After Donald Trump’s acceptance speech before the majestic White House, followed by flaming fireworks around the Washington Monument, the attendees were treated to … opera?
Huh? Whatever happened to Fleetwood Mac?
Christopher Macchio’s rendition of “Nessun Dorma” was just the wrongest of many wrong notes on what should have been a triumphant evening for the incumbent.
Let’s illuminate the parties’ twin failures at the quadrennial’s biggest happenings by posing two simple questions.
Question one: what is a convention acceptance speech supposed to be more like than any other political event?
Answer: a campaign rally!
Question two: who in American politics is the rally-master?
Need one really ask?
We get how the Democrats managed to mis-stage somnolent Joe Biden’s big moment – there’s so little to work with. But how could the president and his team so thoroughly mess up his?
Especially given amazing opening acts including compelling personal stories from people of all colors and political persuasions. (Alice Johnson, whose outrageous sentence Trump commuted as a prelude to prison reform, was alone worth the price of admission.)
The fantastic setting.
And one spectacular advantage for Trump over his rival: a crowd willing, waiting and wanting to whoop it up.
In such a circumstance, no one’s more capable than The Donald of tossing the faithful raw, red meat.
Shockingly, the president and his team served up boeuf bourguignon: an acceptance that was way too long and lofty, went way too late (past EDT primetime, breaking a cardinal rule of politics) and featured way, way too little of the Real Trump.
Daughter Ivanka didn’t do dad any favors with an overdone, pancake-flat warmup that – chip-off-the-old-block – seemed more about her than him. When she finally gave way to him, there was the awkward, extended stroll down by the president and first lady – and painfully long, stiff wait for “God Bless the USA” to be over.
After that, the real problems started. The nominee was prepared a speech laden with uplifting phraseology and stinging substance. Great: if we’re talking Reagan, Clinton or Obama.
But we’re not. This president is at his best when he playfully employs his written text almost as a foil – not a shackle. As a reality TV performer used to winging it, Trump’s most effective when he shares part of his text, and then comments on it (especially when he actually takes issue with it).
Reading straight up? To say, when he goes that route, that POTUS sounds like he’s reciting from the phone book is a pointed reminder of why there are no more phone books.
Which is a shame, because there was much to appreciate about the written speech. Starting with its optimistic opening, including delicious and pointed political anti-correctness invoking prior leaders who have become, for one reason or another, pariahs: from warriors TR, Grant and Jackson to slave-owner Jefferson to Japanese imprisoner FDR to racist Churchill.
Along with its clear presentation of first-term accomplishments – punctuated by one of the night’s few effectively delivered lines about “breaking the cardinal rule of Washington politics: I kept my promises.”
There was the sharp contrast with the opposition and brutally effective takedown of their standard-bearer for self-promotion at the expense of everyday Americans – and siding with “anarchists, agitators, rioters, looters, and flag-burners” over law and order. Money line: “Biden’s record is a shameful roll call of the most catastrophic betrayals and blunders in our lifetime,” including votes or stances on trade agreements, immigration, terrorism, and especially China.
Along with a convincing parry of Biden’s efforts to blame Trump for the COVID crisis. And oh, yeah: as this commentator predicted, a mocking of the veepster’s “claim to be an ‘ally of the light’ when his own party can’t even keep the lights on.”
But where the text converged with Trump in disappointing was the failure to punchily demarcate the bombshell second-term agenda introduced to open the convo.
It’s not only a tremendous encore, it’s chockfull of simple, evocative Trump-ish terminology: “Create 10 Million Jobs and 1 Million Small Businesses.” “Eradicate COVID.” “Return to Normal in 2021.” “Bring Back 1 Million Manufacturing Jobs from China.” “Hold China Fully Accountable for Allowing the Virus to Spread Around the World.” “Drain the Swamp.” “Defend Our Police.” “End Illegal Immigration and Protect American Workers.” “Build the World’s Greatest Infrastructure System.”
Whoomp! There it is!
Yes, the sentiments were all in the speech. But almost as an afterthought, an interstice — not a centerpiece. And in sleepy, State of the Union-like laundry lists, not taut, bold pronouncements. (It’s no coincidence that the speech was also unduly lengthened by SOTU-style shoutouts to special guests.)
Finally, the close: when the president partly lumbered, partly slumbered through his soliloquy, were you convinced that “Together, we are unbeatable.” Or did you feel beaten down by the length and lack of energy?
In the end – and at the end – Trump’s speech was no rallying of troops, but rather a party-poop of powerful pledges punily presented, a snoozefest of smart smackdowns and sunny assertions, sadly subdued. Mayhap the messaging can be delivered over the coming months with more sharp, clarion tones – and fewer wrong notes.
Bob Maistros, a messaging and communications strategist and crisis specialist, is of counsel with Strategic Action Public Affairs, and was chief writer for the Reagan-Bush ’84 campaign, three U.S. Senators, and the U.S. Chamber of Commerce. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.