Donald Trump’s lengthy Republican nomination convention speech was derided as “dark” by many pundits. From just one CNN roundup alone, we learn that David Gergen thought Trump gave his “vision for the Apocalypse,” that Jeffrey Toobin thought it was a “dark vision of America,” and that others thought it “hate speech,” “hateful,” and “pessimistic, angry, sneeringly and unsmilingly fascistic.”
Contributor Ruth Ben-Ghiat wrote:
It’s a trick used by repressive politicians throughout history: Depict the country as under siege by criminals and foreigners, riddled with crime and taken advantage of by other nations. Propose yourself as the strongman who alone can end this state of crisis and bring back peace and unity.
These words would have far more impact if folks like Jeff Toobin didn’t make such claims about every Republican candidate who ever existed. One wishes the entire Democratic media/pundit complex could be forced to read “The Boy Who Cried Wolf” until they understood its lesson.
Besides, it’s not a “strongman” tactic to say you’re uniquely qualified to fix problems or a “repressive politician” tactic to say the country has serious threats. That’s just a typical politician tactic! There have certainly been candidates who tried to argue that everything was fine, just fine, in convention nomination speeches. But we call those people one of two things: incumbents trying to win re-election, or losers.
When you’re trying to take the White House from the sitting party, your job is to say that things are seriously bad and that you’re the guy to fix them.
To that end, CNN contributor Tara Setmayer had one of the best analyses:
Donald Trump’s acceptance speech felt more like a longwinded State of the Union address reminiscent of Bill Clinton’s infamous 90 minute one in 2000. But there were some poignant moments that will resonate with traditionally Democratic constituencies who have felt ignored and left behind by the global economy, particularly union workers in rust belt states.
As it happens, C-SPAN was re-airing Bill Clinton’s 1992 Democratic National Convention speech the other night. I watched it for a bit. While Clinton has a natural political talent unmatched by many others, and this speech is known for its “I still believe in a place called Hope” conclusion, it paints 1992 America as some kind of dystopian nightmare, under threat of abject horror if George H.W. Bush wins re-election.
That’s what good speeches of this nature do. They present a serious problem, for which “elect me” is the obvious answer. They’re simultaneously dark and aspirational. I’m not going to try to argue that Trump’s speech was as hopeful as Clinton’s 1992 speech was, but as for its supposed unmatched darkness? Pshaw.
In Clinton’s 1992 speech, he said the country had to be steered on a new course, that the middle class was forgotten in Bush’s America, and that “when I am president, you will be forgotten no more.” He said, “we are losing the battles for economic opportunity and social justice here at home” and that “it’s time to change America.” He wasn’t particularly subtle:
I have news for the forces of greed and the defenders of the status quo: Your time has come and gone. Its time for a change in America.
Tonight 10 million of our fellow Americans are out of work, tens of millions more work harder for lower pay. The incumbent President says that unemployment always goes up a little before a recovery begins, but unemployment only has to go up by one more person before a real recovery can begin. And Mr. President, you are that man.
This election is about putting power back in your hands and putting government back on your side. It’s about putting people first.
He said the government had no values, that fathers were neglecting their children, to their shame. He flat-out said he was angry about and tired of the government and politics as usual.
I was raised to believe the American Dream was built on rewarding hard work. But we have seen the folks of Washington turn the American ethic on its head.
For too long those who play by the rules and keep the faith have gotten the shaft, and those who cut corners and cut deals have been rewarded.
People are working harder than ever, spending less time with their children, working nights and weekends at their jobs instead of going to PTA and Little League or Scouts. And their incomes are still going down. Their taxes are still going up. And the costs of health care, housing and education are going through the roof.
Meanwhile, more and more of our best people are falling into poverty even though they work 40 hours a week.
Our people are pleading for change, but government is in the way. It has been hijacked by privileged private interests. It has forgotten who really pays the bills around here. It has taken more of your money and given you less in return. We have got to go beyond the brain-dead politics in Washington and give our people the kind of government they deserve, a government that works for them.
He said the country was caught in the grip of a “failed economic theory” and said wages had plummeted. He said America had an “unpleasant economy” not much better than Sri Lanka’s. He said the Japanese prime minister felt sorry for us and, in strongman fashion, I guess, “When I am your president, the rest of the world will not look down on us with pity but up to us with respect again.”
He went on to scaremonger about health-care costs, AIDS, a lack of “police officers on the streets of American cities,” special interests that control elections, and lobbyists who control the government. Also children dying, drug use, poverty, farm failures, the right to end life in the womb, and the environment.
He said we have to “put our people first again” and make the government work again, since it had “failed.”
I wish I could say the same thing about America under the incumbent President. He took the richest country in the world and brought it down.
He painted a vision of an America made great again, by him. Improved defense, improved economy, improved communities. But with lots of doom and gloom reminders. He even talked about making America “exciting and energizing and heroic” again.
Did the media and other Democrats all respond with horror about the darkness of Clinton’s speech? The opposite, in fact. They thought it quite “moderate.”
Did anyone fact-check the doom-and-gloom over the economic catastrophe the United States was facing? Not at all. It was accepted as fact, even though this “recession” was considered by most economists to be a minor, and quite brief, blip following the longest era of peacetime expansion ever.
The New York Times report of Trump’s speech was headlined, “His Tone Dark, Donald Trump Takes G.O.P. Mantle.” It lacked the principled conservatism Republicans might typically demand, but really? If the media or pundits want to present Donald Trump as some kind of unique threat, they must deal in the sphere of reality and avoid histrionics.