Donald Trump accepted the nomination of the Republican Party for president by appealing to, and fanning the flames of fear and resentment. It was notable for a presidential convention acceptance speech in that it had so little hope, vision, or concrete examples of how Trump would advance his agenda and “Make America Great Again.” In essence he is saying, I am great so give me America. There is chaos. It’s a dangerous world. He will restore order. And he then went on to tell us just how chaotic and dangerous it is.
This is the classic theme of an authoritarian seeking to manipulate the masses by raw emotion. In his telling, the United States is violent, overrun by illegal immigrants, humiliated on the world stage and unable to get up off the mat. “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,” he said. Dangerous illegal immigrants are roaming free, he insists. We’ve never been this corrupt! It’s never been this dangerous! It is practically apocalyptic. Our airports are in “Third-World” shape.
The solution is not a particular set of policies, or any policies — it is him. “These are the forgotten men and women of our country. People who work hard but no longer have a voice. I am your voice,” he said. No clearer statement of the strongman — the all-knowing person whom one must trust to solve our problems — has ever been spoken by an American presidential nominee. This is the talk of 1930s fascists, tin pot dictators and snake oil salesman.
“Nobody knows the system better than me, which is why I alone can fix it,” he says. I alone. Consider that for the moment. It’s a recipe for investing all faith, all power, all hopes in a single individual. He promises repeatedly to tell us how he is going to accomplish this. He never does. Only the promise of raw power is offered. “I am the law and order candidate,” he announces.
The language reeks of authoritarian lovers and authoritarians. “America First” comes care of Charles Lindbergh. They’ve been betrayed, and only he can set things right. “Big business, elite media and major donors are lining up behind the campaign of my opponent because they know she will keep our rigged system in place.” That’s care of Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) whom he praised — twice.
With breathtaking hypocrisy he attacks President Obama for using race to divide us. “The irresponsible rhetoric of our president, who has used the pulpit of the presidency to divide us by race and color, has made America a more dangerous environment for everyone.” That comes from the man who called Hispanics “criminals” and wants to ban all Muslims.
His foreign policy lacks content. “To make life safe in America, we must also address the growing threats we face from outside America: We are going to defeat the barbarians of ISIS.” How? Don’t worry, he is the Great Leader who will figure it all out. Intending to tell us Iran is on the road to nuclear weapons, he instead said, “Iraq is on the path to nuclear weapons.” What’s one letter, between friends?
As would be expected, he placed great weight on the threat and fear of illegal immigrants, who in his telling are murderers. Again and again he returned to the handful of murders committed by illegal immigrants. He repeated his false claim that we have unlimited immigration and claimed they are stealing our jobs. He repeats the lie that Clinton wants unlimited immigration. (“Hillary Clinton is proposing mass amnesty, mass immigration and mass lawlessness.”) Fear. We’re being overrun. Your children may be killed. That is not just the implicit message, but the explicit one. More than any single issue that was his calling card.
Repudiating the idea of free trade zones, he sells out our Asian allies, giving China what it has wanted (defeat of the Trans-Pacific Partnership). He’ll tear up treaties — because he says he can. Tax reform of unspecified nature will make us all rich. Deregulation of unknown proportions will set business free. He falsely accuses Clinton of wanting to abolish the Second Amendment; he’ll protect it.
The scant mention of social issues amounts to a promise to protect LGBTQ (an acronym he stumbled over) citizens. He complimented his (new) party for applauding the idea we should protect these Americans. Social conservatives get nothing for debasing themselves to a man who embodies no Christian — or other religious tradition’s — values.
There was a bright moment: When the crowd chanted, “Lock her up!” Trump responded, “Let’s defeat her.” It was a rare moment of sanity and discipline. It was a brief moment however. He screamed at full volume for a good deal of the speech, throwing in his telltale “believe me” and “not going to happen any more” catch-phrases.
There was not a single concrete idea in the whole thing. However, if it were merely frivolous and dumb — as have been all the speeches preceding it — that would be one thing. However, it is a dark, foreboding vision, a justification for a caudillo, a Great Leader, a strongman. Trust in him and you’ll receive the benefit of his mystical powers and insights unattainable by mere mortals.
He does understand that “people want change.” He spoke to the forgotten people and declared he is their voice. You see, they no longer speak for themselves. He does. People, you see, “cannot defend themselves.” They are, I suppose, weak and helpless. Hence the need for the strongman.
One cannot emphasize enough how un-Republican and un-democratic (little “d”) the speech is. In the resort to mob emotion — previously accompanied by calls for violence — is the appeal to cast aside reason and self determination. In the gloom and doom is the repudiation of Ronald Reagan’s sunny optimism. In the isolationism is the banishment of Teddy Roosevelt, Ike, both Bush presidents and every other Republican who believed in America’s unique ability and responsibility to lead the world. Forget the Shining City on the Hill. Now it’s the Heart of Darkness.
We have never had such a candidate, someone who repudiates American virtues of inclusion and optimism and someone who thinks America is such a rotten place. Those who saw through Trump from the beginning should feel entirely vindicated while his apologists once again look like dupes. Sen. Ted Cruz, regardless of the politics, is on the side of virtue. To be a conservative is to reject Trumpism.
As we shift to Philadelphia the question now becomes whether Clinton can repudiate Trump’s vision in such a way as to remind us of our shared humanity and innate decency. God help us if she cannot.