POLITICS

The Unmasked Ball: Trump Creates His Own Pandemic-Free Reality

Donald J. Trump could not truthfully appear at the Republican National Convention as a president who got America safely through the Covid-19 pandemic.

But he could play one on TV.

Thursday night, Mr. Trump slowly walked down the steps of the White House with his wife Melania, just he as came down the escalator of Trump Tower in 2015 — treating it, in much the same way, like his personal property. He walked to a campaign lectern with a presidential seal and looked out on a crowd of faces. Unmasked faces.

Denied a traditional convention in a Charlotte hall, he created his own at home. And denied a reality in which the virus had faded away the way he said it would in its early days, he created that too, by stage-directing it.

Mr. Trump’s 70-minute renomination speech dwelled, for a few minutes here and there, on the pandemic and his administration’s response. But its setting, like much of his convention, told a simpler story visually: That the coronavirus didn’t exist, or at least was no big deal.

The chairs were packed tightly in on the White House lawn. Hundreds of people in the crowd had not been tested for the coronavirus upon attending.

The mostly maskless guests seated cheek by jowl for hours, like the teeming crowd for the big finale of a pandemic reality show: The Celebrity Appestilence.

In the midst of a plague that has reshaped American life for half a year, the R.N.C. spent as much time effacing its evidence as the Democrats did highlighting it. The imagery of masks, already politicized, maps easily on our partisan differences. The premise, that I wear a mask to protect you and vice versa, meshes badly with the Republican rhetoric of individualism.

The video intro for the final R.N.C. night made that point clear. Over a photo of Joseph R. Biden Jr. and Kamala Harris wearing masks, it warned of Democrats “telling you what to wear.”

But the imagery has recurred all week. In the White House Rose Garden audience for Melania Trump, hardly a mask could be seen on any attendee. Likewise at the Fort McHenry speech by Vice President Mike Pence, the head of the coronavirus task force, who mingled afterward with attendees face to face, breath to breath.

That’s the advantage of, as Mr. Trump called it Thursday, an “invisible enemy.” It doesn’t show up on camera.

No incumbent wants to run on a crisis, at least one that’s not under control. One way of addressing this is to emphasize that you have a plan to get back to better times and point to successes in executing it. The other is to rush through that part, or ignore it altogether.

This is a technique first articulated by the political strategy guide “Seinfeld.” The R.N.C. decided to “yada yada yada” the coronavirus. “This administration accomplished great things through 2019, yada yada yada, we’ll do great things in 2021.”

Just so, Mr. Trump sandwiched the virus discussion among his preferred topics, as if it were a speed bump. The tastier portions of the speech — boasting of his wins and savaging his opponents — seemed to engage his interest more, and the crowd’s.

About that crowd. It was, whatever the public health implications, bracing to hear a mass of people chanting “Four more years!,” or anything, in the cursed year 2020. The invited group had more a garden-party energy than the “Lock her up!” throng that hailed Mr. Trump in 2016. But the president, denied his rallies since a botched attempt to revive them in June, seemed refreshed by the live cheers.

This was fortunate, because his speech often fell into the flat, book-report cadence Mr. Trump resorts to when reading from the prompter. It was not an intimate, fireside-chat address like Mr. Biden gave last week, nor an incendiary rally-hall rave.

Around an hour into it, Mr. Trump began ad-libbing, splashing little flourishes for zest like ketchup on a steak. He baselessly accused the Obama administration, again, of spying on his 2016 campaign, and taunted his doubters by saying, “The fact is, I’m here — what’s the name of that building?,” with a turn toward the people’s palace that he was using as his launchpad.

The zinger captured one of the many contradictions in a speech that had a tougher case to make than Mr. Trump made in 2016, when he claimed that he alone could fix the problems of someone else’s presidency.

Now, citing unrest in the streets as Americans protested racism and police violence, he wanted to warn of the dangers of a “Biden’s America” that, in fact, were flourishing in his own America. He was an incumbent who wanted to boast of accomplishments, yet run as a challenger.

It was a lot, and by the end, he drooped at the podium, swallowing the same sort of kicker — a promise to “make America stronger” — that he delivered throatily four years ago.

But in the end, he could enjoy another perk of his position, a massive fireworks display engulfing the Washington Monument, which for a few minutes became the Trump 2020 monument.

The image contrasted with the modest fireworks, over a parking-lot tailgate, that ended Mr. Biden’s convention. That display was a respite, in the middle of what Mr. Biden treated as a long fight against Covid with many losses to mourn. Mr. Trump’s, true to brand, was bigger, a celebration, a declaration of victory.

The victory wasn’t real, but the image was. If Mr. Trump’s promises of a vaccine by year’s end come true, or don’t, it will most likely be after the election. If any attendee comes down sick, it will be after the chairs are put away and the cameras shut down.

Either way, Mr. Trump will have already gotten his crowd, his moment, his image. Seeking a second lease on that White House lawn, he relied on what he has known his whole media-focused career: That on TV, if not in life, dreams can come true.


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