Catch Up on 4 Key Moments From a Night of Norm-Busting

Jenny Medina: Well, there is a lot to digest. Thursday was perhaps the most polished night of the Republican convention, but the slickness was mostly used for elaborate attacks against Democrats — including some who aren’t even on the ballot this year. (Hello, bipartisan punching bag Mayor Bill de Blasio.) Of course, this is President Trump’s party. And if there were any chance you might forget that, his hourlong speech followed by a massive fireworks display — complete with “TRUMP 2020” spelled out in fireworks — was there to remind you.

But let’s step back from the flash for a second. The jarring scene from the South Lawn of the White House was unlike anything we’ve seen in American history. The columns were flanked by giant Trump-Pence logos. Forget the norm of trying to keep politics separate from the “People’s House” — this was Mr. Trump’s house. The seating arrangement, meanwhile, was like a scene from a pre-pandemic universe — roughly 1,500 people sitting cheek by jowl, almost entirely maskless, as if there were nothing to be worried about. (As several public health experts pointed out, cheering and shouting expel plenty of aerosolized droplets that can carry the coronavirus.)

Yet, even though the world has changed, so much of what we heard gave me a sense of déjà vu — attacks on socialism, “cancel culture,” violence in “Democrat-run” cities and, of course, illegal immigration. What stayed with you, Sydney?

Sydney Ember: There was a lot indeed! I am still recovering from what I am pretty sure was the biggest fireworks display I’ve ever seen in my life. What really struck me was President Trump’s speech, which was not really anything like those he gives — er, used to give, in the before times — at his rallies. He largely followed his prepared remarks, with just a few of his own rhetorical flourishes and riffs. He spent a lot of time attacking his rival, Joe Biden. Only at the end did he really get to what he wanted to accomplish if he is elected again.

Did I mention those fireworks?

Jenny: But of course, the fireworks weren’t even the finale — there was that mini-opera concert that followed. Quite the show for the reality showman turned president. Mr. Trump railed against what he deemed the “failed political class,” though presumably that included at least some members of the assembled audience. I think what this week has made clear — and Mr. Trump made it very clear Thursday night — is that we are in for a brutal and nasty campaign for the next nine weeks.

Sydney: One of the main (and dark) messages on Thursday night — something we’ve heard a lot over the course of the convention this week — was that America would not be safe under Mr. Biden. Numerous speakers suggested that the United States under Mr. Biden would crumble under violent riots. But we also heard how Mr. Biden would fail to keep the country safe from foreign threats.

Senator Tom Cotton of Arkansas put it especially bluntly: The country under Mr. Trump, he said, was “safer now than four years ago” whereas “Joe Biden would return us to a weak and dangerous past.” He was particularly cutting on Mr. Biden and China, though some of his claims were misleading. It all sounded pretty dire!

Jenny: Absolutely. Apart from President Trump, Senator Cotton perhaps presented the clearest example of how Republicans intend to campaign this fall: by trying to convince voters that they will be in clear danger if Mr. Biden is in the White House. He made the same case many other Republicans shouted, but did it in sotto voce.

They are betting that protests and any violence that follows will scare voters — especially the white suburban voters they need — back to the Republican Party. But it’s not an easy case to make amid a pandemic that has left 180,000 Americans dead. Mr. Cotton, though, sought to put the blame on the “Chinese Communists,” falsely claiming they “unleashed” the virus. (Requisite reminder: Mr. Cotton is widely thought to be eyeing his own presidential run in 2024.)

Sydney: In fact, Mr. Cotton’s speech was something of a preview of Mr. Trump’s remarks. When Mr. Trump got to his section on Mr. Biden and China, he said China would “own our country if Joe Biden got elected.” I suspect we’ll be hearing a lot more of these kinds of attacks from here on out.

Jenny: One of the most remarkable things this week was who was not speaking — no former Republican presidents, vice presidents or nominees for those posts, no former cabinet members, no Ted Cruz, no Bushes. That’s what made the cameo from Senator Mitch McConnell, the majority leader, more remarkable. His taped remarks were brief — the president of the Ultimate Fighting Championship was given more time — but he used the minutes he did have to focus on grim warnings, saying that “middle America” would be at risk if Democrats controlled the White House or the Senate. What did you think his appearance was meant to do?

