CLEVELAND — The Republican presidential convention this week has highlighted Donald Trump’s view of America — and it sounds like a terrible, terrible place.
In Trump’s eyes, the United States is practically a Third World country, with crumbling roads, aging bridges and decrepit airports. It’s led by “stupid people” — even Mexico has smarter leaders, he says — and the entire world is laughing at America and its “depleted military.” Cities have “exploded” with violence; Islamic State fighters posing as refugees might attack at any moment; and the economy is “doing lousy,” with a real unemployment rate that could be eight times as high as the official one.
Trump even compared the health of the nation to a friend who is dying of cancer and is barely holding on.
“If we don’t get tough, and if we don’t get smart, and fast, we’re not going to have our country anymore,” Trump said in a recent policy speech. “There will be nothing, absolutely nothing, left.”
Trump promises that if he becomes president, all of these problems will dissolve and he will fulfill his “Make America Great Again” slogan. But his current assessment of the state of the union is one of the most dismal and depressing messages ever pushed by a major-party nominee, and it has been amplified by a long line of convention speakers this week.
“The world has lost confidence in us. The inevitable consequence: weakness, decline, and, ultimately, chaos and oblivion,” South Carolina Lt. Gov. Henry McMaster said on Tuesday night. “We feel an eerie unease.”
The overwhelmingly gloomy tone stands in stark contrast to previous conventions that struck a much more celebratory note, with nominees sharing their sunny vision for the future. Rather than Ronald Reagan’s “Morning in America,” Trump talks of a dark and long night.
Trump continued to deliver his heavy message on Thursday night as he accused President Obama of a “rollback of criminal enforcement,” resulting in a burst of murders in several major cities. Trump said in his prepared remarks that “illegal immigrant families” are “being released by the tens of thousands into our communities with no regard for the impact on public safety or resources.” Abroad, Trump said Americans have “lived through one international embarrassment after another.”
“This will all change in 2017,” said Trump, who spent more time detailing the country’s problems than his proposed solutions, according to his prepared remarks.
Staying negative could turn off many general-election voters, and it risks clashing with their personal experience, because life has improved for many Americans in recent years.
Last month, the unemployment rate stood at 4.9 percent — lower than the seven-decade average of 5.8 percent and less than half of the 10 percent jobless rate that marked the peak of the Great Recession in October 2009. Although wages have largely remained stagnant, the Labor Department and wage analysts have noted a recent uptick in employee pay that, although small, represents the biggest such increase in years. Meanwhile, consumer confidence has rebounded to above-average levels after plummeting to all-time lows in 2008 and early 2009, according to the Conference Board and the Michigan Survey of Consumers.
Violent crime rates also have fallen significantly since the 1990s, despite recent spikes in the number of homicides in several major cities. The Islamic State has been severely weakened and has lost more than half of the land it once controlled in Iraq and Syria; many intelligence experts say the recent attacks inspired by the group in California, Orlando and southern France are a sign of desperation rather than strength.
Democrat Hillary Clinton has presented a much more positive view of the country, saying that America is already great. A few fellow Republicans have also gently pushed Trump to deliver a more hopeful vision.
“Our party has to be in the long term — and in the medium and the short term — a unifying, a lifting and a hopeful party,” Ohio Gov. John Kasich told members of Michigan’s GOP convention delegation over breakfast Tuesday. “That party that can enunciate the hopes and dreams and the unity is the party that’s going to do well.”
Trump has said the November election will give voters two options: more of the same with Clinton or something completely different with him.
According to a Washington Post-ABC News poll this month, 28 percent of those surveyed said they thought the country was going in the right direction, while 68 percent said it was on the wrong track. While decidedly negative, optimism is slightly higher than when Obama was elected during the recession in 2008: Then, 19 percent of those polled said the country was headed in the right direction.
