Jonathan Lemire, Michelle L. Price and Kevin Freking
WASHINGTON — Facing a national moment fraught with racial turmoil and a deadly pandemic, President Donald Trump accepted his party's renomination on a massive White House South Lawn stage Thursday night, boasting of helping African Americans and defying his own administration's pandemic guidelines to address a tightly packed, largely maskless crowd.
As troubles churned outside the gates, Trump painted an optimistic vision of America's future, including an eventual triumph over the coronavirus pandemic that has killed more than 175,000 people, left millions unemployed and rewritten the rules of society. But that brighter horizon can only be secured, Trump asserted, if he defeats Democrat Joe Biden.
Trailing Biden in opinion polls, he blistered the former vice president's record and even questioned his love of America.
"We have spent the last four years reversing the damage Joe Biden inflicted over the last 47 years," Trump said.
Presenting himself as the last barrier protecting an American way of life under siege from radical forces, Trump declared that "Joe Biden and his party repeatedly assailed America as a land of racial, economic, and social injustice.""
"So tonight, I ask you a very simple question: How can the Democrat Party ask to lead our country when it spends so much time tearing down our country?" Trump said. "In the left's backward view, they do not see America as the most free, just, and exceptional nation on earth. Instead, they see a wicked nation that must be punished for its sins."
As his speech brought the scaled-back Republican National Convention to a close, Trump's incendiary rhetoric risked inflaming a divided nation reeling from a series of calamities, including the pandemic, a major hurricane that slammed into the Gulf Coast and nights of racial unrest and violence after Jacob Blake, a Black man, was shot by a white Wisconsin police officer.
He was introduced by his daughter Ivanka, an influential White House adviser, who portrayed the famously bombastic Trump as someone who shaken up Washington with little record for norms or niceties.
"Dad, people attack you for being unconventional, but I love you for being real. And I respect you for being effective," she said.
The president spoke from a setting that was both familiar and controversial. Despite tradition and regulation to not use the White House for purely political events,a huge stage was set up outside the executive mansion, dwarfing the trappings for some of the most important moments of past presidencies. The speaker's stand was flanked by dozens of American flags and two big video screens.
Trying to run as an insurgent as well as incumbent, Trump rarely includes calls for unity, even in a time of national uncertainty. He has repeatedly, if not always effectively, tried to portray Biden — who is considered a moderate Democrat — as a tool of the radical left, fringe forces he has claimed don't love their country.
The Republicans claim that the violence that has erupted in Kenosha and some other American cities is to be blamed on Democratic governors and mayors. Vice President Mike Pence on Wednesday said that Americans wouldn't be safe in "Joe Biden's America."
That drew a stern rebuke from his predecessor in the post.
"The problem we have right now is that we are in Donald Trump's America," said Biden on MSNBC. "He views this as a political benefit to him, he is rooting for more violence not less. He is pouring gasoline on the fire."
Both parties are watching with uncertainty the developments in Wisconsin and cities across the nation with Republicans leaning hard on support for law and order — with no words offered for Black victims of police violence — while falsely claiming that Biden has not condemned the lawlessness. Rudy Giuliani, Trump's personal attorney and New York City's former mayor, declared that Democrats' "silence was so deafening that it reveals an acceptance of this violence because they will accept anything they hope will defeat President Donald Trump."
Though some of the speakers, unlike on previous nights, offered notes of sympathy to the families of Black men killed by police, Giuliani also took aim at the Black Lives Matter movement, suggesting that it, along with ANTIFA, was part of the extremist voices pushing Biden to "execute their pro-criminal, anti-police policies" and had "hijacked the protests into vicious, brutal riots."
Along with Biden, running mate Kamala Harris offered counter-programming for Trump's prime-time speech. She delivered a speech a half mile from the White House, declaring, "Donald Trump has failed at the most basic and important job of a president of the United States: He failed to protect the American people, plain and simple."
Some demonstrations took to Washington's streets Thursday night, ahead of a march planned for the next day. New fencing set up along the White House perimeter was to keep the protesters at bay, but some of their shouts and car horns were clearly audible on the South Lawn where more than 1,500 people gathered. Soon after Trump began talking, the horns and sirens — which came through occasionally to the millions watching at home — caused some people in the last row to turn around and look for the source of the disturbance.
Those chants, coming from masked faces intruded on another illusion that the Republicans have spent a week trying to create: that the pandemic is largely a thing of the past. The rows of chairs on the lawn were tightly packed, inches apart. Protective masks were not required, and COVID-19 tests were not to be administered to everyone.
But Trump, who has defended his handling of the pandemic, touted an expansion of rapid coronavirus testing. The White House announced Thursday that it had struck a $750 million deal to acquire 150 million tests from Abbott Laboratories to be deployed in nursing homes, schools and other areas with populations at high risk.
Most of the convention has been aimed at former Trump supporters or nonvoters, and has tried to drive up negative impressions of Biden so that some of his possible backers stay home. Many of the messages were aimed squarely at seniors and suburban women.
Among the more emotional moments: testimony from Alice Marie Johnson, who was granted clemency from her life sentence on nonviolent drug charges, and from Carl and Marsha Mueller, whose daughter Kayla was killed while being held in Syria by Islamic State militants during the Obama administration.
"Kayla should be here," said Carl Mueller. "If Donald Trump was president when Kayla was captured, she would be here today."
Four years ago, Trump declared in his acceptance speech that "I alone can fix" the nation's woes, but he has found himself asking voters for another term at the nadir of his presidency, amid a devastating pandemic, crushing unemployment and real uncertainties about schools and businesses reopening.
Another one million Americans filed for unemployment benefits last week, in numbers released Thursday. And the U.S. economy shrank at an alarming annual rate of 31.7% during the April-June quarter as it struggled under the weight of the viral pandemic. It was sharpest quarterly drop on record.