It was a dark and stormy night, but Donald Trump had to do something to save the Republican National Convention. The first night there was Melania Trump giving a speech about how wonderful her husband was, much of which was lifted word-for-word from the 2008 convention speech Michelle Obama gave, about how wonderful her husband was. Oops. That’s all anyone talked about for two days, not about keeping America safe and how Trump was the man to do that, the stated theme of the evening. The second night, which was supposed to be about jobs and trade, about getting America back to work, somehow turned into an evening of Hillary bashing, an evening of the crowd chanting Lock Her Up! Some suggested she should just be taken out back and shot. The FBI is now chatting with those people, and again, the message was lost. The third evening was Mike Pence’s evening – Trump’s calm and sensible running mate would introduce himself to America, and he did, but no one noticed. Ted Cruz spoke and told the crowd to vote their conscience in November, if they still had one, and vote for anyone (except Hillary Clinton) other than the totally unknowing and incompetent Trump. Cruz was booed offstage, but the damage was done. Mike Pence was ignored. This wasn’t going well.
There was one night left to save the convention and Trump, all by himself, had to save it. He did, perhaps in the only way possible. As Patrick Healy and Jonathan Martin report, he did that by going very dark:
Donald John Trump accepted the Republican presidential nomination on Thursday night with an unusually vehement appeal to Americans who feel that their country is spiraling out of control and yearn for a leader who will take aggressive, even extreme, actions to protect them.
Mr. Trump, 70, a New York real estate developer and reality television star who leveraged his fame and forceful persona to become the rare political outsider to lead the ticket of a major party, drew exuberant cheers from Republican convention delegates as he strode onto the stage of the Quicken Loans Arena and delivered a speech as fiery as his candidacy.
With dark imagery and an almost angry tone, Mr. Trump portrayed the United States as a diminished and even humiliated nation, and offered himself as an all-powerful savior who could resurrect the country’s standing in the eyes of both enemies and law-abiding Americans.
The world is falling apart, as everyone knows, and only one man, Donald Trump, can save us now, as everyone knows. That was it. That was all. The rest was supporting detail and theatrics:
“Our convention occurs at a moment of crisis for our nation,” an ominous-sounding Mr. Trump said, standing against a backdrop of American flags. “The attacks on our police, and the terrorism in our cities, threaten our very way of life. Any politician who does not grasp this danger is not fit to lead our country.”
Mr. Trump nearly shouted the names of states where police officers had been killed recently, as the crowd erupted in applause, and returned repeatedly to the major theme of the speech: “Law and order,” he said four times, each time drawing out the syllables.
Only he can provide that, and all the other Republican stuff is bullshit:
Mr. Trump challenged Republican orthodoxy as he promised to end multilateral trade deals and limit American intervention in global crises. He denounced “15 years of wars in the Middle East” – a rebuke of his party’s last president, George W. Bush – and pledged to help union members, coal miners and other low-wage Americans who have historically supported Democrats.
“These are the forgotten men and women of our country,” said Mr. Trump, a billionaire with a mixed record of job creation and layoffs. “People who work hard but no longer have a voice – I am your voice.”
He even vowed “to do everything in my power to protect our LGBTQ citizens from the violence and oppression of a hateful foreign ideology.” As the audience applauded, Mr. Trump made a deviation from his prepared text, observing: “I have to say, that as a Republican, it is so nice to hear you cheering for what I just said.”
It was a bit of that Huey Long “every man a king” thing from long ago, and gay-friendly too! But still it was very dark:
Mr. Trump dwelled at length on illegal immigrants and lawless Americans, saying they are as dangerous for the nation’s security as the Islamic State and Syrian refugees. In doing so, Trump advisers said, he sought to win over undecided voters who are sickened by the recent violence against police officers and worried about safety yet are unsure if Mr. Trump has the temperament and abilities to be commander in chief.
“I have a message to every last person threatening the peace on our streets and the safety of our police: When I take the oath of office next year, I will restore law and order to our country.”
