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28 August 2020

All the president’s enabling men: a round-up of the 2020 Republican Convention

This year's RNC showed that in place of a policy platform, the Republican Party is relying on personality and power.

By Emily Tamkin

Everyone and everything at the Republican National Convention (RNC) this week was in service of one man: the president, Donald Trump. Or, perhaps more accurately, in service of Donald Trump and his version of reality.

Conventions – Democratic and Republican – are always about the presidential candidate. But they are also about the party, the platform that its various wings and members have negotiated, and about pitching that party to the American people.

Trump’s Republican Party does not have a platform. This year, instead of coming together to outline the party’s policies, the delegates put out a resolution that says that the Republican Party “has and will continue to enthusiastically support the president’s America-first agenda”. It was, if nothing else, an accurate description of the message of the past week: support Donald Trump. That’s all.

The support came in different forms. There was Donald Trump Jr, the president’s son, who looked into the camera and told Americans that his father would deliver perfection: “America is the greatest country on Earth, but my father’s entire world-view revolves around the idea that we can always do even better. Imagine the life you want to have, one with a great job, a beautiful home, a perfect family.” There was Donald Trump Jr’s girlfriend, Kimberly Guilfoyle, who, in a speech largely shouted, declared, “Biden, Harris, and the rest of the socialists will fundamentally change this nation.” And there were more conventional politicians, like Nikki Haley, Trump’s former UN ambassador and the daughter of Indian immigrants, who assured listeners, “America is not a racist country.” Or Congresswoman Elise Stefanik, who said in her speech that the Democrats’ impeachment of Trump was illegal, which it was not.

Some of the punditry suggested a split between Trump Jr and Haley, implying that they were battling for the soul of the party. But there was no battle here. They were on the same side. They were both there for Trump, just like everyone else involved.

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[See also: Who was the Democrat National Convention for?]

The roll call of high-profile Trump supporters at the convention also included members of the executive branch. The Hatch Act prohibits figures in taxpayer-funded offices, save for the president and vice-president, from participating in certain forms of political activity, in order that their power is not leant to political stunts. Yet secretary of state Mike Pompeo broke precedent by delivering a speech for the convention. (He may have also broken the law, according to House Democrats who have opened an investigation, since his speech was given in Jerusalem on a taxpayer-funded trip.) Similarly, Chad Wolf, acting secretary of homeland security, took part in a televised naturalisation ceremony, in which Trump awarded five immigrants – who were reportedly not told that they would be used as part of a political convention – with citizenship.

Ivanka Trump, the president’s daughter who is also his adviser, gave a speech on the final night in front of the White House’s South Lawn. In running through a list of promises kept, she concluded with one made four years ago that she would be here with her audience: “And here I am!” she announced proudly. And it was true; there she was, in defiance of past precedent and perhaps also the law.

Some of that support even included lying or misleading on the president’s behalf. Vice-president Mike Pence, to take one example, said that he and Trump had inherited “an economy struggling to break out of the slowest recovery since the Great Depression”. Yet their predecessor, Barack Obama, actually started the longest economic expansion in the country’s history. Alternatively, Kayleigh McEnany, the White House press secretary, said that the president stands by Americans with pre-existing health conditions – whereas, in fact, Trump is trying to dismantle Obama’s healthcare act, under which Americans with pre-existing conditions have coverage. Trump’s own speech contained over 20 untrue or misleading statements, though no mention of how many people had died from the coronavirus pandemic or even the virus’s name (though he did call it “the China virus” twice).

All conventions present the truth in such a way that is more favourable to their candidate, just as many politicians can be caught saying things that are not true. Here, however, the small lies can work in service of larger ones so all-consuming that to believe them is to believe our reality is completely different from the one we currently inhabit. Some speakers, for instance, hailed Trump for his successful handling of the pandemic, which has, at time of writing, led to roughly 180,000 Americans deaths so far this year. Others criticised the Democrats for an alleged disrespect for law enforcement.

[See also: Trump could very well win a second term]

The convention even included Mark and Patricia McCloskey, the St Louis couple that had waved guns at Black Lives Matter protesters walking by their estate. The couple warned of a lawlessness that would overtake us if Joe Biden is elected president. Meanwhile, also this week, Jacob Blake, a black man, was shot seven times in the back by police in Kenosha, Wisconsin. Protests against police brutality followed, and in response, militia assembled, ostensibly to protect property; a teenager has been charged with shooting and killing two protesters.

At time of writing, the nation is also facing wildfires in California and the fallout from Hurricane Laura, which devastated homes in Louisiana and hit parts of Texas hard too. Although not as bad as originally feared – the hurricane was thought to be a Category 5 on Wednesday (26 August); by Thursday, a Category 4 – other stronger, more frequent hurricanes will come, because nature doesn’t care whether we tackle the climate crisis or not. The climate will not revert because we decide not to deal with it, or because the Republican National Convention made no mention of global warming.

And why would they mention the issue? Addressing climate change would involve describing the world in which Americans live, the one in which people are dying and have lost their jobs and are killing one another. Instead, everyone who took part in the RNC presented something else entirely: a world Donald Trump would like to see.

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