The day it’s set to begin, there is still much we don’t know about what will be happening at the 2020 Republican National Convention. But what we do indicates it’ll have a circus-like quality.
Confirmed speakers include Patricia and Mark McCloskey, the St. Louis couple best known for brandishing firearms at protesters earlier this year, and former Covington Catholic student Nick Sandmann, who became a symbol of white grievance last year after he was filmed in a viral video of a confrontation with Native American demonstrators. President Trump will likely deliver his convention-closing speech from the White House, flouting ethical concerns and laws prohibiting the use of government property for political gain, with other events set to take place on government property located conveniently near the downtown DC hotel he still owns and profits from. On Sunday, the RNC released a speaker list — with Trump scheduled to appear every night.
“President Trump accepting the GOP nomination from the White House would be completely unprecedented,” Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington communications director Jordan Libowitz told me in an email. “Giving a political speech of this magnitude and visibility on the White House grounds creates the appearance that it’s a government-sanctioned event, something multiple laws were written to avoid.”
It wasn’t supposed to be this way. Trump wanted to deliver his convention speech in front of a packed arena of his supporters and went to drastic lengths to make it happen. But Covid-19 had other plans.
The backdrop to the disarray is the coronavirus pandemic, which caused convention logistics to change several times this summer and forced officials to try to slap together an event at the last minute. But instead of doing the work necessary to get the virus under control and make sizable indoor gatherings reasonably safe, Trump engaged in wishful thinking and refused to listen to officials, some from inside his own government, who pointed out the obvious: that an in-person convention held during a pandemic could become a superspreader event.
The chaos is a microcosm of Trump’s coronavirus response. Short-term thinking repeatedly carried the day in a manner that scuttled the president’s hopes of triumphantly accepting the Republican presidential nomination before a throng of supporters.
The Republican National Convention starts Monday. There is STILL no information on the RNC site about what time it starts, who will be speaking ... or anything else.— Kaili Joy Gray (@KailiJoy) August 21, 2020
In the end, the Republican National Convention seems likely to serve as a symbol of everything Trump and his Republican enablers have done wrong.
In the middle of a pandemic, it was never a reasonable idea to have a large RNC extravaganza in North Carolina
The 2020 Republican convention was originally supposed to be held in North Carolina, a swing state important to Trump’s reelection hopes. But as coronavirus cases in the state started to tick up in March, April, and May, it quickly became clear that packing tens of thousands of people from all over the country into an arena in Charlotte would be ill-advised.
Trump didn’t want to hear it, however. Instead of acknowledging reality, he tried to strong-arm the state’s Democratic governor, Roy Cooper, into allowing the RNC to go forward as though the pandemic didn’t exist.
“Unfortunately, Democrat Governor, @RoyCooper, is still in Shutdown mood & unable to guarantee that by August we will be allowed full attendance in the Arena,” Trump tweeted on May 25, before presenting Cooper with an ultimatum.
“In other words, we would be spending millions of dollars building the Arena to a very high standard without even knowing if the Democrat Governor would allow the Republican Party to fully occupy the space,” he wrote. “Plans are being made by many thousands of enthusiastic Republicans, and others, to head to beautiful North Carolina in August. They must be immediately given an answer by the Governor as to whether or not the space will be allowed to be fully occupied.”
I love the Great State of North Carolina, so much so that I insisted on having the Republican National Convention in Charlotte at the end of August. Unfortunately, Democrat Governor, @RoyCooperNC is still in Shutdown mood & unable to guarantee that by August we will be allowed...— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) May 25, 2020
Trump went as far as to publicly suggest that Cooper’s reluctance to allow the RNC to go forward as planned was part of a political conspiracy against him.
Trump accuses Gov. Roy Cooper (D) of acting "very suspiciously" by not committing to have the RNC in August in the teeth of a pandemic, while new coronavirus cases in his case are on the rise pic.twitter.com/MxGyh8FR4p— Aaron Rupar (@atrupar) May 26, 2020
Similar cajoling took place in private. The Washington Post reported that during an early June phone call, Trump told Cooper he didn’t “want to be sitting in a place that’s 50 percent empty” and therefore “can’t do social distancing.”
“I believe other states will do it,” Trump reportedly said on the call. “Otherwise, we’ll cancel the whole damn thing.”
Cooper responded publicly by politely pointing out the public health reality — that unless the convention agreed to dramatically scale down the proceedings, holding the event in Charlotte would be unsafe.
