Skip to main content

U.S. President Donald Trump delivers his acceptance speech for the Republican presidential nomination on the South Lawn of the White House on Aug. 27, 2020.Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images

Franklin D. Roosevelt harnessed the power of radio. John F. Kennedy mastered the television arts. Ronald Reagan was a professional actor. Bill Clinton departed holding rooms for speech lecterns proclaiming it was “showtime!” But no president has possessed the knack for showmanship that Donald Trump has put on display for four years.

And this week, Mr. Trump – to his embittered critics either a showman without shame or a shaman without healing powers – put on a performance for the ages with a thunderous acceptance speech Thursday night.

It was a speech – it was a convention – that combined the tense and the past tense.

Held during tense nights as protests flared over another police shooting of a Black man, the convention provided Mr. Trump and his allies a forum for suggesting that the COVID-19 pandemic that has marked this year and shaped this campaign was all but a matter to be spoken of in the past tense.

Americans by a margin of 46 per cent to 31 per cent trust Democratic presidential candidate Joe Biden over Mr. Trump on the veracity of the men’s remarks on the virus, according to an Axios/Ipsos poll. More than a third of Republicans and two-thirds of all Americans disapprove of Mr. Trump’s handling of the pandemic, according to a Wall Street Journal/NBC News Poll taken this month. Yet Thursday evening, the President spoke glowingly of his response to what he called “the China virus,” said Mr. Biden advocated a “surrender to the virus” and promised a vaccine “before the end of the year or maybe even sooner.”

No White House contender even appeared at a nominating convention until 1932, and since then candidates made brief cameo performances before one climactic speech followed by the drop of thousands of balloons. Mr. Trump was visible all four days of this week’s red-white-and-blue Republican National Convention, swearing in new American citizens, puncturing Democratic ideas and setting off rhetorical trial balloon after trial balloon.

He unleashed the first on Monday and set the mood of the GOP’s quadrennial conclave: “The radical left will demand he appoints super-radical-left wild crazy justices going into the Supreme Court,” he said, adding, “Your American dream will be dead.” He ended the week by describing former vice-president Joe Biden as a “Trojan horse for socialism” and inveighing against “rioters, looters and flag burners.”

In his acceptance speech, Mr. Trump sought to portray himself as the defender of the American Dream – a hardy perennial at political conventions that is defined differently, but poignantly each time the term is employed by the speaker invoking its power.

The notion of the American Dream emerged the year before Mr. Roosevelt won the 1932 Democratic presidential nomination but was part of his Great Depression-era appeal. Lyndon Johnson expanded its reach by promising broader Great Society prosperity; Richard Nixon reshaped it by adding a “law-and-order” element with a dark racial undertone; and Mr. Clinton refreshed it with an emphasis on a revival of hope for the middle class.

Mr. Trump laid it out as a muscular combination of personal safety, an aggressive trade posture, vigilance against the dangers to American jobs and domestic tranquility posed by immigrants, and a forceful response to protests in city streets.

The President delivered his Thursday-night remarks in the wake of violence on Monday and Tuesday sparked by the police shooting of Jacob Blake in Kenosha, Wis. That city is in the southeastern corner of Wisconsin, one of the principal battlegrounds of the campaign and a state Mr. Trump carried by less than a percentage point in 2016.

Both the Democratic and Republican conventions were more efforts at motivation than at persuasion. “Neither party made much of an effort to gain the votes of undecideds,” said Jeffrey M. Berry, a Tufts University political scientist.

“The effort here was to get their voters to the polls,” he said, adding that the Republicans were more strident than usual.

Indeed, the emphasis of Mr. Trump – who portrayed himself as the enemy of China, the scourge of “criminal aliens” and the warrior against “violent agitators” – was to stoke his supporters’ ardor. With his charge that his rivals were a “radical movement” determined “to completely dismantle and destroy” the country, he surely succeeded.

His acceptance speech was classic Trump: a mixture of boasts and bombast that thrills his supporters and ignites fury in his opponents.

Among the presidents he praised were Thomas Jefferson, Andrew Jackson and Theodore Roosevelt – recently discredited for their views and actions on race issues. He struck at the heart of the Biden constituency by saying, “I have done more for the African-American community than any president since Abraham Lincoln,” and more in three years as President “than Joe Biden has done in 47 years” – both claims that the Democrats and historians will contest.

He said Mr. Biden was “the destroyer of America’s jobs and, if given the chance, he will be the destroyer of American greatness.” He spoke of ending what he called the “NAFTA nightmare.”

Kellyanne Conway, the President’s counsellor, said at the outset of the GOP convention that the party’s goal was “to improve on the dour and sour mood” of the Democrats’ conclave.

To that end, Mr. Trump expressed his “boundless optimism,” vowed swiftly to return “to full employment and record prosperity,” borrowed a line from Mr. Kennedy by speaking of “new frontiers of ambition and discovery,” and said “America is the torch that enlightens the entire world.”

But the speech likely will be remembered for the President’s references to “Biden calamities,” his mocking of “Biden’s hollow words of empathy,” his remark that the Biden agenda was “made in China” and charges that his rival had a record of “catastrophic blunders.”

And with all that, the convention period – the penultimate phase of the contest for the White House – draws to a close. Now on to the general election, and more invective from both sides.

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.