After Joe Biden’s four-day show of empathy last week, Trump campaign officials knew they had to act quickly to show the President’s softer side. On Monday, the first day of the Republican convention, Trump fired up Air Force One and flew off to North Carolina for a stop that seemed tailor made for the job. He visited a distribution plant that is taking excess produce from local farmers and boxing it up for families in need during the pandemic. Trump watched the food sorting machines, and met with the farmers and packers who put the boxes together and the faith leaders who helped distribute the food.
There was just one thing missing on the carefully orchestrated tour: The actual families whose lives had been upended by the pandemic and needed the food being bundled up. “The people are so happy,” Trump said when asked by TIME if he had met with any families that received boxes through the $3 billion Department of Agriculture program that buys excess produce from farmers and pays to have it distributed to people in need. “It worked like a miracle. It worked out. It worked out. They had the food. People were hungry. Put them together and everybody is happy,” Trump said.
Hours later, the Republican convention’s Monday night programming whipsawed between moments crafted to show Trump’s human touch, and fiery speeches depicting the country as a dystopian hellscape of lawless Democrat-run cities that only a president with vast powers can solve. Earlier in the day, Trump visited the Republican delegates on the floor of the GOP convention in Charlotte and delivered a rambling 50-minute speech that started out accusing Democrats of “trying to steal the election” by supporting mail-in voting during the coronavirus outbreak.
The cognitive dissonance showcased one of Trump’s weaknesses: finding a way to speak to Americans who are suffering during the economic downturn, when the unemployment rate is over 10% and families without paychecks are having to make the choice between buying food and paying rent. Voters see a yawning empathy gap between Trump and Democratic nominee Joe Biden, polling shows. A Quinnipiac University national poll released in July found that 61% of voters believe Trump doesn’t care about average Americans, while just 33% believe Biden doesn’t.
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Trump’s close aides are aware of Trump’s compassion deficit. The campaign plans to get Trump out of the White House more in the coming weeks both to draw a contrast to Biden doing mostly virtual events so far, and to showcase Trump’s “personal touch,” says a senior White House official. When voters meet Trump, “they understand it’s not just someone who’s speaking to them from the Oval Office, it’s someone who’s speaking to them from their community. We’re going to do more of that.”
The first night of the convention tried to highlight that personal touch, having Trump appear in a taped segment in the East Room of the White House speaking with frontline workers, including medical professionals, a law-enforcement officer, a trucker and a postal worker, some of whom had contracted COVID-19. “I’m for the nurses. I’m for the doctors. I’m for everybody,” Trump said. Trump also sat down with six Americans who had been imprisoned or held hostage overseas to highlight his efforts to get them released.
In one taped testimonial, Ohio Congressman Jim Jordan described a call from Trump in 2018 after the death of his 21-year-old nephew, Eli Stickley. Trump spoke with Jordan and Stickley’s family for several minutes, Jordan recalled. “The president said, ‘Yeah, losing a loved one is always difficult, and it’s really tough when they’re so young,’” Jordan said, describing how “for the next five minutes, family and friends sat in complete silence as the President of the United States took time to talk to a dad who was hurting. That’s the President I’ve gotten to know over the last four years.”
In another, 1982’s Heisman Trophy winner Herschel Walker, who is Black, pushed back on accusations that the President is racist, saying he’s known Trump since 1984 when Trump bought the New Jersey Generals of the now-defunct United States Football League. Walker described taking Trump’s kids to Disney World and Trump arriving at the last minute to ride “It’s a Small World” in his business suit.
But these gentler moments were dissonant notes to the bombastic speeches that described the country in chaos, and Biden and Democrats as wanting to destroy it. Conservative activist and leader of Turning Point USA Charlie Kirk described Trump as the “bodyguard of western civilization.” Donald Trump Jr. called Biden “the Loch Ness Monster of the swamp, while his girlfriend and senior fund-raising official for the campaign, Kimberly Guilfoyle, said Democrats “want to destroy this country and everything that we have fought for and hold dear” and “want to steal your liberty, your freedom, they want to control what you see and think and believe so that they can control how you live.”
One of the most grinding moments of the evening came when Guilfoyle’s high-volume speech cut abruptly to House Minority Whip Steve Scalise describing Trump visiting him in the hospital after he was shot by a left-wing gunman during a baseball practice in June 2017 by a left-wing activist. “That’s the kind of person he is,” Scalise said.
The moments showcasing the President’s sensitivity are unlikely to break through with voters this late in the election cycle, says Douglas Brinkley, a professor of history at Rice University. The images of Trump being unkind or callous — such as when he mocked a reporter with a congenital condition, or threw rolls of paper towels into a crowd when giving out disaster aid in Puerto Rico — are hard to overcome, Brinkley says. “There’s been a compassion deficit disorder with Donald Trump. He doesn’t mix with people to show empathy for fellow citizens in need,” Brinkley says. “The visual of him throwing paper towels out in Puerto Rico is so seared in people’s minds that it’s going to be hard to do a compassion facelift with days to the election,” he says.
That’s not going to stop Trump from trying.