I spent the day wrestling with Trump’s Razor. It suggested something cataclysmically dumb for the final night of the convention. Yet it was hard to imagine just what that could be. No controversial speakers. Presumably no more plagiarism. Just go through the motions and don’t do anything stupid. It shouldn’t be that hard and the bar had been set unimaginably low.
The early part of the evening was heavy on culture war and evangelical themed speakers. But it was about what you’d expect at a Republican convention, nothing surprising. Things only really got rolling with the biographical video the RNC prepared about Trump, which I thought was really quite good. It was genuinely humanizing. There was also Trump’s friend Thomas Barrack. He came off like a very polished salesman. But he clearly wasn’t crazy or stupid. He wasn’t there to trash Hillary. It was polished but relaxed. The guy Barrack talked about sounded like he might be an interesting guy.
Then came Ivanka Trump who was not only poised and appealing but seemed to throw the crowd for a loop when she began presenting what sounded a lot more like a Democratic speech than a Republican one with a whole discussion of pay equity and subsidized childcare. Ivanka presented her father in a very humanizing and flattering way which I think would have at least somewhat improved my impression of Trump had i not already observed the guy at great length.
I don’t think a convention speech can dramatically shift a race. But every bit counts. And I confess that after watching the bio-video, Barrack’s chat and Ivanka’s introduction I had a bit of concern that the Trump camp was pulling off a pretty respectable closing night. (As you may know, the media got a hold of the speech a few hours before Trump gave it. I glanced at a few parts but I intentionally didn’t read it through because I wanted to hear it fresh.) It started out reasonably well. It certainly wasn’t a speech designed to appeal to me. But Trump’s delivery was solid. The visuals were strong. It all seemed pretty good. Again, the bar was set extraordinarily low. But from that low bar it got off to what I thought was a pretty decent start.
But as we went past the first few minutes something started to change. The substance of the speech began to get darker and more aggressive. Even more importantly Trump slowly slipped the bonds of the speech itself – not the words, which he mainly kept to, but whatever emotive guardrails it might have placed around him. There were more wild hand gesticulations. His face grew redder. At some relatively early point he started yelling and went on to do that for something like an hour. Well before a half hour whatever concern I’d had was gone. It seemed impossible not to see that the man giving the speech didn’t seem remotely like the guy his introducers talked about, especially not the man Ivanka described. This guy was angry and intense and pretty dead set on scaring people and insisting that only he could provide protection.
Coming up on an hour I was feeling amazed that this man whose face had gotten very red was basically yelling about America as some dystopic hellhole. Everybody takes for granted – rightly or wrongly – that an acceptance speech is supposed to be commanding but humanizing, perhaps critical of the status quo you intend to replace but nonetheless fundamentally positive, optimistic and forward-looking. This was not an admonition Trump heeded.
Somehow, even though he had a prepared speech and mainly kept to it, as time went on the rabble rousing speaker from the primary rallies managed to come fully into view, the whole raging package. I have no doubt it got his existing supporters very charged up. But there was very little I saw that I thought non-supporters or currently uncommitted voters would find appealing or compelling or even just not scary. Along the way of course there were bizarre interludes like his concern trollish pledge to allow the gays to come under his dominance umbrella for safety. But these moments were more discordant and weird than anything else.
The other part of the equation was that I was surprised how much Clinton seemed to fade from view in the second half of the speech. After the early attacks focused on foreign policy, she just seemed to recede into the background with the occasional exception of references to “my opponent.” That struck me as odd and I don’t think it was good for Trump.
Taken together, given the opportunity to present a more scripted, more soft edged Trump, his campaign managed to end up with someone who looked and acted pretty much like what I remember from the primary phase of the campaign. It was a dark, incredibly pessimistic view of America presented by someone who went almost an hour yelling at me. If you weren’t already in the emotional space Trump inhabits I don’t think it was anything likely to pull people into Trump’s camp who wasn’t already there.
If you’ve read me for a long time you probably realize that I’m basically a traditionalist. This apocalyptic hell hole is my home. I love her. And I always will. I clearly wasn’t the audience for this speech. But it was not one that I think would have much appeal for anyone not already in the audience. At the end of the day, Trump can only be Trump. His brand is dominance. Would be autocrats need disorder and violence to validate and necessitate their rule. He played that to the hilt. It was the full package and in its own way powerful … if you were already for Trump.