Politics

The Dispirited Peacock

The president has yet to figure out how to run against his competitor, or what he’s even running for this time. The lack of direction was apparent in his lackluster acceptance speech.

US President Donald Trump gestures at the conclusion of the the final day of the Republican National Convention from the South Lawn of the White House on August 27, 2020 in Washington, DC. (Photo by SAUL LOEB / AFP) (Photo by SAUL LOEB/AFP via Getty Images)
Donald Trump gestures at the conclusion of the the final day of the Republican National Convention. SAUL LOEB/Getty Images

Having offered no agenda beyond reelecting Donald Trump, the RNC threw itself into Trump week armed with a three-pronged strategy. The first required re-narrating Joe Biden, a moderate Democrat known for getting along with Republicans, as a wild-eyed Communist who dreams of tearing down American institutions. The second was even more challenging: it required stealing the case the DNC had made for Biden as the Empathy Candidate so as to make Donald Trump—the “You’re Fired” fellow—the compassionate candidate instead. To that end, speaker after speaker spoke about the caring nature Trump displays whenever he’s not in public. It was not a convincing case. (I’d expected the bulk of that humanizing testimony to come from his children, but Tiffany, Eric, and Don Jr. had nothing to say about paternal love or acts of caring. Ivanka was the sole exception.) The third and final prong tackled Trump’s racism: Trump polls poorly on his handling of race relations, so the RNC pulled a scheduled speaker who’d recently broadcast a virulently anti-Semitic conspiracy theory, and featured several speakers of color and a video of Trump with some naturalized citizens. The sincerity of the effort can be gauged by the revelation that the newly naturalized citizens were neither asked whether their images could be used at the Republican National Convention nor informed they would appear on television. They were used as props: the objective was to give safe cover to voters who might be slipping away because Trump is a racist xenophobe. See? He can be nice to immigrants of color! On camera!

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The larger task was to make the present crises afflicting the country someone else’s fault. Trump’s America has millions unemployed, businesses going under, a raging pandemic, wildfires in California, tropical storm Laura battering Louisiana, unchecked police brutality, debt at an all-time high, and schools all over the country opening only to close their doors days later as COVID-19 cases mount, leaving parents in the lurch, forced to somehow work full time from home while parenting full time too. Mass evictions are about to start happening. The RNC sought to make these disasters that compounded under Trump predictive of Biden’s America. In the meantime, Trump doubled down on supporting corrupt police departments while his officials openly break laws (laws that officials like Mike Pompeo have themselves enforced against underlings!) on television. This is the tacit—and yes, fascist—promise Trump makes to his supporters: the law is for others to follow and for you to flout.

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It’s not easy to frame someone else for the mess you made. But Trump has advantages. The big one is that his supporters love it when he lies and cheer when he cheats. This helps! Trump’s MAGA gear is famously made in China, not the States (unlike Biden’s, which comes from an American union shop). Ivanka Trump was granted five enormously valuable patents from China while she was supposed to be working for the American people. None of that matters to Trumpists: “Joe Biden’s agenda is Made in China. My agenda is MADE IN THE USA,” Trump said last night—sleepily, strangely, to applause. That two of his campaign managers have faced criminal charges—Steve Bannon most recently for defrauding Trump supporters who donated to a Build a Wall fund—is only a lib-triggering plus. That his employees and associates have also been criminally charged, including folks like Roger Stone and Paul Manafort and Michael Cohen and George Papadopoulos and Rick Gates, is evidence not of Trump’s own ambient criminality but of his persecution. Trump has convinced his supporters that these innocent lambs (the ones he still likes, anyway) have been unjustly targeted by the so-called “deep state.” In short, he has told America to regard any law that is enforced against him or his people as illegitimate while billing himself as the “law and order” candidate. That’s no small achievement.