Still, many American families continue to feel financially insecure. A Washington Post-ABC News poll in March found that a third of working, middle- and upper-middle class Americans said they struggle to maintain their current standard of living. Republican voters who said they were struggling financially were more likely to support Trump’s nomination than those who said they were living comfortably or felt as if they were moving up in life, according to the poll.
Ben S. Bernanke, a former chairman of the Federal Reserve, recently wrote that although measures of personal financial security have largely returned to pre-recession levels, many people continue to hold stubbornly negative views about the economy and diminished expectations for the future.
“Without doubt, the economic problems facing the country are real, and require serious and sustained responses,” Bernanke said in a June 30 blog post. “But while perceptions of economic stress are certainly roiling our national politics, it may also be that our roiled politics are worsening how we collectively perceive the economy.”
This division falls along party lines: Nearly 6 in 10 Democrats in a recent CNN/ORC poll rated the national economy as at least “somewhat good,” compared with about 4 in 10 independents and fewer than 3 in 10 Republicans.
Unease about the future is not just about economic stability. Many Trump supporters also worry that the country is no longer safe, especially following a series of terrorist attacks and the recent killings of police officers in Dallas and Baton Rouge. Polling has shown growing distrust in politicians, government and the media.
In Cleveland, convention speakers have stoked those fears. The theme on the first day was “Make America Safe Again,” and speakers included a father whose teenage son was murdered by a gang member living in the country illegally, a mother who blamed her son’s death in Libya on Clinton, and a U.S. Marine Corps veteran who graphically described the 2012 attacks in Benghazi, Libya.
“We cannot continue down this path,” retired Lt. Gen. Michael Flynn, whom Trump considered as his running mate, told an ever-dwindling crowd late Monday night. “More lives are at stake. Our way of life is in jeopardy. Our very existence is threatened.”
Themes of terrorism and crime came up again Tuesday, when the convention was supposed to focus on making “America Work Again.” Most speakers instead listed reasons why Clinton should not be president or should be prosecuted.
“We live in dangerous times,” said Chris W. Cox, executive director of the National Rifle Association’s Institute for Legislative Action. “We’re worried, and we have reason to be.”
During the primary campaign, Trump often started his rallies by reading depressing statistics about the economy of the town or state he was visiting, sometimes to the annoyance of local Republican leaders who have worked hard to boost their local economies. Republican governors have been especially sensitive to Trump’s critiques.
At a rally in early May in South Bend, Ind., Trump said that the national unemployment rate is “20 percent or more” and that the official unemployment rate was created “to make politicians look good.” Trump promised to stop the local air-conditioner factory from moving to Mexico, along with other improbable vows.
“Don’t be depressed,” Trump said, “because we’re going to fix it.”
Last week, Trump selected Indiana Gov. Mike Pence as his running mate and said that his primary reason for doing so was Indiana’s booming economy, job creation and low unemployment rate.
At the convention Tuesday night, Sen. Jeff Sessions (R-Ala.), who has closely advised Trump for months, sounded Trumpian in his description of the country.
“Our political system is not working. We operate like the trench warfare battles of World War I, where hundreds of thousands die but no ground is gained,” Sessions said. “Median incomes have declined. Terrorist attacks are increasing. Respect for America has fallen. Crime is rising, and the president, he blames the police.”
The theme Wednesday was “Make America First Again,” but the topics and tone did not adjust accordingly. On stage, former House speaker Newt Gingrich (Ga.) said that the United States is losing the war on terrorism; that the threat to the nation was “worse than September 11” of 2001; and that electing Clinton could lead to a terrorist nuclear attack on a U.S. city.
Trump’s campaign chairman, Paul Manafort, insisted that the tone this week has not been a downer. Instead, he said he senses a joyous vibe.
“There is an anger among the delegates that is out there in America,” Manafort told reporters. “People are feeling frustrated by the failed leadership, by the difficult economic times and by their fear of living in their communities. But that’s not the tone of the convention.”
Scott Clement and Emily Guskin in Washington contributed to this report.