The dust has finally settled over Cleveland. And The Fat Lady sang. And sang and sang and sang. But as usual, the commentariat, so eager to highlight what Trump didn’t do with his speech, failed to note what he accomplished. It was not “a pretty good speech,” as one Talking Head said before dismissing it with the ultimate put-down, “for Donald Trump.”
It was, instead, a great and terrible speech for a great and terrible country at a great and terrible moment.
Yes, the speech was long. The longest ever. But what do you expect from someone who speaks exclusively in superlatives?
Yes, it was dark. It was angry. And no, no effort was wasted attempting to make Trump appear likeable. Or statesmanlike. Or, for that matter, presidential. That’s not the point.
The speech has been widely described as a “red meat” rant. That misses the mark by about three time zones. Trump shouted almost the whole time. And what he shouted was not red, but raw and uncooked. In fact, the cellophane was still snugly wrapped around it.
All that’s true, but it too misses the point. In terms of expressing the fear, anxiety, rage, resentments, and despair of his base, Trump rocked the hall. On a scale of 1 to 10, I’d give him 13. When it came to fueling their fire, I’d give him a 15. What got lost in the din were the surgical overtures Trump made to Mormons and the Evangelicals — two very distinct though related constituencies — turned off by his extravagantly adulterous past and flip-floppy lack of commitment on abortion issues. These are important groups, and Trump may have given them just enough to hold their noses and vote for him. Trump made a few nice gestures toward the LGBTQ communities and Bernie Sanders supporters, but they’ll get little traction. In response to Trump’s “I alone can fix it,” boast, Sanders wondered via tweet whether Trump was running “for president or dictator.”
Mostly, Trump was talking to Main Street Republicans who have yet to forgive — or forget — how their party gave Wall Street and the Big Banks a total pass for one of the most scandalous and devastating crashes in recent history. And yes, they are white. Exceptionally so. In yet another Trump superlative, this convention had the fewest number of black participants in recorded history. That, as the Orange Halo might say, is “huge.”
Trump was also talking to Blue Collar Democrats from the Rust Belt, for whom Trump’s in-your-face message of drawbridge economics and America First nationalism profoundly resonates with their harsh financial realities. In key states like Pennsylvania, Ohio, Michigan, Wisconsin, Indiana, and West Virginia, these are constituencies to take very seriously.
The other rap on Trump’s speech: He didn’t “pivot,” one of the more overused, smarty-pants words out there these days. Yes he did, just in the other direction.
While Trump’s daughter Ivanka played to the hopes and aspirations of working women, eloquently championing such issues as wage equity and better child care — has Trump himself ever mentioned these? — Trump re-branded (another one of those words) himself as the second of coming of Richard Nixon. “I am the law and order candidate,” he roared. Anyone who lived through the Nixon era experiences “Law and Order” as racist code speak. Nixon’s attorney general famously got so carried away that he proposed locking up young inner city males before they ever committed a crime, calling it “preventive detention.”
Trump selectively cherry-picked the facts to paint a distorted picture of raising crime rates that was at violent odds with established trends. (Crimes rates have been going down for the past 20 years.) Likewise with the number of law enforcement officers killed in the line of duty.
Along the way, Trump uttered not one syllable that reflected massive public concern over the violence inflicted by law enforcement officers. To the extent Trump — an early exponent of the Birther Movement — acknowledged the issue it all, it was to blame Barack Obama for fomenting a level of racial discord that no one had ever seen before. It is true Trump shied away from joining the crowd in a chant of “Lock Her Up,” but he expressed no awareness of the vast human waste inflicted by the “lock-‘em-up” politics pioneered so effectively by Nixon.
Fear is fear.
On immigration, Trump backed off by a few microns. The great wall will still be built, he pledged, to stop illegal immigrants at the border. But for the first time, he conspicuously did not say Mexico would pay for it. Still he relentlessly demonized immigrants, defining them almost exclusively in criminal terms, “roaming free to threaten peaceful citizens” and “without regard for the impact on public safety resources.” Study after study shows immigrants are no more prone to criminal behavior than society at large. Of the immigrants deported between 2003 and 2013, a small percentage were sent away for Class I crimes. The largest percentage was for immigration violations.
Facts, schmacts. Fear is fear. It worked for Richard Nixon. It’s doubtful it will work for Trump. Times have changed. Black and Latino voters matter, and they absolutely will go to the polls to vote against Trump. Just this week, voter suppression laws passed in several states by Republican legislatures to neutralize minority voters were rejected by the courts.
Where Trump proved shrewd was his reach-around to evangelical and Mormon voters. He called out the evangelicals by name, praising them for their sustained contributions to the body politic. More than that, he pledged to change a tax law enacted by Lyndon Johnson designed to maintain the separation of church and state in electoral politics. Federal tax code prohibits tax-exempt churches from endorsing candidates for electoral office; it does, however, allow churches to engage in issue politics and to engage in “educational” political activities. Trump vowed to pass a law allowing churches to endorse specific candidates without risking their tax exempt status.
Mormons were viscerally offended when Trump said he’d bar anyone from a Muslim country from entering the United States. As a once-persecuted religious minority, the Mormon Church recoiled. As anyone familiar with Proposition 8 — and the fight to stop gay marriage in California — Mormons are highly organized, are not afraid to spend lots of money, and know how to get shit done. With large numbers in several western states — not just Utah — they can make a difference. Thursday night, Trump quietly walked back his infamous No-Muslim position. Instead, he said he’d bar entrance to the United State to any refugees who’d not been adequately vetted for their terrorists propensities. For many Mormons, Trump remains at best a lesser-of-two-evils candidate. But Thursday night, he offered of an olive branch to allow Mormons to hold their noses and vote.
Given this is a hold-your-nose-and-hate election, that could matter.
In the meantime, Richard Milhous Nixon is long gone. We buried him a long time ago. Best to keep him moldering in his grave.