President Trump was trying to rewrite history and enlist frontline Covid workers to the cause. The strain showed.
Flanked in the East Room of the White House by Americans involved in the fight against the coronavirus — a nurse, a trucker, a postal worker, another nurse — Mr. Trump set off on Monday for more than four rose-colored minutes recasting the recent past before his Night 1 convention audience.
“Tell me a little about your stories,” he asked his guests at first. But he had a few of his own: about dastardly Democrats and governors who disappointed him, about his preferred nicknames for the virus and the insufficient gratitude for his government’s efforts.
“We have delivered billions of dollars of equipment that governors were supposed to give, and in many cases they didn’t get,” he complained. “So the federal government had to help them, and all of the people that did this incredible work, they never got credit for it. But you understand where it came from.”
At least twice, Mr. Trump called the pandemic “the China virus,” seeking to deflect blame.
“I don’t want to go through all the names,” he said at one point, “because some people may get insulted. But that’s the way it is.”
And this is the way it was, as ever, on Monday night: a re-election team that had pledged a message of uplift and unity beforehand — with its candidate struggling in the polls amid poor appraisals of his pandemic response — and a principal who knows no other way but rampaging and revisionism.
All night, the proceedings played out in this perpetual tug. Any aspirational appeals from speakers like Nikki Haley, the former United Nations ambassador, and Senator Tim Scott of South Carolina, the chamber’s only Black Republican, seemed doomed to be shadowed by the often ominous tone of the evening.
Some of the convention’s opening sequences often more closely resembled Mr. Trump’s preferred Fox News programming, with a roster of contributors holding forth on “the Russia hoax,” the “socialist” Democrats and the mental acuity and stamina of their nominee, Joseph R. Biden Jr.
“I’m speaking to you from an auditorium emptier than Joe Biden’s daily schedule,” Representative Matt Gaetz of Florida, one of the president’s most vocal and combative congressional supporters, yukked into the camera at one point, railing against the “woketopians” of the left.
Other speakers included Charlie Kirk, a prominent right-wing provocateur with a book called “The MAGA Doctrine,” and Mark and Patricia McCloskey, who became social-media-famous this year after pointing guns at protesters marching near their home in St. Louis.
Sitting side by side on a couch, they solemnly told viewers what they saw at stake in a Biden administration:
“Make no mistake, no matter where you live,” Ms. McCloskey said, “your family will not be safe in the radical Democrats’ America.”
Later, there was an address from Donald Trump Jr., who called Mr. Biden “the Loch Ness monster of the swamp” with a “radical left-wing” platform that would impede economic recovery.
“He sticks his head up every now and then to run for president,” the president’s son said of Mr. Biden, “then he disappears and doesn’t do much in between.”
Kimberly Guilfoyle, the younger Mr. Trump’s girlfriend who has become a top fund-raising figure in the re-election, also appeared on Monday, deploying some of the evening’s darker imagery.
“If you want to see the socialist Biden-Harris future for our country, just take a look at California,” she thundered from an auditorium in Washington. “It is a place of immense wealth, immeasurable innovation and immaculate environment — and the Democrats turned it into a land of discarded heroin needles in parks, riots in streets and blackouts in homes.”
In one memorable flourish, Mr. Trump shared the screen with a different group of guests at the White House: former hostages, in a bid to highlight the administration’s work in freeing people who had been held in other countries.
Taken together, the accumulation of rhetoric made plain that if Mr. Trump believes his party should be a big-tent enterprise, he is also not much interested in persuading skeptics to join him.
He at once perpetuated the abiding tenets of an us-against-them presidency and laid bare the narrow political path he hopes to navigate to a second term.
“I think it’s dumb,” Michael Steel, a longtime Republican strategist, said of the president’s approach. “But I do think it’s indicative not just of his campaign but of his administration. He has chosen every single time to double down on his base rather than expanding his appeal.”
Mr. Steel, a veteran of Jeb Bush’s presidential campaign four years ago, added one note of caution: “I should have drop-kicked my crystal ball into a flaming dumpster after 2016.”
If both admirers and critics of the president seem inclined to append such caveats lately, many in Mr. Trump’s orbit are also acutely aware of the race’s present dynamics: Mr. Biden is winning. Mr. Trump, so polarizing at this stage of his tenure, will have a hard time changing many minds, meaning his clearest shot at re-election involves sullying Mr. Biden’s standing — and, Democrats fear, throwing up barriers in the voting process itself.
And yet, strategists in both parties agree that all of this might still prove enough for Mr. Trump. They are mindful of an electoral map that pushed him into office in 2016 despite a significant deficit in the popular vote. They cite the typical durability of his support levels — rarely spectacular but not yet irreversibly disastrous, either — and see a way forward for him: the enthusiasm of his base combining with a coalition of nose-holding Trump voters, a series of lucky breaks and some ill-timed Democratic stumbles to lift him once more.
“They have done the math and they cannot win unless the base turns out in full force,” said Carlos Curbelo, a former Republican congressman from Florida who clashed at times with Mr. Trump and did not support him in 2016. “His path to victory is similar to his path to victory last time, which is to consolidate his base and demonize the opposition.”
Some additions to the Republican lineup on Monday, which included several Black supporters, did appear geared toward projecting more inclusion, not only (or even primarily) to court Black voters but also to combat perceptions — often damaging among white voters — that Mr. Trump and his party have given safe harbor to racist views.
Mr. Scott — who publicly condemned Mr. Trump’s remarks after the 2017 neo-Nazi rally in Charlottesville, Va., but has generally been a reliable ally — was among the most notable speakers. “President Trump built the most inclusive economy ever,” he said, hailing the nation’s financial position before the virus hit and criticizing Mr. Biden’s record for Black Americans.
There was also Vernon Jones, a Georgia state legislator and a rare Democratic endorser of the president, one week after a Democratic convention that often showcased Republican backers of Mr. Biden.
With Mr. Trump in charge, of course, political discipline can always be fleeting.
In recent days, the president and his team had predicted that he would be presiding over a four-day testament to optimism and national sunniness.
“Very uplifting and positive,” he said of his desired convention tenor over the weekend.
“We definitely want to improve on the dour and sour mood of the D.N.C.,” Kellyanne Conway, the president’s counselor, told reporters.
By Monday afternoon, appearing in Charlotte at the roll call vote for his nomination, Mr. Trump was lashing out at the editorial decisions of cable television networks and urging delegates to chant “12 more years” instead of four to “really drive them crazy” on the other side.
He repeatedly made baseless claims about mail-in voting, insisting he could only lose in November if the system was “rigged.”
“In a very, very nice way, I will tell you,” the president said at one point, never quite bridging dark and light, “they are trying to steal the election.”