There will be no crime and violence in America starting the day he takes office – all gone – but it was more than that:
“It is time to show the whole world that America is back – bigger, and better and stronger than ever before,” Mr. Trump said.
Mr. Trump said Americans had “lived through one international humiliation after another” under President Obama: the Navy sailors “being forced to their knees” by Iranian captors in January; the destruction of the American consulate in Benghazi, Libya; and Mr. Obama’s decision not to defend his “red line” on Syria.
There’ll no more of that. We’ll be the ones doing the humiliation, sneering and rubbing it in. And don’t you, as an individual, feel humiliated all the time? We’ll fix that too. You won’t have to serve gay people at you restaurant, making Jesus hate you, or something. The details were unclear.
The party is still trying to deal with all that:
Many of the elected officials who spoke extolled a traditional conservative platform that bears little relation to the nationalist agenda on which Mr. Trump is basing his campaign.
For example, just hours before Mr. Pence, a committed internationalist, assured delegates and millions of voters that America would defend its allies, Mr. Trump gave an interview in which he balked at defending NATO countries, a policy that has been the cornerstone of the alliance for 70 years.
Even as Republicans prepared to leave Cleveland, they were still straining to come to terms with the views and personality of their newly minted nominee.
“I’m going to vote for Mike Pence,” said Gov. Gary Herbert of Utah, pausing for effect: “And Donald Trump comes along with the package.”
That hardly matters. The ticket will win. It’s a plan. E. J. Dionne calls it seeking victory by scaring the country to death:
Perhaps you thought, or hoped, that Donald Trump would use his acceptance speech to offer a softer tone, to sketch a more compassionate vision of the nation, or to reach out to skeptics and former opponents.
Trump chose a different path – or, more precisely, the same path he has taken from the outset of the campaign. Trump will be running as Trump, the candidate of the angriest wing of the Republican Party and the most disaffected members of the American electorate.
He will run as a hard man, a tough, nationalist authoritarian for whom order is paramount. And he will advance his case by offering a dismal and profoundly gloomy account of what he called “a moment of crisis for our nation.”
And he’ll do it his way:
He cherry-picked statistics to suggest that the nation is in the midst of a wave of criminality at a moment of historically low crime numbers. He manipulated the facts on immigration, suggesting huge flows of illegal entrants after a long period of low or even negative immigration. If reality does not conform to what Trump needs reality to be to support his case, he will invent a new reality.
As they say, whatever works, and this works:
His core strategy is rooted not only in exploiting the fears of Americans but in heightening them. He will repeat his calls for “law and order” again and again. A man who has spent his life among the country’s wealthiest and most influential people will make the “elites” his whipping boy. He will paint a dark picture of his foes as serving interests other than those of their fellow citizens: “Americanism not globalism will be our credo.”
And he will play racial politics by accusing President Obama, as he did Thursday, of using “the pulpit of the presidency to divide us by race and color” and making “America a more dangerous environment for everyone.”
We are thus about to have the ugliest and most divisive presidential campaign in our history. Trump is an effective demagogue. Republicans have allowed him to take over their party. It falls to the rest of the country to resist being seduced by anger, resentment and fear.
Andrew Sullivan, reading the advance-copy of the speech, says it’s a bit more than that:
It’s a remarkable piece of oratory, cannily crafted, framed by massive lies and distortions, crammed with incoherence, and yet, I’m afraid to say, scarily potent. It invents a reality that the U.S. is in a state of chaos, lawlessness and soaring crime, that the world is careening toward catastrophe – and then makes a classic argument for a strongman to set things straight.
This is a very new departure for politics in a liberal democracy. We’ve never heard an appeal from a major party platform to junk traditional democratic norms, and cede power to a new tyrant, whose magical powers will somehow cause almost every problem in the country to disappear. In this election, the very basis of liberal democracy is on the ballot. The fears I expressed last May about the popularity of tyranny in a late-democracy have, I’m afraid, only been fanned by events since.
