The inaugural evening of the Republican National Convention featured some moments of uplift and optimism, but those were hardly the dominant themes. I spoke with national political reporter Gabriel Debenedetti about the GOP’s ominous messaging, and whether it will work on anyone who isn’t already a true believer.
Ben: On its first night, the Republican National Convention night one did not exactly offer a sunny view of the future — or of the present. Among other speakers, we had Kimberly Guilfoyle screaming at America about Joe Biden’s radical leftist agenda, Donald Trump Jr. darkly warning America about Joe Biden’s’ radical leftist agenda, and Senator Tim Scott gently alerting America about Democrats’ radical leftist agenda (his speech was notably sunnier than most of the others). The thrust seemed to be that Democrats will terrorize your suburb, squash your freedom of speech, and eat your children. What did you make of the GOP strategy here?
Gabriel: I seem to remember something about a pandemic killing nearly 200,000 Americans and putting millions more out of work, but surely I got that wrong, based on tonight’s programming.
Ben: What, COVID? That’s so four months ago, Gabe.
Gabriel: To your question: Basically, it’s the strategy Trump’s been running all along. If anyone was expecting anything different, they were lying to themselves. The biggest prime-time speeches — Nikki Haley, Trump Jr., Scott — were just variations on the theme, though Scott at least tried putting some broader conservative messaging in there. But there was no real discernible outreach to swing voters — even the supposed hot-button topics they discussed (“cancel culture!”) will be a lot more readily recognizable to regular Fox viewers than Americans who are only tuning into the election now.
Ben: Also, a weird amount of “school choice.”
Gabriel: Yeah, I suspect that was some sort of messaging designed for wavering suburban voters, but I’m not really sure how, or why — it’s also not an immediately obvious term or topic for average voters. But that gets to a broader point here: Even if we forget about “swing” voters, the group that’s probably most important for Trump to reach is people who voted for him in 2016 but either regret it and have switched to Biden or are considering sitting this one out altogether. (That’s not to say these are necessarily the most important voters in 2020 overall, just that they’re the most important for Trump to think about. Anyway…) Both campaigns have clearly decided a lot of these people are white suburban women, hence the nonstop (often pretty racist) GOP messaging about Democrats coming for the burbs. It reflects an antiquated view of the suburbs, for one, but it’s revealing about the overall strategy. That felt secondary tonight, though — this was about turnout, not persuasion.
Ben: Just from a poli-sci sort of perspective — does that strategy make any sense to you? Is pretty much forgetting about the kinds of voters the Biden campaign is gunning for and just revving up the turnout machine going to be enough to win again, given the president’s persistent unpopularity and the fact that he’s not facing Hillary Clinton?
Gabriel: No. But that’s not just about tonight. Donald Trump is losing by 8–10 points nationally and appears to be perfectly happy running this kind of campaign.
Ben: Yeah, guess that’s kind of a bigger question.
Gabriel: I mean, it’s especially galling when you consider, uh, the fact that … we’re in the middle of a world-historic pandemic.
Ben: The messaging on that seemed to be that (a) he saved a lot of lives with his decisive action banning travel from China, and (b) he bravely fought against draconian Democratic shutdowns. Problem is, public opinion is very much not on his side there, either.
Gabriel: Right, the other piece of the messaging is that the rebound/summer jobs growth has been remarkable. Fine, but polling shows Americans are very, very pessimistic about the direction of the country.
At the end of the day, we could talk all we want about the convention’s format (especially compared to Dems’ last week), about which of the speakers is gunning for 2024 (tonight alone: Trump Jr., Haley, Scott), and about how present Trump himself is in the programming. But those two facts — the world has changed completely, and Trump isn’t obviously doing anything to change his treacherous political path — are always going to loom largest.
Ben: There seemed to be one big exception to me in terms of playing to the base tonight, and that was Republicans’ focus on winning over Black voters. We heard from ex-NFL star and Trump fan Herschel Walker, Democratic apostate Vernon Jones, and Tim Scott, all of whom hammered home the point that Democrats had abandoned Black people, one of their core constituencies. Polling does show that Trump has made small gains among minority voters over the last few years, but he’s still losing Black voters by 80-plus points. Did you find this theme surprising, and do you think it was at all effective?
Gabriel: I wasn’t very surprised, because these are all speakers who’ve been supportive of Trump in the past, and especially given what may have been the beginning of a new civil-rights movement this summer, Republicans have been eager to showcase and try to win over some more Black support. Obviously from a pure numbers perspective, Trump’s goal will be to keep his sure-to-be-huge margin of loss among Black voters down — this week Politico reported on an old recording of Trump celebrating low Black turnout in 2016, because it helped him. But after the incredibly diverse Democratic programming last week, this evening’s lineup did, at least, distract from the Republicans’ basically all-white delegate roll call earlier in the day.