As President Donald Trump accepted his party’s nomination Thursday for a second term, Minneapolis and St. Paul were spending the night under curfews to curb rioting. The law-and-order theme that had played so major a role in the Republican National Convention must have seemed poignant and relevant to many.
Trump did not miss the confluence of events. This election, he said, “will decide whether we protect law-abiding Americans” or give free rein to criminals and anarchists. He said he had an offer for the leaders of “Democrat-run cities.”
“Just call,” he said. “We’re ready to go in. We’ll take care of your problem in a matter of hours.”
It was a vivid example of how current events can inform political discourse. And, for the Republicans, it was a chance to see where their party stood on the urban unrest that has swept the country since the killing of George Floyd in Minneapolis.
Speaker after speaker had denounced urban violence during the convention. But not until Trump himself addressed the issue was it possible to say exactly where the party stood. The GOP, which had managed to articulate a platform at every convention since 1856, took a pass this year and simply deferred to Trump.
The convention’s message could hardly have been more explicit:
“Resolved, that the Republican Party has and will continue to enthusiastically support the President’s America-first agenda,” says the position adopted by the Republican National Committee. As Americans have learned in the past few years, this president’s agenda is whatever he says it is — sometimes one thing, sometimes another; sometimes within the bounds of law and reason, sometimes not.
And very often, outside the norms of tradition. Trump’s flouting of time-honored traditional practice probably wins him points among some of his supporters. But many of those broken traditions existed for good reason — such as the custom of a candidate’s releasing his tax returns, or complying with a congressional subpoena, or putting his business interests into a blind trust for the duration of his time in office.
Or keeping federal property, including the White House, off-limits for purely political uses. The South Lawn was the setting for Trump’s acceptance speech, before a large crowd of supporters who seemed heedless of the need for social distancing. “Four more years,” they cried, mostly unmasked.
Trump regaled the crowd with statements that reflected the sort of certitude that has become his trademark. “I have done more for the African American community than any president since Abraham Lincoln,” he declared.
He said that his Democratic opponent, Joe Biden, “if given a chance … will be the destroyer of American greatness.” He said that if Biden and Kamala Harris are elected, they will “demolish the suburbs, confiscate your guns.” He assured the nation that America will produce a COVID-19 vaccine “before the end of the year, or maybe even sooner.”
With that assertion, the president continued to exhibit the simplistic, unscientific approach with which he has addressed the pandemic. Earlier in the convention, he told a group of caregivers: “We just have to make this China virus go away, and it’s happening.”
No, it’s not. With nearly 180,000 Americans dead at the time of this writing, the novel coronavirus continues to wreak havoc, and the administration has yet to come up with a credible plan to combat it. Speaker after speaker at the convention lauded Trump’s quick action to halt travel from China (except he didn’t), to encourage the accelerated production of a vaccine (we’ll see) and to divert patients from in-person doctor visits to telehealth services.
Some of the speakers this week made cogent arguments and landed what seemed to be telling blows on the Democratic nominee. Daniel Cameron, attorney general of Kentucky, skewered Biden for having said that if a voter had trouble deciding between him and Trump, “then you ain’t Black.” Melania Trump delivered remarks that, at long last, sounded clear notes of compassion and grief over the human toll of COVID-19. Vice President Mike Pence did the same.
But such moments were rare and overshadowed by misstatements, rants and worse — like the appearance of Mark and Patricia McCloskey, the gun-toting St. Louis couple who set a dangerously misguided example of how to stand up to protesters. Time and again, RNC speakers referred to Biden and Harris as socialists, which they are not. They described Biden as supportive of calls to defund the police, which he explicitly rejects. They said that Biden, by all accounts a man of deep faith, was an enemy of religion. And so on.
Now that the conventions are behind us, let’s hope for some semblance of civility and honesty in our political discourse. And we hope that Republicans — some of them, anyway — will come to see the folly of letting the party of Lincoln become the party of Trump.