Democrats will hold a virtual convention; Republicans won't: The cruelty is just too obvious

Republicans moved their convention to Florida, believing it was done with the coronavirus. Heckuva job, guys!

By Sophia Tesfaye

Senior Politics Editor

Published June 27, 2020 6:00AM (EDT)

Joe Biden on a Livestream | Donald Trump at his Tulsa rally (Getty Images/Salon)
Joe Biden on a Livestream | Donald Trump at his Tulsa rally (Getty Images/Salon)

In the same week that Donald Trump returned to the campaign trail, holding two indoor rallies for thousands of supporters in states with rapidly rising rates of positive tests and hospitalizations for COVID-19, Democrats effectively canceled their plans for a presidential nominating convention. Or rather they dialed it way back: Officially, the 2020 Democratic National Convention will still be held in Milwaukee, and Joe Biden still plans to attend in person to accept his nomination and deliver the traditional speech. But he won't be talking to thousands of delegates, alternates and members of the media who have traveled there from all over the country. 

It would of course be sensible for Republicans to follow suit. After all, Donald Trump will be nominated by acclamation and Biden's prior opponents long ago conceded. There's virtually no reason to hold standard political conventions in the middle of a raging pandemic. Health experts believe that there's a greater risk of contracting the virus in enclosed spaces such as those used for convention events. By abandoning plans to welcome upwards of 50,000 people from around the country, including one state and numerous U.S. territories that are literally overseas, Democrats have made a patently obvious choice, and a slam dunk in terms of both political optics and real-world consequences. 

But because President Trump's ego is too fragile to pass up the opportunity to celebrate a foregone conclusion, the Republican National Convention and Trump campaign will spend the next few weeks trying to figure out how to get a packed house full of chanting and bellowing Trump supporters to put on masks — the masks their leader insists are only worn by the weak, like the people in China he maligns with racists attacks on a near-daily basis. Essentially self-exiled from North Carolina after Democratic Gov. Roy Cooper and other officials dared to foreground their concerns about potential viral spread, Trump moved his affair (or at least most of it) to Jacksonville, Florida, where, according to a new poll, nearly 60% of residents do not want it. In another poll, 57% said they feared the GOP convention would spur a new outbreak. 

This isn't quite like moving the party down to Guyana, but the echoes of Jonestown are unmistakable: a narcissistic madman leading his death cult into a state with one of the fastest-rising rates of coronavirus spread anywhere in the world. This will likely be remembered as one of the most callous political moves in modern presidential history. Florida reported nearly 9,000 new cases on Friday — the third new single-day record this week — and nearly 20,000 in the last three days. And it isn't because of increased testing, that Trumpian bugaboo — the rate of testing in Florida has remained flat for the last two weeks. 

At this point, Biden just needs to stay on the sidelines and let Trump destroy himself and the Republican Party. Sure, that's almost an unacceptably low bar. But illustrating how a responsible party manages its affairs can go a long way to undo Republican attacks, and allow Democrats an opportunity to co-opt the GOP's self-proclaimed title of the party of personal responsibility.

Trump will continue to resist calls to downscale the convention, of course. As with everything he is scared of looking scared, or of appearing to give in to the so-called panic peddlers. Meanwhile, the RNC and Trump campaign staff will be entangled in a logistical nightmare, trying to keep thousands of people safe and healthy during an indoor convention. In Florida. In late August.  

Aside from the predictable jabs about hunkering down in his basement, Biden faces very little downside from the party's decision to downscale this year's convention. Polling data regarding reopening and mask use all show that the majority of Americans are actually aligned with the scientific experts. That's reassuring and even a bit surprising, given the sizable and vocal anti-science contingent that attracts way too much media attention. Biden's decision is actually in line with the general public. 

Technological advances will create plenty of alternatives for people to connect with one another during a virtual convention. No one thinks that the energy of such large in-person gatherings can be replaced, but conventions are no longer electorally important events anyway. Of course, there will be challenges — remember the Iowa caucus debacle? — but the DNC has already hired a producer who worked on the Super Bowl and the Tonys to create a television spectacle. All Democrats really have to do for their convention be considered a success under these circumstances is to set up a live stream and book Taylor Swift. By the time Biden delivers his acceptance speech, we should be used to seeing empty arenas and stadiums dressed up with digital trickery — the NBA, the NHL, Major League Baseball and Major League Soccer all plan to complete their seasons with no live spectators. Biden could tell his TV audience that every empty seat in Milwaukee's Wisconsin Center represents 10 people who died because of Donald Trump's incompetence. 

As usual, Republicans could have prevented Trump's toxic decisions and chose not to, and now they are risking their core supporters' lives for the sake of political theater. Texas Republicans are still planning to hold an in-person state convention, with no face-mask requirement, next month in Houston, a city whose current virus numbers threaten to overload the hospital system. Trump has done nothing, or worse than that. He's actively weakened our response, both before and after we knew of the pandemic existed. Now his most loyal fans will pay the price.

By Sophia Tesfaye

Sophia Tesfaye is Salon's senior editor for news and politics, and resides in Washington, D.C. You can find her on Twitter at @SophiaTesfaye.

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