The GOP convention will be no summer of love
But Democrats are nonetheless wary about what will come their way.
The 2016 Trump Convention was a crude production, lacking in star power and uplift. A lot of big-time Republicans also stayed away. Yet it turned out to be a messaging triumph. One of the most vulgar moments was also one of the most effective: Michael Flynn, the soon-to-be-disgraced Trump loyalist, led the crowd in chanting “Lock her up!” about Hillary Clinton.
That it was Flynn, the shortest-lived national security adviser in history, not Clinton, who was convicted of a crime offers little comfort. Trump won the election by discrediting Clinton (with some help from then-FBI Director James B. Comey at the end). Trump won swing states with the ballots of voters who looked askance at both candidates but decided they hated Clinton more.
So outside of his political base — you can expect it will be well attended-to on immigration, guns and abortion — Trump is not looking for love this week.
His primary goal is one Kentucky politics watchers have long ascribed to Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell: The president wants to be the second most loathed person on the ballot come November. He will try to efface Biden’s image of empathy and decency with a ghoulish cartoon sketch of a man under the control of radical forces.
By highlighting support for Biden from prominent Republicans, Biden’s lieutenants made Trump’s job more difficult. The Democratic convention was also relentless in portraying the pain and suffering the nation has endured because of Trump’s mishandling of covid-19. And it was just as determined to turn Biden, by virtue of his own trials, generous spirit and thoughtful calm, into the ideal healer.
“I know that if we entrust this nation to Joe,” Jill Biden said of her husband, “he will do for your family what he did for ours: bring us together and make us whole.”
Triumph over suffering is now etched so deeply into Biden’s public image that Trump will be hard-pressed to undo it. And the president’s efforts to deny the reality of the country’s suffering have tended to backfire, though he will try again to claim that things would have been worse without him.
But if there is one pesky polling number for Democrats, it is Trump’s slight advantage on the matter of which candidate will better handle the economy. Here is where his attempt to tie Biden and Sen. Kamala D. Harris (D-Calif.) to the “far left” will do double duty.
The obvious Trump play is to social conservative and racial backlash voters. If the Democrats painted an optimistic picture of a country that could achieve racial justice and national unity, Trump will paint a dark caricature (my color choice is not accidental) of a country facing disorder and chaos under the Democrats.
He offered a preview in Scranton, Pa., on the last night of the Democratic convention, deploying a strategy of demonizing Democratic cities he’ll never win to shore up his rural vote and scare suburbanites who have strayed to Biden back into his own camp.
“If you want a vision of your life under a Joe Biden presidency,” Trump said, “imagine the smoldering ruins of Minneapolis, the violent anarchy of Portland and the bloodstained sidewalks of Chicago coming to every city and town in America.”
American Carnage Redux is one side of the case Trump wants to make. The other is classic Republican propaganda on economics, aimed at more affluent voters, again particularly suburbanites. Attacks on Biden’s nonexistent “leftism” will be tied to made-up claims that he will boost taxes to confiscatory levels and, in embracing reforms to capitalism, new public programs and bold steps on climate change, will weaken an already ailing economy.
This punch has been telegraphed, too. “You are coming out of a pandemic, a contraction of historic dimensions, and he wants to raise taxes,” White House economic adviser Larry Kudlow said of Biden on Fox News earlier this month, predicting that Biden’s clean energy policies would “crater the economy and the stock market.”
Some of this might stick, but the degree of difficulty problem remains. In 2016, Trump was unencumbered by the responsibilities of office. In 2020, he has a dismal record to defend — or evade. And the nastier his convention’s message becomes, the more he will reinforce the implicit promise of the Democratic convention: of a calm, less divided country that is normal again.