It explained why Democrats warn he must be driven from power at all costs — and why he may win a second term anyway.
In accepting the Republican nomination, Trump turned his back on the crowd and surveyed the executive mansion, stretching out his arms in a gesture that exemplified his vision of ultimate, unaccountable presidential power.
“The fact is, we’re here and they are not,” he said.
After two weeks of dueling conventions, the choice before voters in November could not be more clear — or more certain to deepen the national estrangement that may hobble the next presidency, no matter who wins. The two sides in the election are not just feuding over what America’s future should look like, they are operating from vastly different understandings of the meaning of the republic itself.
“Your vote will decide whether we protect law abiding Americans, or whether we give free rein to violent anarchists, agitators and criminals who threaten our citizens,” Trump warned. “And this election will decide whether we will defend the American way of life, or whether we allow a radical movement to completely dismantle and destroy it.”
Trump, largely sticking to a teleprompter, delivered his speech in a grinding monotone that emphasized the nightmarish prospect he was describing. His low-energy delivery lacked the electric showmanship of his rally appearances, the shocking unconventionality of his 2016 RNC address or the stark power of his “American carnage” inaugural. There was little of the “optimism” promised by his political strategists or the empathy described by so many subordinates in a four-night effort to build his personality cult.
But taken as a whole, the imagery of Thursday night’s speech, followed by a spectacular fireworks display over the Washington monument, and the Republican National Convention was a fitting explanation of why Trump is so attractive to millions of Americans who flock to his cultural warfare and embrace his disruptive personality.
“From the moment I left my former life behind, and a good life it was, I have done nothing but fight for you,” the President said, explaining a presidency that critics see as an exercise in self-serving egotism. But one in which his followers perceive a kindred spirit smashing a political and economic system they believe has left them behind.
“I did what our political establishment never expected and could never forgive, breaking the cardinal rule of Washington politics. I kept my promises.
“Together, we have ended the rule of the failed political class — and they are desperate to get their power back by any means necessary. They are angry at me because instead of putting them first, I put America first.”
A massive crowd, in a pandemic
Trump’s crowd of 2,000 people on the South Lawn, few wearing masks and sitting close together, was an extraordinary scene during a pandemic that has brought America to its knees — but it exemplified Trump’s willingness to spin a false alternative reality for political gain.
The pictures from the crowded White House lawn made a mockery of Trump’s late conversion to the mask-wearing that scientists say is the best current way of fighting a pandemic that has killed 180,000 Americans.
The President instead promised a vaccine by the end of the year, or “maybe even sooner,” and selected a set of misleading statistics to swell the falsehood that the US is leading the world against Covid-19 when in reality he has presided over one of the most disastrous responses anywhere.
“We will defeat the virus, end the pandemic, and emerge stronger than ever before,” Trump declared, hours after Democratic vice presidential nominee Kamala Harris suggested he had been “scared” of making the fateful choices that would have been effective in suppressing the pathogen.
Trump delivered his speech amid a daily toll of suffering and death that would have been unimaginable at the start of his term. Since the convention opened on Monday morning, more than 3,600 Americans have perished from Covid-19 — far more than died on 9/11 or from combat operations in Afghanistan.
Defying ethics and tradition
Most candidates deliver convention speeches in arenas with sets featuring columns and mock marble meant to suggest the White House. Trump didn’t bother with that — he chose the real thing. The large screens with their “Trump/Pence” logo were a jarring sight below the Truman Balcony and on the grounds of a national icon financed by all taxpayers that instantly lost its capacity to bring Americans together.
The set-up was a defiant metaphor for Trump’s willingness to crush the traditions of the presidency, to put his own immediate gain over the dignity of the office and to troll his enemies while he was at it.
Trump has spent four years flinging divisive racial rhetoric, tearing down America’s reputation as a haven for the oppressed with tough immigration policies and creating a constant whirlwind of chaos and intimidation.
But the convention had painted an almost unrecognizable picture of a benevolent grandpa who welcomes immigrants of color, who promotes racial reconciliation and is the epitome of the Founders’ vision in a president.
The bending of truth was so audacious and the propaganda so relentless that it required constant vigilance by voters to keep the story straight. Most might not care that the use of presidential power for such flagrant political purposes — for instance in a taped White House naturalization ceremony — was a violation of the obscure Hatch Act. But Trump’s willingness to cross the line so boldly was a sure sign that his shocking presidency enjoys almost total impunity.
The message was clear: Trump thinks he would be untouchable in a second term. A convention that was characterized by massive and audacious lying about Trump’s policies, his character and the policies of his opponents underscored how he has already broken the bonds of truth that confine normal politicians.
He has proven he can ask a foreign nation for help in hobbling his opponent — and get away with it, even though he was impeached. A President who is already declaring the coming election to be the most corrupt in history, he will clearly stop at nothing to ensure he emerges triumphant.
As Obama’s former political guru David Plouffe tweeted: “The line between Democracy and Autocracy got a little thinner tonight. The barrier between the two is the smallest in our republic’s history.”
Trump ignores America’s racial awakening
The President railed over looted and burned “Democrat” cities as though they were suffering sudden instability for no reason. He made no connection with the despair of African Americans over years of killings by Black men in instances of police brutality — or the emotional toll of the death of George Floyd in Minnesota and the shooting of Jacob Blake in Wisconsin during his convention.
Biden came out of his convention last week on a roll — and his punchy, short and energetic acceptance speech helped dispel Trump’s caricature that he was sleepy and his lifelong reputation as a windy rhetorician.
But the Republican event was undeniably effective. The testimonies of regular Americans — from lobstermen to farmers and small business owners — made a far more effective stab at weaponizing the economy than Democrats managed. And the words of individual Americans were in many cases more convincing than Trump at advancing his arguments.
In the most moving moment of Thursday’s program, Ann Dorn told the terrible story of the death of her husband Dave, a retired policeman who helped protect a friend’s pawn shop during riots in St. Louis.
“We cannot live amid devastation and chaos,” she said.
Trump, who at times appeared bored with his own unusual self-discipline in sticking to the script, reeled off lists of promises kept — including benches worth of conservative judges, new trade deals, a tough new line on China, the withdrawal from the Iran and climate deals and the freeing of fossil fuels from Obama-era regulations.
An emotional connection
But while such initiatives are the building blocks of Trump’s coalition, his appeal has always been more visceral — especially among voters whose anger and emotional connection to the outsider businessman and reality star forms a bond that even a mismanaged pandemic cannot sever.
Trump on Thursday delivered for any voter who despises the media, the Washington establishment, liberals and who worries that a more diverse nation is a threat to the more racially homogenous traditions of an earlier age.
It is unclear yet whether there is a majority of Americans who want to sign up for such a vision or whether the more diverse, inclusive approach of Obama, Biden and Harris can piece together a route to 270 electoral votes.
But Trump is leaving no doubt about how he will fight in what are shaping up to be some of the nastiest, most dislocating months in modern American history.
As he put it: “Our country wasn’t built by cancel culture, speech codes, and soul-crushing conformity. We are not a nation of timid spirits. We are a nation of fierce, proud, and independent American patriots.”