The speech is entirely about fear, fear to be somehow vanquished by a single man’s will to power. Its core message is what America was founded to resist. Its success would be an abolition of the core promise of this country for two centuries that self-government is incompatible with the rule by the whims and prejudices and impulses of a man on a white horse.
It can happen here. It is happening here.
This may be hard to resist:
No one should under-estimate the power of fear. But surely this fear-mongering leaves an opening for Clinton. She can surely respond to Trump with FDR. We are, in fact, in a kind of 1930s moment. It is fear vs hope. Fear is winning. I wish I had more confidence in the Clintons to pull off the ethos of FDR. We simply have to hope they can.
But there are the basics:
We have to answer this core question: how is it that liberal democracy in America is now flirting with strongman, ethno-nationalist authoritarianism? What happened to the democratic center?
It seems to me that the right bears the hefty majority of responsibility, moving from principled opposition to outright nullification of a presidency, trashing every important neutral institution, and now bad-mouthing the country they hope to “govern.” But the left’s abandonment of empiricism and liberalism – its rapid descent into neo-Marxist dogma, its portrayal of American history as a long unending story of white supremacy, its coarse impugning of political compromise and incrementalism, its facile equation of disagreement with bigotry, has also played a part. Liberal democracy needs liberal norms and manners to survive, which is why it is now on life-support.
In between, moderate Christianity, once a unifying cultural fabric creating a fragile civil discourse, has evaporated into disparate spirituality on one side and fundamentalist dogma on the other, leaving us with little in the center to hold us morally together.
Sullivan sees little hope:
Why will the speech work? Because it manages to frame the narrative – using false or misleading data – by making this a change election. He somehow spins every disconcerting piece of news at home and abroad into a compelling social imaginary of chaos, decline and frustration. He blames Obama for everything bad and gives no credit for anything good. If you know nothing but feel insecure, the picture he paints will be electrifyingly persuasive.
On the other hand, if you have that nagging sense that you know nothing, and always feel insecure, you’re human. That’s life for most people, and that’s also a perfect set-up for someone like Trump:
The thing about strongmen is that they are prepared to tell lies democratic politicians shrink from; they show no respect for the constitutional order or for enduring institutions; they lie purely to advance the most hyperbolic version of the truth and then cast themselves as magical solution-artists. The speech is a master-class in channeling resentment and anxiety.
If you wonder what it was like in the 1930s for ordinary people to flock to demagogues…
America has thrown up an extremely talented one. I fear that Hillary Clinton has no idea what is about to hit her.
And this makes no sense:
After seven straight years of job growth, record stock prices, extraordinary technological innovation, and 4.9 percent unemployment, this is how Trump will describe the economy tonight: “our roads and bridges are falling apart, our airports are in Third World condition, and 43 million Americans are on food stamps.” This is summed up as “domestic disaster.”
I do not want to imply that I believe the economy is doing fine in terms of distribution. Globalization has hurt the working classes, while rewarding so many others, not least around the world. This real question needs a serious answer. But what Trump is offering is straight out of the worst part of the 1930s: protectionism, ethno-nationalism, scapegoating, and big (if chronically insolvent) government. What feasibly can be done to help? Whoever answers that question most persuasively will own the future of politics in this country. But if Clinton doesn’t have an honest answer, Trump will offer a fantasy one.
The Germans went for the fantasy answer in the thirties, didn’t they? Sullivan will mention no names, but one of his readers does try to calm him down:
Please, be patient and have a little more respect for American voters. We love entertainment. But please remember that, when we last confronted the choices in front of us, we voted (again) for a black guy named Barack Hussein Obama.
Another writes this:
I think you are a tad overestimating the power of, “Oh my God, everything’s a disaster! And I, alone, will fix everything!” There is a portion of the American electorate ripe for that but I think it’s smaller than your fear. President Obama’s approval rating today was 53%.
