Republicans used the third night of their convention Wednesday to amplify warnings of violence and lawlessness under Democratic leadership, trying to capitalize on the worsening unrest in Wisconsin to reclaim moderate voters who might be reluctant to hand President Donald Trump a second term.
The party also made appeals to social conservatives with attacks on abortion and accusations that the Democrats and their nominee, Joe Biden, were “Catholics in name only.” And they intensified their effort to lift Trump’s standing among women with testimonials vouching for him as empathetic and as a champion of women in the workplace — from women who work for him, a number of female lawmakers and his daughter-in-law, Lara Trump.
Speaking hours after Gov. Tony Evers of Wisconsin called in the National Guard to restore order to Kenosha, Wisconsin, where a police officer shot a Black man this week, numerous Republicans led by Vice President Mike Pence assailed Biden for what they claimed was his tolerance of the vandalism that has grown out of racial justice protests, claiming the country would not be safe with him as president.
“Last week, Joe Biden didn’t say one word about the violence and chaos engulfing cities across this country,” said Pence, standing before an array of American flags at Fort McHenry in Baltimore and vowing: “We will have law and order on the streets of this country for every American of every race and creed and color.”
“From Seattle and Portland to Washington and New York, Democrat-run cities across this country are being overrun by violent mobs,” said Gov. Kristi Noem of South Dakota, comparing the violence to the lead-up to the Civil War and asserting that residents “are left to fend for themselves.”
Noem invoked a young Abraham Lincoln, claiming he had been “alarmed by the disregard for the rule of law throughout the country.”
“He was concerned for the people that had seen their property destroyed, their families attacked, and their lives threatened or even taken away,” she said, adding “Sound familiar?”
The intense focus on the rioting amounted to an acknowledgment by Republicans that they must reframe the election to make urban unrest central and shift attention away from the deaths and illnesses of millions of people from the coronavirus. Skirting the most complex and trying issues of the pandemic, Pence, calling America “a nation of miracles,” teased the prospect of a vaccine in the coming months and praised Trump for what he called “the greatest national mobilization since World War II.”
A consistent feature of the speeches by close Trump associates was the implication — seemingly aimed at voters put off by the president’s personality — that he was a different and more sympathetic character in private than he appeared to be in public. Casting himself as a unique authority on Trump’s persona, Pence told viewers that he had “seen him when the cameras are off,” and that he believed Trump was a man of principle.
Others also provided testimonials that were intended to soften Trump’s image.
One testimonial came from Kayleigh McEnany, the cable pundit turned White House press secretary, who described having received a concerned phone call from the president after she had a preventive mastectomy in 2018. Citing that experience, McEnany said Trump “stands by Americans with preexisting conditions” — an attempt to substitute a personal story for a factual accounting of Trump’s support for undoing the Affordable Care Act’s protections for those with existing ailments.
“I want my daughter to grow up in President Donald Trump’s America,” McEnany said, in the latest of numerous efforts this week to address the president’s unpopularity with women.
And Kellyanne Conway, the departing White House adviser who helped steer Trump’s 2016 presidential campaign, asked voters to see Trump as a champion of women in government. She said he “insists that we are on equal footing with the men” — a dubious claim given the overwhelmingly male upper ranks of the Trump administration, and the president’s particularly vehement attacks on women he counts as his adversaries, including lawmakers and reporters.
“A woman in a leadership role can still seem novel,” Conway said, recalling how Trump installed her as his third and final campaign manager four years ago. “Not so for President Trump.”Noem, who last month greeted Trump in South Dakota with a replica of Mount Rushmore that included his likeness, hailed the president, excoriated Democrats and repeatedly invoked American history. “Our founding principles are under attack,” Noem said.
A potential 2024 presidential candidate who has minimized the threat of the coronavirus, she said Americans would not be the “subjects of an elite class of so-called experts” and embellished the recent unrest plaguing some communities. “Democratic-run cities are being overrun by violent mobs,” she said.
The third night of the GOP convention marked yet another swerve in the Republican message: A bitterly negative kickoff night Monday gave way Tuesday to a soft-focus variety show that used the powers of Trump’s office to stage various events aimed at humanizing the president. From the opening hour of the convention Wednesday, the evening appeared like something of a synthesis of the two previous nights, with a dark message of warning conveyed largely by women and a few young people.
The jagged course of the Republican message this week has yielded myriad personal attacks on Biden and various genres of praise for Trump, but there has been a scattershot dimension to the whole affair. Speakers have alternated between casting Trump as an iron-fisted champion of law and order, and as a kindly and merciful friend to men in jail; they have similarly veered between blasting Biden as a hardhearted proponent of mass incarceration and as an ally of rioters and criminals.
On Wednesday, an evening of stark warnings about incipient social chaos gave way to Pence chiding Biden for having described the Trump era as a “season of darkness,” and arguing the country deserved an optimistic leader.
