WASHINGTON — The Republicans and Donald Trump rolled out their biggest political guns Thursday on the final night of their national convention, using the south facade of the White House as a backdrop — literally — for the president's largest, highest-stakes Make America Great Again rally since before the start of the COVID-19 pandemic.
The deadly outbreak, which has claimed more than 183,000 American lives since it erupted on U.S. soil back in March, seemed the furthest thing from the minds of the estimated 2,000 guests on the south lawn, crammed in cheek-by-jowl — many without masks — for a first-hand look at Trump's trademark political showmanship.
From atop a stage festooned with American flags and flanked by towering Trump-Pence billboards, Trump delivered a 70-minute speech that began with a formal acceptance of the Republican nomination for president and ended with a flourish of American rhetoric, an in-person aria from the White House balcony and a garish fireworks display that spelled "Trump 2020" in the Washington night sky.
"Despite all of our greatness as a nation, everything we ever achieved is now in danger," Trump said at the outset.
"At no time before have voters faced a clearer choice between two parties, two visions, two philosophies or two agendas. This election will decide whether we save the American dream, or whether we allow a socialist agenda to demolish our cherished destiny."
His opening acts, which included Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell and former New York mayor Rudy Giuliani, his personal lawyer, pulled no punches in their depiction of Biden and his party as nothing short of the architects of American destruction.
"The Democrats are urging you to vote for an obviously defective candidate," Giuliani railed, describing Biden as a puppet of the party's progressive wing.
"Biden has changed his principles so often, he no longer has any principles. He's a Trojan horse with Bernie (Sanders), (Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez), (Nancy) Pelosi, Black Lives Matter and his party's entire left wing just waiting to execute their pro-criminal, anti-police socialist policies."
Where Giuliani sought to use New York City as a cautionary tale about Democratic government, McConnell delivered a similar warning to the American heartland, speaking in a pre-recorded message from his home state of Kentucky.
"Today's Democrat party doesn't want to improve live for middle America," McConnell said.
"They want to tell you when you go to work, when your kids can go to school; they want to tax your job out of existence, and then send you a government check for unemployment. They want to tell you what kind of car you can drive, what sources of information are credible, and even how many hamburgers you can eat."
Other speakers who sang Trump's praises included deputy White House chief of staff Dan Scovino, deputy Trump assistant Ja'Ron Smith, Marine Corps veteran-turned-pipefitter Stacia Brightmon and House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy.
Marsha and Carl Mueller, whose daughter Kayla was taken hostage in Syria in August 2013 by members of the Islamic State group and killed after 18 months of captivity, all but blamed Biden for her death.
"We put all our faith in the government, but the government let us down," Carl Mueller said. "To this day, we never heard from Joe Biden ... the Obama administration showed more concern for the terrorists in Guantanamo than the American hostages in Syria."
Earlier in the day, one of the Republican ticket's chief rivals set out to spoil Thursday's celebration.
Sen. Kamala Harris, Joe Biden's newly nominated running mate, took to an auditorium stage in Washington to remind Americans about some of the things the president's party has desperately tried to avoid talking about this week: racial unrest and the COVID-19 pandemic.
"The Republican convention is designed for one purpose — to soothe Donald Trump's ego, to make him feel good," Harris said, accusing the president of a ham-handed response to the viral outbreak that showed "reckless disregard" for the health and safety of Americans.
He was preoccupied from the outset with the performance of the stock market, and afraid to confront the crisis head on for fear it would cause markets to decline and damage his re-election hopes, Harris said.
"Donald Trump has failed at the most basic and important job of a president of the United States. He failed to protect the American people, plain and simple ... it's his duty to protect us, and he has failed — miserably."
Harris was the least of the many distractions threatening to pull focus away from Trump's big moment.
Hurricane Laura roared ashore in Louisiana overnight as a category-4 storm, while 1,800 kilometres due north, protesters again took to the streets in the Wisconsin city of Kenosha in the name of Jacob Blake, a Black father of three who was shot seven times in the back by police.
There, authorities also say a 17-year-old gunman who admired police killed two demonstrators and injured a third — shootings captured on video posted online.
Trump acknowledged the violence and unrest in Wisconsin, but only in the context of promoting his law-and-order mantra, again depicting Biden as a doddering Democratic puppet of the "radical left" whose party would be powerless to re-establish calm on American streets. "I've done more for the Black community than Joe Biden has done in 47 years," he said.
Only Housing Secretary Ben Carson, the highest ranking Black American in the Trump administration, made direct reference to the Blake shooting.
"Our hearts go out to the Blake family," Carson said."This action deserves a serene response, one that steers away from the destruction of a community that moulded Jacob and his family into the kind of man his family and friends know today."
Harris, whose father is from Jamaica and mother from India, confirmed Thursday that she and Biden had visited Blake's family, hailing their "extraordinary courage" and promising to redouble efforts to address the deep-seated racial disparity underpinning the protests.
"The reality is that the life of a Black person in America has never been treated as fully human, and we have yet to fulfill that promise of equal justice under law," she said.
"We will only achieve that when we finally come together to pass meaningful police reform and broader criminal justice reform, and acknowledge — yes, acknowledge — and address systemic racism."
In solidarity, Milwaukee Bucks players refused to play their playoff game Wednesday, temporarily halting the NBA season. They were to resume on Friday. Three Major League Baseball games were delayed because players refused to take the field and several NFL teams cancelled their Thursday practices.
Also Thursday, Wisconsin Lutheran College cancelled a planned Saturday commencement speech by Vice-President Mike Pence, citing the unrest.
This report by The Canadian Press was first published Aug. 27, 2020.
Follow James McCarten on Twitter @CdnPressStyle
James McCarten, The Canadian Press