WASHINGTON – The second day of the Republican National Convention started with a decidedly different, more positive tone, with an emphasis on Americans who say have they benefited from President Donald Trump’s policies.
Here are some takeaways from the second night.
LEVERAGING THE WHITE HOUSE
“Hail to the Chief.” The squeak of a Sharpie. The theatrically lit Rose Garden.
Trump sought to leverage the full weight of the presidency behind his reelection effort, as he blended official acts and campaigning.
In the convention’s first half-hour, the convention aired a video featuring Trump signing a pardon for Jon Ponder, an ex-convict who now runs an acclaimed prisoner reentry program. Later, military aides opened the doors to the White House Cross Hall as “Hail to the Chief” played before Trump presided over a naturalization ceremony for new Americans. Both events were taped in recent days as Trump and his reelection campaign looked to find ways to airbrush the harsher edges of his actual policies.
They will add to criticism that Trump is exploiting the White House for political purposes in ways none of his predecessors have. While Trump is not covered by the federal Hatch Act, which limits the political activities of most federal workers, previous presidents have tended to draw clear distinctions between campaigning and governing.
MELANIA TRUMP TALKS VIRUS, RACIAL STRIFE
The use of the White House as backdrop continued when First Lady Melania Trump capped off the evening with a speech from the newly renovated Rose Garden.
After the deadly toll of the coronavirus pandemic was largely ignored on the second night of the convention, Mrs. Trump began her speech by talking about its devastating impact.
“I want to acknowledge the fact that since March our lives have changed drastically," she said. "The invisible enemy, COVID-19, swept across our beautiful country and impacted all of us. My deepest sympathy goes out to everyone who has lost a loved one.”
Several times she diverged from the party line, as well as from economic adviser Larry Kudlow’s repeated use, in earlier in the evening, of the past tense to talk about a virus that is still killing an average of about 1,000 Americans a day.
While extolling her husband’s character and record, she also took on a number of other challenging, sorrowful concerns, including natural disasters, opioid addiction and racial injustice.
And the very close-guarded first lady spoke about her own journey, which includes her family benefiting from immigration policies her husband’s administration opposes. She said she became an American citizen “after 10 years of paperwork and patience” and “with hard work and determination.”
It was a speech that stood out for its sense of the genuine on a night with the contrivances were many.
REPUBLICANS STAKE OUT POLICY GROUND
For technical reasons, Republicans did not vote on a new platform this year, but on Tuesday they tried to make clear what they stand for.
The night’s program offered snapshots both of how the GOP has changed since Trump’s insurgent candidacy took over the party four years ago and what has remained the same.
There were longtime standards — opposition to abortion and hardline policies on illegal immigration — but also Trump's rewiring of the GOP’s one-time free market orthodoxy on trade and its interventionist foreign policy.
Like Democrats before them, Republicans put forth “real people” to make Trump's point.
John Peterson, who owns a metal fabrication company in Wisconsin, highlighted Trump’s efforts to reinvigorate domestic steel manufacturers with tariffs on China. Jason Joyce, a Maine lobster fisherman, credited Trump with helping to save his industry from cheap exports from China.
Republicans also showcased Trump’s signing of criminal justice reform legislation — an issue on which the GOP had resisted moving in prior administrations. The convention then showed the video of Ponder's pardon.
Trump’s reshaping of GOP’s foreign policy was also on display with the prominent speaking slot for Kentucky Sen. Rand Paul — an outspoken critic of American overseas intervention. Paul highlighted Trump’s refusal to “leave our blood and treasure in Middle East quagmires” and his push to end “endless wars.”
Those efforts by Trump — particularly his withdrawal last year of nearly all American troops from Syria — led to some of the sharpest criticism from members of his own party in Congress. Now, they are airing in prime time.
The Republicans have an empathy problem.
Trump has long struggled with personal connections in times of tragedy, whether due to natural disasters or mass shootings, a shortcoming highlighted by the suffering due to the COVID-19 pandemic.
His harsh rhetoric and relentlessly optimistic outlook on the crisis — which often flies in the face of the facts — has hurt him, according to campaign surveys, which show that voters believe that Democratic Joe Biden relates far better to their hardships. The Republicans this week have tried to highlight Trump’s softer side, after Democrats effectively showcased the compassion of Biden.
But the attempt to humanize Trump was already in the works, part of a strategy to win back senior and suburban voters who have abandoned him in no small part due to his aggressive rhetoric and lack of obvious empathy during the coronavirus pandemic.
Still, none of the trio of adult Trump children who spoke over the for first two days offered a humanizing anecdote about their father, sticking to political talking points and attacks on Biden.
WITH FRIENDS LIKE THESE
Trump’s tolerance for conspiracists and fringe voices who back his political ambitions was on stark display Tuesday.
His campaign was forced to pull a recorded speech featuring a speaker who shared anti-Semitic and other extreme messages on Twitter just hours before it was to air at the convention.
Mary Ann Mendoza had been scheduled to deliver remarks Tuesday night to highlight the president’s fight against illegal immigration. Mendoza’s son was killed in 2014 in a head-on collision by a man who was under the influence and living in the U.S. illegally.
Mendoza’s speech was pulled after she spread tweets related to the baseless QAnon conspiracy theory, which centers on an alleged anonymous, high-ranking government official known as “Q” who shares information about an anti-Trump “deep state” often tied to satanism and child sex trafficking.
Earlier Tuesday, a Republican congressional nominee from Georgia who supports the QAnon theory revealed she had been invited to the convention.
Marjorie Taylor Greene posted a photo of the invitation to her Twitter account Tuesday. She wrote that she was “honored and thrilled to be invited to attend President Trump’s acceptance speech Thursday evening at the White House.”
Trump praised Greene as a “future Republican Star” after she won her primary earlier this month. He has courted the support of QAnon believers, saying, “I heard that these are people that love our country.”
The RNC did air a speech by anti-abortion activist Abby Johnson. She has previously advocated for something called “household voting,” saying women should defer to their husbands on making decisions related to politics.