Political messaging in an abnormal time

The lead-up to a polarized 2020 presidential election is playing out in extraordinary circumstances prompted by the COVID-19 pandemic and continuing horrific instances of racial injustice.

Protesters took to the street again in Kenosha, Wisconsin, on Thursday night. (Photo credit: Getty Images)
Protesters took to the street again in Kenosha, Wisconsin, on Thursday night. (Photo credit: Getty Images)

The past fortnight has seen a political convention season play out unlike any other in history amid more scenes of social unrest that almost beggar belief in their egregiousness.

Let’s start with the politics.

Last week, the DNC kicked off the first virtual convention with a theme of Uniting America. This week, the RNC had a different theme for each of the four nights: Land of Promise, Land of Opportunity, Land of Heroes and Land of Greatness.

The production and presentation styles were very different but, in truth, both parties did a good job of adapting to the virtual environment.

At the DNC, the more intimate digital platform worked well with the fireside chat style of Michelle Obama’s session reaching out of the screen to viewers. At the RNC, the shouty speaking-in-capital-letters style of Kimberly Guilfoyle begged for a live crowd to respond to her big finish. Instead, there was an awkward silence.

On the other hand, on night one of the RNC Tim Scott and Nikki Haley came over very well with their considered arguments and effective messaging. Whereas at the DNC, the normally beloved emcee Julia Louis-Dreyfus was generally considered to have struck the wrong tone with her scripted attempts at humor at inappropriate points in the program. 

At the DNC, presidential nominee Joe Biden deliberately didn’t specifically mention President Trump’s name once in his speech, concentrating instead on creating a vision of a new America coming together across the political divide to build a better and more united future. A standout empathy moment was his interaction with 13-year-old fellow stutterer Brayden Harrington.

Over at the RNC, Biden’s name was exhorted in a constant drumbeat of negativity as speaker after speaker characterized him as a radical far-leftist, from the UFC’s Dana White to Vice President Mike Pence to Trump himself. This was personal and aimed at diminishing their electoral rival’s credibility in the eyes of the voting public.

Biden went big on pronouncing his first order of business as getting control of the health pandemic that has left more than 180,000 Americans dead and the whole population worried about what the next 12 months holds for them. President Trump didn’t mention the death toll and the overriding theme was that the coronavirus era was almost over. It was left to his wife Melania to remind viewers about the reality of COVID-19 and its impact on families throughout the U.S.  

Overall, there were hits and misses on both sides, just as there were in the live conventions that preceded these in previous times. But both parties adapted well at short notice to pivot to a virtual platform. 

In terms of respective TV ratings across the first three days, The Hollywood Reporter noted the RNC averaged 16.52 million viewers across the six networks, down 23% from 2016. The DNC was down a slightly smaller 21% in the equivalent period (19.57 million viewers vs. 24.74 million in 2016).

But, in truth, this is no longer an apples-to-apples comparison. Viewing habits have changed exponentially in those past four years, with younger people eschewing traditional TV viewing more than ever and the rise of streaming, catch-up, social media and bite-sized clips increasingly taking center stage, just like they have for the late-night talk shows. I sense that Trump’s digital media buys landed more adeptly for that segment of the audience, even if the messaging may have fallen on stony ground.

It was also somewhat ironic that the so-called bastion of fake news, CNN, carried on broadcasting live coverage of the RNC event on Monday night while two of Trump’s biggest acolytes and cheerleaders, Fox's Tucker Carlson and Sean Hannity, cut away from the live action to conduct their shows as usual with the convention in the background. This drew a frustrated tweet from former Trump campaign manager Brad Parscale and a rare positive thumbs-up for CNN on social media from Trump.

Another trend was fact checking by media outlets, especially during the RNC event. In such a febrile atmosphere, the level of misrepresentation of views has been lifted to another level. For anyone outside the U.S. to see someone like Biden, who would be regarded as a centrist in most other parts of the world, characterized as a Marxist is baffling.

Pat Lynch, president of the Police Benevolent Association who represents 50,000 active and retired New York Police Department officers – “The proud men and women who wear a shield on our chests and put ourselves in harm’s way to protect our city” – addressed the RNC and endorsed President Trump.

