Cleveland—In the America depicted by Donald Trump’s dystopian acceptance speech Thursday night, it is blackest midnight in the land of the once-free, unimaginably far from morning. The unlikely GOP presidential nominee rejected suggestions that he give a unifying speech that reached for the center. Instead, he described a country rocked by crime, riven by race, menaced by terrorists, and overrun by illegal immigrants. Trump out-Nixoned Richard Nixon, promising to be a “law and order” president just like our 37th. He defined Hillary Clinton as just another criminal who will coddle the many other criminals who “threaten our very way of life.”
At this fractured, low-energy convention in the Democratic stronghold of Cleveland, a GOP tribe still deeply divided over Trump could only agree on one thing: Clinton is a lying fraud who belongs in prison. The anti-Clinton bloodlust was in full force Thursday night. Whereas Mitt Romney’s 2012 GOP convention had “You built that!” as a unifying, if lame, theme, Trump’s 2016 convention had just one grim and angry point—“Lock her up!” One convention speaker after another went after Clinton, each more vicious than the last. On Tuesday, Trump-neutered New Jersey Governor Chris Christie reached to get his manhood back by presiding over a mock trial of Clinton, where he presented her alleged misdeeds and let the audience chant, “Guilty!” I think if Clinton had been in the arena personally, the crowd would have set her on fire—Secret Service be damned.
Thursday night was Trump’s chance to fry Clinton. Wearing a classy black suit with a dazzling red tie, his hair whipped into a special golden soufflé, the color of an Oscar, Trump promised to remember “the forgotten American,” saying, “I am your voice.” But he was a voice of fear and anger, a loud, screaming voice promising retribution for the crimes that have laid the nation low, including the “terrible, terrible crimes” committed by Clinton. He shouted at the country, red-faced, for an endless 76 minutes.
Trump hyped a crime wave that mostly doesn’t exist. Having been dinged by fact-checkers for his claim that violent crime is on the rise (it isn’t), on Thursday he stated, correctly, that in 2015 homicides increased by 17 percent in America’s 50 largest cities. But he blamed it on an imaginary “rollback of criminal enforcement” by the Obama administration, as well as “180,000 illegal immigrants with criminal records…roaming free to threaten peaceful citizens,” calling these crime victims a “sacrifice on the altar of open borders.” That triggered the first of many lusty chants of “Build the wall.”
Internationally, he described an apocalyptic set of crises that he laid at the feet of Clinton and Obama. He ran through one humiliation after another, blaming it all on Obama’s making “the decision to put [Clinton] in charge of foreign policy,” which led to predictable chants of “Lock her up!” Depicting chaos in Iraq, Syria, Libya and Egypt, he proclaimed, “This is the legacy of Hillary Clinton: death, destruction, terrorism, and weakness.”
There were a few moments of concern for people left out by the GOP: children in the “inner city,” plus the newest Republican cause, gay people menaced by violent Islamic extremism. Trump stumbled, twice, talking about protecting “LGBTQ” Americans “from the violence and oppression of a hateful foreign ideology.”
But the people he dwelled on most were the victims of illegal immigrants. Trump insists that “nothing has affected me more deeply than the time I have spent with the mothers and fathers who have lost their children to violence spilling across our border.” He whipped the crowd to its greatest frenzy promising, “We are going to build a great border wall to stop illegal immigration, to stop the gangs and the violence, and to stop the drugs from pouring into our communities.” He went on: “My greatest compassion will be for our own struggling citizens.”
Will it work to beat Clinton? I don’t think so. This convention spent amazingly little time trying to reach out to skeptics or the undecided, and Trump didn’t try to reach them either. It was also a disaster in terms of production and execution. One thing even Trump haters give him credit for is being good at television. He promised a glitzy convention that would entertain, not bore, and he failed miserably. We got B-, C-, and D-list celebrities. He promised Tom Brady; we got long-ago New York Giants quarterback Fran Tarkenton, who paid a six-figure fine for security fraud in 1999. He hinted at tennis goddess Serena Williams; we got golfer Natalie Gulbis.
Monday night was destroyed by the Melania Trump plagiarism scandal, which Trump’s campaign managed to drag out over three days before owning up to her borrowings from first lady Michelle Obama. On Tuesday, Christie’s mock trial of Clinton was vicious and repellent, but of course played well in the room. Yet it didn’t make the 10 pm hour that network television planned to cover. Donald J. Trump Jr.’s decent speech did make it that night, but he was followed by a ’90s soap star turned avocado farmer. Why?
On Wednesday night, the last Trump rival standing, who hadn’t yet endorsed him, got the coveted network slot. But Senator Ted Cruz delivered a gutsy non-endorsement that enraged the Trump forces, showcased a divided party, and resulted in Cruz’s wife, Heidi, being escorted from the arena for her own safety. It also sucked the media attention away—once again—from vice-presidential nominee Mike Pence, who gave a charming, self-deprecating speech. Pence effectively vouched for Trump’s character to his far-right evangelical Christian constituency, while hiding his own cruel, retro beliefs about LGBT and women’s rights that have become Indiana law.
Thursday night was not much better. We got not one but two videos about Trump’s fabulous career in real estate, which may inspire voters that he can rebuild America—or remind them he’s a rich mogul who exists in another world from their own. We also got a lot of testimony about his concern for advancing women. Not just daughter Ivanka Trump, but Oklahoma Governor Mary Fallin and Tennessee Representative Marsha Blackburn also vouched for him. And a video featured women who talked about Trump’s fairness and generosity—but every single one of them was employed by Trump, presumably limiting their freedom of speech.
Daughter Ivanka gave one of the best speeches of the week, but she described a Trump unrecognizable to most people, even admirers. For instance, she said her father is committed to making sure women have equal pay and affordable childcare, terms I’ve rarely if ever heard cross his lips. (Think Progress provides more background here.)
Even his children’s speeches lacked the kinds of humanizing stories one might have expected. Tiffany Trump’s tale of her absentee dad calling her personally after a friend died was not heart-warming, as she intended, but heart-breaking. The single person who delivered personal anecdotes that shone light on the candidate, billionaire real-estate investor Tom Barrack (and Trump Super PAC founder), mainly talked about his business exploits and front row seats at boxing matches. Trump, he confessed, had “played me like a Steinway” in one deal, which was not the best testimony to Trump’s integrity. (Describing himself as the anchovy on Ivanka Trump’s “Caesar salad” was even ickier.) But Trump also alluded to his checkered business history in his speech, when he said, “I have joined the political arena so that the powerful can no longer beat up on people that cannot defend themselves. Nobody knows the system better than me, which is why I alone can fix it.” Hmm.
Again, the question of the night is whether it will help Trump. He’s getting credit for responding, once, to chants of “Lock her up” by ad-libbing “Let’s defeat her in November.” Yet he did no such thing other times it was chanted, and he continued the crusade to define Clinton as a criminal, rather than a rival he disagrees with ideologically. We already knew this election was going to be an ugly fight for the state of the country’s soul. I don’t think Trump helped his chances much on Thursday night, but the fact that he has any chance at all is chilling.