The criticism of Biden, the former vice president, has been harsh. Republicans have mocked his faith; attacked his family and personal ethics; derided his long service in Washington; cast him as a creature of the past; and criticized his cautious campaign style and his penchant for verbal miscues, including clumsy remarks about race for which Biden has apologized. The most consistent strain of criticism has been about Biden’s alliance with the left wing of the Democratic Party, but even that has not amounted to the kind of intensely concentrated assault that Republicans mounted against Hillary Clinton four years ago.
For Pence, the appearance in Baltimore represented a rare opportunity for the self-effacing vice president to take the political foreground and perhaps to make an implicit argument that Republicans should embrace him as an heir to Trump. He has already been taking quiet steps to broaden his political circle, including holding luncheons with political consultants at the Trump Hotel and the Naval Observatory, ahead of an anticipated 2024 campaign.Pence faced a complicated but hardly unfamiliar balancing act in his appearance: He has been called upon frequently to navigate the relationship between a divisive president with few close ties to the traditional Republican Party, and parts of the conservative coalition that have periodically shown unease about Trump’s approach to politics. The vice president has projected a wholly conventional image during even the most chaotic phases of the Trump presidency, echoing the core of Trump’s message but in his own more muted terms.
The most difficult task looming for Pence — not only at the convention, but also in the remaining months of the campaign — might be to square his own work as the leader of the federal government’s coronavirus task force with Trump’s insistent efforts to minimize the virus as a factor in the election. Coordinating federal aid to states has perhaps been Pence’s most important role since assuming the vice presidency, but he has routinely found his private advice and promises to governors upended by Trump’s public pronouncements.
In addition to Noem and Blackburn, Sen. Joni Ernst of Iowa and Rep. Elise Stefanik of New York, the youngest Republican woman in Congress, spoke Wednesday.
Stefanik, who became a favorite of conservative media during Trump’s impeachment trial, accused Biden of supporting “far-left socialist policies,” another sign of Republicans’ determination to cast the Democrats’ firmly moderate standard-bearer as outside the mainstream.
Some of the participants Wednesday sought to recast Trump’s image and sow fears of Biden in the same speech.
Lara Trump used her remarks to boast of women’s success in the Trump economy, glossing over the coronavirus entirely. She also held up her own role, helping run Trump’s campaign in her native North Carolina in 2016, before rattling off a number of female appointees in the administration. But then she abruptly picked up on the other theme of evening, lamenting the “violent mobs” she said had taken over American cities.
“Joe Biden will not do what it takes to maintain order,” Lara Trump said.
In a sign of the perils of breaking with the president, though, the highest-ranking Republican woman in Congress will not be speaking.
Rep. Liz Cheney of Wyoming, who has broken with Trump on some foreign policy issues and praised Dr. Anthony Fauci, the nation’s top infectious disease expert who occasionally contradicts Trump, was not asked to speak, her aides confirmed. Some of the president’s closest congressional allies, along with his eldest son, have openly criticized Cheney this summer for not being a more steadfast supporter of Trump.
In addition to the array of women expected to appear Wednesday, Republicans turned to some other nontraditional Republican figures in an effort to reach beyond Trump’s older and heavily white base by appealing to younger and more diverse constituencies.
Rep. Lee Zeldin of New York, one of the few Jewish Republicans in Congress, was on the schedule, as was 25-year-old Madison Cawthorn, a House candidate in North Carolina who uses a wheelchair and won a surprise victory in a primary this year.
Cawthorn spoke about his vision for a new town square in American life and concluded his remarks by standing with the help of a walker. “For our republic for which I stand,” Cawthorn said as he rose, “one nation under God, with liberty and justice for all.”
Richard Grenell, who served as Trump’s ambassador to Germany and was briefly the acting director of national intelligence, was also scheduled to speak.
Grenell, who was one of the most prominent openly gay people in the administration, was expected to discuss the president’s support for LGBT rights. However, Trump has been inconsistent on the issue, as has his convention: On Tuesday, a granddaughter of Billy Graham used her remarks to claim that Democrats had sought to let boys “use girls locker rooms.”
This head-snapping change in messages — often from the upbeat to the apocalyptic — has characterized Trump’s convention to date.
The message, however, was increasingly being delivered on a split-screen with the worsening unrest in Wisconsin. The state’s governor, Tony Evers, on Wednesday deployed 500 National Guard troops to support law enforcement in Kenosha, where protests over the police shooting of Jacob Blake have led to arson and property destruction.
On Wednesday, the NBA postponed several playoff games after the Milwaukee Bucks boycotted a game against the Orlando Magic in protest of the shooting.
Trump has criticized Evers, a Democrat, for not acting more aggressively; Biden has carefully sought to express outrage over the shooting of Blake while also condemning the unrest.