In that moment, it seemed unlikely that Trump's campaign would end successfully. He trailed Hillary Clinton relatively narrowly, but history suggested that his insurgent campaign would founder as the election approached. Despite his assertively unapologetic primary campaign, it seemed fair to expect that the speech he gave on that evening would attempt to establish a general-election campaign aimed at broadening his base.
It didn’t. The speech Trump gave four years ago was, like so many other parts of Trump’s campaign, dark, angry, deceptive and aimed at riling up the people who already supported his candidacy. He offered a slew of projections and promises that, four years later, seem as bizarre and unlikely as they did then. Importantly, he detailed an approach to the job that seemed dissonant at the time but has been an undercurrent ever since.
And, of course, he promised that he alone could fix the problems the nation faced. In November, voters will be asked to evaluate how he did.
The speech began as one might expect. Trump formally accepted the nomination and then celebrated having received more primary votes than any previous Republican nominee. It was an accomplishment boosted both by high turnout, the relatively small number of prior candidates in the modern era and the expansion of the population of the United States. But it was a metric that could be parlayed into a victory lap, and so it was.
Those niceties complete, Trump offered a concise summary of his thesis.
“Together, we will lead our party back to the White House, and we will lead our country back to safety, prosperity and peace,” he said. “We will be a country of generosity and warmth. But we will also be a country of law and order.”
There had been two events in the preceding several weeks that amplified that latter message. In mid-June, a man claiming loyalty to the Islamic State entered a gay nightclub in Orlando and killed more than 50 people. A few weeks later, a man in Dallas shot and killed five police officers as a Black Lives Matter protest was happening nearby.
To Trump, these weren’t isolated acts of violence. They were evidence of a deep-seated danger.
“Our convention occurs at a moment of crisis for our nation,” Trump continued. “The attacks on our police, and the terrorism in our cities, threaten our very way of life. Any politician who does not grasp this danger is not fit to lead our country.”
He offered the country a promise.
“I have a message for all of you: The crime and violence that today afflicts our nation will soon — and I mean very soon — come to an end,” he said. “Beginning on January 20th, 2017, safety will be restored.”
To many observers in the moment, it was a bit perplexing. Beyond the aforementioned incidents, it didn’t seem as though there was any particularly chaotic situation in the country. But it served Trump’s purposes to suggest that there was and that it demanded an immediate solution, so a speech that might have been expected to be an effort to embrace Democrats was instead largely a warning about what Democrats had wrought.
The pattern Trump used in elevating the issue of crime was the pattern he used over and over throughout the rest of his speech. Present and exaggerate a problem, often using cherry-picked statistics. Insist that he — and only he — could and would quickly bring it to an end. His infamous “I alone can fix it” comment that came later in the speech referred somewhat narrowly to what he presented as a thorough corruption in Washington. While the line has been regularly offered out of that context, as we did above, the sentiment it encapsulates was pervasive.
It’s hard not to consider Trump’s focus on crime and danger outside the context of the current moment. Trump’s reelection campaign has produced ads warning that his presumptive 2020 opponent, former vice president Joe Biden, would preside over similarly dangerous times should he win in November. To make that point, Trump’s campaign repeatedly highlights recent acts of violence — violence that, of course, has occurred under Trump.
Four years ago, he isolated a few data points to suggest a country growing more dangerous. He noted increases in homicides in large cities, including Chicago and Washington, something he attributed to the Obama administration’s “rollback of criminal enforcement.” That violent crime had reached 40-year lows under President Barack Obama went unmentioned.
In his first two years in office, the only two for which data are complete, the violent crime rate didn’t drop below the low point seen under Obama. It didn’t even match that low.
Trump also revisited the theme that probably earned him the nomination in the first place.
“The number of new illegal immigrant families who have crossed the border so far this year already exceeds the entire total from 2015,” he said. “They are being released by the tens of thousands into our communities with no regard for the impact on public safety or resources.”
