Trump Time Capsule #50: 'I Alone'

Editor’s Note: This article previously appeared in a different format as part of The Atlantic’s Notes section, retired in 2021.
“Nobody knows the system better than me, which is why I alone can fix it.” (Shanghai Poster Art Centre)

No one will ever be able to say, looking back, that Donald Trump was concealing the kind of leader he wanted to be.

His convention speech last night, as discussed in a range of Atlantic coverage, was especially notable for the trait Yoni Appelbaum identifies here: what would be called in any other system a cult-of-the-personality Messianic tone. As Yoni says at the end of his piece:

The most striking aspect of his speech wasn’t his delivery, even though his tone often strayed over the line, from emphatic to strident. It wasn’t the specific policies he outlined, long fixtures of his stump speech. It was the extraordinary spectacle of a man standing on a podium, elevated above the surrounding crowd, telling the millions of Americans who were watching that he, alone, could solve their problems.

And the crowd cheered.

How different is this? Let’s choose two examples from presidents who otherwise usually stand as complete contrasts.


When George W. Bush accepted the Republican nomination in 2000, he observed that the Clinton-Gore 1990s had been economically strong, but he warned that the country was “coasting through prosperity.” (Knowing what we do about what lay ahead for Bush and the world, this speech has an amazing time-capsule quality of its own.) He said that his era’s prosperity and security were due to the sacrifices of his father’s generation, which won a war and came back to build a nation. Then:

Now the question comes to the sons and daughters of this achievement.

What is asked of us?

This is a remarkable moment in the life of our nation. Never has the promise of prosperity been so vivid. But times of plenty, like times of crisis, are tests of American character.

Prosperity can be a tool in our hands -- used to build and better our country. Or it can be a drug in our system -- dulling our sense of urgency, of empathy, of duty.

Our opportunities are too great, our lives too short, to waste this moment.

So tonight we vow to our nation.

We will seize this moment of American promise.

Barack Obama’s 2008 convention speech was not one of his best. But its theme too was our ability, as a country, to solve our problems, rather than my ability, as leader, to solve yours. In many of his speeches after becoming president, Obama has more clearly developed the idea of America continually becoming a more perfect union, a work that is the shared responsibility of all its citizens through all its generations. But even in this speech he emphasized the obligations of each to all.

For instance:

Our government should work for us, not against us. It should help us, not hurt us. It should ensure opportunity not just for those with the most money and influence, but for every American who's willing to work.

That's the promise of America, the idea that we are responsible for ourselves, but that we also rise or fall as one nation, the fundamental belief that I am my brother's keeper, I am my sister's keeper.

That’s the promise we need to keep. That's the change we need right now.

Bush: “What is asked of us?”

Obama: “That’s the promise we need to keep.”

Trump: “I am your voice. So to every parent who dreams for their child, and every child who dreams for their future, I say these words to you tonight: I'm with you, and I will fight for you, and I will win for you.”

The word “responsibility” does not appear in Trump’s speech. Nor “Congress” or “Cabinet” or “legislation” or other countries’ names, except to complain about them.


More clearly than ever before in this campaign, Trump has told us exactly who he is and how he sees his role. What happens next will reveal something about him but much more about us.

No one looking back can be in the slightest doubt that the Americans of 2016 had the evidence before them, of where this choice could lead.