With apocalyptic rhetoric, Republicans stoke fear if Trump loses

Eli Stokols and Noah Bierman
Los Angeles Times (TNS)
Donald Trump Jr. pre-records his address to the Republican National Convention at the Mellon Auditorium on Aug. 24, 2020 in Washington, D.C.

WASHINGTON - Republicans kicked off their national convention Monday by trying to radically recast President Donald Trump's failures in containing the coronavirus pandemic as triumphs and by painting an apocalyptic vision of America if Democratic nominee Joe Biden wins in November.

With Trump significantly trailing Biden in national and battleground polls, a parade of elected Republican officials, activists and the president's eldest son, Donald Jr., sought to lure back suburban and independent voters by trying to erase the president's perceived deficits of empathy and competence.

But the program was marked by a dissonance between the upbeat, revisionist appeals and the dark, hyperbolic visions that repeatedly warned that Biden would champion socialism and lawlessness while Trump would stand, as one speaker put it, as a "bodyguard" who would protect America.

Trump's campaign had promised an uplifting tone, seeking to contrast it with a Democratic convention that the president's aides claimed was negative and overly critical of the country. But the kinder, gentler approach quickly fell by the wayside as the president warned in a midday speech to delegates that "your American dream will be dead" if Biden wins.

"They want no guns. They want no oil and gas, and they want no God," he said of Democrats.

Strikingly, Republicans offered few expressions of grief with the families of the 177,000 Americans who have died of COVID-19, or the nearly 30 million who lost their jobs over the past six months.

But the RNC spent ample time addressing the matter, aiming to turn a major liability into a political strength by portraying Trump's response to the pandemic as a smashing success.

A West Virginia nurse praised Trump's response to the health crisis. A Montana business owner said a federal loan allowed her to keep her coffee shop. A Louisiana maxillofacial surgeon lauded Trump for removing FDA "barriers" to unproven therapeutics.

And video clips of lawmakers praising Trump, portrayed him as a leader "who got everything right" in responding to the pandemic, even though the U.S. caseload and death toll is the worst by far in the world.

Trump appeared in two taped segments from the White House East Room interacting with seven first responders, most of whom praised his actions, and again later in a sit-down with six former hostages whose releases he had helped to negotiate.

While several Black speakers defended Trump from allegations of racism, the night also featured a white St. Louis couple who were charged with felonies for drawing guns against Black Lives Matter protestors earlier this summer. They declared that only Trump could defend the suburbs.

The night's final speaker, South Carolina Sen. Tim Scott, the only Black Republican in the Senate, tried to thread the needle between the grievance that has always animated Trump's core supporters and a conciliatory message that might expand his base.

"We don't give into cancel culture, or the radical - and factually baseless - belief that things are worse today than in the 1860s or the 1960s," said Scott. He lauded Trump for signing criminal justice reform and blasted Biden for supporting the 1994 crime bill that dramatically increased the country's prison population.

Echoing other speakers, Scott claimed that Biden, who Democrats accused of being too close to the banking industry, and his running mate, Sen. Kamala Harris, D-Calif., would turn America "into a socialist utopia."

Donald Trump Jr., the scion and heir apparent to some of the most incendiary aspects of his father's politics, framed the election as "shaping up to be church, work and school versus rioting, looting and vandalism."

And his girlfriend, Kimberly Guilfoyle, the ex-wife of California Gov. Gavin Newsom, gave one of the loudest and most expressive speeches, holding up California as a cartoon example of a dystopian America.

"If you want to see the socialist Biden/Harris future for our country, just take a look at California," she said. "It is a place of immense wealth, immeasurable innovation and immaculate environment - and the Democrats turned it into a land of discarded heroin needles in parks, riots in streets and blackouts in homes."

At their convention, Democrats offered more air time to speakers reaching out to the political center than to its more progressive voices. On Monday, the Trump campaign seemed determined to animate its base with narrower appeals, reflecting not just two competing strategic views of the race but the polarity of the two candidates' approaches to politics.

