• Sun. Feb 28th, 2021

Trump Heads Into General Election Leading a Party He Has Transformed

President Trump entered the final night of the Republican convention on Thursday after three days of law-and-order rhetoric, making a determined push to change the subject from the coronavirus pandemic and to mark Joseph R. Biden Jr., the Democratic nominee, as a willing partner of the far left.

The fourth night of the convention unfolded amid multiple crises churning across the country: Hurricane Laura, a powerful storm, was tearing through parts of the South; wildfires were ravaging Northern California; and tension in the swing state of Wisconsin continued over the police shooting of Jacob Blake and the chaotic protests it set off.

The opening speakers of the night presented less of a thematic argument for Mr. Trump’s re-election than a grab-bag of personal tributes to the president. They mentioned several governing achievements and policy goals — the pre-pandemic economy, funding for anti-opioid programs, a job-training and apprenticeship initiative — but did not weave them into a story. The speakers leaned hard into assertions of Mr. Trump’s good character: One aide claimed, for instance, that in private Mr. Trump showed “deep empathy” to grieving families.

The convention program on Thursday was once again organized as a celebration of Mr. Trump by some of his dearest allies and White House aides, rather than as an opportunity to showcase a larger political vision or a wide bench of talent from the party. By the end of the convention, Republicans would hear from more than a dozen White House aides, members of the cabinet and presidential relatives, including four of Mr. Trump’s five children, but scarcely any Republican candidate running in competitive races for the House or Senate in 2020.

Mr. Trump was expected to speak from the White House grounds before more than 1,000 attendees sitting in close quarters, most without masks. As the speeches went on, there was a rising din from protesters outside the White House.

The four-day event has showcased the extraordinary degree to which Mr. Trump has remade the Republican Party in his own image over the course of just four years, demolishing what was once a small-government, free-trade ideological framework and replacing it with his own ethos of nationalism. Issues that once dominated Republican politics, like the national debt and the promotion of democracy and capitalism overseas, were unmentioned or barely mentioned. Subjects from which the party once recoiled, like trade protectionism, have become part of the core of its agenda.

While Mr. Trump has preserved elements of the traditional Republican agenda — cutting taxes, eliminating business regulations and appointing conservative judges — the issues that animate him most are those that strike at themes of national pride, sovereignty, race and immigration. And those themes are now the main thrust of the party’s message in the 2020 election. It is not just Mr. Trump but Republican candidates up and down the ballot who are counting on the overwhelming support of white voters aggrieved by what they see as an unwanted transformation of American identity.

During the convention, gone were the standard-bearers of the Republican Party’s recent past, figures like its 2012 presidential nominee, Senator Mitt Romney of Utah, and former President George W. Bush. Mr. Bush has declined to say whether he will vote for Mr. Trump, and his only role at the convention was as a kind of spectral foil for the current president, as Trump loyalists railed against “forever wars” of the kind Mr. Bush waged in Iraq and Afghanistan.

The veteran Republicans who have continued to rise in the Trump era have been those who have fully reconciled themselves to the president’s persona and policies: Among them are Nikki R. Haley, the former South Carolina governor who opposed Mr. Trump in the 2016 primary race before becoming his ambassador to the United Nations, and Mark Meadows, the former hard-line congressman from North Carolina whose small-government principles gradually morphed into priorities so close to the president’s that he became Mr. Trump’s chief of staff.

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Credit…Anna Moneymaker for The New York Times

Gone, too, were most of the policy ideas that an earlier generation of Republicans counted on to help bring racial diversity to their largely monochrome coalition. Mr. Trump has put forward no particular agenda on education, housing or economic inequality. His signature priority on health care remains the dismantling of the Affordable Care Act, but he has never proposed a full alternative. He discarded the party’s Bush-era theory of winning Hispanic votes through immigration reform and replaced it with an agenda — unchallenged within the party — of cracking down on the southern border and throwing up new obstacles even to legal immigration.

Mr. Trump himself has made appearances every night of the convention, making extensive use of his presidential powers and the grounds of the White House for partisan purposes. But his remarks would be the first time this week that the party heard from the president in an extended speech.

The program on Thursday night included an early appearance by the president’s top ally in Congress, the House minority leader, Kevin McCarthy. Mr. McCarthy, one of the more traditional party leaders to speak, did so as the narrator of a cinematic video filled with stock footage of conventionally patriotic scenes, holding up Mr. Trump as the guarantor of the American way of life.

“No one has done more to protect and advance it than President Trump,” Mr. McCarthy said. “As Republicans, we are proud to stand with him, and to work for you.”

In a speech that would not have been out of place at a Republican convention a decade or two ago, Mitch McConnell, the Senate majority leader, praised Mr. Trump but spent most of his time warning of Democrats’ liberal aspirations, sometimes casting them in outlandish-sounding terms.

The opposing party, Mr. McConnell said, wants to “pack the Supreme Court with liberals intent on eroding our constitutional rights,” admit Washington, D.C., as the 51st state and regulate “even how many hamburgers you can eat.” While he called for voters to support Mr. Trump, he also asked them to back Republican candidates running for the Senate, in a departure from the convention’s almost exclusive focus on the president. “We are the firewall against Nancy Pelosi’s agenda,” Mr. McConnell said of Republican in the Senate.

