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The Republicans Still Don’t Know How to Run Against Biden

They’ve been trying to paint themselves as the party of inclusion, but Trump’s speech doubled down on the politics of fear.

Alex Wong/Getty Images

Since Donald Trump fancies himself a president comparable to Abraham Lincoln, we can describe his marathon acceptance speech in words that are lifted from the Gettysburg Address: “The world will little note, nor long remember what we say here.”

What will be remembered—with horror, I hope—is what Trump and his minions did Thursday night. Turning the White House lawn into the setting for a superspreader political rally was more than merely a flouting of political norms. It was a sacrilege that should embarrass a military junta in a banana republic.

Confining Trump to a teleprompter for 70 enervating minutes was seemingly a triumph of the professionalism of his new campaign manager, Bill Stepien. But, in reality, it was a reminder that a disciplined Trump is a deadly dull Trump. The only act that still holds our attention is deranged Trump, the bilious conspiracy theorist immortalized in Sarah Cooper videos.

Not even Fox News and a sycophantic White House staff will be able to shield Trump from the harsh reviews and the blah ratings of the GOP convention. The likely outcome is that the desperate president will resist being coached and confined for the rest of the campaign. As a result, September and October will become a time of wild improvisations and even wilder charges.

Trump unplugged will inevitably lead to a new round of vicious attacks on people of color and women more outspoken than Karen Pence. As soon as the president unloads on these familiar targets, all the determined efforts by convention planners to provide wavering suburban voters with a soothing and cynical rewrite of the Trump years will be forgotten.

Judging from the roster of convention speakers this week, the Republican Party consists solely of Black people and working women, as well as Trump family members eager to testify to the president’s extremely well-camouflaged warmth and decency.

Watching this cavalcade of inclusion, I recalled an early Mad Men episode when a rare would-be Jewish client (department store magnate Rachel Menken) approached Sterling Cooper Advertising. Suddenly, the lone Jewish kid from the mailroom was invited to the pitch meeting.

Central to the Republican playbook is a level of racial fearmongering not seen in American politics in a half-century. As Trump said Thursday night, “If the Democrat Party wants to stand with anarchists, agitators, rioters, looters, and flag burners, that is up to them. But I, as your president, will not be a part of it.”

Democrats worry that this GOP strategy will work as skittish suburbanites reluctantly vote for Trump in a flight to safety. If this were the 1960s or even 1988, as Republicans linked Michael Dukakis with rapist Willie Horton, these concerns might be justified.

What may change these political calculations are the wildcat strikes that have frozen the basketball playoffs and the baseball season this week following the shooting of Jacob Blake in Kenosha, Wisconsin. This level of activism on the part of athletes might have been expected in basketball. But baseball is a largely white sport known for its cultural conservatism. In fact, the last major political statement in baseball was in 1984, when it was revealed that three-fifths of the starting rotation of the pennant-winning San Diego Padres were members of the John Birch Society.

Sports matter in the Trump universe. That’s why the GOP convention planners trotted out wizened former Notre Dame football coach Lou Holtz to offer theological commentary on the legitimacy of Joe Biden’s Catholicism. So it’s one thing for Trump to claim that only Biden and the Democrats stand with the rioters. But it’s quite another when Biden is metaphorically standing with LeBron James in a Black Lives Matter T-shirt and Mookie Betts, who led the Los Angeles Dodgers in a walkout.

Nothing better symbolizes how tongue-tied the Trump team is on matters of race than the relative invisibility of Kamala Harris at the GOP convention. Even though at times prominent Republicans vied to find new ways to mispronounce her first name, Harris was never mentioned in Trump’s interminable acceptance speech.

The Republicans have had nearly six months to figure out how to run against Joe Biden—and they still haven’t worked it out.

Does anyone outside the Fox News bubble really believe, as Trump claimed, “Biden is a Trojan horse for socialism”? It is head-spinning to argue that Biden is a creature of 47 years in Washington but at the same time, according to Trump, “he takes his marching orders from liberal hypocrites who drive their cities into the ground.”

There may have been clues to the GOP’s deeper strategy in Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell’s recorded speech from Kentucky on Thursday night. Confined to less than three minutes (about the same time that might be allotted to a fifth cousin of the president), McConnell took pains to portray the GOP Senate as “the firewall against Nancy Pelosi’s agenda.”

If the polls continue to look dire for Trump, this is a line that you are likely to hear constantly from congressional Republicans in the closing weeks of the campaign. Survival would impel McConnell to abandon the beleaguered president, whom he always privately disdained, and pitch his Senate majority as the only bulwark against the unchecked power of a President Biden.

Judging from the tedium of Teleprompter Trump and the Republican convention, the moment when McConnell retreats behind his firewall is getting ever closer. Nervous Republicans should be muttering “two more months” instead of chanting “four more years.”