Donald Trump’s supporters yearn for the country as it was and fear the country as it is. Tonight’s powerfully dystopian Trump nomination acceptance address will touch them at their deepest emotional core. It will ignite a passionate spasm of assent from those many, many Americans—mostly but not exclusively white, mostly but not exclusively less affluent and educated—who experience today as worse than yesterday, and anticipate a tomorrow worse than today.
Don’t think it won’t work. It will work. The speech will be viewed and viewed again, on cable news and social media. The travails and troubles of this dysfunctional convention will recede, even if their implications and consequences linger. Trump’s poll numbers will probably rise. Small-dollar donations will surely flow. Many wavering Republicans will come home—even if the home to which they now return has changed in ways that render it almost indistinguishable from the dwelling it used to be.
Trump’s speech was advertised as an update of Richard Nixon’s 1968 “silent majority” address. It is nothing of the kind. This is a bulletin from a grimmer and more pessimistic society than that which would shortly afterward land a man on the moon.
We extend the hand of friendship to all people, to the Russian people, to the Chinese people, to all people in the world. And we shall work toward the goal of an open world—open skies, open cities, open hearts, open minds.
Thus 1968—but not 2016.
Our goal is justice for every American. If we are to have respect for law in America, we must have laws that deserve respect. Just as we cannot have progress without order, we cannot have order without progress, and so, as we commit to order tonight, let us commit to progress.
Thus 1968—but not 2016.
Trump is very clear about what will be stopped, but the vision of what will be done is perfunctory. In 1968, that vision was vivid and detailed—including a firmly stated commitment to work for equal justice between black and white America. Despite the greater trouble of those times, the message was optimistic. If it’s not fanciful to say so, it reads now like a speech for a country of young people—people whose confidence in their country had dimmed a little, but who were ready and eager to have their confidence rekindled. That’s not the country that Donald Trump sees, and he’s probably right not to see it.
The truest thought on offer at this Trump convention is the rubric for this fourth night: Make America One Again. It’s not one country now. It’s a country that feels itself starkly divided by class, outlook, and identity. In 2012, Mitt Romney and Paul Ryan also saw a divided country. The country they spoke about was divided between makers and takers, between the 53 percent who contributed and the 47 percent who received.
Trump’s country is divided in a different way: between those who have lost a status they deserved—and those who have gained a status they do not deserve.
I have visited the laid-off factory workers, and the communities crushed by our horrible and unfair trade deals. These are the forgotten men and women of our country. People who work hard but no longer have a voice.
I AM YOUR VOICE.
I have embraced crying mothers who have lost their children because our politicians put their personal agendas before the national good. I have no patience for injustice, no tolerance for government incompetence, no sympathy for leaders who fail their citizens.
When innocent people suffer, because our political system lacks the will, or the courage, or the basic decency to enforce our laws—or worse still, has sold out to some corporate lobbyist for cash—I am not able to look the other way.
Donald Trump’s country is a country in which deserving people feel they have lost even the right to complain about what has happened to them, lest they give offense to some grievance group.
I will present the facts plainly and honestly. We cannot afford to be so politically correct anymore.
And Donald Trump’s offer to them is less what he will do—about that he is exceedingly hazy—and much more what he will say: “I am your voice,” is the powerful phrase that he uses twice. So he is, and so it must be remembered as well by those shocked and angry at what that voice has to say. As he thus speaks, he will be heard—despite all that is false and manipulative and brutal in the speaker.
But unlike Richard Nixon, Donald Trump is not speaking for a silent majority. He is speaking for a despairing minority.
The range and reach of Trump’s voice will be inescapably limited by all the people he does not speak to. He does not speak to those rising and thriving in today’s America. He does not speak to entrepreneurs and business owners. He does not speak to people who work in creative industries or the sciences or technology. He does not speak to those who feel emancipated by the lifting of inherited cultural and physical limits. He does not speak to those who feel that this modern age, for all its troubles, is also a time of miraculous achievement and astonishing possibility.
I’ve compared Donald Trump to William Jennings Bryan, who forfeited the chance in 1896 to build an alliance of all those discontented with industrial capitalism because he only truly felt at home with rural people—and could not refrain from inflammatory language about cities and city people. Tonight this comparison seems even more valid than ever. Trump’s right about the shock of globalization and the disruption of migration. But it’s not enough to be right to become president, as Henry Clay famously quipped. You have to be right in the right way and at the right time. You have to be the right messenger to carry the right message.
The political observer Michael Barone warned in 1992 that Pat Buchanan would go nowhere in politics because Americans aren’t angry people, and they don’t trust angry people with power. That’s a powerfully and enduringly true comment. Listening to the chants of “Lock her up,” you’d think that this Cleveland convention was enraged. For the first three nights, at least, that was an illusion of the television cameras. Just outside the frame, at any given moment, at least as many delegates were playing Words with Friends as yelling for extra-judicial punishment of Hillary Clinton. On the final night of the convention, the audience seemed to shout the line with real rage. But an indispensable element of Donald Trump’s success to date has been the smirking hint that the whole thing was a scam, and we were all invited to be on the inside of the joke.
But as the anger torques up, the Republican coalition has cracked up. Trump’s message is flaring white-hot—and scaring all those who sense that they have more to lose from convulsive and divisive politics than anybody could possibly gain. The passion is on one side. The weight of numbers and wealth and civic commitment is on the other. Trump’s bold gamble tonight is a bet against the casino—and Donald Trump more than anyone should know how such bets usually turn out.