WASHINGTON – It was a very grand setting for what turned out to be a very common speech.
President Donald Trump formally accepted his party’s nomination for president Thursday night on the South Lawn of the White House, flanked by dozens of American flags and cheered by more than a thousand invited guests.
Trump emerged from the South Portico at about 10:30 p.m. ET with first lady Melania Trump, and they walked slowly down the stairs and along a long red-carpeted dais.
The speech represented the culmination of the weeklong virtual Republican National Convention. For months, Trump had been saying he wanted to give his acceptance speech in a setting that looked “pre-coronavirus,” one that made people forget the pandemic, which has claimed the lives of more than 180,000 Americans in just six months.
Trump got his wish. Guests were seated without any distance from one another and there was hardly a mask in sight, despite the fact that more than a thousand Americans are still dying every day of Covid-19.
But rather than use this extraordinary setting to deliver a speech that would ring in people’s ears, Trump gave in to his old habits.
Over the course of more than an hour, the president delivered lines that he has relied upon for years to animate audiences at his huge campaign rallies, which are now a thing of the past. He called Democratic nominee Joe Biden a “Trojan Horse” of the “radical left” and accused him of harboring plans to turn America into a socialist hellscape.
In reality, Biden ran against and defeated a self-described democratic socialist, Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders, in the Democratic primary.
But for Trump, repackaging his old material may have been the best option. How else could Trump campaign the way he likes to, as an insurgent, when he’s been president for four years?
By trying to convince Americans that Biden, a career senator and former two-term vice president, was the real Washington insider, not Trump, the president hoped to blur the lines between being an “insider” and being the incumbent.
“We have spent the last four years reversing the damage Joe Biden inflicted over the last 47 years,” Trump said, all but ignoring the reality that the nation is suffering from widespread joblessness, intensifying racial strife and a pandemic that claims hundreds of lives each day.
In Trump’s revisionist history, it was Biden who had inflicted damage upon America that needs repairing, not Trump. And much like he does in his rally speeches, the president did not let facts get in the way of his attack lines on Thursday.
“Biden has promised to abolish the production of American oil, coal, shale, and natural gas,” Trump falsely claimed.
“If you give power to Joe Biden, the radical left will Defund Police Departments all across America. …They will make every city look like Democrat-run Portland, Oregon. No one will be safe in Biden’s America,” Trump also claimed, referring to the protests in the northwestern city.
This is the same thing Trump has been claiming ever since racial justice protests broke out late this spring, following the killing by police of George Floyd in Minneapolis.
“The most dangerous aspect of the Biden platform is the attack on public safety,” Trump said on Thursday. “There is violence and danger in the streets of many Democrat-run cities throughout America,” he added. The lines were among several tirades during the speech about “public safety” that employed racially charged language and seemed especially geared towards white, suburban women.
But here’s the thing: Trump has been telling Americans that Democrats are the party of “crime” and “criminals” for years. He even began his 2016 Republican National Convention acceptance speech with the same familiar threats.
“Our convention occurs at a moment of crisis for our nation. The attacks on our police, and the terrorism in our cities, threaten our very way of life,” Trump said four years ago. “Americans watching this address tonight have seen the recent images of violence in our streets and the chaos in our communities … I have a message for all of you: the crime and violence that today afflicts our nation will soon come to an end. Beginning on January 20, 2017, safety will be restored.”
Speaking to a huge arena crowd in Cleveland, Ohio, Trump, the newly crowned GOP nominee, continued: “The most basic duty of government is to defend the lives of its own citizens. Any government that fails to do so is a government unworthy to lead.”
And that was the one big difference between the “violence in our streets” that Trump talked about in 2016, and the “violence and danger in the streets” that Trump talked about on Thursday. Four years ago, Trump blamed the president of the United States for it. Tonight, it was the fault of Democratic mayors. This time, the man in the Oval Office wasn’t the problem — he was the solution.
This parallel message, delivered four years later but otherwise little changed, captures a lot of what rang false about the president’s speech Thursday night.
Given how much has changed in this country in the past four years, and just the past six months, the very notion that Trump would tell voters that “the most dangerous” aspect of his opponent’s platform in 2020 is the exact same thing that it was four years ago seemed almost absurd.
On July 21, 2016, in Cleveland, this is how Trump ended his acceptance speech: “We will make America strong again. We will make America proud again. We will make America safe again. And we will make America great again!”
On Thursday night, he ended this way: “We will make America safer, we will make America stronger, we will make America prouder, and we will make America greater than ever before!”
In a very different world, Trump offered the same old sales pitch.