Sydney: One thing was to remind voters that more was at stake in November than the presidency. Sure, you have the White House, Mr. McConnell seemed to suggest, but can I introduce you to the Senate? In particular, he warned Republicans that they could not afford to lose seats in the upper chamber. “We are the firewall against Nancy Pelosi’s agenda,” he said, referring to the Democratic speaker of the House. Indeed, Democrats are taking aim at several Senate seats across the country, including in Arizona, Iowa, North Carolina and Maine, to try to win control of the chamber.

Jenny: As Mr. McConnell well knows, Republicans have reason to be worried. Democratic candidates have raised hefty piles of money and polls suggest that many states Republicans once thought were safe may be at risk of flipping this fall. There may be a bit of a post-convention bounce for the G.O.P., but there is a lot of worry about losing up and down the ballot. And Mr. McConnell mocked the idea of turning “the swamp itself” (that would be Washington, D.C.) into its own state, which would lead to representation in Congress.

Sydney: Well! Rudy Giuliani certainly seemed to come in raring for a fight. From the first moments, he took aim at the city he used to lead, New York City. “My city is in shock,” he said. Why? To hear Mr. Giuliani tell it, Bill de Blasio, the current mayor of New York (and onetime Democratic presidential candidate), has allowed violent crime, riots and looting to infest the city’s streets. Say what you will about Mr. de Blasio, but New York has not been overwhelmed by crime.

It might seem like an odd choice for Mr. Giuliani to hit Mr. de Blasio. After all, the current mayor is not on the ballot this year. But it was all part of the Republicans’ strategy to tie Mr. Biden, a centrist, to his party’s liberal wing and to big-city elites. “Don’t let Democrats do to America what they have done to New York!” Mr. Giuliani declared, before warning that a vote for Mr. Biden would — you guessed it — make cities and towns across the country unsafe. How many times have we heard that this week?

Jenny: My counter stopped working. But can I just say, as a California resident, that I was a little surprised to see New York sustain all the criticism tonight. I almost felt left out! The other thing that is so striking is the way in which Mr. Giuliani has loomed so large in politics for so many decades — “America’s Mayor” after Sept. 11, remember that? Mr. Trump is trying to use Mr. Biden’s long time in Washington as a cudgel, but he has no problem with experience when it comes to Mr. Giuliani, his personal lawyer.

Sydney: It is true that Mr. Biden is no stranger to Washington. He was first elected to the Senate in 1972 at age 29, and he still to this day speaks fondly of his time there. But the blanket criticism is also of a piece with Mr. Trump’s 2016 pledge to “drain the swamp” — one that resonated with voters across the country who feel like the government does not work for them. Of course, now that Mr. Trump has spent four years in office, it’s a little harder for him to make the case that he is a political outsider.

Jenny: Of course, there was really one main event this week: President Trump’s acceptance speech. By now, we know how much Mr. Trump relishes his rallies, in arenas packed with thousands of supporters. But despite his initial attempts otherwise, the campaign has mostly abandoned them amid the still-staggering pandemic. So it’s easy to imagine that Mr. Trump was delighted to have several hundred friends waiting for his words on the South Lawn. They were ready to chant “Four more years” at all the right moments and laugh at the president’s jokes made at the expense of Mr. Biden. The most memorable aspect of the speech, though, was just how un-Trump it was. Do you think he landed any memorable lines?

Sydney: Admittedly, I thought he lacked some of his usual bombast. But some of his attacks on Mr. Biden were scorching, like when he called Mr. Biden’s record “a shameful roll call of the most catastrophic betrayals and blunders in our lifetime” or when he suggested that a pandemic-induced economic shutdown on Mr. Biden’s watch would lead to an increase in drug overdoses, depression and suicides. I would also note that Mr. Trump produced some revisionist history, particularly when touting his handling of the pandemic. Overall, though, his speech felt a bit low-energy. Even his typically rousing ending, in which he usually declares that he will “Make America Great Again,” seemed a bit deflated. But that is how some of his bigger speeches feel when he largely sticks to his script.

Jenny: Much of the ad-libbing came, again, in the form of attacks. His speech was packed with explicit attacks on Mr. Biden which, in tone and sheer volume, eclipsed those of any major party candidate in recent times. He would finish one set of attacks on Mr. Biden, move on briefly, and then return to slash Mr. Biden again. Conventional wisdom is that an election is a referendum on the incumbent, but Mr. Trump clearly wants to make this race about Mr. Biden. Throughout this week, we have heard very little mention of the pandemic and unrest over racism that is raging across the country. Instead, we have heard the most urgent warnings against a future Biden administration and a twisting of his record. To borrow a word from Mr. Trump’s speech, it is “profoundly” clear that the weeks leading up to the election will be, as he might say, nasty.