MILWAUKEE — Democrats opened their four-day national convention Monday with relentless attacks on President Donald Trump's mismanagement of the coronavirus crisis and stoking of racial divisions, enlisting Republican defectors, Democratic rivals and ordinary Americans to broaden support for Joe Biden's presidential bid.
In an event pushed almost entirely into cyberspace by the pandemic, party leaders ripped into Trump and extolled Biden on meticulously staged online videos that were alternately poignant and awkward.
But from the opening national anthem — sung by dozens who ultimately coalesced into the U.S. flag, to the final impassioned plea by former first lady Michelle Obama — the switch from live action to online packed an emotional punch missing in traditional conventions.
"Let me be as honest and clear as I possibly can," said Obama, one of the most beloved figures in the Democratic Party. "Donald Trump is the wrong president for our country. ... He cannot meet this moment. He simply cannot be who we need him to be for us. It is what it is."
Her speech, perhaps her bluntest ever in public, contained a blistering indictment of Trump and his presidency and the example he sets for the country's disillusioned young people.
"They see our leaders labeling fellow citizens enemies of the state while emboldening white supremacists," Obama said. "They watch in horror as children are torn from their families and thrown into cages, and pepper spray and rubber bullets are used on peaceful protesters for a photo-op."
Alternately somber and angry, she went on. "This is the America that is on display. ... A nation that's not just disappointing, it's downright infuriating."
Obama called on voters to turn out in the numbers they did for Barack Obama, warning them the consequences of withholding their vote from Biden are too dire to risk. A voting rights activist, the former first lady also pilloried Trump and other Republicans for trying to suppress the vote.
"Folks who know they cannot win fair and square at the ballot box are doing everything they can to stop us from voting," she said. "They're closing down polling places in minority neighborhoods. They're purging voter rolls. They're sending people out to intimidate voters, and they're lying about the security of our ballots. These tactics are not new."
The Obama address dominated the mostly prerecorded convention that seesawed from scenes of intense emotion to more standard political fare.
Earlier, a moment of silence led by the brother of George Floyd, whose killing at the hands of Minneapolis police in May sent the nation into a tense reckoning over racial justice, came between canned speeches that TV anchors would have cut away from in past cycles, calling on pundits or reporters working the delegate crowd.
There was no escaping the scripted material for those who tuned in, including a fervid speech by Sen. Bernie Sanders of Vermont, who pleaded with his followers to back Biden. But raw moments in which struggling Americans shared their stories sometimes followed mini-episodes that had the feeling of a telethon.
The party leveraged the captive audience to hammer home its theme of Trump's incompetence.
The planned four-day lineup was designed to expand the party's appeal as it makes its case that the Trump administration's response to the pandemic and economic recession has caused suffering that knows no political boundaries.
A California woman whose 65-year-old father died of COVID-19, Kristin Urquiza, said her dad voted for Trump, listened to Trump and believed the president and his allies "when they said that coronavirus was under control and going to disappear; that it was OK to end social distancing rules before it was safe; and that if you had no underlying health conditions, you'd probably be fine."
A few weeks after joining friends at karaoke bar in Arizona when the state's stay-at-home order was lifted in May, Urquiza's dad was on a ventilator. Five days later, she said, he died in an ICU.
"The coronavirus has made it clear that there are two Americas: the America that Donald Trump lives in and the America that my father died in," Urquiza said. "Donald Trump may not have caused the coronavirus, but his dishonesty and his irresponsible actions made it so much worse."
With unity as the night's theme, former Trump voters and four Republican politicians lent their voice to Biden's campaign, among them former New Jersey Gov. Christine Todd Whitman and the GOP's 2010 nominee for California governor, Silicon Valley executive Meg Whitman.
"Donald Trump has no clue how to run a business, let alone an economy," said Whitman, who in 2016 endorsed Hillary Clinton over her party's nominee. "For me, the choice is simple. I'm with Joe."
The marquee Republican to speak Monday, former Ohio Gov. John Kasich, acknowledged the improbability of his prerecorded appearance — which may not have gone as smoothly before a howling crowd of partisans — but said "these are not normal times."
