The first day of the Republican National Convention revealed how Republicans would approach the US politics tradition during coronavirus.
Though it looked a bit more like the traditional made-for-TV events of old, the convention’s kick-off ditched a few mainstays to better fit the style of the party’s candidate, Donald Trump.
Here are the key takeaways from the first day.
A convention built for an audience of one
Conventions are always designed to present the perfect vision of a candidate and party to the American public.
But even while acknowledging that we’re essentially watching an hours-long infomercial, day one of this Republican convention stood out for focusing conspicuously less on the party, and more on the man who has remade it in his image in the past four years.
All of the speakers were effusive about the President’s ability and character, while some went so far as to address their speeches to Trump himself.
“I am so grateful that we have leaders like President Trump standing up for us who understand the good local businesses do in our neighbourhoods and are not afraid to fight for us every day. Thank you, President Trump. It is so exciting to be a part of this great American comeback story,” coffee shop owner Tanya Weinreis said.
“Trump isn’t afraid to fight for what’s right. He won’t back down. His courage gives great teachers renewed hope,” teacher Rebecca Friedichs said.
As part of the official convention business this year, Republicans ditched a long-standing tradition of voting on a new party platform at the convention.
In a resolution, and in lieu of any specific policy positions, the party instead said it would “enthusiastically” support Trump and “continue to reject the policy positions of the Obama-Biden administration, as well as those espoused by the Democratic National Committee today”.
An attempt at a more conventional convention
The road to this specific convention was a rocky one for Republicans, who were still planning for a full, in-person celebration in Florida as late as a month ago — long after Democrats announced their convention would be entirely virtual.
It meant proceedings today were a little bit of a hybrid.
The day began in the original host city of Charlotte, North Carolina, where 300 delegates completed the roll call that officially made Trump the Republican nominee for the November election (and earned themselves a warning from local officials for not following COVID-19 safety plans).
When the broadcast began, the majority of the speeches were delivered from the Andrew W Mellon Auditorium in Washington DC, but not every address was live, with some pre-recorded from the same venue.
There was no crowd, but with a rotating list of speakers presenting from the same backdrop, it felt much closer to a pre-pandemic convention than the Zoom call aesthetic adopted by Democrats last week.
With plenty of Americans watching both conventions while under stay-at-home orders, the convention polling bounces could be the key metric of which party’s performances made the difference where it really matters: selling the message.
A rally speech missing a rally crowd
It’s no secret the Trump campaign thrives on a good rally. At the peak of his 2016 campaign season, Trump held 23 rallies in six days.
And the campaign has found a built-in hype crew in Trump’s family, which broadens his appeal and serves as a proxy at Trump events he can’t attend.
The rallies have been postponed indefinitely thanks to coronavirus, but today, members of the Trump family drew on their rally experiences to gain the stand-out spots of the event.
Kimberly Guilfoyle, the long-time girlfriend of Donald Trump Jr, shouted portions of her heavily populist message.
“The same socialist policies which destroyed places like Cuba and Venezuela must not take root in our cities and our schools.”
Her conclusion contained a minute-long crescendo that felt designed to rise above a thundering crowd rather than echo in a cavernously empty auditorium.
But the approach seemed to work for one thing: making the message go viral.
Cancel culture featured alongside coronavirus
Democrats made Trump’s handling of coronavirus a central thread on every day of their convention.
Republicans didn’t shy away from the pandemic on day one. While points about healthcare and economic policy were scattered throughout, the party devoted a segment of the evening to countering the narrative on Trump’s handling of the pandemic.
Dr G E Ghali, an oral surgeon who survived COVID-19 himself, summed up the mood in saying Trump saved lives.
A video presentation drew plenty of criticism from fact-checkers, who pointed out multiple occasions where the President claimed coronavirus would “disappear” or that the virus was “under control” in America.
To date, more than 170,000 Americans have died of coronavirus in the US and there have been more than 5.7 million cases.
And an equal, if not greater, portion of the program centred on “cancel culture” and the idea Democrats were trying to police what Americans were allowed to think.
While he wasn’t the only one to mention it, Donald Trump Jr was the standard-bearer for the argument.
With both coronavirus and cancel culture, the Republicans seemed to be making a bet that Americans would be craving broad reassurances about what side was right or wrong, rather than being told about a specific policy that could be changed.
A 2024 preview — Haley v Trump Jr v Scott
Trump won’t be on the ballot in 2024, regardless of the result of this election.
But the final three speakers of day one are all candidates who very much could be in some capacity.
Former US ambassador Nikki Haley, Donald Trump Jr and South Carolina senator Tim Scott all spoke at length. They gave pitches for how they might lead the Republican party once Trump is gone (while all, of course, enthusiastically endorsing the President in 2020).
Haley gave a speech that spoke to grand American ideals, sounding more like the Republican candidates who battled Trump in the 2016 primary.
Trump Jr mirrored his father in both rhetoric and delivery, at times delivering a dark warning about the future of the US while relishing in the culture battles that have been defining characteristics of the Trump campaign.
Scott spoke about a future that was highlighted in a much-discussed report commissioned in the wake of the 2012 election loss to Barack Obama. He appealed to Americans of colour to broaden the tent of the Republican Party, and managed to steer away from the fire and brimstone that dominated the rest of the first day of the convention.
The 2020 Republican Party is united behind Donald Trump.
But today showed what shape the party takes in 2024 is still an open question — and one that may depend on the outcome of an election roughly 10 weeks away.