Yes, the disconnect between this president’s approval rating and the allegedly disastrous state of the US right now is striking, isn’t it? Each of these narratives speaks to a constituency – but Obama’s is surely larger.
Then again, Obama is not up for re-election, is he?
So Sullivan worries:
Have you noticed how Trump thinks all these deep problems can be solved quickly? Always fast. Always obvious. As if everyone else in government in both parties is either stupid or malevolent. …
Shorter Trump: “Everything is terrible. I alone can solve. Just don’t ask me how.”
But then he watched the speech:
I have to say I’m relieved. This was a terrible presentation of what read like a powerful speech. It seems screechy, unmodulated, and yet also plodding. Mussolini never had a Teleprompter.
Ezra Klein has a different take, saying that Donald Trump’s nomination is the first time American politics has left me truly afraid:
Donald Trump is not a man who should be president. This is not an ideological judgment. This is not something I would say about Mitt Romney or Marco Rubio. This is not a disagreement over Donald Trump’s tax plan or his climate policies. This is about Trump’s character, his temperament, his impulsiveness, his basic decency.
Back in February, I wrote that Trump is the most dangerous major candidate for president in memory. He pairs terrible ideas with an alarming temperament; he’s a racist, a sexist, and a demagogue, but he’s also a narcissist, a bully, and a dilettante. He lies so constantly and so fluently that it’s hard to know if he even realizes he’s lying. He delights in schoolyard taunts and luxuriates in backlash.
He has had plenty of time to prove me, and everyone else, wrong. But he hasn’t. He has not become more responsible or more sober, more decent or more generous, more considered or more informed, more careful or more kind. He has continued to retweet white supremacists, make racist comments, pick unnecessary fights, contradict himself on the stump, and show an almost gleeful disinterest in building a real campaign or learning about policy.
Then there are the specifics:
Trump is vindictive. So far, the unifying theme of Trump’s convention is that the leader of the opposition party should be thrown in jail. Trump didn’t like the Washington Post’s coverage of his campaign, so he barred its reporters from his rallies and threatened to use the power of the presidency to bring an antitrust suit against the Post’s owner, Jeff Bezos.
He was upset that Ohio didn’t vote for him, so he sat its delegation in the cheap seats, even though the state is hosting the convention. He was angry about an interview his ex-ghostwriter gave to the New Yorker, so he sent his lawyers after him. He hates the protesters who interrupt his campaigns, so he said he would look into paying the legal fees of a supporter who sucker-punched one of them.
Imagine Donald Trump with the powers of the presidency. Imagine what he could do – what he would do – to those who crossed him.
Now add this:
Trump is a bigot. Donald Trump kicked off his campaign calling Mexican immigrants murderers and rapists. He responded to Ted Cruz’s surge in Iowa by calling for a ban on Muslim travel. He sought to discredit a US-born judge by saying his rulings were suspect because of his “Mexican heritage.” Trump’s campaign is certainly the first time in my memory that a sitting speaker of the House has had to describe something his party’s nominee said as “the textbook definition of a racist comment.”
This is not a man who should be put in charge of an increasingly diverse country that needs to find allies in an increasingly diverse world.
Then add this:
Trump is a sexist. Stories of Trump’s casual sexism abound, but during the campaign, it was women who questioned him who felt the full force of his misogyny. The first Republican debate, for instance, was hosted by Fox News and moderated by Megyn Kelly, Bret Baier, and Chris Wallace. Kelly wasn’t obviously tougher on Trump than her colleagues, but she was the antagonist he focused on, retweeting a follower who said she was “a bimbo” and saying she had “blood coming out of her … wherever.”
After Carly Fiorina challenged him in a debate, Trump said to Rolling Stone, “Look at that face. Would anyone vote for that? Can you imagine that, the face of our next president?” After Hillary Clinton needed to take a bathroom break during a debate, Trump told the crowd, “It’s too disgusting. Don’t say it, it’s disgusting.”
