In 2016, Donald J. Trump accepted his party’s nomination at the Republican National Convention, painting a dark and angry vision of a nation under siege.
“Our convention occurs at a moment of crisis for our nation. The attacks on our police, and the terrorism in our cities, threaten our very way of life,” he said. “Beginning on Jan. 20, 2017, safety will be restored. The most basic duty of government is to defend the lives of its own citizens.”
At the end of the speech came a promise to voters: “Nobody knows the system better than me, which is why I alone can fix it.”
Four years later, President Donald J. Trump described an America now under attack from “anarchists, agitators, rioters, looters and flag burners.” And once again, Mr. Trump argued that only he can stop the destruction.
“Always remember: They are coming after me, because I am fighting for you,” he said.
It’s a confusing argument, given the obvious question raised: If Mr. Trump can fix the chaos, why hasn’t he? After all, he is the president, and one who views his office as having expansive powers.
Though his speech had an uncharacteristically staid tone, Mr. Trump returned to his central political play: a Nixonian reliance on the dark politics of fear and lawlessness. There was also some political strategy in his tactics, though perhaps not the kind of 3-D chess that his opponents often believe Mr. Trump is playing.
We generally think of presidential elections through two different models: either a referendum on the incumbent or a choice between the policies, personalities and positions of two candidates.
Right now, this race is a referendum on Mr. Trump and his leadership. For months, Joe Biden has kept a lower profile, allowing the president’s inability to stay away from controversy to drive the race.
But given Mr. Trump’s low job-approval ratings, the president desperately needs this election to be a choice. He also needs voters not to focus on what polls say a majority believes to be true: that Mr. Trump responded inadequately to a pandemic that still rages across the country, upending American life.
So when violent protests break out in cities, which are largely led by Democratic politicians, Mr. Trump throws up his hands. The commander in chief proclaims himself to be powerless, in an effort to highlight what he sees as weakness on the part of his opponents. Even as he occupies the highest office in the land, Mr. Trump still considers himself “an outsider,” blaming a political establishment that he now leads for the nation’s problems.
“There is violence and danger in the streets of many Democrat-run cities throughout America. This problem could easily be fixed if they wanted to. Just call,” he said. “We have to wait for the call.”
This is not a tightly held strategy. The departing White House counselor, Kellyanne Conway, laid it out in fairly blunt terms on Thursday morning: “The more chaos and anarchy and vandalism and violence reigns, the better it is for the very clear choice on who’s best on public safety and law and order,” she said on “Fox and Friends.”
That’s why far more of the Republican convention was devoted to attacking Mr. Biden than laying out what, exactly, Mr. Trump would do if elected for a second term.
For months, Republicans toggled between attacking Mr. Biden as weak, corrupt and unfit for the role. In this speech, Mr. Trump seemed to settle on a clear line of attack: Mr. Biden is a secret socialist, lacking “the strength to stand up to wild-eyed Marxists like Bernie Sanders and his fellow radicals.” The fact that Mr. Biden ran against Mr. Sanders as an ideological moderate was left out of the narrative.
“No one will be safe in Joe Biden’s America,” Mr. Trump said.
Even as he tried to avoid blame as an incumbent president, Mr. Trump exploited the trappings of the presidency in an unprecedented manner. He stood behind a lectern with a presidential seal on the South Lawn of the White House, imagery intended to marshal the power of the office behind a man who has so often rejected the norms and traditions of it.
We don’t yet know whether these attacks will resonate with voters. For some, the unrest in Kenosha, Wis. — protests, buildings in flames, tear gas and the National Guard — could play directly into anxieties about Democratic rule. (That’s part of why Mr. Biden did a round of interviews on Thursday condemning violence “in any form.”)
But the destruction isn’t as clear-cut as some Republicans would like, given that some of the violence around the country has been committed by self-described vigilantes and those with links to right-wing groups. In Kenosha, social media posts by the white teenager who was arrested in the killings of two people suggest he is a strong supporter of Mr. Trump.
Those killings went unmentioned by Mr. Trump last night.
More convention coverage
From our recap article on the front page of the newspaper: Mr. Trump “adopted the role of a defender of traditional American values and an unbending ally of the police.”
Our news analysis: “The South Lawn speech was the final demolition of the boundaries between governance and campaigning in a week full of such eroding.”
A team of New York Times reporters fact-checked the Night 4 speakers, providing context and explanation.
Catch up on four key moments from Thursday night with video clips and analysis from our colleagues Sydney Ember and Jennifer Medina.
Join us this morning for a live discussion
Politics reporters from The New York Times will take a look back at this week’s Republican convention, breaking down all the key moments and unexpected developments.
Join us in a 30-minute round-table discussion today at 11 a.m. R.S.V.P. here.
Does any of it matter?
Dear readers, we have been on a journey these past two weeks.
From a Trump-loving lobsterman to Rhode Island calamari, we’ve seen it all. Emotional testimonials and splashy political speeches, social distancing and mask-free crowds, and hours upon hours of speechifying.
So does any of it change the trajectory of this campaign? We don’t really know yet because we haven’t seen significant polling. But probably not.
In recent cycles, “convention bumps” have been shrinking, most likely a result of our polarized politics. There are fewer swing voters generally, so fewer people to convince with a splashy show. And between a pandemic and protests and a hurricane, there was plenty of news to distract from the political circus this year.
But, hey, those fireworks were pretty great, right?
With the conventions behind us, I’m going to go on a little journey myself and take a few days off. Don’t worry, you’ll be in the great hands of my wonderful Politics desk colleagues.
See you in September, when the final sprint to Election Day begins!
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