Donald Trump’s acceptance speech on the South Lawn of the White House capped a week of moments that likely will be a lasting legacy of the 2020 Republican National Convention: The blurred lines it created between official government and partisan business.
The convention showed Trump’s determination to shatter norms for the purpose of reality TV like stunts and dramatic backdrops, even if it already has yielded ethics complaints.
From the standpoint of using the White House as a set, it certainly worked for the 1,500 or so who shed masks and other COVID-19 protocols to witness Trump’s speech in person, the prize being a fireworks show at the end.
Fox News’ chief White House correspondent John Roberts caught some flak on Twitter for writing favorably about the use of the location. “Incumbency is a powerful bully pulpit. The genie is out of the bottle,” he tweeted.
Regardless of where you fall on the staging of this event on government property, the convention overall was mixed when it comes to the pure question of whether it was good television.
Roberts wrote that “you can’t beat the backdrop,” yet Trump’s speech itself largely was a grab bag of what he has said before, newsworthy less for the content than the spectacle.
That said, convention was better for Republicans in many respects than 2016, when Trump’s speech was even longer, the timing of primetime speakers was off and there were a few flareups on the floor that grabbed news cycles. But this year, there were also lost opportunities for more compelling moments and more cohesive narratives.
So here’s a few things that worked and did not work for this convention:
The message. If the goal really was to drum up excitement by the base, which seems to have been the case based on the greatest-hits content of Trump’s acceptance speech, it worked. The question now is whether the extreme law-and-order messaging — basically warning that Biden will destroy the country as it falls into the hands of the “mob” — will make inroads in swing states, particularly in Wisconsin and Minnesota. The Biden campaign tried to turn the tables on the law-and-order theme with an ad that tried to use Trump’s words against him.
Alice Johnson and other “real people.” The better term might be “everyday Americans,” and both conventions relied on a lineup of speakers who could vouch for what their respective nominee did for them. In that regard, Trump’s most effective speaker was Alice Johnson, a criminal justice advocate who relayed how the president had granted clemency for a sentence that was excessive punishment. (He granted her a full pardon on Friday.) Other speakers also shared heart-wrenching stories, like a couple whose daughter was kidnapped and killed by ISIS. If there’s one thing likely to translate to party conventions in the future, it will be in the way that they feature non-politicians and non-celebrities to make a point. This is actually not a new thing for party conventions. This difference this year is that the “real people” got airtime. At a traditional convention, the networks likely would have skipped their speeches in favor of their own analysis.
Tim Scott. Of all the elected officials who spoke in the run-up to the Trump finale, the Republican senator’s speech was the strongest. Like other speakers, he warned that Biden and Kamala Harris would try to remake American society into a “socialist utopia,” but he was more eloquent when focusing on his own story and how that ties into an optimistic outlook for the country. “Our family went from cotton to Congress in one lifetime,” he said. “There are millions of families like mine across this nation.”
Celebrities. Bruce Springsteen, Billie Eilish, John Legend, Common and many others all appeared at the Democratic National Convention. Who did the Republicans draw? Country artist Trace Adkins and opera singer Christopher Macchio. But this actually goes into the plus category for Trump’s team because they were far more judicious in how they deployed talent than they were in 2016, when it seemed like they were intent on giving a speaking slot to any entertainment figure who happened to support Trump, no matter how long it had been since their career peak. Adkins, for instance, sang the National Anthem at Fort McHenry, and a recorded version of Lee Greenwood’s God Bless the USA played as the Trumps paraded down a makeshift stage on the South Lawn. Jon Voight didn’t speak, but he narrated the night’s opening videos. A performer’s endorsement likely makes little difference in how people will vote, but it does make a difference in the production. The choice of entertainment may also shed some light on the target audience. One company, VividSeats did a breakdown of the demographics of each performer .
Here’s what didn’t work:
The message. Joe Biden was at once too tough on crime (he voted for the 1990s legislation) and too soft on crime (he’ll be a “Trojan horse” to defund the police). Then there was the flow of the show: A speech by former Florida Attorney General Pam Bondi blasted Biden for nepotism, but it was followed by some of the Trump children. After Mitch McConnell spoke, there was the UFC’s Dana White. There were moments when speakers were clustered together — i.e. on the economy or women’s empowerment — but the Democrats did a much better job of clustering speakers into subject ares.
Cancel culture. Trump positioned himself as the candidate of law and order throughout the week. But casting himself as the defender of the First Amendment and free speech against a so-called “cancel culture” was, to put it mildly, a stretch. Just hours before his speech, The Washington Post posted a story by David Fahrenthold, detailing how the Trump properties charged the U.S. government more than $900,000, that included a threat-like response from White House spokesman Judd Deere. “Please be advised that we are building up a very large ‘dossier’ on the many false David Fahrenthold and others stories as they are a disgrace to journalism and the American people,” Deere said. A dossier? Trump also has issued broadsides against media organizations and figures he doesn’t like, whether it be attacks on Joe Scarborough of MSNBC’s Morning Joe or suggesting that NBC’s broadcast license be challenged. The White House also has attempted to pull the credentials of certain White House reporters, only to have their efforts soundly rejected by federal judges.
Mellon Auditorium. As personal as some of the stories from speakers were on some of the nights, they largely were spoken from an empty Mellon Auditorium. There was nothing wrong with the stage setup, patriotic and majestic as it was, but lost was any of the intimacy of just featuring speakers in their living rooms — much more fitting for a time of the pandemic. It was just too much of a contrivance for the moment, a bit monotonous as the week went on, and the surreal nature was no more apparent than when Kimberly Guilfoyle and Rudy Giuliani delivered pre-taped red-meat attack and applause lines to non-existent masses.
Crowds. Convention planners were determined to make the look and feel of the event different from the Democratic National Convention, but what is baffling is why that was even necessary. On some nights of the convention, there were efforts to soften Trump’s image, with speaker after speaker vouching for his empathy. So why not give a sober acceptance speech in a non-spectacular setting, to show that you are taking the threat seriously? Instead, a lot of the coverage fixated on the fact that so many on the White House lawn were not wearing masks and were not socially distanced, in a celebratory atmosphere. That’s a stark contrast to the way that most Americans have been living their lives over the past six months. the coronavirus is perhaps Trump’s biggest liability, but instead the finale of the convention seemed to be and effort to try to match some of the magic of 2016 when it’s really a far different 2020.
The White House. As unique as the setting was, it still was on government property. The Office of Special Counsel, which investigates ethics complaints, released a statement earlier in the week making clear that the lawn and the Rose Garden are two areas of the White House where government employees are not prohibited from engaging in political activity under the Hatch Act And using the grounds for political convention activity is not unprecedented, as Franklin D. Roosevelt delivered his acceptance speech via radio from the Oval Office in 1940. But what we saw this past week still was on a whole other level. As Matthew Dowd said on ABC News, imagine the uproar that would ensue had incumbents George W. Bush or Barack Obama used the grounds to stage a political rally in 2004 or 2012. Walter Shaub, who used to run the Office of Government Ethics, believes that the use of the White House was just plain wrong. “This admonition may be the most visible misuse of official position for private gain in America’s history,” he wrote.
Music. While the Trump team avoided celebrity embarrassment, they didn’t forestall what is now commonplace for campaign functions: Artist objections. Ellie Goulding’s representative said she had not given permission to use her music, according to Business Insider. In another case, Leonard Cohen’s estate says that they didn’t give permission for the use of one of his most famous songs, Hallelujah, on Thursday night. The words of the song also don’t quite match the atmosphere of a fireworks finale.
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