What to watch for when Trump speaks at the Republican National Convention

  • President Donald Trump will accept his party's nomination for the presidency after a weeklong convention marked by revisionist histories of the past four years. 
  • Trump's challenge is how to campaign as a blameless outsider when he's been president.
  • Expect Trump to paint a vision of the future under a president Joe Biden that looks even scarier than the present does. 

WASHINGTON – President Donald Trump will accept his party's nomination for the presidency Thursday night at the White House, capping off a weeklong Republican National Convention that has been marked by revisionist histories of the past four years. 

Expect Trump to do more of this tonight – only, given that it's Trump, the revisions are likely to be on an even bigger scale.

The president knows that his strength is to campaign as an outsider, largely because it means he can blame someone else for the bad stuff he sees around him, while also making lofty promises, like that Mexico will pay for the wall or that manufacturing will return to the Rust Belt. 

Herein lies Trump's dilemma: How to campaign as an insurgent for president when he's been president for four years, and the nation is suffering from widespread joblessness, intensifying racial strife and a pandemic that claims hundreds of lives each day. 

Judging by the numbers, Trump's task seems almost insurmountable. 

Rewriting the past

When Trump took the oath of office in January of 2017, the unemployment rate was 4.9%. Today it is more than double that, at 10.2%, meaning twice as many Americans are out of work today as were three and a half years ago. 

In January of 2017, more than 200,000 people, mostly women, demonstrated peacefully on the National Mall. Lots of Americans didn't agree with them, but they weren't tear gassed or shot with rubber bullets. Today, incidents of police violence against Black people have sparked mass demonstrations, but instead of seeking to calm the unrest, the president has demonized protesters as "thugs" and "criminals." 

Also in January of 2017, the United States hadn't lost 180,000 fathers and mothers, grandparents and children in just six months to a coronavirus pandemic that is largely under control in the rest of the world, but still rages across the United States. To this day, a thousand Americans die of Covid-19 every 24 hours, and there is no federal plan to address the pandemic's spread. Only pressure from the White House to test less, open up businesses more, and wait for the virus to "just disappear." 

Moreover, Trump still refuses to accept any responsibility for the course the pandemic has taken in America, preferring to blame China for its existence while also blaming Democrats for the economic pain caused by closed businesses and schools. As for the death toll, he has said, "It is what it is." 

Given the state of the union, it's little surprise then, that Trump is trailing Democrat Joe Biden by more than eight points in national polls, according to FiveThirtyEight's average. Perhaps the better question is why Trump isn't trailing Biden by even more. 

The answer has a lot to do with the message you'll hear Trump deliver on Thursday night. It's a one-two punch of rewriting the past and painting an apocalyptic vision of the future, should Biden win in November. 

Trump will first try to convince Americans that Biden, a career senator and former two-term vice president, is the real Washington insider, not Trump. Then, he will seek to blur the lines between being an "insider" and being the incumbent president.

"We have spent the last four years reversing the damage Joe Biden inflicted over the last 47 years," Trump will say, according to a few lines of his speech released Thursday. In Trump's revisionist history of the past four years, it will be Biden who has inflicted damage that needs repairing, not Trump.

An even scarier future

More important to the Trump campaign effort than rewriting the past, however, is to paint a picture of a future under a President Biden that looks even scarier than the present does. 

Trump will say the Democratic agenda "is the most extreme set of proposals ever put forward by a major party nominee." In reality, Biden and his running mate, Sen. Kamala Harris of California, are both considered moderate Democrats, to the point that their nomination was a disappointment to many progressives.

Expect Trump to also hammer home a phrase we've heard repeatedly from Republicans this week, most recently from Vice President Mike Pence: "You won't be safe in Biden's America." 

This law-and-order push from the Trump campaign is a central feature of the president's effort to win over suburban, white voters, especially women, who broke for Trump in 2016. These voters are leaning toward Biden after four years of divisive rhetoric and administrative chaos under Trump. 

Trump's pitch relies entirely on convincing these voters, by any means necessary, that their personal safety is at stake.

As he has done throughout the spring and summer, expect Trump to use the most recent example of demonstrations in response to a police killing of a Black man – in this case Jacob Blake of Kenosha, Wisconsin – to argue that Black Lives Matter protesters, and the Democrats who support police reform, will turn America into a country beset by "radical leftist mobs." 

A nod to unity

As with most of Trump's speeches, there will be moments of unifying language, albeit limited to those who want to unite with the Republican Party.

"The Republican Party goes forward united, determined, and ready to welcome millions of Democrats, independents, and anyone who believes in the greatness of America and the righteous heart of the American people," Trump will say, according to excerpts first obtained by Politico.

"This towering American spirit has prevailed over every challenge and lifted us to the summit of human endeavor."

Lines like these are nice to hear a politician say. But judging from every political speech Trump has delivered since he first announced he was running for president, they will be the icing on a cake made of much darker, more divisive stuff. 

Convention coverage on cable news channels and CNBC.com will begin at 8:30 p.m. ET. Coverage on network prime time begins at 10 p.m.

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