CLEVELAND – Perhaps you thought, or hoped, that Donald Trump would use his acceptance speech to offer a softer tone, to sketch a more compassionate vision of the nation, or to reach out to skeptics and former opponents.
Trump chose a different path – or, more precisely, the same path he has taken from the outset of the campaign. Trump will be running as Trump, the candidate of the angriest wing of the Republican Party and the most disaffected members of the American electorate.
He will run as a hard man, a tough, nationalist authoritarian for whom order is paramount. And he will advance his case by offering a dismal and profoundly gloomy account of what he called “a moment of crisis for our nation.”
“The attacks on our police, and the terrorism in our cities, threaten our very way of life,” he declared. “Any politician who does not grasp this danger is not fit to lead our country.” He spoke of a nation characterized by “violence in our streets and the chaos in our communities.”
He blamed Hillary Clinton for “death, destruction, terrorism and weakness.”
He cherry-picked statistics to suggest that the nation is in the midst of a wave of criminality at a moment of historically low crime numbers. He manipulated the facts on immigration, suggesting huge flows of illegal entrants after a long period of low or even negative immigration. If reality does not conform to what Trump needs reality to be to support his case, he will invent a new reality.
He explicitly reached out to supporters of Bernie Sanders, to “the laid-off factory workers,” and to “the communities crushed by our horrible and unfair trade deals.” The billionaire will run as a populist and he cast Clinton as a politician supported by “big business, elite media and major donors” committed to keeping “our rigged system in place.”
“She is their puppet,” he said, “and they pull the strings.”
But economics took third place behind crime and immigration. His language was incendiary and often demagogic.
He claimed that the Obama administration was indifferent to the fate of a young woman killed by an illegal immigrant, saying it viewed her as “one more child to sacrifice on the altar of open borders.” It is hard to imagine any other presidential candidate making such a charge.
And he repeatedly presented himself as a national savior who would single-handedly reverse the tide of lawlessness. “I have a message to every last person threatening the peace on our streets and the safety of our police,” Trump said. “When I take the oath of office next year, I will restore law and order to our country.”
He came back to this idea again and again. “On January 21st of 2017, the day after I take the oath of office,” he said, “Americans will finally wake up in a country where the laws of the United States are enforced.”
And lest anyone miss his point, he put it in rhetorical italics: “I am the law-and-order candidate.”
As a political matter, Trump made clear he will be a moving target. Like leaders of the European far right, he combined economic nationalism (“America First”) and populism (he pledged to be the voice of the “forgotten men and women of our country”) with his hard line on crime, immigration and “political correctness.”
His daughter Ivanka’s speech, which included a strong focus on gender equality and workplace fairness, suggested he will freely try to steal Hillary Clinton’s best issues.
But his core strategy is rooted not only in exploiting the fears of Americans but in heightening them. He will repeat his calls for “law and order” over and over. A man who has spent his life among the country’s wealthiest and most influential people will make the “elites” his whipping boy. He will paint a dark picture of his foes as serving interests other than those of their fellow citizens: “Americanism not globalism will be our credo.”
And he will play racial politics by accusing President Obama, as he did Thursday, of using “the pulpit of the presidency to divide us by race and color” and making “America a more dangerous environment for everyone.”
We are thus about to have the ugliest and most divisive presidential campaign in our history. Trump is an effective demagogue. Republicans have allowed him to take over their party. It falls to the rest of the country to resist being seduced by anger, resentment and fear.
E.J. Dionne’s email address is firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @EJDionne.