The America that many speakers described on Wednesday at the Republican National Convention did not sound like a desirable place: fractious, violent, functionally lawless in some pockets.
But their case that only President Trump could shield Americans from this fate was complicated by a nettlesome fact. He is in charge, at present — at the controls of government through the purportedly real-time conditions these supporters outlined. And they would all like to keep him there.
“America,” Vice President Mike Pence told a Republican convention crowd sternly from Fort McHenry in Baltimore, “needs four more years of President Donald Trump.”
The third night of the Republican convention steered into a bit of messaging jujitsu that has become a dominant theme of the week: Mr. Trump’s ability to turn back Trump-era ills that have, in this telling, been largely out of his hands to date.
And so the president, the argument has gone, can be relied upon now to safeguard Americans against the threats they see all around them, in the nation he leads.
“People that can afford to flee have fled,” Gov. Kristi Noem of South Dakota said of cities like Portland, Ore., and New York. “But the people that can’t — good, hard-working Americans — are left to fend for themselves.”
Mr. Pence was more explicit in drawing a connection to the Democratic nominee: “You won’t be safe,” he said, “in Joe Biden’s America.”
Even as president, Mr. Trump has often appeared most comfortable in the role of back-seat driver, jeering his own government like a common bystander, insisting that someone really ought to do something about all this. (“When he has an opinion,” Mr. Pence said, “he is liable to share it.”)
The effect during a week like this one — as a public health crisis proceeds apace and unrest consumes Kenosha, Wis., after another police shooting of a Black man — is particularly jarring, all the more because Mr. Trump has also strained throughout the convention to display himself in various scenes of presidential busyness: issuing a pardon, meeting with freed hostages, presiding over a naturalization ceremony. In the process, Mr. Trump and his team have effectively ignored distinctions between campaign activity and official business — less line-blurring than ostensible law-violating — co-opting public resources for political gain.
Through it all, the intended takeaway has seemed clear: Mr. Trump is in control of the good but not responsible for the bad, worthy of praise for America’s successes and exoneration for its struggles.
In particular, Republicans are betting that images of chaos and violence will help persuade swing voters, especially in the suburbs, to embrace the president’s emphasis on “LAW and ORDER,” as he tweeted on Wednesday.
It is not entirely “Make America Great Again,” the president’s initial political creed, which might suggest something of a failure to do so in his first term (though it remains a favored campaign saying anyway). It is not quite “Keep America Great,” one of his newer taglines, because so much of the Republican case has centered on the present turmoil.
Perhaps Mr. Pence hinted best at the awkwardness of the pitch with a recent revision to the slogan. “We’re going to Make America Great Again, again,” he told delegates in Charlotte, N.C., on Monday and repeated on Wednesday in his convention address.
If calls for national order were often the night’s central feature, several speeches seemed calibrated to appeal to women and people of faith.
White evangelical Americans have been among Mr. Trump’s most loyal constituencies, and speakers constantly highlighted Mr. Trump’s opposition to abortion rights and what they described as his support for religious liberty. Some of the most prominent female voices on Wednesday, including top White House aides like Kellyanne Conway and Kayleigh McEnany, are well-regarded among evangelical and conservative Catholic women.
Mindful of Mr. Trump’s polling deficit with women, convention organizers also saw to it that Wednesday’s programming positioned him as a champion for gender equality, seeing no contradiction in making this case for a man with a long trail of sexist and demeaning comments about women and multiple allegations of sexual misconduct.
Several speakers, including Mr. Pence’s wife, Karen, paid tribute to the women’s suffrage movement and implied Mr. Trump was a steward of the cause. Ms. Conway and Ms. McEnany relayed choice anecdotes of Mr. Trump’s support for them professionally and personally.
“I want my daughter,” Ms. McEnany said, “to grow up in President Donald J. Trump’s America.”
