Heather Cox Richardson – Aug. 17, 2020

August 17, 2020 (Monday)

Today’s big news was the opening of the Democratic National Convention. Before it happened, though, Trump set up exactly what he stands for. Between him and the Democrats, the messaging for the upcoming election is clear.

Yesterday, Trump raised eyebrows when he retweeted an account that said: “Leave Democrat cities. Let them rot…. [Walk Away] from the radical left. And do it quickly.” His retweet sparked outrage, with British journalist Mehdi Hasan noting “If Obama had retweeted someone saying ‘leave Republican states. Let them rot’ it would have been a multi-week, multi-month political scandal requiring clarifications and apologies from every top Dem. With Trump, it won’t even register in *today’s* headlines.

On a campaign swing in Minnesota, Trump made clear his message for the election. He repeatedly insisted that Biden “is the puppet of leftwing extremists,” who will “replace American freedom with leftwing fascism.” He harped again and again on the words “leftwing” and “fascist.” He warned that America would face “crime, chaos, corruption and economic collapse” if he is not reelected, although of course that is precisely where we are now. It is a difficult argument for an incumbent to make under these circumstances.

Trump continues to signal to his base, today by slashing business regulations. This was more to signal his values than to make changes, since today’s actions are not actually widely sought by business leaders. He overturned an Obama-era regulation on methane emissions, aimed at finding and plugging the methane leaks that annually produce about 13 million metric tons of the gas that is a primary contributor to climate change. Shell, BP, and ExxonMobil had all supported the regulations, but Trump’s new rules will stop measuring the leaks.

He also approved a plan to open the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge for drilling. In 2017, Congress required the Interior Department to begin to open up the region. The new land would be a game changer, except that oil companies are doing so well in the middle of the country—Texas, North Dakota and so on—that they have little interest in undertaking expensive exploratory actions. “We may not need those resources today but we will eventually,” said Dan Eberhart, an oil executive and major Republican donor.

And Trump is focusing on culture wars. Over the course of the day, the Republicans announced some of the people who would participate in the Republican National Convention. Their numbers include Nick Sandmann, the smirking young man in a MAGA hat who faced off against a Native American activist, Nathan Phillips, outside the Lincoln Memorial in January 2019; and the St. Louis couple, Patricia and Mark McCloskey, who waved guns at Black Lives Matter protesters in July 2020.

Trump also announced that he will give the speech accepting his renomination at the White House, breaking norms and probably breaking ethics laws. Likely to distract from the Democratic convention, he announced that he’s “doing a pardon tomorrow on somebody that’s very very important.”  The White House press secretary says it’s not his former National Security Advisor Michael Flynn or Edward Snowden, who leaked highly classified information, and who has now fled for refuge to Russia. We’ll see. (Spoiler Alert – It was Susan B. Anthony)

But things are not going Trump’s way. While he exacerbates divisions in our society, more than 165,000 Americans have died of coronavirus. And while he has pressured schools to reopen, even willing administrators are finding his wishes cannot override reality. After great pressure to open up, the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill, this afternoon sent its undergraduates home after the university saw four hot spots of at least 177 positive cases.

In the past two days, important voices have deserted Trump. Yesterday, William H. McRaven, former commander of the U.S. Special Operations Command from 2011-2014, warned that “President Trump is actively working to undermine every major institution in this country. He has planted the seeds of doubt in the minds of many Americans that our institutions aren’t functioning properly. And, if the president doesn’t trust the intelligence community, law enforcement, the press, the military, the Supreme Court, the medical professionals, election officials and the postal workers, then why should we? And if Americans stop believing in the system of institutions, then what is left but chaos and who can bring order out of chaos: only Trump. It is the theme of every autocrat who ever seized power or tried to hold onto it.

Today, Miles Taylor, a member of the leadership team of the Department of Homeland Security from 2017-2019, published an op-ed in the Washington Post warning that the president governs “by whim, political calculation, and self-interest.” He has tried to turn the DHS into a political tool to serve his interests, calling, for example, for DHS to pull migrant families apart deliberately as a deterrent from asking for asylum. Trump’s “inappropriate and often absurd” requests, “at all hours of the day and night,” diverted DHS from “dealing with genuine security threats.” The president, he says, has made America “profoundly less safe.”

Adding a voice to the mounting opposition to the president, today “Anonymous,” who has occasionally written critiques of the administration, allegedly from within it, wrote that Trump is destroying our rules and regulations, and that we must get him and his ilk out of our politics.

That was a theme embraced by the Democratic National Convention, which began tonight. Held on-line because of the coronavirus, it marked a new kind of political engagement by entering the virtual world to which we have increasingly moved in the past twenty or more years. Without hoopla or crowds, the convention was intimate and interesting. There were a variety of backgrounds and people, and no interminable speeches punctuated with dutiful applause. The speeches felt more personal and less political than normal, a feeling that will serve the Democrats well after four years when absolutely everything is political and most of us are tired of it.

The DNC programming was designed to feel inclusive. The theme was “We the People,” and the evening began with the voices and pictures of young Americans from all walks of life singing. Soon they were replaced by a video of Americans working together, set to Bruce Springsteen’s “The Rising.” The evening’s events focused on America’s youth and its people of color.

Their line-up tried to include everyone opposing Trump, from Ohio Governor John Kasich, who remains a Republican even though he is supporting Biden, through the political spectrum to Vermont Senator Bernie Sanders, the leader of the progressive wing of the Democratic Party. Former New Jersey Governor Christine Todd Whitman, billionaire executive Meg Whitman, and former Representative Susan Molinari all talked about their support for Joe Biden. They were invited to speak both to give teeth to arguments the opposition to Trump is bipartisan, and to give an off ramp to Republicans who need to have some big Republican names to follow off the Republican ticket this year.

But their speeches were less effective than testimonials from ordinary Americans who have lost family members to Covid-19, or who have been on the front lines fighting the disease, delivered from their homes. Most of Biden’s rivals for the nomination spoke on his behalf, too. Emphasizing that the new Democratic Party wants to include everyone, Vermont Senator Bernie Sanders spoke in front of a wall of stacked wood to say that he would “work with liberals, moderates, and yes, conservatives” to protect democracy.

(Seeing Sanders in front of a woodpile, Charles Pierce tweeted: “Bernie is the candidate who took himself to the woodshed.”)

Michele Obama delivered tonight’s keynote address. She emphasized justice and empathy and the power of words to heal or destroy in a speech so powerful even the Fox News Channel had to applaud it. Her best framing for the election, though, was her sad dismissal of Trump not for any of the combative actions that his base loves so much, but rather for lack of ability. “Let me be as honest and clear as I possibly can: Donald Trump is the wrong president for our country…. He is clearly in over his head. He cannot meet this moment. He simply cannot be who we need him to be for us. It is what it is.

The evening ended with guitarist Stephen Stills playing his famous protest song “For What It’s Worth,” with young African American singer Billy Porter singing the words. It was a vignette of the passing of the torch from one generation to another.

Conservative commentator Bill Kristol said: “I figured they’d be savvy enough to do no harm. But that was an impressive, even compelling, couple of hours.“Biden got very little airtime on this, the convention’s first night, although there were retrospectives of his life and explorations of his support for his colleagues as well as ordinary Americans. But what he did say was important: “We are the United States of America. There’s not a single thing we cannot do if we do it together.


(Indivisible put together a playlist of the 2020 Democratic National Convention here.)