Not long before officially accepting his party’s nomination for president in a prime-time address Thursday evening, reporters asked Donald Trump what he hoped Americans would take away from the Republican National Convention.
“The fact that I’m very well-liked,” he said.
It was a predictably narcissistic prelude to an unusually dark speech, delivered with Trump’s trademark hyperbole, threats and falsehoods.
For the cameras, Trump strategically positioned himself in front of a bank of American flags – a red, white and blue backdrop for a red-faced, white-eyed, yellow-haired visage. Above him, a massive screen showed every derisive squint and every curl of his lips.
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For most of the next 74 minutes, he yelled about street crime, illegal immigrants, terrorism and the need for law and order. The image was both nationalistic and scary, a charismatic Batman villain wrapped in the flag, selling himself as a superhero with the unique skills to save a once-great world power supposedly drowning in weakness, corruption and violence.
“Americanism, not globalism,” Trump declared, “will be our credo.” The crowd at Quicken Loans Arena cheered wildly.
This week at the Democratic National Convention, the scene, we hope, will be different. Hillary Clinton will have a chance to appeal with hope and rationality to voters and to offer more fact-based solutions to the nation’s problems, which are considerable, but objectively nowhere near Trump’s grim landscape.
She’ll have the opportunity to rebut some of Trump’s more hysterical claims – to note that overall, violent crime is historically low, for example, despite recent upticks in a few cities – and to point out that, though not all boats are sufficiently rising, the economy is growing.
She may note, as President Barack Obama did on Friday, that illegal immigration is lower now than it was when Ronald Reagan was president. Responding to Trump’s speech, Clinton said Friday at a rally in Florida that she doesn’t recognize Trump’s “dark and divisive vision” of America and promised that Democrats will offer a far different one in Philadelphia.
Reason, however, may not be enough to win in November. Clinton has survived many political campaigns in her lengthy career, but in Trump, the first woman nominated for president faces a candidate like no other.
Democrats who underestimate Trump, with his black-hole-like pull on his party and the country, do so at the risk of losing this election. If there is one takeaway from the Republican National Convention, it’s that the 70-year-old real estate magnate and reality show persona is indeed “very well-liked” by some disaffected Americans.
A big reason for that is Trump’s appeal to white male and working-class voters, many of whom feel left behind and generally looked down on, and who want big changes in trade and immigration policies that, they believe, have made their lives worse.
In Trump, they see a rebel who trash-talks the big shots who make them feel lesser and who is willing to walk away from trade deals and close borders – even if his plans for the fallout are hazy.
On Thursday, the nominee offered no specifics, only bluster and vows to “make America rich again” by turning “bad trade deals into good trade deals.” He bellowed that he would build a “great border wall,” bring manufacturing jobs back to the Midwest, confront China and take care of veterans like they have never been taken care of before.
While he refrained from promising every American a pony, he did also vow to repeal Obamacare, fix the “total disaster” that is the Transportation Security Administration and create “millions of new jobs.”
“Nobody knows the system better than me,” he boasted, “which is why I alone can fix it.”
Born rich, he sought to portray himself as the voice of working people rendered voiceless by a “rigged” system, even as his surrogates attacked organized labor. For his efforts, he received thunderous applause from delegates, along with shouts of, “We love you Trump!”
Noise aside, deep divisions remain in the Republican Party. Trump didn’t mend them with his speech, nor did his surrogates in the convention’s four days, despite multiple efforts to do so.
The closest approximation to a unifying message was the mantra that Clinton is a horrible person who should be in prison. That reliably prompted chants of “Lock her up.”
Otherwise, much of the GOP vision was incoherent. For example, PayPal co-founder Peter Thiel took the stage Thursday and urged the Republicans not to get caught up in culture wars. “I am proud to be gay,” he said to applause. “I am proud to be a Republican, but most of all I am proud to be an American.”
Trump, in his speech, promised “to protect our LGBTQ citizens from the violence and oppression of a hateful foreign ideology.” The audience clapped, and he added: “As a Republican, it is so nice to hear you cheering for what I just said.’ ”
But the Republican platform seeks to overturn same-sex marriage and support conversion therapy for gay and lesbian children. And Trump’s running mate, Indiana Gov. Mike Pence, is a staunch social conservative with a record of opposing gay rights. Pence believes marriage should be between a man and a woman, and so do many of the voters that the Republican Party is counting on.
Such confusion could create an opening for Clinton and Democrats. Or it might be beside the point in this emotional election. Throughout, this campaign has been a battle between rage and reason.
Voters must be smart, for all of our sakes. The stakes are too high to let one man’s need to be “very well-liked” determine the fate of a nation. We can’t afford to let fear itself trump facts.