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WASHINGTON — There were no scenes of cheering crowds, delegates pressed together, waving American flags or “Make America Great Again” posters. Most of the speeches that opened the Republican National Convention on Monday evening did not even take place in Charlotte, N.C. They were instead broadcast from an auditorium in Washington, D.C., where the marble walls and dramatic lighting only accentuated each speaker’s solitude.
President Trump had wanted to hold at least part of the RNC in person in Jacksonville, Fla., but the continued spread of the coronavirus forced him to change those plans. The pandemic presented not only a logistical inconvenience but a thematic one, leaving Trump and his supporters to make the case that it was morning in America again, and not another morning filled with grim fatality statistics and lockdown updates.
That left the RNC to treat the coronavirus as a blip that has disrupted what Trump and his supporters like to call the greatest economy in world history. A viewer could have easily been led to believe the pandemic is over. “President Trump’s decisive leadership led to a rapid and efficient response to the coronavirus pandemic,” said Louisiana doctor G.E. Ghali, one of the convention’s first speakers.
It is only natural for a political convention to paint its chosen candidate for the presidency in the best possible light. But in the midst of a pandemic, political imperatives can clash with public health realities in stark ways, much more so than when, say, the particulars of a tax bill are the highest order of the day.
“Donald Trump truly moved mountains to save lives,” Ghali said at one point, an assertion at odds with what many have called Trump’s inattentive and even self-sabotaging response to the pandemic, which has killed nearly 180,000 people in the U.S. About 58 percent of Americans now disapprove of how Trump has handled the crisis.
The RNC attempted to put that bleak reality in the best light possible. So in remarks by West Virginia nurse Amy Johnson Ford, for example, she praised Trump as an innovator in the field of telemedicine. “The increased accessibility of telehealth afforded to millions of Americans has truly been lifesaving for many,” she said. “And we have President Trump to thank.”
But the president had not been a major proponent of telemedicine before the pandemic, and the reliance on remote medicine has been less the result of intentional strategy than a product of the bewildering new normal that has been in place in much of the nation since March.
The first night of the convention did feature a campaign-style commercial about Trump’s response to the coronavirus. It included footage of Democrats, including House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, downplaying the risk of the coronavirus, which she did early in the course of the pandemic. Trump has taken that same attitude consistently throughout the last several months, long after most other Americans have come to recognize its seriousness.
The commercial also included clips of Democratic governors praising Trump, including Andrew Cuomo of New York, Gavin Newsom of California and Phil Murphy of New Jersey. Those clips all appeared to come from the spring, as those and other states battled each other for basic protective equipment and hospital ventilators. Trump made clear at the time that such praise was noted and appreciated, while criticism like that leveled at him from Gretchen Whitmer, the Democratic governor of Michigan, would also not be forgotten.
“Don’t call the woman in Michigan,” Trump said he’d told Vice President Mike Pence, who heads the White House coronavirus task force.
The expertly produced segment also included a jab at the World Health Organization, highlighting its mistaken early estimation that the coronavirus did not jump from person to person. Trump has frequently lambasted the WHO, despite his own cavalcade of misstatements on the coronavirus. He has, at times, suggested it would fade away on its own and was less dangerous than the common flu. Those assertions are untrue, but Trump has never acknowledged his mistakes.
“One leader took decisive action to save lives,” the narrator said of Trump, “banning travel from China and coronavirus epicenters.” Trump has repeatedly exaggerated the effect of the travel restrictions he imposed in late January. The restrictions on travelers from China probably did have some effect on the progression of the disease, but the move was hardly the game-winner he has depicted. As for the sudden ban on European travelers, it caused logjams at airports that exposed even more people to the virus, potentially accelerating its spread through the United States.
The coronavirus-centered commercial also claimed that Trump helped “quickly” get personal protective equipment to states. Yet more than six months into the pandemic, such items still remain in short supply.
Trump himself appeared on the first night of the RNC from the East Room of the White House, where he met with seven frontline workers, including a postal worker, a truck driver, a registered nurse and a police officer from Colorado.
The officer revealed that she had been infected with the coronavirus in late March.
“That means we don’t have to be afraid of you at all,” Trump joked. He also joked about hydroxychloroquine, the antimalarial drug that he and his supporters have touted as a potential coronavirus cure.
“It’s a shame what they’ve done to that one,” Trump quipped, an apparent reference to warnings from the Food and Drug Administration that the drug is not safe to use against the coronavirus because it could cause heart problems.
“We just have to make this China virus go away,” Trump said, “and it’s happening.” The rate of new infections is slowing across the country, but the approach of cold weather could lead to a resurgence, which could be especially worrisome if it coincides with the flu.
The group flanked Trump, clustered close together in contravention of social distancing guidelines that Trump’s administration has repeatedly endorsed. None wore face masks, even though public health experts have said face coverings, if they are widely worn, could help stop the spread of the disease.
Speaking to Fox News primetime host Laura Ingraham from a revelry-free Charlotte, a correspondent described the RNC as “the anti-social distancing convention.”
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