Republican National Convention kicks off with a near spiritual devotion to Trump

Key Points
  • The first night of the Republican National Convention was notable for the lavish, devotional praise that speakers heaped on the president. 
  • "President Trump believes in you. He emancipates and lifts you up to live your American Dream!" said Trump campaign aide Kimberly Guilfoyle.
  • Late in the night, speeches by former South Carolina Gov. Nikki Haley and South Carolina Sen. Tim Scott turned the focus away from Trump and toward Democrat Joe Biden. 
U.S. President Donald Trump departs after addressing the first day of the Republican National Convention after delegates voted to confirm him as the Republican 2020 presidential nominee for reelection in Charlotte, North Carolina, August 24, 2020.
Leah Millis | Reuters

WASHINGTON — The first night of the virtual Republican National Convention featured more than a dozen speakers. And while the GOP had fewer celebrities and fun backdrops than Democrats had last week, the evening technically went off without a hitch. 

Trump himself only appeared on camera twice over the course of the night. But that didn't really matter, because Trump was everywhere. For two hours, speaker after speaker described the president in near-messianic terms, as a savior, a guide and a martyr. 

It was only during the last three speeches, those of Donald Trump Jr., former South Carolina Gov. Nikki Haley and South Carolina Sen. Tim Scott, that the focus really shifted from Trump to Democrat Joe Biden and the election in November. 

Lavish praise for Trump 

If there was a unifying theme for the convention's first night, it was the lavish, devotional praise that speakers heaped on the president. 

 "Mr. President, you've done so much more than promises made and promises kept," said Natalie Harp, a woman fighting cancer who has benefited from a "Right to Try" bill passed with bipartisan support by Congress. "You have used your strength to make America strong again. Sacrificed the life you built to make America proud again. And risked everything to make America safe again."

Cancer survivor and Right to Try advocate Natalie Harp speaks during the largely virtual 2020 Republican National Convention broadcast from Washington, U.S. August 24, 2020.
Republican National Convention | via Reuters

Pennsylvania GOP House candidate Sean Parnell spoke of Trump as a sort of savior. "Mr. President, lead the way. Millions in our American family believe in this path to destiny. Guide us to that horizon!"

"I love the President's intensity and his willingness to fight. But what I also appreciate is something most Americans never see — how much he truly cares about people," said Ohio Rep. Jim Jordan, one of Trump's most ardent backers in Congress.

"I pray every night, 'God, give him some more time. Give him four more years.' He has accomplished so much, almost all by himself and under constant attack," said former NFL player Herschel Walker.

Trump campaign fundraiser Kimberly Guilfoyle: This election is a battle for the soul of America

Other speakers were more subtle, like Georgia Democratic state Rep. Vernon Jones, who built his speech around a refrain of  "Donald Trump did that." 

But there was no single issue that speakers addressed over and over, such as national security or the economy. Instead, issues ranged from gun control, to medical experiments, to telehealth for Covid-19, to hostage return, to Cuba. 

It felt at times like a convention for an audience of one, with several of the speakers addressing Trump directly through the television to praise him. For Trump, a president who loves compliments and loathes criticism, the night should have satisfied his craving for adulation.

Kimberly Guilfoyle, the National Chair of the "Trump Victory Finance Committee" and girlfriend of Donald Trump Jr., delivers a pre-recorded speech to the largely virtual 2020 Republican National Convention, from Washington, U.S., August 24, 2020.
Kevin Lemarque | Reuters

"President Trump believes in you. He emancipates and lifts you up to live your American Dream!" said Trump campaign aide Kimberly Guilfoyle. "You are capable. You are qualified. You are powerful. And you have the ability to choose your life, and determine your destiny!"

Guilfoyle, the girlfriend of Donald Trump Jr., gave an especially passionate speech, often shouting and raising her arms. But delivered in an empty Mellon Auditorium, as most of Monday's speeches were, Guilfoyle's speech at times bordered on the surreal.

A calmer finale 

It's typical at conventions for the emotional temperature of the speeches to rise steadily as the night goes on, with the most passionate reserved for the end of the night. But Monday night for the GOP was the opposite. 

Speaking third to last, Trump son Donald Jr. shifted the focus onto Biden with a memorable Trumpian insult, calling Biden "the Loch Ness monster of the swamp." 

The last two speakers, former South Carolina Gov. Nikki Haley and South Carolina Sen. Tim Scott, gave the most measured speeches of the night. 

Haley, widely seen as a front-runner to lead the Republican Party into a post-Trump era, whenever that day comes, spoke more about her own experience and about Biden than she did about Trump himself. 

Former U.N. ambassador Nikki Haley: Biden and the socialist left would be a disaster for our economy

And rather than talk about the president and the election with the same spiritual zeal as earlier speakers, when she reached the point in her speech where she endorsed Trump, Haley said simply, "President Trump and Vice President Pence have my support." 

Scott, likewise, spent most of his speech on more traditional themes of his own biography and the dangers of electing the other guy.

And while he was complimentary of Trump, when it came time for the endorsement line of his speech near the end, Scott, like Haley, did not go all in like earlier speakers did.

"Supporting the Republican ticket gives you the best chance of making [the American dream] a reality," said Scott, the only African American Republican in the Senate. 

U.S. Senator Tim Scott (R-SC) waits to speak to the largely virtual 2020 Republican National Convention in a live address from the Mellon Auditorium in Washington, U.S., August 24, 2020.
Kevin Lemarque | Reuters

The difference between Scott and Haley, versus everyone else who spoke on Monday, is that Scott and Haley are the only two speakers who haven't embraced Trump so tightly that they face no real political future without him. 

But expect people like Haley and Scott to be exceptions this week, not the norm. The GOP is Trump's party in every sense of the word, and Monday only proved that the convention will be, too. 

Anyone who questions where the GOP is today need look no further than the party's platform, or more accurately, it's non-platform. 

For the first time in recent memory, the Republican National Committee did not adopt a party platform, instead issuing a resolution about how much the party supports Trump. 

It reads in part, "Had the Platform Committee been able to convene in 2020, [it] would have undoubtedly unanimously agreed to reassert the Party's strong support for President Donald Trump and his Administration." 

Thereby, the committee resolved, "That the Republican Party has and will continue to enthusiastically support the President's America-first agenda," and "That the 2020 Republican National Convention will adjourn without adopting a new platform."