“Like cops all over the country,” he said, “we are staring down the barrel of a public safety disaster.” He characterized the Democrats as having slashed police budgets, given up on law and order and surrendered the streets.

There are many outstanding police officers who do their level best to live up to the force’s motto of “Courtesy. Professionalism. Respect.” But it is galling for New Yorkers who funded the NYPD to the tune of $10.9 billion in fiscal year 2020 – an astonishing amount of money by anyone’s standards – only to see other cops flashing white power signs, violently attacking innocent bystanders at Black Lives Matters protests and randomly pepper spraying and lashing out at marchers.

Lynch’s association declined to comment in a New York Times article about the egregious behavior, which was described by Bowling Green State University criminologist and former police officer Philip Stinson as “street justice” and “gratuitous acts of extrajudicial violence doled out by police officers on the street to teach somebody a lesson.”

Someone who was staring down the barrel of a police officer’s gun in Kenosha, Wisconsin, last Sunday was Jacob Blake, a Black man who was partially paralyzed after a white police officer shot him multiple times in the back in front of his children.

On night three of the RNC – “Land of Heroes” – VP Pence referred to subsequent protests in Kenosha and other parts of the U.S., proclaiming that “too many heroes have died defending our freedom to see Americans strike each other down.” He seemingly forgot to mention that the incident sparking the unrest in Wisconsin involved a white police officer who had struck down an unarmed Black man.

The protests in Kenosha also turned tragic Tuesday night when a 17-year-old white vigilante from out of state shot dead two protesters. Kyle Rittenhouse was charged with first-degree intentional homicide.

Video footage from the scene prior to the shootings showed police officers giving bottles of water to Rittenhouse and others and thanking them for their “help.” When the young man tried to give himself up to the cops after he’d shot two people dead, they ignored him and drove on by.

Blue Lives Matter supporter Rittenhouse wasn’t arrested until the next morning, 30 miles away from the incident. Would the same thing have happened if he had been Black? The question answers itself. He would likely be lying dead in the county morgue by now.

In any case, what on earth was a child of 17 doing strutting around the streets of another state with a semiautomatic weapon slung over his shoulders acting like some sort of self-appointed guardian of justice?

Fox’s Tucker Carlson suggested Rittenhouse had to “maintain order when no one else would.” He should be ashamed of himself for voicing that poisonous opinion to the largest cable audience on TV.

Sports stars took the higher ground. On Wednesday afternoon, the Milwaukee Bucks basketball team refused to take the court for their playoff game against the Orlando Magic to protest the shooting. All three NBA playoff games were postponed on Wednesday, and games scheduled for Thursday were also postponed. The Los Angeles Clippers and LeBron James’ LA Lakers contemplated sitting out the rest of the NBA season before coming to an agreement with the rest of the players to continue.

Some baseball teams followed suit. The Milwaukee Brewers sat out their game against the Cincinnati Reds, and games with the Seattle Mariners, San Diego Padres, Los Angeles Dodgers and San Francisco Giants were also postponed as players took a stand. 

Biden tweeted: “This moment demands moral leadership. And these players answered by standing up, speaking out and using their platform for good. Now is not the time for silence.”

On CNBC’s Squawk Box on Thursday morning, Trump senior adviser and son-in-law Jared Kushner said: “The NBA players are very fortunate they have the financial position where they’re able to take a night off from work without having to have the consequences to themselves financially.” And Pence chief of staff Marc Short called the protests “silly” and “absurd.”

Clearly the partisan rhetoric is going to continue all the way to the final buzzer and the entrenched views of each side on full display at the virtual conventions are unlikely to sway anyone away from their original voting decisions.

But somehow I feel the stakes are too high for America not to insist on clear and principled leadership to navigate us out of the significant challenges facing the country on multiple fronts.

I’ll leave the last word to LA Clippers coach Doc Rivers, who choked back tears as he said: “It’s amazing why we keep loving this country and this country does not love us back. Like, I should just be a coach. I’m so often reminded of my color. It’s just really sad. We got to do better. But we got to demand better.”

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