Democratic and Republican Conventions Offer Two Dark Visions of America

Amid an unusual virtual setting imposed by the COVID-19 outbreak, Democrats and Republicans held their national conventions and made their pitches to voters in the final stretch before election day on November 3rd. Voters will have a stark choice to make between two visions of America exemplified by the incumbent Republican President Donald Trump and his Democratic challenger, former Vice President Joe Biden. The conventions clarified the candidates’ electoral strategies and their plans for two vastly different administrations.

A common attribute of both conventions is the focus on the incumbent president. The Republican Party (or the Grand Old Party, GOP) elevated Trump to a status of accomplishments that, in reality, he did not achieve during his presidency. The Democratic National Committee (DNC) communicated to voters in every choregraphed move why Trump should not be their choice.

When it comes to the Middle East, the conventions were a reminder of what is at stake for US foreign policy if Trump wins a second term or if Biden pulls an upset. Both candidates painted a dark and pessimistic picture of the country if they lose the election, which was an unusual and gloomy message in an election year. Trump said the following about his rival: “Joe Biden is not a savior of America’s soul. He is the destroyer of America’s jobs, and if given the chance, he will be the destroyer of American greatness.” For his part, the Democratic candidate affirmed that “the current president has cloaked America in darkness for much too long … If you entrust me with the presidency, I will draw on the best of us, not the worst. I will be an ally of the light, not the darkness.”

The GOP Convention: Alternative Reality and White Nationalism

The GOP convention, held on August 24-27, managed to promote and feed a narrative meant to energize Trump’s electoral base; hence the event was successful based on this particular criterion. There were five overarching trends and themes in the GOP convention that reflect the Republican presidential campaign’s posture in American politics: a politicization of governance, a robust propaganda machine, a declining populism, a reemphasis of white nationalism, and an invigoration of the personality cult.

Although mixing governance and policy with campaigning has been a hallmark of Trump’s first term, this latest version brandished in the GOP convention was a bridge too far.

First, although mixing governance and policy with campaigning has been a hallmark of Trump’s first term, this latest version brandished in the GOP convention was a bridge too far. Trump’s decision to leverage his presidential powers and politicize the US administration along partisan lines is a clear break from the long-held traditions of American politics. While former Presidents Jimmy Carter and Ronald Reagan announced their reelection bids from the Oval Office, Trump set a new precedent when he accepted the second nomination of the Republican Party before a crowd of supporters on the south lawn of the White House as well as issued a surprise pardon for a convicted bank robber from the Blue Room in a staged reality show production. Moreover, two cabinet secretaries delivered speeches at the convention, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo and Secretary of Housing and Urban Development Ben Carson, which also sets a precedent and is a violation of the Hatch Act that prohibits federal employees from playing a partisan political role.

Second, the propaganda machine was in full force during the GOP convention. President Trump’s claims about Biden earned fact checks by the media, with examples such as “if you give power to Joe Biden, the radical left will defund police departments all across America.” Vice President Mike Pence wrongfully said that Biden endorses defunding police and would open borders to immigration. White House economic advisor Larry Kudlow spoke about the coronavirus in the past tense and claimed that “presidential leadership came swiftly and effectively” and mounted an “extraordinary rescue to health and safety to successfully fight the covid virus”—while the infection cases in the United States have now surpassed six million with over 183,000 dead. The speeches delivered represented a revisionist account of how Trump’s presidency actually handled the pandemic.

Third, the GOP convention confirmed a recalibration of Trump’s populist agenda that marked the 2016 convention. Beyond calling the White House “the people’s house,” Republicans had a modified populist message in their 2020 convention. The conservative National Review observed in an editorial that “the campaign statement appears to suggest that the platform is Trump himself.” In 2020, Trump relinquished the 2016 epithets like “build the wall” and “drain the swamp” and endorsed new slogans like “law and order,” which appeals to the base without necessarily provoking swing voters. Trump used most of his first term seeking to advance this populist agenda and it seems there is a late realization in the Trump White House that this approach leads to friction with Republicans and carries great political risk when election time comes. The trade war with China might be the major surviving populist policy because it appeals to “rust belt” voters or the once powerful industrial areas in Pennsylvania, Ohio, Michigan, and Wisconsin.

Fourth, the white nationalism charm offensive was both implicit and explicit in coded messages during the GOP convention and has become a cornerstone of Trump’s campaign, compared to 2016. This was triggered by the recent racial tensions in the country which the president seems keen to turn into a political opportunity. The first night’s lineup of speakers included Mark and Patricia McCloskey, who threatened Black Lives Matter protesters with guns in June, and their speech included accusations that Biden wants to “abolish the suburbs.” The president’s son, Donald Jr., claimed during his speech that the election is a choice between Trump’s “church, work, and school” and Biden’s “rioting, looting and vandalism.” Florida Republican Representative Matt Gaetz warned of the dangers of Biden, claiming he would take Americans’ guns away and empty prisons, adding, “we must fight to save America now or we may lose her forever.”

