For more than four years, Donald Trump has demolished virtually every tradition and norm of American politics, and on Monday he did it again. Minutes after his formal re-nomination as the Republican Party’s candidate on the opening day of the Republican National Convention, the president made an unexpected appearance and declared flatly that there was no way his Democratic opponent, Joe Biden, could win fairly on Nov. 3.
“The only way they can take this election away from us is if this is a rigged election,” Trump told the small but cheering crowd of his adorers in Charlotte, N.C. It is a version of a line that Trump has turned into his mantra of mockery about U.S. democratic traditions in recent weeks, as he seemingly lays the groundwork to claim victory in an election that every major poll shows him losing, in some cases by double digits. At another point on Monday, Trump suggested the chant of “four more years!”—another tradition at national conventions—wasn’t good enough. “If you want to really drive them crazy, say twelve more years,” Trump told the crowd. The Constitution limits the president to two four-year terms.
So once again the Republican agenda has been hijacked and heaved overboard, as it has been since Trump appeared on the national scene. RNC Chairwoman Ronna McDaniel, who is known to be passionately devoted to Trump, told media outlets last week that the convention would be positive and forward-looking. But Trump quickly set the tone for what is likely to be a series of fierce attacks on imagined Democratic conspiracies. “We caught them doing some really bad things in 2016 and we have to be careful because they’re trying it again,” he said, referring to alleged Democratic attempts to steal the election for which no evidence exists.
Thus, there is very little mystery about what is to ensue in the next three days—or the two months until election day. It will be, as it was on Monday, Donald Trump talking once again about how his administration is the greatest in American history, and the American people can’t afford to do without him. “It’s just part of the pathology, that he can’t let a single day go by where he’s not the center of attention,” said Rich Galen, a former leading Republican consultant and one of hundreds of Republican officials and party loyalists who say they cannot support Trump this time.
Although normally the presidential nominee of a party doesn’t appear until the final night of the four-day convention, Trump plans to speak every day, organizers said. Indeed he made two more appearances Monday night, using the White House as a campaign platform. In an apparent effort to show that he possesses as much “empathy” as Biden has—the Democratic National Convention focused a great deal on the former Democratic vice president’s decency and humane qualities—Trump appeared with COVID-19 survivors who thanked him for his efforts to fight the pandemic. Then he appeared again from the White House, touting his interventions in bringing U.S. hostages home from abroad. Both segments were previously recorded.
Trump, in his seemingly impromptu, nearly hour-long remarks earlier Monday, declared: “This is the most important election in the history of our country.” It is an assessment that many political experts would agree with, though for the opposite reasons laid out by the president. Many historians, diplomats and political experts have said they believe a second Trump term would do major, lasting damage to the U.S. republic, with an administration helmed by a president who has flagrantly defied Congress and the courts and demonstrably used official U.S. foreign policy to further his political interests, leading to his impeachment. Experts also fear for the survival of the Westernized international system that Washington has led since World War II, in part because Trump has spent much of his first term withdrawing from it, including major agreements such as the Paris climate accord, the Iran nuclear deal and the Trans-Pacific Partnership intended largely to bring China in line with open-and-fair trade norms. Biden has said he would try to renegotiate the TPP to put renewed pressure on Beijing, albeit with more of a focus on returning manufacturing jobs to U.S. shores.
Trump, however, said China would “own” Biden if he were elected and the Democratic nominee would appoint “super radical left crazy judges.” He also said he was presiding once again over the strongest economy in U.S. history, despite post-pandemic numbers that show GDP is shrinking and unemployment is still above 10 percent. “Before the plague came in from China … we were going in a direction like we have never seen—the most successful economy in the history of our country,” Trump said.
Monday night’s speakers laid out what is certain to be one of the party’s main contentions in coming weeks—that Biden, a confirmed centrist for his entire career, will bring a “dangerous socialist agenda” into the White House, as former Fox News host Kimberley Guilfoyle put it. Former U.N. Ambassador Nikki Haley, one of the biggest stars in the party, later made a similar claim, saying that Biden would be dominated by the Democratic Party’s progressive wing. “Their vision for America is socialist,” which “would be a disaster for our economy,” Haley said. Yet another speaker, Donald Trump Jr., condemned Biden’s “radical left-wing politics,” even as he paradoxically criticized Biden for supporting free-trade deals. Most of the speakers sought to warn that a Biden administration would promote left-wing “cancel culture” suppressing free speech, and they identified Black Lives Matter protests with violent mobs attacking American cities.
Trump himself, meanwhile, spent a good portion of his remarks on Monday trying to make the case that Democrats are “harvesting” votes by sending out mail-in ballots during the COVID-19 pandemic to people who normally wouldn’t vote. “They’re using COVID to steal the election,” Trump said. He was arguing, in effect, for low turnout to win, since Republicans are more enthusiastic about him, he said, than Democrats are about Biden.
Trump said frankly he was banking on his base to turn out in big numbers and win the election for him. And the RNC lineup featured speakers who, like him, are most fiercely identified with that largely caucasian base (though organizers also deftly managed to promote diversity, bringing in several pro-Trump African-Americans and Latinos). In contrast to last week’s Democratic National Convention, which featured three ex-presidents (Barack Obama, Bill Clinton and Jimmy Carter) and a former Republican secretary of state (Colin Powell) as well as an ex-governor (John Kasich), the RNC speakers’ list is filled with family members and lower-level Trump adherents like Ohio Rep. Jim Jordan, who served as Trump’s most ferocious defender during the impeachment hearings late last year. Two notable exceptions were Haley and South Carolina Sen. Tim Scott, the only Black Republican in the Senate. But in a further effort to portray the Democrats as radicals, the speakers also included Mark and Patricia McCloskey, the St. Louis couple who in late June pointed guns at Black Lives Matter protesters as they marched past their home.
Led by Donald Trump Jr., most of Trump’s children plan to speak and, in a controversial move that mixes official U.S. business with politics—a habit of this administration—Secretary of State Mike Pompeo will address the convention during a diplomatic trip to Israel.
Several early speakers at the RNC convention said Trump had acted quickly to save the nation from the worst of the COVID-19 pandemic, which is likely to be one of the main issues in the campaign. Even so, a special report from FP Analytics in August ranked the U.S. among the six worst-performing countries among 36 that were rated, just above Indonesia, Turkey, Mexico, Iran and China, and rock bottom in the world for its failure of “fact-based communication.” The detailed study, the first of its kind to analyze national leaders’ pandemic responses by critical policy metrics, found that the U.S. ranked so poorly because of the federal government’s inability to mount an appropriate scientific response; inadequate emergency health care spending; insufficient testing and hospital beds; and limited debt relief. Although the United States represents only 4 percent of the world’s population, it has recorded a quarter of all COVID-19 cases and 22 percent of the total number of deaths.