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This helps explain why it’s not impossible for Trump to make the case that Biden is both the second coming of Fidel Castro—a novel and unprecedented Communist threat to the American way of life—and an entrenched member of the political establishment responsible for everything already wrong in America. He has Fox personalities running cover for him, hissing and spitting at his detractors for one thing. But more broadly, the authoritarian strategy of attacking the media has worked reasonably well for him. Trump has spent years explaining that the media doesn’t treat him fairly, that the media lies, that the media is the problem. So when the media tries to note that Trump and his associates spent the entirety of the convention lying, lying about real things actual people are living through, all Trump has to do is return to his most practiced refrain, that he’s being treated very unfairly. For this demographic, there simply isn’t much that “fact-checking” the scripted whoppers in his speech from last night is going to accomplish. (Here they are, for the record.) Trump can also expect help from several fringe movements working for him—most notably QAnon, followers of which believes Trump is a messiah and Joe Biden and other Democrats are Satanic child rapists—and which Trump refused to disavow. People convinced Biden and Tom Hanks are harvesting fear from the blood of children (I wish I were joking) and that Trump is a messiah figure can probably believe whatever Trump wants them to believe about Biden. Pitching him as a Communist might be easy after “cannibal” is already accepted.

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Not everyone is amenable to these “arguments,” though, which explains the spaghetti-at-the-wall approach Trump took in last night’s speech. There’s a reason Trump wanted to run against Bernie Sanders, and even got himself impeached trying to kneecap Joe Biden’s candidacy by thuggishly pressuring foreign governments to say they were investigating the former vice president. Biden is pretty well known to Americans, and he just isn’t a radical, and he isn’t corrupt. Ever the projectionist, Trump’s first idea, last year, was to make Biden out to be a corrupt wheeler and dealer like him. This was the plot he tried to get Ukrainian president Zelensky to circulate. It backfired spectacularly, and Trump appears to have all but given up on that messaging. The idea now is to terrify moderates into voting for him by painting the Democratic candidate as a “radical leftist”. Sanders might have fit that bill; Biden really, really doesn’t, and the effort to make him into one sometimes smacks of desperation. To make it work, Trump needed to erase everything his audiences know about Biden and he tried hard. George Condon pointed out on Twitter that the most times a presidential nominee has named his opponent in a nomination acceptance speech is 8—a record set by George H.W. Bush in 1992. Trump said Biden’s name forty-one times. Biden, who has advanced an enormously ambitious jobs program, is “the destroyer of jobs.” He would be “the destroyer of American Greatness” and China would own the United States if Biden won! A senior adviser in the administration excused the lack of social distancing among Trump’s guests last night by saying “everybody is going to catch this thing eventually.” That perfectly distilled this White House’s total (and literal!) surrender to COVID-19—and its refusal to take any measures at all to protect people. True to form, Trump accused Biden of wanting to “surrender to the virus” in his speech.

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That doesn’t mean one of these lies won’t work. Trump told a lot of stories over the course of his interminable speech—gish-gabbling as only he can, putting entirely contradictory narratives into circulation in hopes that listeners who want to be swayed will snatch on to one line of argumentation and ignore the rest. Maybe the weak point for someone is cancel culture. Maybe it’s the second amendment. Maybe, as my colleague Ben Mathis-Lilley put it, it’s just really missing playing Oregon Trail.

Donald Trump wasn’t in his element last night. He peacocked a bit, perking up periodically to joke a little about things like sexual assault, but on the whole he seemed damp and exhausted. He started out in the tone he considers oratorical—there’s a sing-songy quality to it, and it falls off at the end of each sentence, as if the very air coming from his lungs is exhausted and awed at what he’s just said. But he was already leaning against the podium, as if for support, within a few minutes of starting. For long stretches, it felt like he was just reading lists, boring himself. This wasn’t the Trump who screamed “If Putin wants a call with me you just put him through” at a subordinate—at a formal dinner, in front of other heads of state—because he’d missed the Russian dictator’s call. It was a world-weary huckster trying to live up to the empathetic portrait previous speakers had created for him and failing.

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Last time Trump ran, Republicans could frame themselves as the disruptors. They could blame the state of the world on Democratic governance, rail against Democratic principles, and coast on the decades Fox News had spent vilifying Hillary Clinton. That the economy was at an all-time high didn’t matter; neither did the fact that President Obama had brought the United States back from a brutal recession despite Republican obstruction at every turn. Now, Trump has been in office for four years. The country is struggling through conditions so bad not even Trump’s worst critics could have predicted them. He is still trying to blame Democratic governance, having nothing else to offer. Asked what his second-term agenda would be, Donald Trump replied, “But so I think, I think it would be, I think it would be very, very, I think we’d have a very, very solid, we would continue what we’re doing, we’d solidify what we’ve done, and we have other things on our plate we want to get done.”

The Republican party has given up on fighting for anything but Trump. That means the party’s fate depends to an unusual extent on Trump’s ability to pull this off. And who knows. He might.

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