The personality cult is central to the GOP strategy in presenting Trump as an empathetic and strong leader who will protect America’s way of life, which echoes the 2016 slogan of “I alone can fix it.”

Lastly, the personality cult is central to the GOP strategy in presenting Trump as an empathetic and strong leader who will protect America’s way of life, which echoes the 2016 slogan of “I alone can fix it” (in reference to the US political system). This approach is emblematic of a style of authoritarian regimes that idealizes the leader’s persona and demonizes political rivals. The Republican Party declined to deliberate a new policy platform and kept the outdated 2016 version while pledging, instead, to “continue to enthusiastically support the President’s America-first agenda.”

The DNC Convention: A Fragile Unity and a Referendum on Trump

The August 17-20 Democratic convention’s core message was to draw a clear contrast between Joe Biden and the incumbent president and to make the election a referendum on Trump himself. Democrats argued that their candidate is all that Trump is not, primarily regarding personal attributes and leadership skills. Biden’s running mate, Senator Kamala Harris, made history by becoming the first Black woman and first person of Indian descent to be nominated to a national ticket for a major party. While she succeeded in introducing herself on the national stage, it is not clear yet how she will help Biden in energizing the Democratic Party base.

There were five overarching characteristics that marked the DNC convention: a coronavirus-centered message, a focus on character rather than policy, an exaggeration of facts, demographic diversity, and a fragile party unity.

First, it was clear that the Democratic campaign wants to hit Trump where it hurts in the polls: how his administration has handled the coronavirus outbreak. Biden summed up this argument in his acceptance speech: “Our current president has failed in his most basic duty to the nation. He failed to protect us. He failed to protect America. And, my fellow Americans, that is unforgivable.”

Second, the focus was on Biden’s moral character, faith, decency, and empathy rather than on where he stands on the issues. Former President Barack Obama, who proved once again his strength in the Democratic Party, made Biden’s case, saying that Trump showed “no interest in treating the presidency as anything but one more reality show that he can use to get the attention he craves.” Democrats believe they have a case to win on character rather than by engaging on policy with an incumbent president who focuses on soundbites and tweets.

Third, speakers at the DNC convention exaggerated facts regarding Trump’s policies on social security and the media fact-checked Biden’s statement on unemployment and small businesses. The Democratic candidate amplified Trump’s threat and his own impact if elected: “If this president is re-elected we know what will happen. Cases and deaths will remain far too high. More mom and pop businesses will close their doors for good. Working families will struggle to get by.”

Fourth, the strength of the DNC convention was in the diversity among delegates and speakers representing the country’s demographics. This stood in contrast to the Republican convention that was dominated by older white men. The Biden campaign also actively focused on the ability to work across the aisle with moderate Republicans and appealed to independents; however, the case they made for why American should vote for Biden remained weak.

While Democrats are giving the impression of unity to defeat Trump, there are underlying challenges that persist.

Fifth, while Democrats are giving the impression of unity to defeat Trump, there are underlying challenges that persist. Democratic leaders on the left of Biden, most notably Senator Bernie Sanders (I-Vermont) and Congresswoman Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (AOC; D-New York), did offer support for the Democratic candidate, though the convention has been criticized for giving AOC so little time to speak and not better utilizing her skill set and large base of support. “Settle for Biden,” which is a grassroots group of supporters of Sanders and Senator Elizabeth Warren (D-Massachusetts) “who recognize Joe Biden’s flaws but know that our nation will not survive four more years of Donald Trump,” shows an enthusiasm among progressives to defeat Trump, rather than elect Biden. On paper, progressives conceded to Biden and reached a consensus on the platform, but it is not clear how long this truce will hold.

Policy Platforms: Foreign Policy and the Middle East

The Republican convention did not release a 2020 platform, citing the reasons as “strict restrictions on gathering and meetings”; hence they have delayed adopting a new platform until the 2024 convention. Instead, the GOP issued a short resolution that had a simple objective of asserting that any attempt to amend the 2016 platform or adopt a new platform “will be ruled out of order.”

The Trump campaign released a plan highlighting the “core priorities for a second term,” which constitutes a concise set of headlines with no clear details but rather a continuation of Trump’s first term. Under the “America First Foreign Policy” section, the Trump campaign set the priorities as follows: “Stop Endless Wars and Bring Our Troops Home/ Get Allies to Pay their Fair Share/ Maintain and Expand America’s Unrivaled Military Strength/ Wipe Out Global Terrorists Who Threaten to Harm Americans/ Build a Great Cybersecurity Defense System and Missile Defense System.”

The foreign policy speeches delivered during the convention were meant to showcase that Trump is tougher than Biden on China and Iran and is a stronger supporter of Israel. Pompeo recorded his convention speech with Jerusalem as his backdrop during an official trip to the Middle East, reminding evangelical voters that the Trump Administration moved the US embassy there from Tel Aviv. Former US Ambassador to the United Nations Nikki Haley argued that Biden is “a godsend to everyone who wants America to apologize, abstain and abandon our values. Donald Trump takes a different approach. He’s tough on China, and he took on ISIS and won, and he tells the world what it needs to hear.”

