WASHINGTON — Faced with trying to win over suburban voters who could determine the election outcome and galvanizing his base with the same divisive rhetoric that won him the White House, President Donald Trump tried to have it all at the four-day Republican convention.
Republicans sought to humanize the president and soften his hard-line edge in an appeal to suburbanites, particularly suburban women who are critical to his reelection chances, while warning that a Joe Biden presidency would lead to crime in their neighborhoods, “socialism” and American decline.
“Joe Biden is not a savior of America’s soul,” Trump said in his 71-minute acceptance speech Thursday before a crowd on the White House South Lawn. “He is the destroyer of America’s jobs, and if given the chance, he will be the destroyer of America’s greatness.”
There was also plenty to fire up Trump’s most loyal supporters as the president reveled in the spotlight with nightly appearances and used many of the scorched-earth politics that have been a staple of his campaign rallies. He devoted much of his acceptance speech to excoriating Biden. That followed broadsides by speakers such as Donald Trump Jr., the president’s son, who derided the Democratic presidential nominee as the “Loch Ness monster” of the Swamp.
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The scene, flouting federal rules prohibiting the use of government buildings for political purposes, and the sea of hundreds of maskless guests, which ignored coronavirus guidance amid an ongoing pandemic, served as a metaphor for Trump’s first term: bulldozing any semblance of traditional political norms.
But the celebratory mood of Trump’s renomination – complete with a fireworks display at the close of the convention – risked sending a signal that he was ignoring a pandemic that has killed more than 180,000 Americans.
“The fact is, I’m here,” Trump triumphantly declared at one point, turning around and pointing up at the White House. “What’s the name of that building? But I’ll say it differently: We’re here and they’re not.”
Trump ‘trying to have it both ways’
In an effort to show a different side of Trump, White House aides Kellyanne Conway and Kayleigh McEnany cast Trump as a champion for women who has “empowered” their careers. More than a dozen African American speakers, including former football player Herschel Walker and 1960s sit-in activist Clarence Henderson, pushed back at the suggestion that Trump is a racist. There was even a naturalization ceremony watched by Trump, who has sought to curb both legal and illegal immigration.
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The speeches and events presented a picture at odds with criticisms of the president that are at the center of Biden’s campaign – that he lacks the character to hold teh country’s highest office. Trump has long been accused of stoking racial tensions and his 2016 campaign came close to being derailed when video surfaced of him bragging about groping women. He has repeatedly used derogatory language about illegal immigrants.
“It felt schizophrenic and disjointed. It’s both doom and gloom, scare people, and then an attempt to be sort of aspirational, normal Republicans,” said Sarah Longwell, a GOP strategist and Trump critic who conducts focus groups of Trump supporters.
“They talked about a lot of things at this convention that you actually don’t hear a lot about regularly from the president on things like school choice,” she added.