RNC Night 1: Watch the Moments That Mattered

Adam: So, first things first. I know Republicans had talked about this being an optimistic, uplifting convention. Maybe that happens on Night 2? We heard a pretty withering case against Joseph R. Biden Jr. that President Trump is obviously going to use this week and in the months ahead. We always knew this would be a negative campaign, but I think this is going to the most brutal campaign we’ve seen since George Bush defeated Michael Dukakis in 1988.

Shane: Hey, shouldn’t I be the one linking to your smart stories? Yeah, the message tonight was pretty clear: Joe Biden is a radical. Donald Trump cares (and is not a racist). Oh, and please remember the pre-pandemic economy.

Adam: It was a night that included dark (and often misleading) warnings that a Biden presidency would lead to more crime and civil unrest, higher taxes, defunded police departments and a shutdown of the country to deal with the coronavirus. (No attacks on mask-wearing mandates, though, right? Well, the week is young.) And have you ever seen a candidate for president use the White House as a stage for a convention, Shane?

Shane: There needs to be a sharper description than norm-busting. The president is taking the seat of government and turning it into the backdrop for his campaign marketing — even bringing in hostages whose release the government helped negotiate for a talk-show-like segment (by the way, I stopped cold when Mr. Trump said, “To me, President Erdogan was very good” to a former hostage). The East Room event was also surprising because Mr. Trump’s first prime-time convention appearance was talking about a virus he has more often preferred to ignore.

Adam: The segment on Covid-19 was striking. The president clearly sees this as a major obstacle to his re-election (you don’t need to commission a poll to know that). You again saw the claim that Mr. Trump was in fact ahead of everyone else in grasping the severity of the pandemic — even though he repeatedly downplayed the virus. From watching this, it sounds like a cure and a vaccine is around the corner. I’m no epidemiologist, but I’m not sure any of that’s correct. And they pulled (accurate) video clips of Democratic leaders — Gov. Andrew Cuomo and Mayor Bill de Blasio — minimizing the danger of the pandemic. Those were from early March, and those two New Yorkers later changed their tunes — but they did say it.

Shane: Hey, Mr. de Blasio finally got his convention airtime!

Adam: And kind of deliciously, they used quotes from Mr. Cuomo and Gov. Gavin Newsom of California praising Mr. Trump for his response.

Shane: Speaking of which, I couldn’t help but notice that Mr. Newsom’s ex-wife, Kimberly Guilfoyle (who is now Donald Trump Jr.’s girlfriend), specifically called out California as an example of rotten Democratic rule.

Adam: That was rich. Do you think Mr. Newsom watched her speech?

Shane: I don’t know — you’re the one based in California, Adam. I was also struck by whom the Republicans anointed to open their convention: the pugilistic Charlie Kirk of Turning Point USA, who was soon followed by Matt Gaetz, a Florida congressman who once wore a gas mask to the House floor as a stunt. When Mr. Gaetz dropped the word “woketopians,” it felt like I was back covering an annual Conservative Political Action Conference gathering. I guess that was the point: Rally. The. Base.

Adam: Confession: “Woketopians” was a high point of my night.

Adam: I’m going to argue that Senator Tim Scott of South Carolina gave the most important speech of the night, with Nikki Haley coming in a close second. (We’ll get to her — with video! — in a bit.) The Republicans thought so as well; his speech closed out the night. He made a methodical case against Mr. Biden, attacking his record in public service. And he ran through some of Mr. Biden’s more inartful statements on race, including when he said “you ain’t Black” if you vote for Mr. Trump, and his sponsorship of a tough 1994 criminal justice bill.

Shane: And it was not just what he said, but who he is in saying it: the Republican Party’s top Black lawmaker. Adam, there were a number of Black speakers on Monday who tried to knock down the accusations that Mr. Trump is racist. Who do you think their target audience was, Black voters or white voters?

Adam: That is one of the big questions of the night. I do not believe, and I don’t think anyone in the Trump or Biden campaigns believes, that Mr. Trump — considering what he’s said and done about race — has any realistic hope of pulling a significant number of Black voters away from Mr. Biden. But I do think having Mr. Scott make that case out there — he was one of a few African-American speakers on Night 1 — gives a license to moderate white voters who are thinking about voting for the president but are put off by his racist statements. It is a permission structure; if Mr. Scott says that Mr. Trump is OK, well.…

Shane: Herschel Walker, the former football player, was explicit about this point earlier in the night: “I have seen racism up close. I know what it is. And it isn’t Donald Trump.”