It is true that gauzy framing has long been a bipartisan tradition at party conventions. But often this week, Republicans have engaged in something closer to a wholesale rewriting, spinning alternate histories that assume the country’s crises have passed, Senator Bernie Sanders is their caricature-ready progressive opponent and Mr. Trump, depending on the issue, is not in a position of authority.
The political decision facing Americans? It is a choice “between the far-left Democratic socialist agenda versus protecting and preserving the American dream,” Representative Elise Stefanik, Republican of New York, said Wednesday.
The coronavirus? “It was awful,” Larry Kudlow, the president’s top economic adviser, said on Tuesday, relegating it misleadingly to the past tense and, like others this week, paying no mind to the administration’s well-documented mishandling of the pandemic, in a convention where Republicans turned blame for the costs of the virus on China.
Demonstrations over racial justice? “Make no mistake,” Patricia McCloskey, who joined her husband earlier this year in pointing guns at protesters outside their home in St. Louis, said Monday, “no matter where you live, your family will not be safe in the radical Democrats’ America.” Left unsaid: The two appear to have felt unsafe recently in a Trump-led America.
Of course, Mr. Trump’s supporters have often reasoned that he cannot be blamed for what happens in “Democrat-run cities,” as Ms. Noem put it.
“Joe Biden would double down,” Mr. Pence said, “on the very policies that are leading to violence in America’s cities.”
Some Trump allies plainly see a political opportunity in the recent developments in Wisconsin, where the Democratic governor declared a state of emergency following protests that at times turned destructive, after the police shooting of a Black man, Jacob Blake.
“We will have law and order on the streets of this country for every American of every race and creed and color,” Mr. Pence declared.
Mr. Blake was paralyzed after a white officer fired on him multiple times, igniting outrage among many Americans as the latest example of police violence in a year brimming with brutal episodes. Two people were later killed in a shooting related to the demonstrations, and a white teenager who was not believed to be among the protesters was arrested and charged.
As he has for months, Mr. Biden sought to walk a careful line between expressing solidarity with protesters and condemning chaos. In a video he released Wednesday, he offered a denunciation of systemic racism and urged all Americans to empathize with the pain Black parents, like Mr. Blake’s family, often face. But he also called for calm.
“Burning down communities is not protest, it’s needless violence,” he said. “Violence that endangers lives. Violence that guts businesses, and shutters businesses, that serve the community. That’s wrong.”
Even before the convention, Republicans sought to cast Mr. Biden as radically anti-law enforcement, falsely claiming that he wants to defund the police, a proposal Mr. Biden has repeatedly rejected. In fact, Mr. Biden for years fashioned himself as a tough-on-crime kind of Democrat, and he played a central role in the 1994 crime bill — a measure that many experts now associate with mass incarceration and a part of Mr. Biden’s record that gives criminal justice advocates and some progressives pause to this day. In recent months, he has called for sweeping policing reforms and spoken out passionately against police violence, but he has also made a point to emphasize his view that “the vast majority” of police officers “are good, decent people.”
Up until this point, Mr. Trump has struggled to define Mr. Biden, lobbing an onslaught of sometimes-contradictory attacks at him all summer while remaining behind him in the polls. At one point, in the Philadelphia media market, Mr. Trump ran advertisements that portrayed Mr. Biden as both weak on law enforcement matters and overly punitive. Strands of both of those arguments have come through during his convention this week.
But Mr. Trump has succeeded many times before in tarring his opponents, and Democrats acknowledge he still has time to do so with Mr. Biden before November.
On Wednesday, other Republicans gave it a try.
Mr. Biden, Ms. Stefanik said, represents the “far-left failed policies of the past 47 years.”
He is a Catholic “in name only,” said Lou Holtz, the former college football coach, making a false claim about a man who regularly attends church and speaks frequently about his faith.
Or perhaps, Mr. Pence said, Mr. Biden — a man who often waxes nostalgic for the days of bipartisan dealmaking — is actually “a Trojan horse for the radical left.”