DNC staff change the set as Milwaukee native and Convention Secretary Jason Rae walks off stage at the Wisconsin Center on the second day of the Democratic National Convention in Milwaukee, Wisconsin, US. Reuters
Andrew Feinberg, The Independent
During America’s major political party quadrennial conventions, presidential candidates of both parties usually keep a low profile when their opponents speak. It’s a longstanding tradition which lets candidates take a deep breath before the headlong plunge into fall campaigning, while still allowing them to present themselves as honourable combatants in the gladiatorial contest that is American presidential politics.
And like so many longstanding traditions in America’s political life, Donald Trump has cast it aside.
As Democrats were gearing up for the first ever virtual party convention — a consequence of the Covid-19 pandemic that, as of this moment, has killed more than 170,000 of their fellow Americans — Donald Trump was firing up Air Force One for the first of four day-long trips to swing states. Since the novel coronavirus brought an end to campaigning-as-usual in mid-March, most of Trump’s appearances outside Washington have been billed as “official” trips (which lets him bill the taxpayer for the full cost of travel.) Yet he has never shied away from attacking his political enemies — real or perceived — even at events meant to showcase the country’s response to the pandemic. And Monday’s triple-header, which placed him before adoring crowds in a trio of midwestern airport hangars, let him throw off any pretence of speaking as if he were an incumbent president trying to lead the country.
At the Minneapolis-Saint Paul International Airport, just a few miles from where a quartet of former police officers sparked nationwide protests by killing George Floyd with a knee to the neck, Trump revelled in the memory of watching television images of national guardsmen using tear gas and nightsticks against protesters. And at airports located in the largely monochromatic locales of Mankato, Minnesota (88.28 percent white) and Oshkosh, Wisconsin (88.8 percent white), Trump repeatedly invoked blatantly racist appeals to handpicked crowds, railing against the (Black, female) mayor of Chicago and warning that a victory for former Vice President Joe Biden would give “Washington bureaucrats” a green light to “force the construction of low income housing projects in every neighbourhood in America”.
And as the Democrats’ televised convention dominates prime-time television this week, Trump’s campaign counter-programming will continue with trips to Yuma, Arizona (for immigration-themed remarks) and Scranton, Pennsylvania — Biden’s birthplace — to discuss jobs and trade policy just hours before the ex-Veep accepts his party’s nomination. Trump’s own party’s (largely virtual) convention kicks off three days later, at which point viewers at home will see him consign yet another political tradition to the dustbin of history.
Traditionally, parties have used the four-day convention format to build anticipation for the candidate’s triumphant acceptance speech on the final day, while the candidates themselves have remained out of sight. But Trump, never one to shy away from the spotlight, will reportedly speak on all four days of the Republican convention.
No Trump campaign officials would speak on the record as to whether the decision to “flood the zone” with two weeks of counter-programming with the president front-and-center is part of a coherent long-term plan, or simply a reflection of his own inability to surrender the spotlight — even when doing so could be to his benefit.
But Mark McKinnon, the former top media adviser for George W Bush’s two successful presidential campaigns, opined that the “all Trump, all the time” programming plan is “a pretty good strategy”.
“The point is not so much to attract attention to Trump as it is to distract attention away from the Democrats,” said McKinnon, currently the executive producer for Showtime’s The Circus.
McKinnon dismissed the idea that Trump’s constant presence on voters’ television screens during both conventions could have any negative impact by leaving him overexposed. “That’s like saying the sun could be overexposed,” he said.
One person familiar with the thinking of the president and top campaign officials — who spoke on the condition of anonymity — said the travel and the four-day speaking schedule at next week’s GOP convention were both Trump’s ideas. They lamented that there is no one working for the campaign with the stature or desire to tell the President it might not be a good idea to make himself even more ubiquitous instead of letting others make the case for his reelection until his acceptance speech.
“He really believes that he’s his own best communicator, surrogate, and spokesperson,” they said. “No one is going to challenge him on that.”
The last GOP consultant to helm a campaign that ran a non-Trump candidate predicted that Trump’s spotlight-hogging would have as good a result as when he hijacked the White House Coronavirus Task Force’s daily briefings — a practice that ended after he mused aloud about the potential benefits of injecting disinfectant.
“The question I would ask is: when is the last time the President went out in public and did something that helped him?” said Stuart Stevens, who was chief strategist for Mitt Romney’s 2012 presidential campaign and is now one of the leaders of The Lincoln Project, an anti-Trump GOP Super PAC.
Stevens, who recently authored a book-length repudiation of his life’s work as a GOP consultant entitled It Was All a Lie, observed that Trump’s poll numbers appear to take a hit whenever he spends an extended period of time at the centre of the news cycle. While Stevens did not rule out the possibility that it would be helpful for a candidate to speak on all four days of his or her nominating convention, he opined that such a move would only be effective for a candidate who entered the convention without the widespread name recognition and public profile of any incumbent president — much less one with Trump’s appetite for the spotlight.
“If you had a candidate who was unknown — you could make a case that it would work for someone like Jimmy Carter, it would have been positive. But for Trump? I don’t think so,” he said. “The fundamental problem with Trump is he’s over-exposed, and he needs to make this race about anything other than Donald Trump, and he’s just incapable.”
The former GOP ad guru and television writer was not surprised that no one on Trump’s team has been able to convince him to cede the spotlight, either.
“Nobody who’s very good at politics will work for Trump because he won’t take anybody’s advice,” he observed.
Another guru of campaigns past — veteran Democratic strategist James Carville — agreed with Stevens’ characterisation of Trump as someone who is incapable of stepping aside and letting others promote him in the run-up to his acceptance speech.
“It’s better to have someone else toot your horn than for you to do it, that’s just kind of human nature,” he said. “But he [Trump] doesn’t have that basic instinct — he would rather tell you how great he is than have anyone else do it.”
Carville, who in 1992 helped Bill Clinton to become the most recent Democratic presidential candidate to deny an incumbent Republican a second term, said Trump’s stage-hogging was more likely a reflection of the dire straits his re-election campaign finds itself in with just over 75 days until Election Day.
“This is not a strategy on his part,” he explained. “Everything he does is just flummoxing — you can’t figure it out, and the truth of matter is, no one on his own campaign can figure it out. He has got in his mind that he can talk his way back into office, and that no one else can do it like he can.”
Carville posited that Trump’s recent attacks on the widely popular US Postal Service and his insistence on making himself omnipresent during the GOP convention are both related to his standing in the polls relative to Biden, whose lead he described as having “staggering stability”.
“He knows he’s losing,” he said. “I think he’s a desperate man who is starting to come to grips with the reality of all of this.”
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