Donald Trump is right. This is a dark and frightening time in America.
How else to describe the moment in which thousands of Republican delegates were deliriously cheering the notion that Trump, alone, can solve all our nation’s problems, including those that exist only in an alternate cable-TV-news universe?
Trump, the gold-plated salesman, used his acceptance speech to sell fear to America, to have us look out our windows and see a world that doesn’t exist. It’s one in which crime is rampant, murder rates are soaring, undocumented immigrants are “roaming” the streets “to threaten peaceful citizens,” refugees are terrorists and the concept of law and order has given way to death and despair.
The subtext could not have been more clear. Black and brown people, especially foreign black and brown people, are upending the back-when-America-was-great social order. Cops are being picked off on the streets and Black Lives Matter is to blame. A drunk driver kills a college student — one of thousands killed annually by drunk drivers — and the fact that the driver is an undocumented immigrant is to blame. Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton are more concerned about politics than about keeping America safe from terrorism, and political correctness is to blame.
And if it takes a law-and-order candidate to put things right, Donald Trump is ready to be that person — and more.
“I am your voice,” he said to the cheering crowd.
“I alone can fix it.”
He didn’t say that Americans would see their way through because that’s what Americans do. He said to believe him. He might as well have said to believe in him, alone. It wasn’t an air kiss to authoritarianism. It was a full-on embrace.
And the ginned-up audience, not unlike those we’ve seen at the Trump rallies, responded with “Yes, you will. Yes, you will.” I’m sure the response wasn’t exactly spontaneous. It’s a play, of course, on Obama’s “Yes, we can” slogan, but think about it. Yes, you will.
Many books are waiting to be written that will try to explain the Trump phenomenon. The easy answers — rapidly changing demographics, globalization and the new inequality, race relations in the time of the first black president, the cable-TV-news effect, government dysfunction and the partisan divide — are probably all too easy. But what’s clear is that people reach out to a strong man when they feel there are no better options. Trump says he will speak for forgotten Americans, and obviously many are listening.
“I have a message for all of you,” Trump said early in his long speech. “The crime and violence that today afflict our nation will soon come to an end. Beginning on January 20, 2017, safety will be restored.”
For those listening for echoes of 1968, the speech was actually pure 2016. Forget that David Duke said he was thrilled by it and concentrate on the activists on the convention floor. Because the scariest thing would be if, in 2016, the speech works. At this point, we all know that underestimating Trump is a fool’s game. But what would it mean if the speech is just one more step for Trump on the way to the White House?
Obviously, it would mean we’d have to rethink everything. As John Weaver, the GOP strategist who is in the anti-Trump camp, put it: “Hell, speeches like this are a dime a dozen in Tegucigalpa, Caracas, Asunción, and Donetsk.” Meanwhile, chess champion Garry Kasparov, channeling his inner Molly Ivins, tweeted that he’d heard the same speech plenty of times, but usually in Russian.
No one has ever heard an acceptance speech anything like Trump’s, because there has never been one. No speech as relentlessly dark. No speech so free of ideals. In the absolute darkest of times, Roosevelt famously said the only thing to fear was fear itself. In a time when America remains the richest and most powerful country in the world, Trump said the thing to fear is everything.
Those expecting Trump to use his speech to broaden his base were quickly disabused. If we’ve learned nothing about else about Trump, it’s that he’s the ultimate double-downer. On nearly every day of the convention, the Trump people flirted with at least minor disaster. When it wasn’t a bout of plagiarism or a Ted Cruz open-floor rebellion, it was Trump telling The New York Times that he was prepared to possibly abandon NATO allies. But there actually was a theme to the week, which is that Trump can win simply by appealing to the same voters who won him the GOP nomination.
It was never going to be easy. Anger rarely wins in American politics. The fact that Trump decided to use a Teleprompter — yelling as he was reading — made an angry speech seem angrier still. He harped on immigration and crime as if they were the major issues facing America. He blamed foreign policy failures on Clinton. He said Obama had divided America on race and “has made America a more dangerous environment than, frankly, I have seen or anybody in this room has ever watched or seen.”
He also claimed he was reaching out to Bernie Sanders voters with his take on American trade policy, but Sanders, who was actually live tweeting the speech, wasn’t having it. At one point he asked, “Is this guy running for president or dictator?”
That turned out to be the question of the night. And if you’re looking for a scary answer, it’s this: He’d probably be happy with either one.
Photo credit: Gage Skidmore, Creative Commons, Flickr