CLEVELAND, Ohio -- More than 30 years ago, a Republican presidential candidate who had originally come to the party’s nomination despite resistance from the establishment, ran on a promise that it was “Morning in America,” delivering a message of optimism and a promise of progress. Last night, as he accepted the GOP’s presidential nomination here, another unlikely nominee, Donald Trump, delivered a foreboding acceptance speech heavy on imagery suggesting a country in decline and disarray. Call it “Twilight in America.”
In a remarkably lengthy speech by the usual standards of political nominating conventions, one hour and 15 minutes, Trump repeatedly cast himself as a sort of national savior -- the only person who knows how to rescue the United States from the catalog of evils he claims to see besetting it.
In Trump’s speech, the United States sounded not like the strongest economy in the world -- a place immigrants from other countries make great sacrifices to reach -- but a crumbling shell of a once-great nation, where violent death lurks around every corner, probably at the hands of an illegal immigrant or a terrorist.
“I will restore law and order in this country,” Trump thundered, standing in front of a mass of American flags and an enormous video screen that projected a close-up view of his often red and angry-looking face.
On the international stage, Trump raged about an America disrespected around the world, and plagued by weak leaders. “Not only have our citizens endured domestic disaster, but they have lived through one international humiliation after another.” Naming the presumptive Democratic nominee, who served as secretary of state for four years, he yelled, “This is the legacy of Hillary Clinton: death, destruction and weakness!”
Under a Trump administration, he promised, America would regain its rightful place in the world order.
“Americanism, not globalism, will be our credo,” he shouted. “As long as we are led by politicians who will not put America first, then we can be assured that other nations will not treat America with respect, the respect that we deserve!”
At home, he suggested that dishonesty and self-dealing within the government are rampant, as officials prey on the citizenry. “I have joined the political arena so that the powerful can no longer beat up on people that cannot defend themselves.” (To be fair, public sector corruption is a major problem -- just not in the United States.)
While presenting no evidence, he appeared to accuse Clinton of using her authority as secretary of state to line her own pockets with millions of dollars.
“I know that corruption has reached a level like never before,” he said, and added, “I alone can fix it.”
He repeated his criticism of existing international trade deals, promising to avoid the large multi-lateral agreements that have been the mainstay of global trade policies for generations. Instead, he would single-handedly force every country in the world that wants to trade with the US to negotiate an individualized deal.
“I am going to turn our bad trade agreements into great ones.”
The speech was not without its softer moments. Trump spoke warmly of his parents, wife, and children. He explicitly made overtures to the LGBTQ community, promising to protect people of non-traditional sexual orientation and gender orientations from violence. He neatly combined that promise with an attack on Islamic terrorism, eliciting a cheer from a crowd that might not otherwise have been inclined to acknowledge protection of the LGBTQ community as a priority, and then praised the crowd for their applause.
The overall effect, though, was overwhelmingly dark and foreboding. Trump’s message was plainly meant to instill a sense of fear and desperation in his audience, and to convince them that the country’s dire circumstances require not just a standard politician, but a hero, someone with almost superhuman abilities to crush America’s enemies, cleanse its streets, and restore it to greatness.
There is historical precedent for leaders like this, and when they come to power, things tend to end badly.
Last night in Cleveland, the balloons dropped and people cheered. But it will be interesting to see, in a few years, how many people who shouted themselves hoarse for Trump last night will still be willing to admit it.