Photo: Stefani Reynolds / Bloomberg via Getty Images
Artillery Row

Letter from Washington: Trump is at the mercy of events

2020 has been a humbling year. Convention season was no different

The early signs were ominous: a preponderance of Trump family members in top speaking slots; a cast of culture war martyrs to fill-out out the programming; the party’s decision to eschew a platform articulating the policy priorities for the next four years, instead writing a blank cheque to “support the President’s America-first agenda”.

Instead of the chaotic, vacuous Trumpfest these details hinted at, this week’s Republican National Convention was a surprisingly effective party political broadcast. It was Trump-focused, but then much of last week’s Democratic shindig was spent burnishing the Biden brand. Admittedly, the “Trump 2020” fireworks over the Mall may have been a little much (and part of a possibly illegal White House jamboree). But given the prevailing view that “it’s Trump’s party now”, the striking thing about this week’s proceedings was how conventionally Republican much of it felt.

Ambassador Nikki Haley and Senator Tim Scott, hardly the GOP’s most enthusiastic Trumpkins, were given top billing, with the latter — the party’s only black member of the Senate — finishing his speech with an endorsement of nothing more than “the Republican ticket”. Hardly the wall-to-wall sycophancy most expected. 

As at a normal convention in a normal election year, the Republicans mixed appeals to the base with a pitch for the middle. The balance of “law and order” rhetoric with as many non-white speakers as the GOP could muster was hardly subtle. But it was a message designed by someone who knows that swing voters are concerned both about racial injustice and the violence and disorder fomented and excused by the far-left.

For all the months spent talking about “Sleepy Joe”, implicit in the convention messaging, with its focus on progressive politicians and protesters, was an acknowledgement that a a choice framed as ‘Trump vs. Biden’ is not going to end well for the President. Instead, Republicans know they need to frame the choice as one between Trump and the left. Millennial shockjock Charlie Kirk summarised that view on Monday night, when he described Trump as the “bodyguard of Western Civilisation”: tough, imperfect but the only thing that stands between America and chaos.

As for Trump’s acceptance speech on Thursday night, the problem wasn’t that it was another nail in the coffin of American democracy, but that it was a dull, unstructured and contradictory list of achievements and warnings.

But then the Trump campaign has access to the same polling as the rest of us. They know that widespread dissatisfaction with the status quo means they cannot run a conventional incumbent campaign for re-election. Instead, the president must somehow appear as an outsider in power. It is an awkward pose, and not necessarily one the President will be able to pull off, with video footage of chaos in Donald Trump’s America presented as a warning of what would happen to the event of a Biden victory. But it is still Trump’s best shot at victory.

In an increasingly divided political and media landscape, giving America’s two major parties extended airtime to present what they see as the best versions of themselves has proved a surprisingly useful exercise. It is lie-packed propaganda, of course, but you don’t need me (or the ever-expanding ranks of earnest media ‘fact checkers’) to tell you that.

However, by the end of it all, the lasting hunch is that it probably won’t matter much come November.

When Washington’s insiders analyse Presidential elections, they invariably fall for the self-flattering fallacy that the decisions of the candidates and their advisers — their friends, colleagues and bosses — determine the outcome. Who will perform on the debate stage? Who will stay on message? Which PAC will produce the more effective ad?

The awkward truth for DC’s political-industrial complex is that Trump and Biden are at the mercy of events. 2020 has been a humbling year, and convention season was no different. Sharp contrasts were drawn, hyperbolic warnings were issued, but what no one wanted to admit was how little control the two campaigns have over the things that are likely to prove decisive in November.

If August proves to be a turning point in the race, it will likely not be because of anything said at the conventions, but because of events elsewhere. Jacob Blake, a black 29-year-old man shot seven times in the back by a white police officer in Kenosha, Wisconsin, lies handcuffed to his hospital bed reportedly paralysed from the waist down. The city has seen protest, arson and violence. A white teenager who allegedly attended a Trump rally in January has been charged with murder after a shooting that occurred when protesters and counter-protesters clashed on Tuesday. Basketball and baseball players have called wildcat strikes in response to the events. The coronavirus continues to claim the lives of more than 1,000 Americans a day.

In this context, the minutiae of convention staging seem like a side show. No wonder Biden received no noticeable polling bump.

It may be a dark, unnerving reality to acknowledge, but it’s hard to shake the feeling that America’s future largely depends on exactly what mix of pandemic deaths, economic hardship, police shootings and violent unrest the next few months hold.

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