That doomsaying author, Michael Anton, ultimately joined Trump’s White House in a senior post on the National Security Council. And four years later, the president has convened what can only be described as the Flight 93 convention.
Though multiple segments during this week’s GOP gathering have tried to soften the president’s image, the convention’s apocalyptic rhetoric and repeated warnings about Democrats have loudly echoed Anton’s conservative call to arms. Last night, the culminating argument in Vice President Mike Pence’s speech seemed lifted directly from the article: “The choice in this election,” Pence insisted flatly, “is whether America remains America.” Once the proceedings are over, it’s far more likely that Trump’s campaign through Election Day will be defined by lacerating Flight 93–style alarms than fuzzy feel-good moments from this week, such as his pardon of an ex-felon and his presiding over a naturalization ceremony.
Read: The populist nationalist on Trump’s National Security Council
The convention’s opening moments set that ominous tone. The very first speaker, Charlie Kirk, the founder of the young-conservative organization Turning Point USA, anointed Trump as “the bodyguard of Western civilization.” Not long after, the leather-lunged Kimberly Guilfoyle, a Trump campaign official and the girlfriend of Donald Trump Jr., yelled that “Biden, Harris, and the rest of the socialists will fundamentally change this nation.” Not to be outdone, Trump Jr. himself declared that “the other party is attacking the very principles on which our nation was founded,” framing the election as a choice between “church, work, and school versus rioting, looting, and vandalism.” Patricia McCloskey, who this summer brandished arms at a group of Black Lives Matter protesters in St. Louis, Missouri, chimed in that Democrats “are not satisfied with spreading the chaos and violence into our communities, they want to abolish the suburbs altogether.”
In the final hour on Monday and for most of Tuesday’s program, the convention executed a whiplash-inducing turn—presenting Trump as friendly to immigrants, women, and African Americans, groups that throughout his presidency have been a frequent target not only of openly racist and sexist rhetoric, but harsh policies too.
This thorough and implausible rewrite of his history is something of a milestone: It may represent the first time in Trump’s political career that he’s acknowledged he may not be able to build a winning coalition solely by stoking his base’s racial and cultural fears and antagonism toward so-called elites. The airbrushing was an implicit concession that the perception of Trump as racist, sexist, and xenophobic constitutes a barrier between him and the swing voters he likely needs.
But last night, apart from a few passing testimonials to Trump’s personal empathy and character, the convention came down firmly on the side of alarm. South Dakota Governor Kristi Noem warned a Democratic victory would quickly unravel centuries of American history. (“It took 244 years to build this great nation—flaws and all—but we stand to lose it in a tiny fraction of that time if we continue down the path taken by the Democrats and their radical supporters.”) A police-union official described Biden and the vice-presidential nominee Kamala Harris as “the most radical anti-police ticket in history.” Pence, the evening’s final speaker, centered his address directly on the Flight 93 argument. If Trump loses, he said, “we will leave to our children and grandchildren a country that is fundamentally transformed into something else.”