Trump's Hopeless America
What did the delegates at the Republican National Convention like?
Mostly, they liked disliking things. And being afraid of things. And especially, Donald Trump, who is afraid of so many things, and dislikes them all.
The world portrayed by Trump as he accepted the presidential nomination was a sunless place, wracked by economic decay and under siege by foreigners who want to kill us. If it wasn’t ISIS, it was illegal immigrants, sneaking across the border to murder our children. The only rays of light in this bleak dystopia are the police who stand ready to beat back these dangerous hordes, and of course, Trump himself, who alone has the power, through steely will and the awesome depths of his love for the once-great American people, to replace the crumbling mortar of our civic virtue and re-lay the cornerstones of our lost prosperity … to provide care for the sick and good jobs to the jobless … to slow the rise of the oceans and begin to heal our planet ... to end a war and secure our nation and restore our image as the last, best hope on Earth … oh, wait, sorry, somewhere in there I seem to have mixed up my presidential candidates.
All of these sorts of speeches have a certain megalomaniacal quality; the genre simply calls for it. “I’ll make marginal changes which you often won’t like very much, and try not to screw anything up too badly” just doesn’t sell as well to voters as “I’ll fix all of the problems you’re worried about and some you didn’t even know you had.”
What was remarkable was not so much Trump’s absurdly high claims for his own abilities, but his absolutely relentless negativity about almost everything else. A slight majority of a CNN focus group rated the speech positively -- but it's plausible they were comparing the speech to Trump’s usual oeuvre, not to the sorts of things that a normal politician might say on a convention stage.
There are, of course, many problems in this country. A lot of people feel economically insecure, including people who are currently decently well off, but no longer feel that they can count on that job, that income, that retirement nest egg, to be there in the future. Some Americans have indeed been killed by illegal immigrants, for any large group of people will contain at least a few who do terrible things. Decentralized terror networks represent a new and frightening threat to many Western countries, including our own. And the Obama administration has not offered any very satisfying solutions to these problems. Outlining those problems, and criticizing the opposition for ducking them, is absolutely fair political game.
What was missing from the speech was any attempt to elaborate what, exactly, makes the country worth saving. There was the country we live in, which is in terrible, terrible shape, and Trump, who is amazing, and wants to use the power of his amazingness to make the rest of us amazing too. He made little appeal to the many proud moments of our history, to the many fine elements of the American character, to our constitutional liberties or entrepreneurial spirit. We’re supposed to support Trump simply because in the post-apocalyptic hellscape we now inhabit, it’s us against them, and we’d better make sure that “us” prevails.
His demeanor reflected that tone. He barely smiled throughout the speech, even at moments where politicians usually do, such as when the crowd starts cheering for you. He delivered most of the speech with the outraged glare of someone arguing with a utility billing clerk, and after delivering each applause line, his face fell back into the sort of grimace generally favored by people who have just realized they’re about to be fired.
But this seemed to be what the crowd wanted. The big hits were praise of the police, attacks on Hillary Clinton, and anything perceived as making liberals look small. When he got into the part of the speech where he talked about what he might actually do, his audience started to look a bit bored, their clapping to sound dutiful rather than enthusiastic. Lucky for them, the policy section was brief. Trump's account of all the terrible things happening in America hardly left room for an expansive or detailed vision.
He promised to be splendid on trade, fantastic at stopping immigration, and the most magnificent tax cutter you’ve ever seen. How was he going to accomplish these things? By being awesome, of course. After a year on the campaign trail, Trump still hasn’t really gotten beyond his own fantasticality as the basis of his policy agenda.
Of course, I’m not sure how much people will care. What the audience seemed to want was not so much someone to fix their problems as someone to validate their belief that these are problems -- problems that they feel liberals create and then systematically deny. As they say in 12-step programs, the first step is admitting that you have a problem, and if Trump seems like the only one who’s willing to make that admission, then, well, isn’t he one step beyond everyone else?
Unfortunately, while admitting problems is a good first step, it will not fix anything on its own. And in politics, at least, those next steps are a whole lot harder than the part where you say “something ought to be done.” Washington is full of people moaning that something needs to be done, but folks who can actually do something are rather thin on the ground.
Trump likes to say that that’s why we need an outsider to bring some can-do spirit to the city. However. The generally poor management of his campaign and convention that were on display this week, the weak interview preparation and message discipline, the vague-to-absent positive agenda -- none of these bode well for next steps.
This will not just be a problem in his core issue areas -- immigration, trade, crime -- where his supporters could plausibly argue that they’re seeing darned little progress anyway, so who cares if he’s not particularly effective as long as he’s not making things worse? The president of the United States manages a vast number of policy issues, day in and day out, for at least four years, and these cannot all be finessed with vague generalities and off-the-cuff musings. Nor can this task simply be passed off to a vice president; the power of the office is what drives most of the forward motion on policy.
The world that Trump painted in his speech was a pretty dark place. A world in which the president of the world’s most powerful nation would only scowl and harangue and wait for applause, without ever trying to solve any problems. Imagine the nation under President Donald Trump, a nation paralyzed and backsliding. That truly is a dark and hopeless vision for America.
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