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Facing a fraught national moment, President Donald Trump was accepting his party’s renomination from a massive White House South Lawn stage Thursday night, breaking with tradition by using the executive mansion as a political backdrop and defying pandemic guidelines to address a tightly packed, largely maskless crowd.
As crises churned outside the gates, Trump was painting an optimistic vision of America’s future, including an eventual triumph over the coronavirus pandemic that has killed more than 175,000 people, left millions unemployed and rewritten the rules of society. But that brighter horizon could only be secured, Trump asserted, if he defeated Joe Biden, against whom he was set to unleash blistering attacks meant to erase the Democrat’s lead in the polls.
“We have spent the last four years reversing the damage Joe Biden inflicted over the last 47 years,” Trump was to say according to speech excerpts confirmed by his campaign. “At no time before have voters faced a clearer choice between two parties, two visions, two philosophies or two agendas.”
Presenting himself as the last barrier protecting an American way of life under siege from radical forces, Trump declared the Democratic agenda as “the most extreme set of proposals ever put forward by a major party nominee”.
As his speech brings the scaled-back Republican National Convention to a close, Trump risks inflaming a divided nation reeling from a series of calamities, including the pandemic, a major hurricane that slammed into the Gulf Coast and nights of racial unrest and violence after Jacob Blake, a Black man, was shot by a white Wisconsin police officer.
Trump was speaking from a setting that was both familiar and controversial. Despite tradition and regulation to not use the White House for purely political events, a huge stage was set up outside the executive mansion, dwarfing the trappings for some of the most important moments of past presidencies. The speaker’s stand was flanked by dozens of American flags and two big video screens.
Trying to run as an insurgent as well as incumbent, Trump rarely includes calls for unity, even in a time of national uncertainty. He has repeatedly, if not always effectively, tried to portray Biden — who is considered a moderate Democrat — as a tool of the radical left, fringe forces he has claimed don’t love their country.
The Republicans claim that the violence that has erupted in Kenosha and some other American cities is to be blamed on Democratic governors and mayors. Vice President Mike Pence on Wednesday said that Americans wouldn’t be safe in “Joe Biden’s America”.
That drew a stern rebuke from his predecessor in the post.
“The problem we have right now is that we are in Donald Trump’s America,” said Biden on MSNBC. “He views this as a political benefit to him, he is rooting for more violence not less. He is pouring gasoline on the fire.”
Both parties are watching with uncertainty the developments in Wisconsin and cities across the nation with Republicans leaning hard on support for law and order — with no words offered for Black victims of police violence — while falsely claiming that Bides had not condemned the lawlessness.
Along with Biden, running mate Kamala Harris offered counter-programming for Trump’s prime-time speech. She delivered a speech a half mile from the White House, declaring, “Donald Trump doesn’t understand the presidency.”
“He thinks it’s all about him,” she said, adding that “It’s about all of us.. … Donald Trump has failed at the most basic and important job of a president of the United States: He failed to protect the American people, plain and simple.”
Demonstrations were expected Thursday night in Washington, ahead of a march planned for the next day. New fencing set up along the White House perimeter was expected to keep the protesters at bay, but their shouts were likely to be heard on the South Lawn — and potentially by the millions watching at home.
Shortly before the event started, about 200 people were gathered at nearby newly christened Black Lives Matter Plaza, drumming loudly and and chanting, “No justice, no peace.” If those chants, coming from masked faces, can be heard on the White House grounds, where more than 1,000 people were expected, it could also intrude on another illusion that the Republicans have spent a week trying to create: that the pandemic is largely a thing of the past.
The rows of chairs on the lawn were tightly packed, inches apart. Protective masks were not required, and Covid-19 tests were not to be administered to everyone. This followed the scene at Pence’s speech the night before in Baltimore, where the vice president was seen offering fist bumps and handshakes to some in the crowd, not all of whom were tested.
But Trump, who has defended his handling of the pandemic, was to tout an expansion of rapid coronavirus testing. The White House announced Thursday that it had struck a $750 million deal to acquire 150 million tests from Abbott Laboratories to be deployed in nursing homes, schools and other areas with populations at high risk.
Four years ago, Trump declared in his acceptance speech that “I alone can fix” the nation’s woes, but he has found himself asking voters for another term at the nadir of his presidency, amid a devastating pandemic, crushing unemployment and real uncertainties about schools and businesses reopening.
Another one million Americans filed for unemployment benefits last week, in numbers released Thursday. And the US economy shrank at an alarming annual rate of 31.7% during the April-June quarter as it struggled under the weight of the viral pandemic. It was sharpest quarterly drop on record.