Coming off a week where the Democrat National Convention spent four days painting the Trump administration as an apocalyptically dark, existential threat to the country, the Republican National Committee used their moment to let their voters speak for them—and it presented some of the most compelling political moments of the year.
There were no Hollywood celebrities, sports stars (the great Herschel Walker and UFC head Dana White excepted), or the parade of vulnerable incumbent office-holders normally given prime time billing. Even the remarks from GOP politicians and Trump family members, peppered throughout, took a back seat to the short, direct, and unfiltered remarks of working class Americans.
We heard from a nurse treating COVID-19 patients in West Virginia who praised the administration’s expansion of telemedicine, an owner of a coffee shop in Montana who struggled to stay open before coronavirus relief, a logger and trucker from Minnesota who saw his line of work decimated under the Obama-Biden administration, a lobsterman from Maine who praised the president for negotiating away tariffs on the lobster industry, and a Democrat mayor from Minnesota testifying to the economic devastation wrought by years of Republicans and Democrats striking trade deals that sent rural American jobs overseas.
The power of these speeches rested in the credibility of the speakers: everyday people, whose lives have been shaped by the choices their politicians have made, bearing witness to both the ones that have worked, and the ones that have not.
Letting the people speak
Andrew Pollack gave a searing speech about the school policy failures that led to the murder of his daughter, Meadow, in the Parkland High School shooting. The parents of Kayla Mueller, murdered by ISIS, choked back tears as they recounted being ignored by their government. Ann Dorn, the recent widow of murdered retired police officer David Dorn, provided one of the most gut-wrenching moments of the convention as she spoke about the brutality of the rioters who took her husband’s life.
But there were lighter moments; underreported accomplishments of the Trump administration, displayed with the signature Trump showmanship. Jon Ponder was given a full pardon during the convention week, his remarkable story of redemption dramatically retold. Alice Johnson, the face of the administration’s efforts on criminal justice reform, spoke with an infectious, irrepressible joy about being given a second chance. Hostages brought home through the administration’s efforts recounted their stories.
In a nod toward the rise of democratic socialism on the left, Cuban immigrant Maximo Alvarez gave a passionate appeal to America’s democratic freedoms. “I still hear my dad,” he said, retelling how his father fled communism in both Spain and Cuba before coming to the United States, “(saying) there is no other place to go.”
The choice to let ordinary, working class Americans make the case for Trump’s accomplishments—and for America as a country worth preserving—was an intentional one, unique to a party more commonly associated with the C-suite than the union hall. But it reflects an acknowledgement of the blue collar voters in Trump’s base, and an effort by Trump-style Republicans to refocus their party on those economically left behind.
Clarifying, expanding ‘Trumpism’
There were also noticeable shifts in tone on key Republican platform issues—some magnified, others re-framed.
Trump has long supported a robust defense budget, but exercised a restrained foreign policy that has resulted in fewer engagements overseas. To wit, the party gave a prime speaking slot to Sen. Rand Paul (R-Ky.) who railed against endless wars and praised the president’s non-interventionist agenda. What was once considered a fringe Republican position has now become mainstream—so much so that the party’s neoconservatives have largely abandoned Trump to line up behind Joe Biden.
Pro-life issues, usually given lip service by Republicans without any commitment to follow-through, were put on blast with a scorching speech from pro-life advocate Abby Johnson, who described in graphic detail her own experiences working in an abortion clinic. “The GOP before Trump would have been terrified to air such explicit anti-abortion rhetoric in prime time,” tweeted Real Clear Investigation’s Mark Hemingway. He’s right.
That is not to say that all elements of “Trumpism” have completely re-defined the modern GOP. The convention repeatedly emphasized the administration’s efforts on criminal justice reform—which divides the party—while giving short shrift to Trump’s more populist economic agenda on trade and infrastructure. Larry Kudlow, Trump’s economic adviser, was on hand to talk about tax cuts for business, but Peter Navarro, Trump’s architect on trade and the economic response to China, was noticeably absent.
But against the backdrop of a country in turmoil and a Democrat party whose entire campaign distills to “not Trump,” the RNC pulled off what many thought was impossible: a convention with a positive message, emphasizing a gratitude for America, and making the case for Trump’s accomplishments—all while letting everyday Americans do much of the talking.
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