He then told a story about a young woman who was killed by an undocumented immigrant, something that would become a staple of his speeches as president.
When Trump similarly focused on immigration during his speech announcing his candidacy the prior June, his announcement was viewed as a lark. So his accusations that immigrants from Mexico were criminals and rapists led to a private-sector blowback, with business partners cutting ties with the Trump Organization and its chief executive. That, though, elevated awareness of Trump’s fiercely anti-immigrant campaign rhetoric, rhetoric that matched what conservative media outlets had been telling Republican voters but that Republican elected officials avoided both as a political calculation and, well, because it was largely false.
Trump’s speech at the convention was one of a few he has given over the past five years that deliberately tried to remain within the boundaries of accuracy, territory in which Trump isn’t always comfortable. (“I will present the facts plainly and honestly,” Trump said. “We cannot afford to be so politically correct anymore.”) Doing so meant making a relatively unremarkable situation on the border seem alarming. The number of apprehensions at the border in 2015 was also near a 40-year low. But the number of families apprehended was higher, so Trump focused on that.
After Trump took office, the number of families apprehended at the southern border first declined and then soared, pushing total apprehensions to levels not seen in decades. This was the catalyst for Trump’s national-emergency declaration aimed at building a wall on the border, and thereby upholding a promise he made repeatedly in 2016, including during that speech. The number of family apprehensions soon declined (well before the wall was actually built), but the national emergency remains.
Trump then turned his attention to the economy.
Under Obama, the Great Recession, which began in 2008, ended and the nation slowly began to regain steam. Again, though, Trump cherry-picked numbers, this time highlighting data points aimed at appealing to nonwhite listeners.
“Nearly 4 in 10 African American children are living in poverty,” Trump said, “while 58 percent of African American youth are now not employed. Two million more Latinos are in poverty today than when President Obama took his oath of office less than eight years ago.”
That figure about African American youth is misleading, as The Washington Post has repeatedly documented. It includes anyone who isn’t working at all — including students or others not actually looking for jobs. In 2019, by comparison, 76 percent of black Americans younger than 20 were unemployed. By pegging the Hispanic poverty level to the day Obama took office, Trump’s rhetoric benefited from the fact that poverty levels lagged the economic crisis, meaning that the number of people in poverty grew after the recession ended.
In 2018, it’s estimated that the rate of poverty among black children had fallen to about 30 percent. Where that figure stands in the current economic climate is unknown.
“And yet, what do we have to show for it?” Trump asked. “Our roads and bridges are falling apart, our airports are Third World condition, and 43 million Americans are on food stamps.”
After a brief riff on foreign policy, rattling off a number of Fox News-friendly accusations against Obama and Clinton (including a pointed mention of the 2012 attack on the U.S. Consulate in Benghazi, Libya), he pivoted to his proposals.
“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,” Trump said. “A change in leadership is required to get a change in outcomes. Tonight, I will share with you my plan of action for America.
“The most important difference between our plan and that of our opponent is that our plan will put America first,” Trump said. “Americanism, not globalism, will be our credo.”
That included an overhaul of trade policy. Voters who supported Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) would “join our movement,” Trump predicted, “because we will fix his biggest single issue: trade deals that strip our country of our jobs and strip us of our wealth as a country.”
Some of the most jarring comments from Trump’s speech center on race.
“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 than, frankly, I have ever seen and anybody in this room has ever watched or seen,” Trump said.
Obama’s administration had “failed America’s inner cities,” he said, using his preferred shorthand for black Americans.
“It’s failed them on education,” Trump said. “It’s failed them on jobs. It’s failed them on crime. It’s failed them on every single level.”
“When I am president, I will work to ensure that all of our kids are treated equally, and protected equally,” he insisted. “Every action I take, I will ask myself: Does this make life better for young Americans in Baltimore, in Chicago, in Detroit, in Ferguson, who have as much of a right to live out their dreams as any other child in America?”