In return, the 2020 Democratic Party Platform was a rebuke of the incumbent president, mentioning Trump and his administration 114 times and highlighting the threats he poses to the United States’ relationships internationally. The platform shows a movement to the left on foreign policy more than on domestic policy. The Democrats’ arguments included the following: “Rather than advance our interests and values in a more competitive world, President Trump has retreated—allowing our adversaries to fill the void…” and “Rather than end our forever wars, he’s brought us to the brink of new conflicts, and further militarized our foreign policy.”

The platform echoed the rhetoric of Bernie Sanders by criticizing how Trump “fawned over autocrats, sent love letters to despots, sided with dictators over peaceful protestors.” Expectedly, it returned to the traditional liberal foreign policy of endorsing human rights, joining international organizations, and providing foreign aid—three priorities that were all abolished in Trump’s first term. Another indication of the left’s growing influence on the foreign policy section of the platform is the talk about rationalizing the US “defense budget.”

On the Middle East, Democrats pledged in their platform to “end support for the Saudi-led war in Yemen and help bring the war to an end” and argued that the United States “should support diplomatic efforts—not block them.” Democrats picked three Middle East issues to focus on: Iran, the Gulf countries, and the Palestinian-Israeli conflict. They prioritized “nuclear diplomacy, de-escalation, and regional dialogue” by rejecting regime change in Iran and restoring the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action; however, they agreed with the Trump Administration to address Tehran’s “regional aggression, ballistic missile program, and domestic repression” without offering a roadmap to achieve these objectives.

Democrats also called for a “reset” for US relations with Gulf countries, with the goal to “support their political and economic modernization and encourage efforts to reduce regional tensions. But we have no interest in continuing the blank-check era of the Trump Administration, or indulging authoritarian impulses, internal rivalries, catastrophic proxy wars, or efforts to roll back political openings across the region.” The tough tone is coupled with urging Gulf allies to step up their role in Iraq as Democrats hope to continue to cut the number of US troops in Iraq and Syria and rely on local partners instead. Democrats committed to support “diplomacy to protect the humanitarian needs of all Syrians and find a political resolution for this horrific war”—without mentioning US sanctions on the Syrian regime or how this approach would shape US policy in Syria. Interestingly, the platform did not mention the warming Gulf relations with Israel, which means the Democrats are avoiding either praise or criticism of this approach of building an Arab-Israeli alliance against Iran.

On the Palestinian-Israeli conflict, Democrats attempted to strike a balance between the views of the left and the center on this issue that is important for American Jewish voters. The DNC platform stressed “commitment to Israel’s security, its qualitative military edge, its right to defend itself” while recognizing “the worth of every Israeli and every Palestinian.” Democrats pledged “to support a negotiated two-state solution” while opposing “any unilateral steps by either side—including annexation—that undermine prospects for two states.”

The Biden campaign also issued a “Plan for Partnership” with the Arab American community, which emphasized restoring immigration and refugee rights, defending civil rights, and championing democracy and human rights globally. It also mentioned the need to “address the ongoing humanitarian crisis in Gaza,” “reopen the U.S. consulate in East Jerusalem, and work to reopen the PLO mission in Washington.” The plan also promised to assist the Lebanese people “as they develop and implement an economic and political future for their country, free of corruption, and inclusive of all stakeholders,” while emphasizing help for Syria on humanitarian issues.

At the end of the day, both candidates did what they were supposed to do to boost their chances to win, but the conventions were not game changers. 

At the end of the day, both candidates did what they were supposed to do to boost their chances to win, but the conventions were not game changers. Post-convention polls are not clear yet, and even contradictory, on their electoral impact. An Emerson College poll released on August 31st showed the race was tightening, with Biden leading by two points only, while another poll by Morning Consult released on September 1st indicated that Biden leads by eight points and still has an edge in swing states. Overall, the race is expected to become more competitive in the final stretch, most notably after the virtual presidential debates.

The GOP convention primarily tailored messages for Trump’s loyal base but also tried to make inroads among African American and suburban swing voters who are mostly white working class and women. The attempt to reach out to these constituencies reflects a messaging contradiction that might bewilder some voters. Republicans seem to be using the strategy that was devised in the previously likely scenario of Trump facing Senator Bernie Sanders—rather than the actual Democratic Party nominee, Joe Biden—hinting that the “radical left” is in control of the Democratic Party. This tactic might be helpful to rally Trump’s base, but it will not have an impact on independent and moderate Republicans leaning to vote for Biden nor on the leftists who remain on the fence. Biden’s argument is that solving America’s problems can only begin with defeating Trump, without offering a fully planned roadmap for his victory. The Democratic candidate had a cautious approach in the convention, with the aim of maintaining his edge in the polls rather than switching to an ambitious and riskier campaign.

Joe Macaron is a Resident Fellow at Arab Center Washington DC. To learn more about Joe and read his previous publications click here

ACW Research and Analysis Intern Alainna Liloia contributed to the research of this paper.