CLEVELAND – A great darkness has descended on America. Poverty and violence increase across the land. Armed gangs roam the streets. Illegal immigrants pour across cross our borders. Some of them harbor wicked schemes. Others simply want to steal American jobs.
Overseas, death and destruction reign. The long shadow of ISIS spreads across the Middle East. Iran marshals its strength and hatches plots. Civil war rages in Syria, chaos rules in Iraq and Libya. America has abandoned her allies. Her name has become a byword among the nations.
But there is hope. A great man, wealthy and wise, has pledged to save us. He alone will ensure that “the powerful can no longer beat up on people that cannot defend themselves.” He alone will bring back our jobs, take care of our veterans, and destroy our enemies. He has promised to be our voice, to make us strong and proud and safe again. To make America great again.
That’s the picture Donald Trump painted in his acceptance speech Thursday night at the Republican National Convention. It was cartoonish and Nixonian, and it will likely be remembered as a kind of eulogy for the GOP.
But for the occasion of his coronation as leader of a doomed political party, it was entirely appropriate. After all, Trump has tapped into the anger and frustration of so many Americans in part by exaggerating their problems and the troubles facing America.
His acceptance speech, like much of his primary campaign, was an extended warning of the terrors and deprivations to come if Hillary Clinton wins the White House. On immigration, America will see “mass amnesty, mass immigration, and mass lawlessness” under Clinton. “Her plan will overwhelm your schools and hospitals, further reduce your jobs and wages, and make it harder for recent immigrants to escape from poverty,” he said. On trade and foreign policy, Clinton will bring “death, destruction and weakness.”
Especially on trade, to listen to Trump one would think globalization had laid waste the American economy. That NAFTA was “one of the worst economic deals ever made by our country.” That the Trans-Pacific Partnership “will not only destroy our manufacturing, but it will make America subject to the rulings of foreign governments.”
In his speech, Trump boasted of his VP pick, Indiana Gov. Mike Pence, promising to bring “the same economic success to America that Mike brought to Indiana.” The irony of course is that Indiana owes much of its recent economic success to free trade. What Indiana in particular doesn’t need are protectionist trade policies that will hurt its manufacturing and exports.
But of course those are just details, and not everyone pays attention to them. And details aside, most Americans sense that their country has problems. At home and abroad, eight years of the Obama administration have stunted economic growth, eroded the rule of law, and made the world more dangerous and less stable.
Many people feel they’re worse off now than they were a decade ago, even if they’re not. So when Trump says, as he did Thursday night, that “decades of record immigration have produced lower wages and higher unemployment for our citizens, especially for African-American and Latino workers,” it feels true, even though it’s not.
When Trump says we face “poverty and violence at home, war and destruction abroad,” it resonates. When he claims “Not only have our citizens endured domestic disaster, but they have lived through one international humiliation after another,” that also rings kind of true.
The question for the country is, what do we do about it? What principles will guide us? What policies should we adopt? More to the point: who will lead us, who can unite us, and who can we trust?
Can we trust Trump? His speech Thursday night was riddled with errors of fact —a speech that promised to “present the facts plainly and honestly.”
Can Trump unite us? The GOP convention this week was marked above all by schism and heavy-handed attempts to crush dissent among conservative delegates.
As for who will lead the Republican Party, that’s been decided. At one point Thursday night, Trump said to scattered laughter, “No one knows the system better than me, which is why I alone can fix it.” But he wasn’t kidding.
And now, neither is the GOP.