By Robin Givhan / The Washington Post
It was a beautiful image. That’s all it was, but that was the most important thing. It was, in fact, the only thing.
On Thursday evening, the stage was dramatically set for the president’s speech to the Republican National Convention on the South Lawn of the White House. Surely there were no more American flags left in the land because they were all assembled as a backdrop for the night’s grand finale.
A pandemic is raging, preventing Americans from traveling freely, shuttering schools and keeping businesses closed. But not at President Trump’s White House. The perfectly manicured lawn was filled with little white chairs that were spaced inches apart and most of the 1,500 or so people in attendance were maskless.
Cabinet members, Trump family members, supporters and a beatific Vice President Mike Pence were all nestled up next to one another. It wasn’t so much a cult of denial, but a cult of personality. They were here for the president, Donald J. Trump. He alone can solve the country’s problems, he said when he was running for office four years ago. He has done more for Black Americans than any president since Abraham Lincoln, he has said. Having his face added to Mount Rushmore sounds like a good idea, he has tweeted.
The president was introduced by his daughter Ivanka. How is it that this golden child was allowed to share the spotlight on the night her father accepted his party’s nomination for president? She is the chosen one. She is the archetype of femininity as scripted by Republicans: a mother of many, wrapped in a thick coating of gloss.
She walked out wearing dark cigarette pants and a matching off-the-shoulder top. Her blond hair hung straight and blew slightly in the breeze. And boy, oh boy. If there was any doubt that Ivanka was her father’s most favored child, one only had to have been listening to the speakers who built to her moment in the spotlight.
More than one speaker acknowledged her virtues even as they were praising her father as if it was the Ivanka and Donald administration.
Sean Reyes, the Utah attorney general, gave her a quick name-check, but it was Stacia Brightmon, a reskilled worker who gave listeners a triple dose of Ivanka. In her taped address from the Andrew Mellon Auditorium in Washington, Brightmon explained how she learned new job skills and changed the trajectory of her life. “Later I learned what President Donald Trump and Ivanka Trump were doing behind the scenes to make sure people like me had a chance to rise up and succeed,” Brightmon said as she glanced off to the side as if for reassurance.
The drumroll to the president’s speech also included Ben Carson, the secretary of housing and urban development, a laconic speaker whose heart went out to the family of Jacob Blake, who was shot in the back by a police officer in Kenosha, Wis. He quickly followed his condolences with a lengthy quote that he attributed to Lincoln, who has been mentioned often and urgently by this party that’s so intent on proving it really, really likes Black people.
Trump walked out alongside the first lady to greet his audience. He expressed his love for his family, acknowledged the vice president and then gripped the sides of the lectern and settled in for his marathon of a speech. He had come to stay a while. He reeled off his laundry list of sketchy statistics on how masterfully he has handled a pandemic that has killed 177,000 Americans and counting. He bragged about how much personal protective equipment the government got to first responders, but he failed to mention that nurses and doctors were long working with makeshift gowns and begging for mask donations to keep themselves safe. He promised a safe and effective vaccine by year’s end; maybe even before that, he said.
Trump was in his element. He playing to a receptive crowd that roared at his laugh lines, interrupted him with applause and delighted in his hyperbole. “Joe Biden’s agenda is made in China. My agenda is made in the USA,” he said. And the audience gave those sentences a standing ovation and chanted, “USA! USA!”
He accused the Democrats of not having any policies, but then mocked Biden for having a dangerous manifesto heavily influenced by Sen. Bernie Sanders, I-Vt. Biden is a Trojan horse, Trump said. And it’s awfully crowded in that horse, what with every progressive member of Congress, the entire Black Lives Matter movement, abortion rights activists and anyone who has the temerity to suggest that this is a flawed country.
Grieving families were sitting in the audience: children whose police officer mother had been killed, a wife whose husband was shot by looters in St. Louis. The president described the losses. He picked at the scab of their grief.
He spoke of left-wing anarchy. Anarchists! Agitator! He snorted out the words like he was clearing phlegm from his throat.
He voiced his concerns for Black Americans killed in cities led by Democrats. But he could not bring himself to speak to those who are killed by police officers. Based on sheer mentions, one might think the country’s greatest scourge is “cancel culture,” not racial injustice, an economic crisis or a pandemic. That was an applause line, too, and the audience complied.
Watching the up and down, up and down of the crowd was a bit like watching an outdoor version of the State of the Union address without the buzzkill of Democrats who refuse to play along. There sat the Cabinet in the night. There were uniformed federal officers. The People’s House glowed warmly in the background as the president went on and on and on for 70 minutes, as compared with Biden’s 25.
He was working to protect people with preexisting medical conditions when the truth is that they are already protected thanks to the Affordable Care Act, which his administration is working mightily against. He bragged that he was single-handedly protecting the Second Amendment. He was protecting free speech on college campuses; even though the First Amendment already took care of that.
Trump’s speech, with its White House setting, with its audience of public servants, was not so much a campaign speech that asked citizens to make an informed choice based on two party’s policy differences. Instead, it was a view into the mind of a vainglorious man who believes that he is the Constitution, his is the righteous party of God and the truth is what he believes it to be.
The night ended with a fireworks display above the Mall. As the rockets erupted in the air, they emblazoned “Trump 2020” alongside the Washington Monument. It wasn’t his image etched into Mount Rushmore, but it was something.
Robin Givhan is a staff writer and The Washington Post’s fashion critic, covering fashion as a business, as a cultural institution and as pure pleasure. A 2006 Pulitzer Prize winner for criticism, Givhan has also worked at Newsweek/Daily Beast, Vogue magazine and the Detroit Free Press.