It was not until the final speech of the second night of the Republican National Convention that someone directly brought up the deaths suffered during the coronavirus pandemic.
“I want to acknowledge the fact that since March, our lives have changed drastically,” first lady Melania Trump said from the White House’s Rose Garden on Tuesday night. “The invisible enemy, COVID-19, swept across our beautiful country and impacted all of us. My deepest sympathy goes out to everyone who has lost a loved one, and my prayers are with those who are ill or suffering. I know many people are anxious, and some feel helpless. I want you to know, you are not alone.”
Her speech stood out on a night, and in a convention, where the pandemic has otherwise been alluded to as a thing of the past. Over the first two nights, Republicans’ message to Americans after six months of a failed pandemic response has come down to this plea: Ignore reality. Trust President Donald Trump.
In the party’s messaging, people who agonized as they waited for a ventilator in the early phases of the pandemic did not, in fact, suffer — ventilators got to the hospitals that needed them most, the president’s oldest son falsely said Monday night. The president did not sow confusion about masks, treatments, and the severity of the virus — he took decisive action from the outset, several speakers said. Businesses may still be struggling to survive and the economy may have suffered unprecedented job loss, but it'll ultimately be fine — Trump will just fix it again.
These claims distort the truth: There have been almost 6 million reported coronavirus cases in America, and many more people who have been unable to get tested. Almost 180,000 Americans are reported to have died due to the coronavirus, more than anywhere else in the world. These numbers have not yet been mentioned at the RNC. Instead, Republicans this week insist that with Trump, as his son Donald Trump Jr.’s girlfriend, Kimberly Guilfoyle, roared Monday night, “The best is yet to come.”
The pandemic has been glossed over as a temporary blip in Trump’s presidency, the fault of a foreign government, a bump in the road that will soon end. The convention’s speakers and videos have engaged in a widespread revisionist history of how Trump led the nation, casting him as the hero of a story that, in reality, is still being fought by nurses in hospital rooms, by seniors struggling and isolated, by parents who are working and homeschooling children at the same time, by restaurant waiters risking exposure from unmasked patrons so they can make rent, by paramedics and transit workers who crisscrossed the streets of major cities transporting people struggling to breathe.
As the Republicans lavish praise on Trump at the RNC, these Americans are barely mentioned, aside from a video with the president and essential workers that aired Monday and when Melania Trump touched on the earlier days of the crisis, thanking first responders and essential workers for taking on risk and putting "our country first."
Instead, at this week’s Republican National Convention, now halfway over, the US struggle to contain and combat the coronavirus has been hailed as a success story with White House aides like Larry Kudlow referring to an ongoing pandemic in the past tense.
“Then came a once-in-100-year pandemic,” Kudlow said, on the second night of the convention, as if to suggest that Americans were dying a decade ago, instead of the roughly 960 people currently dying of COVID-19 a day in the US. “It was awful,” he continued. “Health and economic impacts were tragic, hardship and heartbreak were everywhere, but presidential leadership came swiftly and effectively with an extraordinary rescue for health and safety to successfully fight the COVID virus.”
Kudlow, and speakers who raised the virus before him on Monday and Tuesday, emphasized the passing economic hardships of the crisis, with a focus on small businesses that have been able to survive thanks to federal aid that is now running out. Cissie Graham Lynch, the granddaughter of Billy Graham, brought up the pandemic chiefly to blame Democrats for boxing in religious liberty. "Even during the pandemic, we saw how quickly life could change. Some Democrat leaders banned church services while marijuana shops and abortion clinics were declared ‘essential,’" she said.
The tone of the RNC matches Trump’s newly released second-term agenda, which promises a COVID-19 vaccine by the end of this year and a “Return to Normal in 2021,” without explaining how the country gets from here to there.
During the first night of the convention, Americans heard from a nurse who extolled telehealth, something Trump himself has frequently raised as a key success in his response to the coronavirus. A cancer survivor said without Trump’s decision to block travel from China earlier this year, “millions would’ve died,” even though much of the initial coronavirus spread in the northeast ultimately was tied to Europe. “The pandemic has set us back, but not for long,” former US ambassador to the UN Nikki Haley said, asserting that Trump “brought our economy back before, and he will bring it back again,” even as struggling businesses around the country wait while Congress and the White House fail to come to a deal on more economic aid.
As the convention’s only medical expert so far, the party rolled out Louisiana-based oral surgeon Ghali Elias Ghali on Monday. Ghali, who specializes in cleft palate surgeries, praised the FDA's highly criticized emergency authorization of convalescent plasma, which came amid pressure from Trump, and the FDA's emergency authorization of the drug remdesivir. Unmentioned was Trump’s continued monthslong promotion of hydroxychloroquine, allegations that his administration put political pressure to authorize the drug to treat hospitalized patients, or the fact that the health agency later revoked its authorization, citing studies showing that hydroxychloroquine was "unlikely to be effective in treating COVID-19" and that it was linked to "serious cardiac adverse events and other serious side effects."
Trump, in a segment on the first night with coronavirus first responders, brought up hydroxychloroquine himself.
"I won't ask you about the hydroxychloroquine," Trump said, during a prerecorded video where he spoke to someone who had been sick with COVID-19 for 10 days and asked how he’d been treated. "It's a shame what they've done to that one."
The way the convention has handled the pandemic is radically different from what Democrats did during their convention last week, when they repeatedly raised problems with Trump’s response as part of their case against his presidency. But for at least some Trump supporters, pretending the virus isn’t the dominant force in American life right now isn’t unwelcome.
“Yeah, I'm tired of hearing about COVID,” Sara Hollman told BuzzFeed News as she waited with hundreds of other supporters to catch a glimpse of the president’s motorcade along Louis Industrial Drive in Old Forge, Pennsylvania, last week. “I want the country to open back up. I want to get back to normal. We have to live with this stuff so we need to start now.”
Pandemic fatigue seemed to be popular among the Trump supporters BuzzFeed News spoke with at Thursday’s Pennsylvania campaign stop. Some said they or their family members weren’t personally impacted by the coronavirus. Many of them were maskless standing within inches of one another.
“I don't want to hear a whole convention about corona,” supporter Tom Connors said at the rally. “I don't want to hear a whole night about coronavirus,” adding that he’s traveled since the March lockdowns to known hotspots and beaches. And while he was not wearing a mask at the time, despite explicit Pennsylvania mandates that require face coverings, he said “we take precautions where necessary.”
On Monday, ahead of the convention, the Trump campaign said the convention would “certainly” discuss the coronavirus. But a statement from its spokesperson reiterated the same revisionary rhetoric the president has used in nearly every White House briefing on the topic.
“Americans have seen President Trump out front and leading the nation in the fight against the coronavirus,” Tim Murtaugh, Trump’s campaign communications director, told BuzzFeed News in a statement.
“We heard a lot about projected ventilator shortages in the early days, but the President was strategic about deploying our existing supplies and ramped up the production of new ventilators. As a result, no American who needed a ventilator was denied one,” he said, as if governors in the earlier stages of the pandemic never made public appeals for ventilators and doctors didn’t recount losing patients because of the lack of ventilators.
There are still two days left of the convention, and more speakers may add to Melania Trump’s nod to reality. But Trump, who will accept his party’s nomination at the convention’s close on Thursday night, has already clearly laid out his view. Americans are dying, he acknowledged in an interview with Axios at the beginning of the month. “It is what it is.”