By Niall Stanage, THE HILL,08/26/20
Donald Trump isn’t a racist, a sexist or a xenophobe.
At least, that was the message that was written between the lines on the second night of the Republican National Convention on Tuesday.
The GOP is having to spend a lot of time trying to prove what Trump isn’t — an effort that tells its own story about negative perceptions of the president and the degree to which he is languishing in the polls.
Tuesday night’s programming featured an early tribute to Trump from Jon Ponder, a Black man who was convicted of bank robbery before reforming his life and founding an organization to help rehabilitate ex-prisoners. Trump pardoned Ponder before the cameras at the White House.
The president returned later for a naturalization ceremony featuring five men and women from different nations of origin. Trump invited each person to speak briefly, a moment that was tonally far removed from his thunderous promises of a border wall.
The night’s headline attraction was first lady Melania Trump, who capped the evening with a speech in the White House Rose Garden where she testified that the president “is a husband who supports me in all that I do” and who leads an administration with “an unprecedented number of women in leadership roles.”
Kellyanne Conway, the senior aide who was the first woman to manage a victorious presidential campaign, was in the front row for the speech.
One night at a convention will hardly be enough to nullify memories of the president’s racially inflammatory rhetoric, his allegation that Mexico was sending “rapists” to the United States, or his comments about women captured on the infamous “Access Hollywood” tape.
Clearly, his image with his detractors is set in stone. But the second night of the convention, even more than the first, seemed aimed at trying to defang some of the more toxic perceptions that cling to Trump, even among ideologically non-aligned voters.
On issues of race, in particular, it is questionable based on polls whether Team Trump can realistically hope to boost support among Black voters. It seems at least as likely that their efforts are geared toward reassuring white moderates that they are not aligning themselves with racism if they back Trump in November.
Still, the pardoning of Ponder on Tuesday was undeniably powerful. The moment also built on a case made on the convention’s first night by speakers including football star Herschel Walker, who forcefully insisted that Trump is not racist.
Many in the GOP also express concern about the president’s standing with suburban women, who turned sharply against the party in the 2018 midterm elections, helping Democrats regain the House majority.
Melania Trump’s speech went beyond just paying tribute to what she sees as her husband’s support for women. It also offered sympathy to the victims of the coronavirus pandemic — something the president has done only sparingly — and acknowledged the historic scars of slavery and racial injustice.
“We are not proud of parts of our history,” the first lady said — a notable admission during a convention that has already, at other times, sought to cast those who raise such issues as unpatriotic.
At the same time, however, Melania Trump said that people needed to “stop the violence and looting being done in the name of justice.”
The first lady did not offer a particularly intimate portrait of the president, beyond insisting that he works harder than people think and that he leaves no-one in doubt about where he stands.
However, her speech, as well as an earlier address from Tiffany Trump, the younger of the president’s two daughters, might at least have given any remaining undecided voters a different picture of the president.
“My father does not run away from challenges — even in the face of outright hatred — because fighting for America is something he will sacrifice anything for,” Tiffany Trump said. “He dreams big dreams for our country — and he is relentless at achieving them.”
Female political leaders also offered praise for Trump. Two Floridians — former Attorney General Pam Bondi (R) and current Lt. Gov. Jeanette Nuñez (R) — were particularly prominent, as was Iowa Gov. Kim Reynolds (R).
Florida is, again, the largest and most important of the battleground states. Iowa, though won handily by Trump in 2016, is not safe this time.
Democrats scorn the idea that tributes from family members will help swing perceptions that they say have become firmly embedded in the minds of millions of voters.
“Having the first lady come out of hiding, effectively, will not do much to move the needle,” said Democratic strategist Julie Roginsky. “Ultimately he is the messenger — and women don’t support him personally or his policies, politically.”
Trump critics were also dismayed by the use of the naturalization ceremony for political purposes.