One version told of a president who is callous and cruel. “My dad was a healthy 65-year-old,” said Kristin Urquiza, whose father voted for Donald Trump in 2016 and died from Covid-19 in June. “His only pre-existing condition was trusting Donald Trump – and for that he paid with his life.”
The other spoke of a president blessed with compassion. Kayleigh McEnany recalled taking a phone call as she recovered from a preventive mastectomy. “It was President Trump, calling to check on me,” she said. “I was blown away. Here was the leader of the free world caring about me.”
The contrast was enough to induce a sense of whiplash.
But it happened over and over again during the past two weeks during the Democratic and Republican national conventions, held virtually for the first time due to the pandemic. The primetime television split screen displayed two radically different Americas – and two radically different diagnoses of its ills.
Democrats tore into Trump’s character and lack of fitness for office; Republicans paid tribute to his competence, common touch and generosity of spirit. Democrats hammered away at the pandemic, its death toll and the economic fallout; Republicans spoke of the virus rarely and preferred to sell optimism, promising a renaissance just around the corner. Democrats embraced the Black Lives Matter movement and quest for racial justice; Republicans stoked fear of “cancel culture” and suburbs overrun by violent mobs.
John Zogby, an author and pollster, observed: “We didn’t get a portrayal of disagreements; we got a portrayal of two completely different realities and that’s kind of astounding. If a Martian came down and watched both conventions, they would be puzzled and get back on the ship. It was amazing, a completely different reality about Covid, about the economy, about Black Lives Matter.”
When the smoke cleared from fireworks at the Washington monument that spelled out “Trump 2020” on the final night, the nation had a clearer idea of where the two armies have drawn battle lines before the November election.
Democrats set out to draw a contrast between their nominee Joe Biden’s empathy and experience versus Trump’s chronic inability to do a job he treats as a reality show. Michelle Obama, the former first lady, channeled the anguish of mothers across the country appalled by the 45th president’s crass conduct. “He is clearly in over his head,” she said. “He cannot meet this moment. He simply cannot be who we need him to be for us.”
Democrats prosecuted a case that Trump failed to rise to the historic challenge of Covid-19, resulting in what are now 180,000 deaths and tens of millions unemployed. Above all, they warned, Trump threatens America’s 244-year-old democratic experiment. An unusually raw Barack Obama said: “This administration has shown it will tear our democracy down if that’s what it takes to win. So we have to get busy building it up.”
When their turn came, Republicans spun an elaborate web of fantasy that factcheckers found included dozens of lies per night. They worked hard to smooth the jagged edges of Trump’s persona and make him palatable to suburban voters. A procession of women told how he promoted them to senior positions; a procession of people of colour sought to deny his racism.
In addition, Trump was seen pardoning an African American man convicted of bank robbery and benevolently welcoming immigrants as they became US citizens. The pitch appeared to be: do not believe the media caricature of Trump as demonic figure; you have licence to vote for him again with a clear conscience.
Wendy Schiller, a political science professor at Brown University in Providence, Rhode Island, said: “What was striking was that this convention was designed to appeal to suburban moderate Republicans and independents.”
“It was really designed to assuage or mollify suburban voters and say, ‘Listen, I’m not that bad, really..’”
Republicans’ political plastic surgery included hailing Trump’s response to the virus as an epic success, when they mentioned it at all. The president hyped the promise of a vaccine before the end of the year during an acceptance speech delivered at the White House where face masks were few and far between in the packed crowd, as if willing a return to normal.
There was one common thread of the conventions: a sense that defeat by the other side would spell something more profound and existential than the mere swing of a political pendulum. Instead it was a stark choice between American democracy or the American dream – both long seen as inviolable tenets of the American soul. Zogby commented: “This is a genuine Armageddon election: if the other side wins, this is the end of the United States, the end of our values, the end of democracy.”
The sense that the stakes are higher than ever before was fuelled by another dominant narrative of the year: police killings of unarmed African Americans, the uprising against racial injustice and a minority of protests that led to vandalism and violence.
Again the parties see the issue through opposing prisms. Democrats gave a platform to the family of George Floyd, whose killing by police in Minneapolis triggered nationwide marches, celebrated the life of civil rights activist John Lewis and nominated Senator Kamala Harris to be the country’s first vice-president of colour.
Republicans, by contrast, conjured images of “violent anarchists, agitators and criminals”, falsely accused Biden of supporting efforts to defund police departments and implied that America’s long march against racism ends with Trump. “I say very modestly that I have done more for the African American community than any president since Abraham Lincoln, our first Republican president,” Trump said.
Speakers included Mark and Patricia McCloskey, embodiments of white privilege from St Louis, Missouri, who waved guns at Black Lives Matter protesters outside their mansion. Patricia delivered a message of racial fear reminiscent of apartheid South Africa: “What you saw happen to us could just as easily happen to any of you who are watching from quiet neighbourhoods around our country. Make no mistake: no matter where you live, your family will not be safe in the radical Democrats’ America.”
The messages played out against the backdrop of fresh unrest in Kenosha, Wisconsin, where police shot Jacob Blake, an African American man, seven times in the back, leaving him paralysed. Some demonstrators destroyed buildings and started fires. A white 17-year-old was charged with intentional homicide after two protesters were shot dead.
Some Democrats worry that such scenes could feed Trump’s narrative and boost him at the polls. Yet whereas a law-and-order appeal worked for Richard Nixon in 1968 as an insurgent challenger, the current social disorder is happening in an America where Trump is the incumbent.
Michael Steele, former chairman of the Republican National Committee, said: “The ironic twist in that everything Donald Trump was complaining about occurring under a Biden administration was actually happening under his own. The dissonance that you see in all of this is that he’s basically telling you don’t believe what you’re seeing, it’s not happening, but it will happen if you elect this guy. You’re like, wait a minute, we have riots in the streets now.”
He added: “The challenge for Biden is going to be to get Americans to see that what they fear is already happening, what they fear is already in their suburban communities, what they fear is already on their streets, and that there is as much happening in areas of the country that are run by Republicans as is happening in areas run by Democrats, and his goal as president is to address those concerns, to heal those wounds, not cause more pain or to open up those wounds further.”
Donna Brazile, former interim chairwoman of the Democratic National Committee, said: “The race is now being defined by two epic visions of the country. One is the vision that Joe Biden and Kamala Harris provided, which is a nation that must continue to grow and to reach out to others, especially those who feel like they are left behind.
“The vision of Donald Trump and Mike Pence was much more of an ‘us versus them’. It didn’t feel as though they were reaching out to anyone. It felt more like they’re still willing to say the other side is incapable of leading the America that they represent.”
Brazile added: “I think what we saw this past two weeks is one political party that is still engaged in trying to help the American people through this pandemic, which has caused an economic crisis, versus the other party, which quite honestly don’t believe that this crisis exists at all.”