POLITICS

GOP Convention Has Built The Myth Of A Kind, Engaged President. Can Trump Play That Role?

Trump needs to stick to a script to persuade voters he’s not the person they’ve seen in action over three years. Critics are skeptical he can pull it off.

WASHINGTON ― Over four days, Republicans have painted a portrait of a mythic Donald Trump: one who admires and respects women, who embraces the Black community, who has been deeply engaged in battling the coronavirus pandemic.

Which leaves it now to the president to play that role over the 67 remaining days to the election.

His critics across the political spectrum are optimistically skeptical.

“He will undermine it all with his next utterance,” said Charles Leerhsen, Trump’s ghostwriter for his 1990 book “Surviving at the Top.” In recent years, Leerhsen has said he found Trump’s intellect and business acumen sorely lacking.

“The only role he can pretend to play is the tough law-and-order guy who will protect white people from all the brown and Black people,” said Joe Walsh, a former Republican congressman who ran against Trump for the 2020 presidential nomination.

And Democratic vice presidential nominee Kamala Harris, in a speech Thursday, said Trump was incapable of change. “The president he has been is the president he will be,” the senator from California said.

This week, largely in pre-taped speeches from the Andrew W. Mellon Auditorium in Washington, D.C., participants in the Republican National Convention have tried to explain to Americans that most don’t really know the real Donald Trump.

Republican women who work for him, like presidential counselor Kellyanne Conway, or who are related to him, like wife Melania Trump, portrayed him as caring deeply about women ― even though dozens of other women have accused him of sexual misconduct up to and including rape.

African American speakers testified to his great concern for the Black community ― despite his decades-long history of racism, including the Justice Department action against him in the 1970s for housing discrimination and his leadership in the “birther” movement designed to delegitimize the country’s first Black president.

Others portrayed an engaged president leading a forceful and successful response to the pandemic when, in reality, Trump downplayed the threat for seven weeks and then lost interest in dealing with it in a rush to get back to his campaign rallies. As a consequence, U.S. deaths per capita are five times what they are in Germany, and more than 180,000 Americans have died.

Other speakers seemed to push the idea that Trump is a different, more relatable, nicer person than his public statements and actions make him appear.

“I learned that he’s a good man, that he loves his family, that he didn’t need this job, that no one on Earth works harder for the American people,” daughter-in-law Lara Trump said.

“I’ve seen him when the cameras are off,” said Vice President Mike Pence in his re-nomination acceptance speech Wednesday night at Fort McHenry in Baltimore.

Screens display President Donald Trump speaking Monday during the 2020 Republican National Convention, after he was nominated
Screens display President Donald Trump speaking Monday during the 2020 Republican National Convention, after he was nominated for a second term. The convention is being held mostly virtually because of the coronavirus pandemic.

Trump’s detractors were not impressed.

“The attempt to repackage Donald Trump as a remotely successful leader isn’t just dishonest, it utterly fails to grasp the reality that millions of Americans are struggling and over 180,000 have died because of his failure to control the coronavirus,” said Josh Schwerin, a top strategist with the Democratic super PAC Priorities USA.

Whether Americans will buy the rebranding of an incumbent president more than 3½ years into his term is one question, but whether Trump can even continue selling it is a more basic one.

Critical to Trump’s chances in November may well be whether he can avoid the off-the-cuff statements and tweets that reveal his true thoughts over the final weeks of the campaign and stick to a script that others have written for him. This was precisely the strategy that top 2016 campaign officials Stephen Bannon and Kellyanne Conway persuaded him to adopt that October.

“We told him he had to shut the fuck up and only read what was on the prompter,” one former 2016 campaign aide said on condition of anonymity.

And over that final month in 2016, Trump did, in fact, deliver a “disciplined” message. He almost entirely cut out media interviews and, on stage, almost exclusively stuck to the text that his speechwriters had prepared for him that relied heavily on material stolen by Russian intelligence from the Hillary Clinton campaign and on his promises to bring back manufacturing jobs.

Once, at a rally in Pensacola, Florida, he even caught himself about to go off-script. “Stay on point, Donald, stay on point,” he said, as if repeating his aides’ warning. “No sidetracks, Donald, nice and easy.”

Schwerin said he is doubtful Trump can repeat that trick this time. “Anyone who has watched Trump for the last four years and thinks he can be anything other than who we’ve seen is delusional. He can put on an act for a teleprompter speech and bask in the glow of credulous ‘new tone’ coverage, but that only lasts until the next tweet or unscripted press availability. There is no other Donald Trump. This is it.”

Trump proved that already on the first day of the convention in largely unscripted comments after officially being nominated for a second term by delegates in Charlotte, North Carolina, when he launched into a serious of unfounded attacks against his predecessor, Democrat Barack Obama, and baseless claims that mail-in voting is rife with fraud. “But here’s a ballot. It just got to you and you open it, oh, here’s a ballot. What the hell am I going to do with this thing? And then they have somebody knocking on your door and they’re harvesting,” he said.