It’s not just during political campaigns that this side of Trump emerges. Trump once told his friend Philip Johnson that the secret to women was “you have to treat ’em like shit.”
The list goes on. Trump is a liar. Trump is a narcissist. But now this is immediately relevant:
Trump admires authoritarian dictators for their authoritarianism. When MSNBC’s Joe Scarborough asked Trump about his affection for Vladimir Putin, who “kills journalists, political opponents and invades countries,” Trump replied, “He’s running his country, and at least he’s a leader, unlike what we have in this country.”
But it’s not just Putin. Trump has praised Saddam Hussein because “he killed terrorists. He did that so good. They didn’t read them the rights.” He said “you’ve got to give [Kim Jong Un] credit. He goes in, he takes over, and he’s the boss. It’s incredible.” It’s not just that Trump admires these authoritarians; it’s that the thing he admires about them is their authoritarianism – their ability to dispense with niceties like a free press, due process, and political opposition.
That’s what this speech was about. But there’s more:
Trump has proven too lazy to learn about policy. Trump didn’t know much about policy when the campaign started, and as far as anyone can tell, he hasn’t made any obvious effort to rectify that.
The latest and most damaging example is his interview with the New York Times, in which he said he would not automatically defend NATO countries against attack from Russia. It’s not obvious Trump meant to say that, or even knew what saying that meant, as [Campaign Director Paul] Manafort immediately began denying Trump had ever said it. (The Times subsequently released a transcript showing that, yes, Trump had said it.)
But this is a pattern for Trump, who doesn’t bother to come up with convincing answers even to obvious questions, and definitely has not put in the time to develop a deep understanding of the issues he might face as president. As Matt Yglesias wrote, this is very much a choice Trump has made. “Trump is now the GOP nominee, and there are hundreds of professional Republican Party politicians and operatives around the country who would gladly help him become a sharper, better-informed candidate. It doesn’t happen because he can’t be bothered.”
And then there’s this:
Trump is a bully. Trump won the Republican nomination by proving that even adults can be bullied with schoolyard taunts. There was “low-energy Jeb,” and “Little Marco,” and “Lyin’ Ted,” and now we’ve got “Crooked Hillary.” Trump made fun of Rand Paul’s looks and Chris Christie’s weight and Carly Fiorina’s face and a New York Times reporter’s physical disability.
It seems like this shouldn’t have to be said, but it’s better to be kind than cruel, and there’s a deep, instinctual cruelty in Trump – he finds people’s weak spots, their insecurities, and he exposes them in front of crowds.
Trump has regularly incited or justified violence among his supporters. At a rally in St. Louis, Donald Trump lamented that “nobody wants to hurt each other anymore.”
The topic was protesters, and Trump’s frustration was clear. “They’re being politically correct the way they take them out,” he sighed. “Protesters, they realize there are no consequences to protesting anymore. There used to be consequences. There are none anymore.”
It is the thirties again, and Klein doesn’t want it to be:
The simple fact of it is that Donald Trump should not be president of the United States. That is not because he is too conservative, as some Democrats would have it, or because he is not conservative enough, as many Republicans would have it. It’s because the presidency is a powerful job where mistakes can kill millions, and whoever holds it needs to take that power seriously and wield it responsibly. Trump has had ample opportunity to demonstrate his sense of seriousness and responsibility. He has failed.
It is said that the benefit of America’s long presidential campaigns is they offer the candidates time to show us who they really are. Trump has shown us who he really is. He is a person who should not be president. That he is being brought this close to the presidency – that he is one major mistake by Hillary Clinton away from winning it – should scare us all. It certainly scares me.
Well, Donald Trump did want to scare the crap out of America, so America would take a chance and vote for him as the one man, the only man, who could make all their fears disappear in a day or two, next January. And now he has scared the crap out of America, but perhaps not in the way he intended. He is that one man on a dark and stormy night. Don’t let him in.