CHARLOTTE, N.C. — The first night of the Republican National Convention offered a sweeping defense of President Donald Trump's response to the coronavirus pandemic and depicted Democrats as a threat to an America engulfed in national protests.
"From a global pandemic to the deaths of George Floyd and Breonna Taylor, 2020 has tested our nation in ways we haven't seen for decades," said Sen. Tim Scott, R-S.C. "Make no mistake: Joe Biden and Kamala Harris want a cultural revolution. A fundamentally different America. If we let them, they will turn our country into a socialist utopia."
The backdrop for Trump's convention: an America in turmoil as the pandemic rages and protests continue calling for an end to racial injustice. The convention pulled frequently at those threads, bouncing between praising the federal response to the coronavirus and casting Democrats as socialists who would stoke racial animosity and allow riots to rage.
"They put political correctness ahead of the safety and security of the American people," Donald Trump Jr. said. "Anarchists have been flooding our streets, and Democrat mayors are ordering the police to stand down."
Republicans tried to counter Trump critics who say the president is a racist, inviting supporters of diverse backgrounds to speak and offering a different portrait of the country than one plagued by systemic racism.
Former U.N. Ambassador Nikki Haley, considered a likely candidate to run for president as a Republican in 2024, defended America's racial dynamics, offering a personal story of her immigrant parents.
"In much of the Democratic Party, it's now fashionable to say that America is racist. That is a lie. America is not a racist country," Haley said. "America is a story that's a work in progress. Now is the time to build on that progress and make America even freer, fairer and better for everyone. That's why it's tragic to see so much of the Democratic Party turn a blind eye toward riots and rage."
Scott, the only Black Republican in the Senate, credited his political success in part to "the evolution of the Southern heart."
"In an overwhelmingly white district, the voters judged me not the color of my skin, but the content of my character," Scott said of his first run for Congress.
Former NFL running back Herschel Walker, who is Black, said it "hurt my soul" to hear Trump being called a racist.
"Growing up in the Deep South, I've seen racism up close. I know what it is. And it isn't Donald Trump," Walker said.
Democratic state Rep. Vernon Jones of Georgia, a Trump supporter who is Black, condemned his party for taking Black voters for granted, saying, "The Democratic Party does not want Black people to leave their mental plantation."
The messages were contrasted with those of guests who depicted protesters, most of whom are Black, as violent and dangerous, warning that Democrats would usher in more unrest.
"Democrats no longer view the government's job as protecting honest citizens from criminals but rather protecting criminals from honest citizens," said Mark McCloskey, who along with his wife, Patricia McCloskey, gained national attention when they pointed guns at Black Lives Matter protesters marching past their home in St. Louis.
Patricia McCloskey said: "So make no mistake: No matter where you live, your family will not be safe in the radical Democrats' America. What you saw happen to us could just as easily happen to any of you watching from quiet neighborhoods around the country."
Throughout the evening, Republicans also sought to depict the pandemic in an optimistic tone, touting medical treatments and detailing the response overseen by the federal government. A series of videos showed cheering health care workers and a nation in recovery, with no mention of the almost 180,000 people who have died.
"Just imagine what 2020 would've looked like, fighting for your life, without Donald Trump fighting for it, too," said Natalie Harp of California, who talked about battling a rare cancer. "In January, there'd have been no China travel ban. Millions would've died. Millions more would've been infected — for there'd be no record levels of testing."
The president entered his convention trailing Democratic rival Joe Biden in the polls, and he faces a torrent of criticism for his administration's handling of the pandemic. This week's convention will be his most aggressive attempt yet to turn the national sentiment in his favor.
Rep. Jim Jordan, R-Ohio, sought to present a softer side of Trump, sharing a story about how the president took time to speak to his family after his nephew died in a car crash two years ago.
"Democrats won't let you go to church, but they'll let you protest," Jordan said. "Democrats won't let you go to work, but they'll let you riot. Democrats won't let you go to school, but they'll let you loot. President Trump has fought against their crazy ideas."
Trump, who is scheduled to appear every night of the convention, met with first responders at the White House in a recorded video to discuss their experiences with the coronavirus. Trump appeared again later in the evening in another video recorded from the White House with six hostages who were rescued from foreign captivity during his administration.
Democrats hosted their convention last week, conducting the event almost entirely remotely and getting high praise for its production value. The Republican convention will feature videos, but it will conclude each night with a more traditional format featuring a series of speakers on a single stage.
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Rep. Matt Gaetz, R-Fla., one of Trump's most fervent defenders, mocked Biden for not holding more events outside of his home during the pandemic.
"I'm speaking from an auditorium emptier than Joe Biden's daily schedule," Gaetz said.
Gaetz called a Biden administration a "horror movie."
"They'll disarm you, empty the prisons, lock you in your home and invite MS-13 to live next door," Gaetz said. "And the defunded police aren't on their way."
CORRECTION (Aug. 24, 2020, 7:10 p.m. ET): A photo caption on a previous version of this article misidentified Tim Scott's congressional position. He is a senator, not a House member.