Shane: Listening to Nikki Haley, the former governor of South Carolina and United Nations ambassador, feels like a complete repackaging of the Trump agenda. It’s all refracted through the prism of traditional Republicanism. It was taxes and spending at home, projecting American values abroad. Simple contrasts, calm delivery and digestible framing. “He’s moved America forward,” she said of Mr. Trump, “while Joe Biden held America back.”

Adam: There was speculation early in the year that Ms. Haley had stepped down from her post at the United Nations to distance herself from Mr. Trump in preparation for her own presidential run. I even heard some speculation she might challenge him in the 2020 primary, which seemed nuts. It’s hard to imagine anything else she might have done on Night 1 to put her into the very best of graces with Mr. Trump — and, importantly, Mr. Trump’s supporters. I think she did herself some good here if she wants to run for president in 2024.

Shane: Look, there were definitely some shades of 2024 on Monday and hints about the future fissures inside a post-Trump G.O.P. — especially with Ms. Haley’s stylistic opposite, Donald Trump Jr., speaking immediately after her. Ms. Haley talked about removing the Confederate flag as governor — though she didn’t say the word Confederate! — calling it a “divisive symbol.” A few minutes later Don Jr. spoke about not tearing down monuments. “We must learn from our past, not erase it,” he said.

Adam: So, Donald Trump Jr. is no Donald Trump.

Shane: Hey, you used that line last week about the Cuomos!

Adam: Yeah, well, I’m learning that a lot of these political apples are falling far away from their political trees. Or something like that. Most viewers were really meeting the president’s son for the first time as a person who might carry on his father’s legacy, and some may know him only as the ambling, good-natured brother of Eric as portrayed by Mikey Day on “Saturday Night Live.” But in his speech, he was coiled, intense and partisan.

Shane: Of the Trump children, it is Donald Trump Jr. who has his finger closest to the pulse of the Trump base. There was not a lot of subtext to this speech. He called the former vice president “Beijing Biden.” He said Mr. Biden wants to “bring in more illegal immigrants to take jobs from American citizens.” He recently wrote a book called “Triggered” about getting under the skin of the left, but the younger Mr. Trump surely knows where the political pressure points are for the right, too. Who knows if an actual Trump might be the inheritor of the mantle of Trumpism?

Adam: OK, that’s a really good point and he might do well in a future primary. But positions aside, he does not seem to have the campaign skills that his father has displayed. President Trump knows how to entertain his supporters; you are as likely to hear laughter at a Trump rally as cheers. His son doesn’t seem to have the kind of side to him that would make an audience laugh. Listen, if he does want to pick up his father’s legacy, he has time: It’s not easy being a candidate. But I’m not sure it was a terrific outing for him.

Shane: The cable countdown timers Monday afternoon said there were still hours to go before the convention was supposed to begin, and yet there was Mr. Trump talking to the party delegates in North Carolina — and he sure does look like a politician who has missed live and adoring audiences.

Adam: Talking. And talking. And talking. Is it over yet? Anyway, he didn’t waste any time answering one question I had coming into this week: Will this be an all-Trump-all-the-time convention?

Shane: Was it ever not going to be? On Sunday, when the Republican National Committee’s delegates basically abandoned a formal party platform in 2020, it really drove home how Republicanism is now Trumpism. “The Republican Party has and will continue to enthusiastically support the president’s America-first agenda,” said the formal resolution.

Adam: Do you think he will change his tone in his big speech later this week? Will he broaden his appeal when speaking to what I assume will be a huge national audience?

Shane: Don’t use the T-word, Adam! There is just one Donald J. Trump, and he is a perpetually aggrieved president who views the world through the prisms of strength and weakness, friends and haters. And as he told the delegates, he thinks he has the “greatest base” ever. That’s whom he’ll (mostly) be speaking to.

Adam: I know, I know. But he really squeaked to victory in 2016. I’m not sure a base-only speech is going to get him back to the White House. He hit so many different issues and themes on Monday. He made unfounded warnings about ballot fraud, raising questions about the integrity of the election. He said Democrats were trying to use the coronavirus to steal the election. He called it the “China virus.” All that stuff sent the fact-checking police into overdrive.

Shane: All the hits.

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