Tens of thousands of new cases of COVID-19 are diagnosed in the United States every day, but if you listen to President Donald Trump, it’s easy to forget the pandemic is still raging. He shows little interest. He’s more focused, as ever, on his own personal grievances. Of course, he has the luxury of not worrying much about the virus when his job is secured — at least through January — and everyone around him is subjected to a rigorous testing regime that people at most U.S. schools and workplaces can only dream of.
As the Democratic Party carried out its national convention this week, Trump continued to give in to his self-destructive impulses. It made for a particularly stark contrast. Most of former Vice President Joe Biden’s campaign had been carried out under the radar — he hasn’t simply been hiding in his basement, as critics claim, but he hasn’t been clamoring for the spotlight — but it burst on to the national stage for two-plus hours of primetime for four nights in a row. And while the Democrats were, for the most part, organized and professional, Trump was crawling out of his skin at the thought of ceding the country’s attention.
So instead of letting Democrats bask in the traditional uninterrupted flow of media attention given during presidential nominating conventions, Trump demanded to be seen.
He scheduled a series of speeches during the day throughout the week, offering up his usual shtick to supporters. It’s never once occurred to him that he is overexposed, that Americans might actually like him better if they saw him a little less. On Thursday, the day Biden accepted the nomination of the convention, Trump arrived in Scranton, Pennsylvania — the former vice president’s birthplace and the heart of a key swing state. Trump bizarrely took a dig at Biden for having left the state in his childhood, a decision that was surely his parents’ to make. None of this was particularly new or even that surprising. It just showed Trump’s complete lack of grace. He can’t allow for the fact that the Democrats might soak up the attention for a week — even if his own party’s convention is scheduled to follow the week after. He thinks this relentless drive for attention has served him well, and arguably, he wouldn’t have gotten to where he is without it; but if he were able to temper it, to show the public he could control his impulses, he would likely be a more popular and successful president than he is.
Meanwhile, the Democrats seem to be overcoming some of their biggest flaws. Few really expected the DNC to go well this year. With the switch from an in-person convention to a virtual gathering, there was no way to predict how the performance would play with viewers at home and whether the unprecedented format would click. For those who remember the tensions of the 2016 convention — or the 2020 Iowa caucuses — there was every reason to believe the Democrats’ display would land with a thud. Just keeping their heads above water might have been deemed a success, given the circumstances.
Amazingly, though, they pulled it off. It wasn’t always riveting TV and not every moment landed, but it was far more impressive, cohesive, and at times moving than anyone had the right to expect. Nearly every prominent Democrat was given at least a little time to shine, as well as some notable Republican Party defectors. And many of the faces we saw were those of regular people sharing their stories — stories about how Trump’s policies and actions impacted their lives, and stories of how the Democrats offer a better way forward.
While some commentators said they missed the crowds, the Zoom-style convention provided more intimacy and connection than booming speeches typically can. One might have thought Michelle Obama talking about contemporary politics from a living room would lack gravitas, but her delivery struck like a bolt of lightning. She drew us in, and her message for the country about the danger Trump poses felt urgent. Barack Obama, too, delivered a powerful and ominous speech warning that American democracy might not survive another Trump term. It was a dour comedown from his uniting call in the famous 2004 convention speech that jumpstarted his national career, but it fit the moment and the times.
Some features even clearly worked better in the virtual world than they do at a typical convention. This year’s roll call of each state delegation declaring their delegate counts won widespread acclaim. Each speaker appeared, not from a section of a crowded auditorium, but in a videoed landscape showcasing the distinctive beauty and nature of their home state. It was a lesson in civic engagement disguised as a surprisingly joyous romp around the country — undoubtedly a vast improvement on the past.
Joe Biden’s performance on Thursday night was a masterful way to end the convention. The expectations were low, even among those who reject the right-wing propaganda that Biden is in the late stages of dementia. Biden was never known for having the oratorical skills of the president he served with, but amazingly, the former vice president outshone Barack Obama with one of the most skillful and impactful speeches of his career. Most importantly, he showed an incredible depth of emotion and empathy that Trump is unable to summon, and he was clear about the need for fighting what he called the four crises our country faces: the virus, the recession, racial injustice, and climate change.
Not everything went perfectly. Kamala Harris’s speech didn’t live up to the skill we’ve seen her display before. Some of it was awkwardly worded and uneven — it felt like she was reading a first draft. More substantively, the party as a whole could have focused more concretely on economic policy and how it will get Americans better jobs and more secure benefits. The criticism of Trump, while sharp and important, probably focused too much on his personal flaws and abstract threats to democracy and the rule of law, while not emphasizing enough the fact that he has completely failed on his promises to workers. But getting the balance right is difficult under normal circumstances, and what the party pulled off was a remarkable achievement.
And the achievement appeared even greater because of the president who refused to bow off the stage. Trump furiously tweeted during the convention, yelling at Obama in all caps about “SPYING” while the former president carefully and calmly described his successor’s failings to devastating effect. Trump criticized Michelle Obama for — in a speech presumably recorded weeks before — undercounting the scale of the deaths from the pandemic that he has let spiral out of control.
When he wasn’t focused on the Democrats, the president’s instincts were even worse. He warmly embraced the dangerous and vile QAnon conspiracy theory in a White House press briefing this week, telling reporters that he knows little about its adherents except for the fact that they “like me very much.” And out of nowhere, he tweeted out a call for a boycott on Goodyear tires — which happens to be a major employer in the swing state of Ohio — because the company supposedly had a policy against wearing his branded merchandise.
These missteps were indefensible and entirely avoidable, but there’s no one around to stop the president’s worst instincts, least of all his own better angels.
Outside events, too, compounded Trump’s dismal week. The Senate Intelligence Committee came out with a new report on his campaign’s links to Russian intelligence in 2016, and the facts are even worse and more damning than we knew. He lost a court battle to keep his taxes hidden from Manhattan prosecutors; he likely hopes to appeal the decision to the Supreme Court, but it has already refused to protect him on that front. And his second campaign chair, Steve Bannon, was indicted this week on federal charges, this time because he was allegedly defrauding the president’s own fans in a farcical project to build private portions of a border wall. This gambit gives away the game on the right-wing populist swindle, and it also reflects poorly on Donald Trump Jr. and Attorney General Bill Barr.
So while Democrats displayed surprising competence and skill, the president flailed around as frantic as ever. Perhaps his party can turn it around by pulling off as skillful a convention as the DNC did. But even if they’ve planned every detail to craft the optimal GOP message, there’s no guarantee that Trump won’t find some way to blow it all up.