Mr. McConnell and Mr. McCarthy, the highest-ranking Republicans in Congress, spoke for about six minutes combined — roughly the same amount of time allotted earlier in the week to Kimberly Guilfoyle, the conservative television personality who is dating Donald Trump Jr.

In a week when organizers presented a succession of Black speakers to challenge the idea that Mr. Trump was racist, Ben Carson, the secretary of housing and urban development who is the only Black member of the cabinet, offered one of the strongest defenses of Mr. Trump. “Many on the other side love to incite division by claiming that President Trump is a racist,” he said. “They could not be more wrong.”

Mr. Carson invoked the Rev. Jesse Jackson, the longtime civil rights leader and a former Democratic presidential candidate, to attest to Mr. Trump’s bona fides. He noted that Mr. Jackson once gave Mr. Trump an award for promoting economic opportunities for Black people.

Credit…Doug Mills/The New York Times

Rudolph W. Giuliani, the former mayor of New York City and Mr. Trump’s personal lawyer and adviser, used his pretaped address to attack one of his successors, Bill de Blasio, for what he said was a surge in crime and unrest in the city.

“New Yorkers wonder, ‘How did we get overwhelmed by crime so quickly and decline so fast?’” said Mr. Giuliani, who forged a national reputation for the decline in crime in New York during his tenure, but was criticized for episodes of abuse of force by the police against Black men. “Don’t let Democrats do to America what they have done to New York.”

Mr. Giuliani called Mr. Biden a “Trojan horse” for others waiting to carry out a “pro-criminal” agenda. Speaking during a week of unrest in Wisconsin after another shooting of a Black man by the police, Mr. Giuliani said, “I have no doubt, and I’m sure you don’t, when President Trump is re-elected the damage will stop.

The closest thing to a central theme for the Republican convention has been to treat Mr. Biden, the former vice president, as a threat to traditional American society, and to emphasize the need for a president who sternly enforces public order and is closely aligned with the police. The party has taken up law and order as perhaps its primary political cause in recent months, after the killing of George Floyd in May led to a sweeping national protest movement against racism and police brutality, and in some cities spilled into scenes of vandalism and arson.

That appeared certain to continue as the fallout over the shooting of Mr. Blake unfolded in the Midwest, after a white teenager was charged with murder on Wednesday in the fatal shootings of two people in Kenosha, Wis., the focal point of protests.

Kellyanne Conway, the outgoing White House aide who spoke at the convention on Wednesday night, suggested in unusually plain terms on Fox News on Thursday morning that she regarded scenes of public disorder as politically useful.

“The more chaos and anarchy and vandalism and violence reigns,” Ms. Conway said, “the better it is for the very clear choice on who’s best on public safety and law and order.”

Both Mr. Biden and Ms. Harris used appearances on Thursday to condemn instances of rioting. In back-to-back television interviews, Mr. Biden said that Mr. Trump was deliberately “pouring gasoline on the fire” of social unrest for his own political purposes, reading out Ms. Conway’s morning remarks as proof.

Credit…Kenny Holston for The New York Times

Much of the convention has been given over to heaping praise on Mr. Trump and seeking to persuade deeply skeptical female voters to give him another look. But the party’s praise for the president has lacked a consistent theme; some speakers have cast him as an empathetic champion of women in the workplace, and others have hailed him as the “bodyguard of Western civilization.”

Least coherent of all has been the Republican message on the coronavirus pandemic. Most of the prominent convention speakers have ignored the virus or acknowledged it only in passing, even as the U.S. death toll has approached 180,000 and the economic recovery continues to show signs of stalling. When the virus has been a focal point, it has been to reframe the widely criticized federal response as a success story that was responsive to states’ needs.

Mr. Trump’s mismanagement of the coronavirus crisis has become his most significant political vulnerability in the presidential race, something most of his advisers privately acknowledge, and his speech on Thursday may be among his best remaining chances to defend his record.

Hours before Mr. Trump appeared, Mr. Biden’s running mate, Senator Kamala Harris of California, delivered a scorching pre-emptive strike on the president’s record on the crisis. Speaking in Washington, she criticized the Republican convention for having minimized the virus, saying the event was “designed for one purpose: to soothe Donald Trump’s ego.” Giving a point-by-point critique of Mr. Trump’s handling of the pandemic, Ms. Harris said Americans should recognize the cost of his errors.

“All we needed was a competent president: one who was willing to listen, willing to lead, take responsibility, have a plan, do their job,” Ms. Harris said. “Well, Joe Biden will be that president.”

In the hours before Mr. Trump spoke, the South Lawn of the White House was dotted with chairs placed next to one another, and most people did not wear masks. The campaign distributed them — some attendees wore black masks with “Trump” written in white in all capital letters — but the majority of people opted to eschew face coverings.

Few of the more than 1,000 people who were invited to attend were given coronavirus tests, officials said; only those in proximity to the president were tested.

Adam Nagourney contributed reporting.