The Gettysburg address, it wasn’t. Donald Trump’s acceptance speech clocked in at one hour and 15 minutes, and that’s not counting the time dilation effect demagoguery can produce in some observers.
Lincoln’s speech lasted less than two minutes.
A columnist in the New York Post said that Trump gave “the speech of his life.” Actually, he gave several of them. Abe Lincoln’s grace and humility were nowhere to be found. But then, the self-effacement of Lincoln’s words – “the world will little note, nor long remember what we say here” – would hardly suit Trump’s oversized persona.
To be fair, this speech needed to be long. Trump needed to present a number of false and contradictory identities to the electorate, and that takes time. He was both a firebrand populist and a rock-ribbed Republican. He was an enemy of big business, and he swore to deregulate industry. He was compassionate toward all people – but he’ll build a wall to keep millions of people out.
Trump also needed time to present an America that’s a study in contrasts: a war-torn landscape with a bright future, a desolate wasteland filled with untapped potential, a desperate and dangerous dystopia that will become an Eden as soon as he is sworn into office.
That’s Demagoguery 101: Terrify, then reassure. Threaten people with destruction, then reassure them with the warm embrace of your fatherly arms. It’s what kidnappers do to instill Stockholm syndrome in their prisoners. And Trump’s eerily good at it.
The speech may have seemed self-evidently absurd to liberal listeners. But it’s likely to resonate very well among the white, largely male demographic his campaign has targeted. They’ve been decimated by job loss, wage stagnation, and a related rise in deaths from alcoholism, overdose and suicide. They are desperate and frightened and looking for answers.
Trump spoke to their economic injuries in classic authoritarian style:
“I have visited the laid-off factory workers, and the communities crushed by our horrible and unfair trade deals. These are the forgotten men and women of our country … but they’re not going to be forgotten for long. These are the people who work hard but no longer have a voice.”
“I am your voice!”
It’s true that Trump’s speech was filled with lies – sweeping, stunning, audacious lies. (We list some of them below.) But there was truth in it, too. A good con man mixes truth with lies for the same reason an assassin mixes sugar with strychnine: The poison goes down easier that way.
Trump spoke of African-American poverty, of American jobs lost to bad trade deals, of crumbling roads and bridges and “Third World airports.” He mentioned “household incomes … down more than $4,000 since the year 2000” and 43 million Americans on food stamps. His daughter even got Republicans to cheer for “affordable and accessible child care for all,” which had to be a first.
Then, suddenly, he pivoted from these real-world complaints to something much more abstract – and nationalistic:
“Not only have our citizens endured domestic disaster, but they have lived through one international humiliation after another. One after another! We all remember the images of our sailors being forced to their knees by their Iranian captors at gunpoint.”
For Trump, the sexualized image of humiliation – “to their knees” – is surely no accident. (Remember this?) Weimar Republic comparisons may come too cheaply, but this marriage of economic anxiety and national humiliation is strikingly reminiscent of someone else’s rhetoric – and I think you know who I mean.
The fearful images cascaded out of Trump’s mouth, one after the other: a nuclear-armed Iran. “Death, destruction, terrorism, and weakness.” Innocent young women whose killers come from far away.
And underlying it all, a jingoistic credo: “… our plan will put America First.”
At the mention of this phrase, born of anti-Semitism and unwillingness to fight Hitler’s Germany, the crowd erupted in wild cheers: USA! USA!
“Americanism, not globalism, will be our credo,” Trump continued. Americanism: a word that can mean whatever the listener wants it to mean.
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“As long as we are led by politicians who will not put America First, then we can be assured that other nations will not treat America with respect – the respect that we deserve!”
And the ultimate strongman’s line: “There can be no prosperity without law and order.”
Convention-goers loved it. At one point they even chanted, “Yes, you will!” to their leader.
(The space between the “Yes, we can” of Obama’s 2008 supporters and the “Yes, you will” of Trump’s followers is, arguably, the distance between democracy and authoritarianism.)
Trump wisely saved the Republican hackery to the end of the speech, when even his most devoted followers must have been numb with fatigue. It was there just the same. He promised to deregulate industry, unleash the energy industry (was that worked out in backroom negotiations with the Koch brothers?) and cut taxes for the wealthy.
But Trump also made a powerful argument against his opponent, one she’ll need to counter directly:
“The problems we face now – poverty and violence at home, war and destruction abroad – will last only as long as we continue relying on the same politicians who created them. A change in leadership is required to change outcomes.”
Trump reminded voters that Bill Clinton signed NAFTA, tied Hillary Clinton to “big business” donors who want to keep the system “rigged,” and even lampooned her poorly chosen“#ImWithHer” slogan by saying “I’m with you.”
Trump is promising relief – from the fear he and his allies have instilled, but also from an economic order that has failed millions of Americans. Even though there’s no chance he intends to make good on his promises, Clinton’s Democrats have their work cut out for them. They’ll need to convince voters that they don’t represent the “centrist” status quo. That means firm and believable commitments on trade, wages and other issues where they have tacked right in the past.
Trump offers no specifics, but he holds out the possibility of change. Even voters who suspect he’s lying may be willing to take a chance on him unless Democrats offer concrete alternatives. Strongmen perform best against disorganized opponents with vague messages.
The evening ended on an odd note – literally. Organizers played “You Can’t Always Get What You Want” by the Rolling Stones as Trump left the stage. Was that a statement? To whom? Their use of “Here Comes the Sun” earlier in the evening had drawn an immediate angry response from George Harrison’s estate, but at least that choice made sense in a saccharine sort of way.
This selection, on the other hand, left listeners baffled. “You Can’t Always Get What You Want”? Of all the songs the Rolling Stones ever recorded, why pick that one?
Maybe “Under My Thumb” wasn’t available.
It would take 50,000 words to debunk all of Trump’s deceptions, so we’ll stick to a few highlights:
- The United States is not “one of the highest-taxed nations in the world.” The Tax Policy Center concluded that total U.S. tax revenue came to only 24 percent of gross domestic product (GDP), “well below the 34 percent average for developed countries.” And the OECD, an organization of developed nations, found in 2015 that the U.S. ranks 31st out of 34 countries in its level of taxation. (Only South Korea, Chile, and Mexico scored lower.)
- While Trump claims that we have “no proven vetting system” in place for Syrian refugees, refugees are screened by several different agencies and the process takes 18 to 24 months. (Here’s a helpful – and lengthy – infographic.)
- There is no evidence to suggest that regulation “costs” the economy $2 trillion a year. What’s more, regulation saves an enormous amount of money – through the prevention of environmental damage, improvements in public health, increased competition, fraud prevention, and a number of other ways.
- We didn’t “give” Iran $150 billion as part of the nuclear deal. In fact, we didn’t give Iran any money at all. Frozen Iranian assets – that is, their money, not ours – was released as part of the agreement.
- Law enforcement is primarily handled at the local and state level, so there is no way “safety will be restored” by Trump “on January 20, 2017.” Besides, the same Washington Post article that appears to be the source of Trump’s statement that “Homicides last year increased by 17 percent in America’s 50 largest cities” also said “there was no clear pattern” among the cities and that “public safety has been improving for two decades, and lethal violence in large cities is still rare by historical standards.”