The Trump campaign probably broke the law—and certainly trashed norms of republican constitutionalism dating to the very origins of the United States—when it made a campaign prop of the White House. But was Trump troubled? Absolutely not. He basked in the moment. He invited his supporters to bask with him. Bask they did.
Donald Trump is a dreadful public speaker, but a master communicator.
When he chooses to deliver a formal oration, as he chose to do on the fourth night of the convention, he visibly bores himself. He comes alive only when he can free-associate onstage about his grievances, bigotries, and hatreds. And while those speeches may seethe with dark energy, they are hemmed in by his shrinking vocabulary and egocentric content. How much rhetorical juice can be squeezed from the single and endlessly recycled lemon They were mean to me?
But even provided with the most humdrum text, Trump finds ways to convey his powerful message: All those decencies that irritate and chafe you, that you don’t dare disregard? I dare. I dare for you.
Mid-speech, Trump expatiated on the greatness of the American past. “Our American ancestors sailed across the perilous ocean to build a new life on a new continent,” he began. Almost any other candidate, even any other Republican, would feel some need to acknowledge the experience of Native Americans and enslaved Africans, to place a question mark over the concept of wild frontier and open range—the literal phrases in his text. But Trump knows that millions of his fellow Americans are sick and tired of having to pretend to care about Black and Indigenous people. He wants them to know that he doesn’t care either. That’s what they love about him.
David A. Graham: Trump is flaunting his impunity
The night before Trump’s acceptance address, a Trump supporter shot three people, killing two, in Kenosha, Wisconsin. The 17-year-old crossed state lines to carry his AR-15-style rifle to a scene of confrontation that ended in death. Some presidential nominees might have felt obliged to say something about that. Again: not Trump. “In the strongest possible terms, the Republican Party condemns the rioting, looting, arson and violence we have seen in Democrat-run cities like Kenosha, Minneapolis, Portland, Chicago, and New York,” he said. Trump spoke not a word to his followers urging them to put down their guns and quit the provocateur tactics that have so often accelerated disorder into violence. He knows that millions of his fellow Americans regard an armed white vigilante as an honorary law-enforcement officer. He wants them to know that he agrees. That’s something else they love about him.
But here’s the most important thing Trump communicates, and why his setting last night resonated so powerfully, all the way to the partisan fireworks on the National Mall spelling out TRUMP and 2020. Trump’s big reelection pitch is “law and order.” He delivered that message while himself defying the laws and rules governing the use of government resources for partisan purposes. He delivered that message after another of his 2016 campaign chairs was indicted. He delivered that message while furiously battling in court to defeat subpoenas from New York prosecutors apparently investigating him, his family, and his companies for bank fraud. He delivered that message while running out the clock on congressional subpoenas investigating him, his family, and his companies for tax fraud. No president since Richard Nixon has seen so many of his closest associates convicted of, or pleading guilty to, criminal wrongdoing.