Republican Convention Stressed ‘Law and Order,’ But Some Events Were ‘Dubious in Legality’

Some sequences from last week’s convention may have violated the Hatch Act, according to GSPM’s Todd Belt.

image of GOP elephant
August 31, 2020

By Ruth Steinhardt

This year’s virtual Republican National Convention wrapped up last week with the official nomination of incumbent President Donald Trump, who delivered his acceptance speech Thursday night.

Compared to the (also all-virtual) DNC, the latest convention felt less innovative, said Todd Belt, director of the political management program at the George Washington University Graduate School of Political Management. And the nontraditional segments, like a fireworks show held on the White House’s South Lawn, may have violated federal ethics law. GW Today spoke to Dr. Belt about the convention’s highlights and the way Republicans have chosen to frame the presidential contest.

Q: What do you think was the overarching message to voters at this RNC?

A: The speakers at the convention did their best to soften the image of the president—discussing his empathy and caring with personal anecdotes. The other message was that a Joe Biden presidency would result in a loss of law and order and an even worse economy.

Q: Which sequences or speakers stood out?

A: Several. The pardoning of a convicted felon, the naturalization ceremony and the presidential Q&A with former hostages were all memorable but dubious in legality given the restrictions of the Hatch Act (although the president and vice president are not covered, others are in their official duties, and so is government property). First Lady Melania Trump’s speech and the speech by Sen. Tim Scott (R-S.C.) seemed to get the most positive comments.

Q: Compared to the DNC, how did the RNC utilize the virtual format?

A: For the most part, the RNC just put normal convention speeches and activity online. In contrast, the DNC really embraced and adapted to the intimacy of the medium to communicate directly with voters.

Q: Did the RNC address last week's context—escalating violence at protests, the approach of Hurricane Laura, the ongoing COVID-19 crisis and so on? How so?

A: Hurricane Laura was barely mentioned (only in the president’s prelude to his acceptance speech). The COVID-19 crisis was only addressed sporadically, mostly in the context of the travel ban on China and in comments from Vice President Mike Pence regarding how the president marshalled national resources. Otherwise, the RNC steered clear of this weak point for the president (although when they mentioned it, they made sure to call it the “China virus”). Violent protest and looting were a cornerstone of the RNC message about what a Biden presidency would bring, in contrast to the law and order that could be expected with a second term for President Trump.

Q: How did Donald Trump present himself as a candidate?

A: Although the president made a few cameos on other nights, his speech was very long and a bit boring. His reading off the teleprompter in the 90-degree August heat could only be described using his own term: “low energy.”

Q: Now that the conventions are over, what do you expect to see from the candidates going forward?

A: I think both campaigns are waging a war for the suburbs, and that came through in their messaging. Be on the lookout for messaging in the coming ad war and the debates that begin in about a month.

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GSPM’s Todd Belt said this year’s virtual convention was “effective and a sign of things to come.”