And now, conventions complete, we wait to see how many people among the roughly 1,500 in attendance for President Donald Trump’s acceptance speech get sick with COVID-19, or, heaven forbid, perish.
Dumbfoundingly, those gathered on the White House South Lawn weren’t tested for the coronavirus in advance and only a few in sight wore masks through the Thursday night event. The privilege of being invited to take a physical seat for the “convention finale” was the coronavirus version of Russian Roulette — a choice between demonstrating loyalty to the president and risking a bullet from the “China virus.”
If some Democrats secretly wish for a mild case or two in furtherance of their belief that Trump is responsible for the deaths of nearly 180,000 Americans (and counting), Republicans may see escalating violence around the country as helpful to their law-and-order incumbent’s reelection. Not many would admit to harboring such thoughts, but in today’s divided nation, in which even the president views blue America as “other,” the once-unthinkable becomes politically logical, if only as shameful internal monologues.
Meanwhile, boundaries everywhere are being blurred — from Trump using the White House as a sound stage for crass political gain to white protesters intimidating a white woman in a D.C. restaurant because she refused to raise a fist in solidarity with Black Lives Matter. Does no one have regard for norms anymore?
Joe Biden needs to distance himself from the rioters and agitators and troublemakers who are scaring people out of their wits. And Trump and his own pot-stirring allies need to publicly recognize that protesting police violence against unarmed Black people is legitimate and well within our traditions. Extremists rule when moderation is what’s called for: It’s easy to mock current attempts to defund police departments; it isn’t hard to say that “demilitarizing” is the more-sensible approach.
Nevertheless, Trump may have turned his listless campaign around with a convention that contrasted starkly — and by degrees, better — with the Democratic version. It helps sometimes to go second. Trump brought real people and applause to his convention with nary a celebrity, rock star nor Hollywood star in sight. None would have come if invited, but such absences are of little concern to potential voters who saw themselves in a series of personal stories that illustrated conservative principles.
Notable among them was Alice Johnson, a Black woman sentenced to life in prison on drug trafficking charges before Trump granted her clemency in 2018. Johnson and others spoke to Trump’s chief public deficits — compassion and empathy — as counter-arguments to Biden’s charge that the president is bereft of both. (On Friday, Trump granted her a full pardon.)
Especially poignant were Marsha and Carl Mueller, who spoke of their 26-year-old daughter, Kayla, who was captured, tortured and killed by ISIS in 2015 while on a humanitarian mission in Turkey. They minced no words in suggesting that inaction by the Obama/Biden administration was to blame for Kayla’s fate. Citing Trump’s success in freeing American hostages, they said that had Trump been president when Kayla was detained, she’d be alive today.
Some may consider these moments little more than shameless, emotional manipulation, as I did when Democrats pulled some of the same heartstrings during their convention. What made the RNC’s lineup so effective, however, was that they were so numerous. The new message was that the Trump we don’t see working behind the curtain is a much-kinder, much-gentler guy than anyone knew. Accurate or not, the stories may have had the desired effect of humanizing him while diminishing the idea that Democrats are the “decency” brokers.
By now, some readers are surely screaming into their pillows. But we’ve seen this disconnect between perception and reality before — in 2016, when Trump was elected and in 2004 when George W. Bush was reelected. Both were shocking developments to the media and liberal quadrants of the electorate. The chasm between expectations born of polling and expectations born of instinct remind us that there is in-the-know — and there is in-the know about the rest-of-America.
With roughly $230 million in Trump’s campaign coffers — and a silent contingent of possible voters who care less about personality than they do about the economy, schools and violence — the race is much tighter than polls indicate.