We have been committed to a safe RNC convention in North Carolina and it’s unfortunate they never agreed to scale down and make changes to keep people safe. Protecting public health and safety during this pandemic is a priority.— Governor Roy Cooper (@NC_Governor) June 3, 2020
Cooper didn’t budge, and just over a week later, the RNC announced that most of the convention would be moved to Florida, a state run by Trump-loving Gov. Ron DeSantis, who has been similarly willing to ignore public health for the sake of perceived short-term economic gain.
But events over the next month would make clear that a Jacksonville convention too was a bad idea.
Trump’s Tulsa debacle was a case study in what not to do
On June 20, Trump tried to rejuvenate his flagging reelection campaign with a rally in Tulsa, Oklahoma, that was meant to symbolize how life in America was returning to normal. But it turned out to be a disaster.
After weeks of massive Trump campaign hype, only about 6,200 people showed up to the BOK Center, which holds about 19,000. Even worse, the Trump campaign’s decision to ignore warnings from public health experts likely fueled a spike in coronavirus cases in the area.
“In the past few days, we’ve seen almost 500 new cases, and we had several large events just over two weeks ago, so I guess we just connect the dots,” Tulsa City/County Health Department Director Dr. Bruce Dart said days after the rally, according to the Associated Press.
Herman Cain, a prominent Trump supporter who was photographed at the rally without a mask, contracted Covid-19 after the rally and died. And instead of doing everything possible to keep people safe, Trump campaign workers were filmed removing thousands of “Do Not Sit Here, Please!” stickers meant to encourage rally-goers to social distance.
The Tulsa debacle illustrated all the risks involved in staging large in-person gatherings like the RNC during a pandemic. Meanwhile, the coronavirus situation has continued to spiral out of control in Florida.
Trump’s ill-fated Jacksonville plan showed that you can’t bluster your way through a pandemic
When Jacksonville was announced as the new site of the RNC in June, new daily coronavirus cases in the state had just started to spike toward about 2,000. By July 4, that number had increased to over 11,000.
On July 7, Trump downplayed the worsening situation in Florida and expressed hope that the RNC show would go on, telling reporters cases were “going to go down.”
But new cases did not start trending downward for weeks. Finally, on July 23 — a day in which there were more than 10,000 new cases in Florida and 173 deaths — Trump announced that the plug was being pulled on the Florida plan.
While the president told reporters that “there’s nothing more important in our country than keeping our people safe,” CNN reported that the Tulsa debacle played a role in his decision:
Despite urges to ignore them, Trump was closely watching as several Republican lawmakers said they weren’t going to Jacksonville or were considering not going, a person familiar said. Trump was wary of having sparse attendance at the convention. Just a month ago, the Trump campaign was playing up expectations for a massive crowd at the President’s first rally since the pandemic began, but those crowds in Tulsa, Oklahoma, were much smaller than expected.
Along similar lines, the New York Times reported on July 24 that “Trump’s top political advisers had already become convinced that the convention stood a better chance of generating embarrassing news stories — like his recent, unsuccessful rally in Tulsa, Okla. — than a bounce in the polls.”
But by this time, there was only a month left before the RNC. Trump’s announcement put the proceedings in a liminal state until officials finally came to terms with reality and started making belated plans for a virtual event.
The contrast with the DNC is instructive
The RNC chaos stands in contrast with the more realistic approach taken by the Democratic National Committee, which announced in June that this year’s Democratic National Committee would be almost entirely virtual. The convention went off without any major hitches, with many positive reviews.
Whether the RNC will end up going similarly smoothly remains to be seen. But one thing that can be said is that if Trump wanted to have an in-person convention this month, he needed to do the work back in February, March, and April. Instead, he spent that time insisting the virus would go away on its own and passing the buck to governors who lack the resources and jurisdictional authority to handle a pandemic that has shuttered economies and spread like wildfire across state boundaries.
So now, instead of serving as a symbol of Trump’s successes, the RNC will serve as a symbol of everything he’s done wrong. While other countries reopen schools and even sporting events with fans, the US continues to report 40,000 or more new coronavirus cases a day.
Trump has no plan to get the virus under control. On the contrary, he continues to insist the virus will go away on its own — the same talking point he used more than 170,000 deaths ago during the early days of the pandemic.
The pandemic has become the predominant issue in American life. It also represents Trump’s failures. And so instead of dealing with reality, Trump and RNC officials now seem intent on trying to turn the 2020 convention into another culture war spectacle.
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