginning of Trump’s speech. No matter how many articles you read about potential violations of the Hatch Act in using the White House as the setting for a campaign speech, they don’t prepare you—or didn’t prepare me!—for the surreality of watching him stroll down the stairs from the White House balcony to an outdoor arenalike setting with jumbo “TRUMP PENCE 2020” signs abut the stage. I have never seen the White House used like a prop like this before. It felt like it should have been a movie where he was only leaving the White House because space aliens were about to destroy it. But it was the real one!

Ben: People say things “make them sick” a lot, but it actually made me a little sick to watch! Apparently, there was a small amount of idealism, regarding American institutions, left in my body, and it is now gone. Based on my personal, elitist Twitter bubble, I do think there is going to be a lot of press tomorrow about how it’s illegal for the president to hold campaign events on federal property. However, my sense of whether this—or anything—will “move the needle” in the election has been battered into a gooey paste by four days of hearing that Joe Biden, as instructed by “the Squad,” has already turned every American city into a Purge zone and will only make things worse if he becomes the actual president.

Jim: I am hearing loud explosions outside, which means either the speech is over and there are fireworks or antifa has taken the capital. Either of those outcomes is fine with me. My main question after that speech is what drugs he was taking to stay alive for that hour. But look at the speech itself. I don’t know about the speech itself “moving the needle,” but I did see it, and the convention more broadly, laying out what the voter-targeting strategy will be this fall.

Both Trump’s speech and much of the programming this week—oh my GOD there’s an opera troupe serenading Trump at the White House celebration now—but, uh, there was a lot of talk about criminal justice reform. We saw, tonight, Alice Johnson and Ivanka Trump talking about this, and Trump mentioning it in his speech. Then, later, during the part Trump really wants to give, he observes that “the Biden-Bernie Manifesto calls for abolishing cash bail, immediately releasing 400,000 criminals onto your streets and into your neighborhoods.”

Trump’s strategy this fall is to (1) convince white suburbanites, with whom he’s been hemorrhaging support, that he’s not racist, so they can feel fine about voting for him because of the stock market; and (2) to simultaneously crank up his racism to turn out even more white non-college voters than he did in 2016. I felt like there were a lot of effective moments in this convention on either side of that, but when put together, it all does kind of clash.

Ben: Far be it from me to assert that a crime-related white turnout strategy will definitely fail; I will also note that the “urban crime” ploy does have some connection to a part of the reality that voters live in, which is that homicide rates are rising in many major cities. But the fact that this is happening across the country, in Republican- and “Democrat”-governed states alike, at the same time, would suggest to me at least that this has less to do with Biden somehow implementing Black Panther–style radicalism from the future than with the mass unemployment and disruption created by the coronavirus pandemic and associated economic collapse that Trump has overseen. I will also note that polls this year have found that Americans approve of protests against police brutality and disapprove of Trump’s handling of race relations, the latter by a wide margin. And we’re living in a country where one of the other big news stories today was that a number of Major League Baseball teams—which still consist, to a substantial degree, of white country guys—have decided not to play in order to protest the shooting of Jacob Blake. It may not be the right moment, politico-culturally, to put all of one’s chips on the demonization of Black men. Wait, scratch that—half of one’s chips. The other half, tonight, seemed to be getting put on the idea that Biden is going to get manipulated by China. Which … no, I don’t think I see it.

Jim: Setting aside whether the strategy works is also the question of whether it is consistently implemented. That’s another issue with the convention. So much of the programming was devoted to the idea that Donald Trump cares. He cares about women, respecting their intelligence and giving them Big Jobs. He cares about Black people, of whom several swore Trump was not racist. There were so many “you should see how caring he is in private, when the cameras aren’t rolling” testimonials. When Republican operatives and consultants talk about needing the “new tone” from Trump, they don’t get it from him. But they were able to film and direct the program this week and use their imaginations to produce a message to that effect.

Now that’s over, though, and we’re back to Trump directly producing the content himself. The portrait of him as something other than what he self-evidently is is going to make this difficult to keep up! I did not need to consider, for example, that the testimonials to Biden being nice to Amtrak conductors might be belied the day after the convention when Biden would be caught on camera calling Amtrak employees “weak” or “thugs.” The slick production is over, and Trump will be the Trump that has turned off all the voters it’s turned off. So maybe Trump gets a convention bump, maybe he doesn’t, but this image they created of him isn’t actually sustainable, to the extent it persuaded anyone in the first place.

What else got your attention tonight?

Ben: One thing that was notable was how many people in the audience were seated closely together, in a city that has a sizable coronavirus caseload, without masks on, sweating and wiping their sweat with their hands and doing a lot of clapping. I’m no Dr. Anthony Fauci, but that does not seem like a great idea, epidemiologically! Which brings up the other “messaging” problem Trump has now that the convention is over: He only gets three more chances to address a national audience, which are the three debates. If past history is a guide, those debates are going to be watched by three to four times as many people as watched the RNC. And they are all going to feature one or more moderators, and one opposition candidate, who are probably not going to describe his pandemic response as a ferocious and successful defeat of the “China Virus,” as he did tonight.

Jim: The debates could go better for Trump, though, if the commission selects one of his moderator suggestions like Joe Kernen, Lou Dobbs, or a certain Frank, his “clams guy.”*

A few things: I stared a little too long into deputy chief of staff Dan Scavino’s eyes and am worried that I will sleepwalk onto the middle of a railroad track tonight. Tom Cotton was one of tonight’s big 2024 auditioners, and I would encourage him in four years not to try to smile. My favorite line might have been the UFC president yelling at me that “no one person, and no one place, could have anticipated the challenges COVID would bring,” and my favorite niche character was possibly the goth kid in the “It’s Cool to Switch From Democrat to Republican!” video, as the image of what Republican ad-makers view as a hip ex-Communist.

Ben: Oh, the goth earring kid! Whose landlord, allegedly, was a Black woman who told him her life was dependent on the Democratic handout system—except, wait, didn’t he just say he was renting a room from her, in which case she owns a house that provides her with a source of income? Why didn’t they book her, to complain about the estate tax? But yes, I enjoyed that video, and also the extensive middle section of attacks by Rudy Giuliani and NYPD union lunatic Pat Lynch on New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio, who is such a key part of the Democratic power structure that he dropped out of the presidential race four months before the Iowa caucus. The night’s most unsettling development, though, may have ultimately been the speech about Trump’s tough stance on “human trafficking” by Utah Attorney General Sean Reyes—remarks that, in context, are hard to read as anything other than a big wink to the sizable group of Republican QAnon cultists who believe that the president is on the verge of exposing a worldwide cannibal pedophilia ring led by Hollywood celebrities and, I assume, Democrats. The election is, ultimately, a referendum on whether Americans want to live in a world where germ transmission of disease doesn’t exist but secret executive branch cannibal-hunters do—and I, for one, am happy that I have to spend another two months contemplating the possibility that the QAnon China Virus candidate is going to win!

Jim: Joke’s on you, he’s already president!

Correction, Aug. 28, 2020: This piece originally misspelled Joe Kernen’s last name.

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