Five takeaways from the second night of the RNC

Live, from the White House Rose Garden! Coming to you from a rooftop in Jerusalem! It’s the Republican National Convention!

Neither is your typical presidential campaign backdrop.

However, for an incumbent who doesn’t just break customs but rather grinds them to fine powder, it should hardly be surprising this unconventional convention would stray far from tradition and the usual political norms.

President Trump, the nation’s impresario in chief, promised the unexpected. Perhaps the biggest surprise, though, is how ordinary this convention — hit-and-miss speeches, slick videos, lots of flags and martial music — has seemed, save for those two controversial settings.

Here are five takeaways from the second night of the GOP convention.

Melania Trump’s moment

When First Lady Melania Trump stepped to a lectern bearing the presidential seal, she was assuming a traditional role as political helpmate and character witness for her spouse.

“In my husband, you have a president who will not stop fighting for you and your families,” she said. “I see how hard he works each day and night. And despite the unprecedented attacks from the media and opposition, he will not give up.”

It was a rare political speech by the first lady, who sounded notes seldom heard during the convention.

She offered sympathy to those who’ve lost a loved one to the COVID-19 pandemic. “My prayers are with those who are ill or suffering,” she said. “I want you to know you are not alone.”

She also showed more empathy than her husband — and most speakers — for those demonstrating against the country’s pervasive and stubborn racism.

“It is a harsh reality that we are not proud of parts of our history,” she said. “I encourage people to focus on our future while still learning from our past. We must remember that today we are all one community comprised of many races, religions and ethnicities.”

What made the moment stand out was less her words than the appearance at the White House and its brazen use as a campaign prop. (Trump, who looked on from a small, mask-less Rose Garden audience, intends to deliver his acceptance speech Thursday night before invited guests on the South Lawn.)

Four years ago, Melania Trump was found to have plagiarized her convention speech from one Michelle Obama delivered in 2008. This time, an advisor said, she wrote every word of her nearly half-hour address.

Shalom!

While a speech by the first lady has become a fairly standard part of the official program, an appearance by the secretary of State is not. (Foreign policy supposedly transcending politics, which supposedly halts at the water’s edge.)

That, however, did not stop Michael R. Pompeo from weighing in during an official State Department visit to Israel and delivering a partisan address.

In an appearance recorded before a night sky in Jerusalem, he echoed Trump’s attacks blaming China for the spread of the coronavirus, which has killed nearly 180,000 Americans, tanked the economy and gravely imperiled the president’s reelection. He offered a highly subjective tour d’horizon, praising the president’s overtures to North Korea and efforts — so far unavailing — to bring peace to the Middle East.

“Delivering on this duty to keep us safe and our freedoms intact, this president has led bold initiatives in nearly every corner of the world,” Pompeo said.

It was hardly the most startling or scintillating four minutes of programming. But it prompted a House investigation into whether Pompeo violated federal ethics laws, the latest in a long line of congressional inquiries that, in the past four years, have become a cottage industry.

Trump Inc.

Another night, more branches of the Trump family tree.

Two of the president’s less-visible offspring, Eric and Tiffany, took turns at the lectern before the first lady spoke, assailing Democrat Joe Biden and restating some familiar grievances.

Eric Trump called the former vice president “a career politician” and “total pushover for China” who’ll raise taxes, take away guns, undermine police and “give amnesty and healthcare to all illegal immigrants.”

Tiffany Trump assailed the media, a favorite presidential target. “Rather than allowing Americans the right to form their own beliefs,” she said, “this misinformation system keeps people mentally enslaved to the ideas they deem correct.”

Typically, most family members are treated at political conventions in Victorian fashion — seen, but not heard. They help form a fine tableau at the end, standing silently onstage when the balloons shower down. (Of course, in this mostly virtual convention there will be no balloon drop.)

But the Trump presidency has been a family enterprise like no other in modern times, with his daughter and son-in-law serving as senior White House advisors. (Both are slated to speak later this week, along with Eric’s wife, Lara. Donald Jr., and his girlfriend, Kimberly Guilfoyle, appeared Monday night.)

As a businessman, Trump affixed his name to just about everything imaginable: steaks, neckties, wine, bottled water and condominiums. It’s no surprise his convention would serve as another branding opportunity with the Trump name, characteristically, front and center.

The only thing missing was a commercial logo and 800 number.

Message: Trump cares

By tradition, the party in the White House holds its convention second, after the party seeking to oust the incumbent.

In effect, that gives Republicans an advantage as they have the chance to respond to Biden and the Democratic carpet-bombing of the president.

Much of the week’s counter-programming can be summed up thusly: Reelect Trump or America will become an ashen pit that makes the seventh circle of Hell seem like a day at the beach.

But there’s another point Republicans sought to make in direct rejoinder.

Much of the Democratic convention was spent depicting Biden as a caring and empathetic contrast to his purportedly unfeeling rival. The GOP responded with heart-tugging tales of its own: Trump consoling the family of a boy killed in a car crash. Trump visiting a hospitalized Republican congressman who was shot and nearly killed while playing softball. Trump, as a private businessman, helping fund a charity medical mission to Guatemala.

“I flew with him to Dover Air Force Base to honor two soldiers whose remains were coming from Afghanistan,” said Kentucky Sen. Rand Paul, a fierce Trump rival when the two ran against each other for the GOP nomination in 2016. “I’ll never forget that night. I can tell you the president not only felt the pain of these families but that the president is committed to ending this war.”

Watch what he does …

Let’s face it. Donald Trump has all the subtlety of a hammer to the kneecap.

For some, that’s a big part of his appeal. His pile-driving persona makes the president the antithesis of the stereotypical go-along-to-get-along, say-what-pleases-people politician.

There are also a great many put off by Trump’s belligerent behavior.

And then there are those in between, who may cringe at the way he talks and Tweets but like a lot of what Trump has accomplished, such as cutting taxes and stocking the federal bench with conservative judges.

To those who may be wavering, the convention has offered one of the more finely tuned messages, essentially saying, yeah, Trump may be crude and off-putting at times but it’s still OK to vote for him in November.

Of course, given the president’s tissue-thin skin, no one wants to come out and actually call him crude or off-putting, so they resort to other ways of describing him. He’s tough. He’s intense. He may not be the world’s best diplomat, but he gets things done.

“Whether you like it not, you always know what he’s thinking,” Melania Trump told her Rose Garden audience and millions of Americans listening across the country.

It may be subtle, but Republicans hope the message gets through.