In speech after speech, Trump-backers eschewed any clear articulation of a second-term agenda, arguing instead that only the president can save the nation from Biden and the "radical" Democrats they claim will control him if he is elected.

In many ways, it was the mirror image of the Democrat's main case for Biden: He is not Trump.

Earlier Monday, the president unofficially accepted his party's nomination for reelection by delivering an unscripted, tradition-busting and falsehood-riddled speech in in Charlotte, North Carolina, where the scaled-down convention kicked off.

He taunted his enemies, suggesting that he might stay in office beyond the constitutional two-term limit.

"If you want to really drive 'em crazy, you say 12 more years," Trump said to cheers from the 336 Republican delegates in the Charlotte Convention Center.

Trump also accused Democrats of trying to "steal the election" by urging Americans to vote absentee to limit exposure to the coronavirus at polling places. Trump has long sought to sow doubt in the electoral process in case he loses, but doing so at a presidential nominating convention, which normally celebrates the virtues of voting, marked another unprecedented turn.

"Be very careful and watch it very carefully because we have to win," he added, falsely claiming that mail-in voting systems were being used to perpetuate fraud. "It's not fair and it's not right and it's not going to be possible to tabulate, in my opinion."

Polls show widespread disapproval of Trump's management of the pandemic, but in Charlotte on Monday he accused Democrats of taking advantage of COVID-19.

"They're using COVID to steal an election," he said. "They're using COVID to defraud the American people."

Traditionally, presidential nominees do not speak extensively until the final night of a political convention. Trump plans to speak every day, and then give his formal acceptance speech before an invited crowd on the South Lawn of the White House on Thursday.

Four years after party insiders resisted his insurgent campaign, Trump's dominance of the GOP appeared all but total. He faced no challengers for the nomination, and the GOP said Sunday that it would not update its official platform from 2016, explaining that "the Republican Party has and will continue to support" Trump's earlier agenda.

But in a sign of how toxic Trump remains in much of the country, only one of the six most vulnerable Republican senators seeking reelection in swing states this fall, Iowa Sen. Joni Ernst, is scheduled to take the convention stage this week.

Unlike the Democratic roll call last week, which presented a country-crossing mosaic highlighting America's diverse population and varied landscapes, the Republican delegates - nearly all of whom were white - attended the convention in person and spoke in front of a white backdrop featuring the convention hashtag.

Many of their declarations even mimicked the president's hyperbole and mendacity: An Arkansas delegate reveled in Trump's 2016 win over "Crooked Hillary," while one from Louisiana later claimed that Biden was "waiting in the dark, wanting to take the lives of our unborn babies."

Some RNC speakers Monday evening sought to soften Trump's image to the national television audience, if only to counter the Democrats' portrayal of Biden as empathetic and decent.

Rep. Jim Jordan, R-Ohio, described how Trump consoled his family after a loved one was killed. And former NFL star and "The Apprentice" contestant Herschel Walker directly addressed the notion that Trump, who has denigrated cities, attacked athletes for kneeling in protest of police brutality and refused to denounce a 2017 white supremacist march in Charlottesville, Virginia, is a racist.

"Growing up in the Deep South, I have seen racism up close," Walker said. "I know what it is. And it isn't Donald Trump."

Vernon Jones, a Black state lawmaker from Georgia, also made the case for Trump, claiming that Democrats take Black voters for granted.

And Nikki Haley, an Indian American who is the former U.S. ambassador to the United Nations, declared that, despite the country's imperfections, "America is not a racist country."

The Biden campaign was quick to fire back that the limited RNC lineup showed the president's dwindling support, even in his own party.

"While nearly half of the speakers you will hear from are members of the Trump family, you aren't going to hear much about the plight of American families," said Kate Bedingfield, a Biden spokeswoman.

She also seized on Trump's attempts to blame recent civil unrest on Democrats, noting that, in his campaign ads, Trump "likes to make this argument about what life will look like in Joe Biden's America while quite literally using footage from Donald Trump's America."