In case anyone missed the point, he was filmed standing at a crossroads in his hometown of Westerville, Ohio.
"I'm a lifelong Republican, but that attachment holds second place to my responsibility to my country," said Kasich, who ran against Trump in 2016 but, unlike other ex-rivals, never accommodated himself to the president or his pugnacious persona.
Rep. Cedric Richmond of Louisiana, a Biden campaign co-chair, said the four Republicans were added to the Democrats' lineup to appeal to the " 'silent Biden voters,' those Republicans who feel bullied, those Republicans that feel they will be isolated if they support Biden, and that they will be picked on. This will show them they are not alone."
The inclusion of speakers from across the aisle is a time-honored party convention tradition, and so is the backlash it often triggers, in this case from progressive activists.
Critiques of the lineup were led by Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez of New York, who has drawn a national spotlight in her first term as a leader of the progressive wing.
But Sanders, the icon of the left who spoke after the Republicans, did not join other leading progressives in protest Monday.
"My friends, I say to you, to everyone who supported other candidates in the primary and to those who may have voted for Donald Trump in the last election: The future of our democracy is at stake," Sanders said. "The future of our economy is at stake. The future of our planet is at stake. We must come together, defeat Donald Trump and elect Joe Biden and Kamala Harris as our next president and vice president.
"The price of failure is just too great to imagine," Sanders said.
He gave an unflinching endorsement to Biden, whose political moderation is troublesome to many of the Vermonter's supporters, ticking off an array of progressive policies the former vice president has committed to pursuing.
His tone was notably different from four years ago, when he lost the nomination to Hillary Clinton and remained bitter over the party's management of the primary race, which he and his supporters claimed was tilted against him.
Michigan Gov. Gretchen Whitmer, a newcomer to the national political scene whose demands for a competent virus response from Washington put her on Biden's short list of running mate prospects, joined popular New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo in highlighting where Trump failed voters in his handling of the crisis.
Several of Biden's rivals in the Democratic primary talked in a montage of clips about why they ran and why they now support the former vice president.
The convention, such as it is, opens at a time of relative stability in the presidential race.
For months, polls have shown Biden ahead, both nationally and in the battleground states needed to win a majority in the Electoral College, including here in Wisconsin.
Some polls taken since last Tuesday, when he announced Harris as his running mate, have given the pair a double-digit lead over Trump, though most analysts believe the race will tighten by November.
Biden has been a national political figure for nearly five decades, first as a U.S. senator from Delaware and then as vice president under President Barack Obama.
Trump, forever conscious of ratings and the show business aspects of politics, will almost assuredly seize on any lack of audience interest to press his claim that Biden lacks the energy and leadership skills to lift the country from its malaise.
"Don't believe the lies you're going to hear on tape," Trump said Monday in Oshkosh, Wisconsin, a visit intended to troll Biden for pulling his convention from Wisconsin.
"Who wants to listen to Michelle Obama do a taped speech?" he said, confirming he would make his own official convention speech next week from the White House, a venue he had been teasing.
Milwaukee, which was supposed to host the convention, had the sad feel Monday of a city abandoned.
Sidewalks that would have been teeming with visitors — as many as 50,000, planners projected — were empty, save for a few scattered pedestrians enjoying a mild afternoon. The weather was supposed to be one of Milwaukee's selling points, along with Wisconsin's status as a major political battleground.
Outside the shuttered Fiserv Forum, where the convention was supposed to take place, a group of hard-hatted AT&T workers posed for a group photo as sea gulls scoured the plaza out front, unimpeded.
A few blocks away, in one of the few signs of political life, about a dozen anti-abortion protesters lined Wisconsin Avenue in a wordless protest, waving anti-Biden signs at the occasional car that passed.
Monica Miller, one of the organizers, said she had hoped a group of counter-protesters might come along and spark a bit of conflict to liven things up. But none showed.
Miller, though, was not discouraged. "We will be back out tomorrow," she said.