CLEVELAND — Red-faced, angry, and — by the end — visibly sweating, Donald Trump delivered the most important speech of his life Thursday night when he accepted the Republican nomination for president. It was an address filled with extravagant emotion, hyperbole and plainly ridiculous promises. Trump has officially secured his place as one of the most capable demagogues the country has ever seen.
Trumpism isn’t an ideology. It’s not an agenda. It’s not even a strategy. Trumpism is a formula. A formula that Donald Trump uses to manipulate people.
First, Trump outlandishly exaggerates how bad things are without him in charge. The country is “a more dangerous environment than frankly I have ever seen and anybody in this room has ever watched or seen,” he said Thursday, depicting the United States as a terrorized country overrun by Islamic radicals and crazed illegal immigrants committing crimes with impunity.
“Decades of progress made in bringing down crime are now being reversed,” he claimed, listing some crime statistics he cherry-picked and pulled out of context to paint a misleading picture of systemic collapse. Americans, he said, are being sacrificed “on the altar of open borders,” victimized by illegal immigrants bringing the “drugs,” “gangs” and “violence” that have “stolen too many innocent lives.”
A key assumption of Trumpist exaggeration is that facts don’t matter as much as perception and emotion. Crime has been steadily declining since the 1990s and remains drastically lower than it was a couple decades ago, as a man who lived in New York in the 1970s and 1980s must know. Data suggest that immigrants — documented and undocumented — are if anything less likely to commit crimes. The country has done a better job recovering from a devastating financial crisis than most other countries. But Americans don’t necessarily feel safer or more secure. Trump justifies and amplifies anxieties until reality seems false.
Next Trump blames others in the simplest possible terms. At this stage, Trump is often at his most vulgar or bigoted. His Trump University lawsuit is not going well because the judge is Mexican, Muslims are a threat and should be kept out of the country. And so forth.
Trump was not at his most offensive Thursday. But he said that President Obama believes American lives aren’t “worth protecting” against dangerous illegal immigrants. He essentially accused FBI Director James Comey of corruption in the Hillary Clinton e-mail probe. He raised the specter of Syrian refugees, who are in fact thoroughly screened, bringing “violence, hatred or oppression” to American shores, when they are seeking to escape those evils. And he blamed Hillary Clinton for bringing “death, destruction and weakness” to the country and the world.
Practically everyone Trump blames is part of a “rigged” system. Problems do not occur; they are imposed by politicians unwilling to put “America first,” the two-word theme of his Thursday speech. “The problems we face now – poverty and violence at home, war and destruction abroad — will last only as long as we continue relying on the same politicians who created them in the first place,” he said (emphasis mine).
Then, Trump assures people he — and only he — can solve all the problems, and fast. “Nobody knows the system better than me, which is why I alone can fix it,” he said. “The crime and violence that today afflicts our nation will soon — and I mean very soon — come to an end. Beginning on January 20th 2017, safety will be restored.”
He will bring jobs “roaring back into our country” — “and it will happen fast.”
On the Islamic State, “We’re going to win, and we’re going to win fast!” he screamed.
Immigration? Easy. “We can solve this problem so quickly.”
How? How is almost an unnecessary question in Trumpist reasoning. Because problems are imposed by corrupt people, they can be instantly removed by someone who isn’t corrupt. So Trump offers few, if any details about how he would work the miracles he promises.
He called himself “the law-and-order candidate” Thursday, but his crime plan appears to consist of appointing “the best prosecutors and law enforcement officials.” He would also build a border wall to stop illegal immigration, even though it would do no such thing. His terrorism plan consists of having “the best — absolutely the best — intelligence-gathering operation in the world,” which we already have, working with allies to destroy the Islamic state, which is already our strategy, and suspending immigration from “any nation that has been compromised by terrorism,” which would do nothing to combat homegrown extremism or harm the Islamic State.
His health-care policy came in two sentences: “We will repeal and replace disastrous Obamacare. You will be able to choose your own doctor again.” On trade, he promised to “totally” renegotiate NAFTA into “a much better deal” and “turn our bad trade agreements into great ones,” by “using the greatest businesspeople in the world.”
Avoiding detail not only covers up raw ignorance. It is a way to escape accountability. Making few specific commitments leaves him with maximum room to maneuver later.
To various degrees and in various ways, more traditional American politicians have used elements of Trumpist “reasoning” to whip up populist enthusiasm. In that sense, he does not represent some wholly new spirit in U.S. politics, but he is a reflection of its worst incentives and a magnification of its worst pathologies. Trump’s exaggerations are so over-the-top, his scapegoating so simplistic, his stated worldview so untethered from reality, his lack of a positive agenda so blatant, he distinguishes himself not just in degree but in quality from the lesser demagogues in American politics.
No nation deserves Trump. But if Americans reward Trumpism, they will come close.