That was the message to the American people tonight from Donald J. Trump, a man who claims to be one of the richest people in the world and also the working man’s best friend; a man who rallied white voters throughout the primaries by insulting and attacking immigrants, Mexicans, Muslims and the women who challenge him in the elections; a twice-divorced man whose businesses have declared bankruptcy and been sued for fraud against consumers, but who found a way to talk to voters in the plain language of an everyday guy instead of the plastic pabulum of political spin.
The delegates on the convention floor ate it up. In that arena at least, Trump won big.
It remains to be seen how he played out in TV-land with working mothers, Hispanic families, seniors in assisted living, kids fresh out of college, urban office workers, suburban teachers, soybean farmers and tech wizards in Silicon Valley.
This much is for sure: The flamboyant, mischievous braggart who was dismissed as a joke only months ago and who ran and won an outrageous, divisive but riveting un-campaign, was tonight wrapped in all the traditional trimmings of American politics.
The political normalization of Donald Trump, maverick, has reached another level.
And that includes giving a speech that was very, very, very long.
Those who hoped, whether from malice or merriment, that Trump would be at his full snarling, politically incorrect, irreverent peak were disappointed.
Those who hoped that Trump would draw from some hidden reservoir of humility to offer olive branches and open doors to groups he slammed were disappointed, too.
Trump’s speech was as close to a generic, plain vanilla campaign speech as he may ever get.
It wasn’t that close, though. Three billionaires in a row introduced Trump, for example. The speech was laden with known factual errors, outright lies and distortions, as his speeches always are. He eschewed any personal touches. There was no good old American optimism. Mostly, it was mean.
Was he presidential? Was he disciplined and dignified? Did he soothe voters who think he is a hothead? Perhaps, but it won’t mean a thing unless he stays the course for nearly four more months.
Critique and attack
Donald Trump’s acceptance speech was not inspirational in any regard. It was four parts critique and attack, one part promise and apple pie. Every theme in his speech was built on a foundation of pessimism, the idea that America today is a “disaster.”
Trump’s America is one where George W. Bush never existed and never started a war. Every disaster in the world was caused by Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton. Buh-lieve me.
“This is the legacy of Hillary Clinton: death, destruction, terrorism and weakness,” Trump declared.
“Again” was the motif: We once were strong, we now are weak, I’ll make us strong again.
“We will lead our country back to safety, prosperity, and peace,” he said near the beginning. “We will be a country of generosity and warmth. But we also will be a country of law and order.”
Law and order was the dominant message, a more palatable version of the demagogic scapegoating of his primary crusade. “I have a message for all of you: the crime and violence that today afflicts our nation will soon come to an end,” he said. “Beginning on January 20th 2017, safety will be restored.” He used the phrase “law and order” again and again, an intentional nod to Richard Nixon’s 1968 campaign.
The role of conventions
Coming three months before the election, summertime conventions aren’t huge influences on voting behavior in the fall. Perhaps that is why the Trump campaign treated the convention in a way that we know was blasé and careless. It has not been the grandiose Trump production he promised. It wasn’t the greatest ever.
But even though conventions will by old news by November, they do important work on the infrastructure of campaigns.
Campaigns can boost or sap the morale and energy of party activists and professionals. They can display on a big stage the full throttle support of the vanquished contenders – or not. Conventions can serve as the venue where factions and feuders bury their hatchets. They raise boxcars of dough for the party. Traditionally, they put a happy spotlight of the party’s most popular figures from past and present that deliver inspiring or substantive speeches. They can put a sharp focus a few key issues and try out catchphrases, rhetoric and battle cries. They look to the party’s far horizon and pick potential stars to show off and groom. They try to convey a sense that the party is ruthlessly efficient, competent and united.
Most important, conventions build the stage and mood for the presidential nominee to give the speech of a lifetime and bask in the adulation of the tribe.
Examples of especially successful modern conventions would include Ronald Reagan’s in 1980, Bill Clinton’s in 1992 and Barack Obama’s in 2008. The failure list includes Hubert Humphrey’s 1968 convention in Chicago, George McGovern in ’72 and Bush the Elder in ’92.
Whether or not it matters much in November, the Republican National Convention has simply not done the basic chores. It has been marred by gaffes, party infighting, treachery and sloppy production.
The Trump show
The list of lowlights is impressive:
· Long before the convention started it was nicknamed the No-Show Convention. There would be no former Republican presidents or vice presidents. The big names in the Senate Republican caucus were AWOL: John McCain, Kelly Ayotte, Jeff Flake and Mark Kirk. Defeated candidates Jeb Bush, Lindsey Graham and Ohio host John Kasich flamboyantly absented themselves. The party’s Mt. Rushmore figures were far away, people like George Schultz, Brent Scowcroft, Colin Powell, Dick Cheney.
· It was the whitest assemblage of convention delegates in 100 years. Of the 2,472 delegates, 18 were black, less than 1 percent.
· On opening day, the Trump forces had to beat off a Never Trump uprising on the convention floor. It was good, unscripted dramatic television, but exposed a bloody gash in the party live and in color.
· In the middle of floor program Monday night, Trump upstaged the convention program by going on a cable news show and promoting his appearance in Tweets.
· The highlight of Day One was the speech by Melania Trump. The speech, of course, had big plagiarized chunks – an instant mini-scandal.
· Tuesday was cleanup day on Aisle Melania and it dominated the news.
· The Tuesday program was a parade of B-list speakers trashing Clinton with the cudgels. The night’s only drama came when Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell was booed.
· The primetime program cratered on Wednesday. Ted Cruz sealed his reputation as the senator most despised by fellow senators by accepting a speaking role and then refusing to endorse or even salute Trump. He was practically booed off the stage by frothing Trump delegates and more quietly cheered by Trump haters. It was open resurrection.
· Shortly after Cruz left the podium, the arena AV system crashed and all the Jumbotron monitors went to black. Delegates couldn’t see close up speeches by Eric Trump and Next Gingrich. That’s not a disaster, but the vice presidential nominee, Mike Pence was up next. There were no Jumbotrons for the first couple minutes of the convention’s second most important moment. If this had been “The Apprentice” or “Miss Universe,” heads would have rolled.
· Cruz kept feeding the anger beast on Thursday when he said, “I am not in the habit of supporting people who attack my wife and attack my father.” He added that he was not a “servile puppy dog.” Always good to know.
What was accomplished in Cleveland?
Trump will leave Cleveland with no new formal alliances, endorsements and top boosters. He has yet to show that his staff and organization can competently run a modern campaign. He didn’t convince any high-profile no-shows to show.
On the positive side, convention delegates, including many who supported other candidates, did seem enthusiastic about Trump on the convention floor. None of the coup attempts succeeded. Mike Pence gave a solid, professional performance. And none of the predicted mega-protests materialized.
And, finally, there was Trump, the speech. For every smile, there was a snarl. “America is a nation of believers, dreamers, and strivers that is being led by a group of censors, critics, and cynics,” Trump said.
Trump’s acceptance speech wasn’t a spectacle of glitz. It wasn’t huge. It wasn’t a disaster. It wasn’t classic Trump, either. It was perhaps a competent work of political marketing.
How the speech and the convention play in the weeks ahead, and whether it all matters very much, is unpredictable, like everything in the weird campaign of Donald Trump. But by following the basic scripts of American political conventions, Trump made his quest for the White House a little less weird.