For Trump, It’s Not Morning In America Anymore
His nomination speech was full of complaints and bluster but failed to show he would solve the country’s problems.
CLEVELAND—Donald Trump’s closing speech at the Republican convention was one of the most pessimistic pieces of political rhetoric in recent history. Most candidates, even in times of turmoil, try to make the case that hope is on the way. Trump’s speech, by contrast, offered a litany of bad news so dismal that voters must conclude that any change is necessary—no matter what the consequences.
Trump constantly complained about the nation’s ills but failed to prove why Americans should entrust him to be commander in chief. He closely stuck to his prepared remarks in delivering his address—the longest in modern television history—but it lacked the Trumpian charm that often wins applause for his populist outbursts.
The speech suggests that Trump and his advisers are misreading the national polls showing the public’s deep dissatisfaction over the direction of the country. They seem to think that he can win simply by positioning himself as the candidate against the status quo.
Trump’s goal should have been to outline what he’ll actually do in the White House—especially since a long parade of Republican speakers had already laid out the case against Hillary Clinton. Instead, he chose to wallow in voters’ misery, listing all the Obama administration’s failures on foreign policy, crime, trade, and immigration (just to name a few), while offering few specifics about his own policies. Even his self-described “plan of action” contained mostly rehashed attacks against his Democratic opponent.
“Nobody knows the system better than me, and that’s why only I can fix it,” Trump said. “Things have to change—and they have to change now!” he intoned later. “We are going to defeat the barbarians of ISIS,” he proclaimed. But outside of his can-do bluster, there wasn’t even a hint of how he would do these things—never mind that can-do optimism defines most successful presidential campaigns.
Take Trump’s lines on foreign policy. He hit many familiar notes about the country’s growing weakness under President Obama. But in an interview with The New York Times on Wednesday, he struck a decidedly out-of-the-GOP-mainstream view by rejecting America’s role as a protector of global security. He expressed discontent with America’s unequivocal commitment to the NATO alliance and suggested that the U.S was morally unable to tell other countries how to conduct their own affairs.
He only briefly alluded to these points in his speech Thursday, leaving a lot of questions about how radically he would reorient America’s foreign policy. He rejected the “failed policy … of regime change” to attack Clinton, not mentioning that such interventionism was a staple of George W. Bush’s foreign policy as well.
This was also a speech betting that voters are worried about a rise in crime, reflected by his repeated references to being the law-and-order candidate. “The first task of our new administration will be to liberate our citizens from the crime and terrorism and lawlessness that threatens their communities,” Trump said.
He overlooked the fact that America is a much safer and stable country than it was when he was in his early 20s, when the country was wracked by the assassinations of Martin Luther King and Robert F. Kennedy, riots in scores of cities, and protests against the Vietnam War on college campuses.
Trump is betting that the level of fear and anxiety now is comparable to those turbulent times, even as the country’s crime rate remains historically low and race relations are much better than they were in the 1960s.
He also railed against illegal immigration to an extent rarely heard at Republican conventions, implying that lax border security was responsible for a crime wave. Trump mentioned his famous wall only in passing, but his rhetoric was as charged as ever.
He denounced the “barbarians” of ISIS but offered no ideas on how to stamp them out. He also bemoaned the recent spate of police shootings, but again offered no prescriptions, other than showcasing his respect for law enforcement and bashing President Obama’s handling of race relations.
Trump needed to win over GOP-friendly constituencies that have stubbornly opposed his candidacy—in particular, college-educated whites and Republican-leaning women. It was hard to see how his speech accomplished that.
It’s not morning in America anymore, at least if this Republican candidate reflected the views of the broader public. Clinton will face her own challenge next week at the Democratic convention, needing to defend the status quo at a time when the public thinks the country is on the wrong track.
But Trump failed to make the case that he can provide the kind of leadership to “make America great again.”