President Donald Trump painted a dystopian picture of the U.S. as he formally accepted the Republican nomination for a second term Thursday, warning that the country will descend into “mob rule,” China will “own” America and “wild-eyed Marxists” in the Democratic Party will take over government if he is not re-elected.
He invited voters to fear anti-racism protesters, undocumented immigrants and free-trade deals. And he sought to deflect criticism of his handling of the COVID-19 pandemic, even as he spoke in front of a large audience that mostly did not physically distance nor wear masks on the White House lawn.
“This election will decide whether we save the American dream, or whether we allow a socialist agenda to demolish our cherished destiny. This election will decide whether we protect law-abiding Americans, or whether we give free rein to violent anarchic agitators and criminals who threaten our citizens,” Mr. Trump said on the final night of the Republican National Convention. “Whether we defend the American way of life, or whether we will allow a radical movement to completely dismantle and destroy it. That won’t happen.”
His speech unfolded against the backdrop of renewed outrage at police racism and brutality, with protesters this week taking to the streets of Kenosha, Wisc. after the police shooting of Jacob Blake. The demonstrations have included property destruction, attracted right-wing militias bent on fighting the protesters and saw two demonstrators shot dead and a third injured.
Where Democratic nominee Joe Biden used his convention last week to pitch a big tent, aiming to assemble a broad coalition behind his candidacy, Mr. Trump firmly chose to rally his base.
He complained about “cancel culture,” peddled a conspiracy theory that the former administration of Barack Obama “spied on my campaign,” described Mr. Biden as a “Trojan Horse for socialism” and claimed, without evidence, that the former vice president is backed by Beijing and “China would own our country” if he wins.
Mr. Trump also railed against free trade, returning to a familiar theme from 2016, saying he had ended “the NAFTA nightmare” with the new U.S.-Mexico-Canada Agreement. The revised pact actually preserves most of the old North American free-trade agreement.
Mr. Trump portrayed himself as a decisive leader who had taken swift action on COVID-19. But in the pandemic’s first two months, he repeatedly downplayed its danger and pushed for a swift end to physical distancing measures. State governments, meanwhile, have repeatedly accused the White House of failing to provide much-needed medical equipment or coordinate measures.
Mr. Biden pre-emptively fired back, unleashing a new television ad Thursday that sought to contrast himself with the President. One image shows Mr. Trump with riot police after the gassing of Black Lives Matter protesters near the White House in June as Mr. Biden declares the U.S. is “more powerful than any dictator or tyrant.” Other scenes tout Mr. Biden’s childhood in blue-collar Scranton, Pennsylvania next to Mr. Trump partying in mansions.
Democratic vice-presidential nominee Kamala Harris, meanwhile, accused Mr. Trump of standing “idly by” on COVID-19 while other countries took action and got the pandemic under control.
“Donald Trump has failed at the most basic and important job of a President of the United States. He failed to protect the American people. Plain and simple,” she said in a speech in Washington Thursday.
Throughout the week, the Republicans occasionally tried to reach beyond their base. Mr. Trump, for instance, claimed that he had “done more for the African-American community than any other president since Abraham Lincoln,” because of the strong pre-COVID economy. Housing Secretary Ben Carson insisted Mr. Trump is not “a racist.” And several speakers touted Mr. Trump’s efforts at curbing mass incarceration.
But more often, they went in the opposite direction. The convention heard from Mark and Patricia McCloskey, the St. Louis couple that pointed guns at anti-racism protesters outside their mansion. Multiple speakers, including Mr. Trump, made veiled references to preserving statues of Confederate generals. And the President’s lawyer, Rudy Giuliani, characterized Black Lives Matter as bent on starting “vicious, brutal riots.”
Both conventions were forced largely online by the pandemic. Most Republican speakers appeared at an empty auditorium in Washington. But Mr. Trump made several appearances from the White House, in an unusual bid to use the trappings of his office for explicitly partisan purposes. In one segment, he presided over a naturalization ceremony for five people becoming U.S. citizens. In another, he issued a surprise pardon to a reformed bank robber who had just endorsed his candidacy.
And where the Democrats struck a subdued tone amid the pandemic and racial injustice, Mr. Trump held on to his sense of showmanship. After he finished speaking Thursday, fireworks erupted overhead while a cover version of Leonard Cohen’s Hallelujah played.
The narration of one campaign video, seemingly forgetting Abraham Lincoln’s winning of the civil war or George Washington’s setting up of the federal government, declared: “President Trump has accomplished more for the American people in four years than any other president in history.”
Our Morning Update and Evening Update newsletters are written by Globe editors, giving you a concise summary of the day’s most important headlines. Sign up today.