This is presumably part of the “generosity and warmth” Trump insisted would be part of his presidency. It can be judged as a promise on its own merits.
Trump then switched to the issue of terrorism. He pledged to eradicate the Islamic State, the last territorial vestiges of which were eliminated in early 2019. He also pledged to stamp out “Islamic terrorism” more broadly, insisting that the United States would “win fast.”
To that end, he reiterated his pledge to “suspend immigration from any nation that has been compromised by terrorism until such time as proven vetting mechanisms have been put in place.”
“We don’t want them in our country,” he added off the cuff.
As president, Trump did implement multiple versions of his travel ban, after moderating it to be less specifically about adherents of Islam.
His speech then pivoted back to immigration, looping the acceptance of refugees from conflict-ridden areas such as Syria in with immigrants crossing into the United States illegally.
“We are going to be considerate and compassionate to everyone,” he said. “But my greatest compassion will be for our own struggling citizens.” Another pattern: I will be nice, but, more important, I will be tough.
He has been the latter, at least. As president, Trump sharply reduced refugee immigration into the country. He moved to end the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program, which offered those who’d come to the United States illegally as children a way to remain here legally.
Trump accused Clinton of supporting policies that offered economic advantages to immigrants over U.S.-born workers, bringing him back to the economy.
“I have made billions of dollars in business making deals — now I’m going to make our country rich again,” he said. He promised new trade deals (see above) as well as a battery of other proposals.
But governing is trickier than orating. For example, Trump said he would “bring our jobs back to Ohio and Pennsylvania and New York and Michigan and all of America.” Because of the coronavirus pandemic, the number of people working in each of those states is lower than when Trump took office. In fact, it’s lower than when Obama took office.
At another point, he promised he would “never, ever sign bad trade deals.” Trump has expressed frustration about the parameters of the preliminary trade deal he signed with China.
On other economic points, Trump hit closer to the mark. He promised massive tax cuts, which he delivered — although his pledge that “middle-income Americans will experience profound relief” doesn’t capture what happened, and his pledge to simplify filing was abandoned.
“We will repeal and replace disastrous Obamacare,” Trump said at another point. “You will be able to choose your own doctor again.”
An effort to replace the Affordable Care Act, better known as Obamacare, failed in the summer of 2017. Congress did repeal the individual coverage mandate it included as part of the aforementioned tax law, but as recently as Sunday, Trump was still promising that his administration would soon reveal a full replacement to the law.
He promised to help relieve student debt, which didn’t happen. He promised to rebuild the military, which he often insists he did. He promised to provide veterans with the ability to choose their own doctor or hospital, something Obama had already done. He promised to get rid of the Johnson Amendment, which limits the ability of religious institutions to weigh in on politics. He says he did this, but he didn’t.
After more than an hour and after recognizing his family both present and departed, Trump reached his conclusion.
“History is watching us now,” he said. “It’s waiting to see if we will rise to the occasion, and if we will show the whole world that America is still free and independent and strong. I’m asking for your support tonight so that I can be your champion in the White House.”
He ended with the now-familiar refrain: “We will Make America Great Again!”
But his actual conclusion, the moment in which he most fully summarized his feelings in the moment, came a bit before that, as he was winding up to the soaring rhetoric plugged into his teleprompter.
“Remember: All of the people telling you that you can’t have the country you want are the same people that wouldn’t stand” — a brief stumble — “I mean, they said Trump doesn’t have a chance of being here tonight,” Trump said, ad-libbing. “Not a chance! The same people. Oh, we love defeating those people, don’t we? Love it, love it, love it.”
That was what Trump was there to celebrate. A few minutes later, he was onstage with wife Melania Trump and Mike and Karen Pence, and balloons were falling and people were shouting and clapping and hurrahing at the four of them and their families.
It’s hard to imagine that Trump has enjoyed any moment more in the four years since.