A critique frequently lobbed at Hollywood tentpole films is that their last acts are usually punishingly long. Leave it to Donald Trump to make an entire speech an endless, tedious final battle, complete with every possible apocalyptic reference short of the Illuminati. In his acceptance speech at the closing night of the Republican National Convention, Trump dispensed almost completely with anything that wasn’t bombastic.
His daughter Ivanka, who introduced him, had tried to soften her father’s image with references to daycare and lunch-bucket workers. Whether or not anything Ivanka said was true (and there was a lot in both speeches that was not backed up by credible evidence), her attempts to take the edges off his fear-mongering worldview evaporated very quickly.
Once her father took the stage, it was all strongman code. “America first,” he said, to loud cheers. “Build the wall” was a chant heard over and over again. All Hillary Clinton had brought to the world was “death, destruction, terrorism and weakness,” a theme he hammered relentlessly.
“I am the law-and-order candidate,” Trump said. He repeated variations of that phrase more than Dick Wolf probably has all year, as many snarked on Twitter. “We are going to start winning again.”
“Winning,” according to Trump, would come very quickly if voters put him in office. Very soon after being sworn in as President, he told the crowd, he would fix all the bad trade deals, change the tax laws and energy policies, and create jobs. He made it all sound easy, as if making America great again would take him a couple of months, maybe a year. If it was all so simple, how come no one has done it? They hadn’t had the guts, because they weren’t Donald Trump.
It was a night marked by cognitive dissonance, putting a wrench into the logic gears of the human brain. The band played “Here Comes the Sun,” but Trump painted a picture of a nation beset by an epidemic of lawlessness, of citizens living in fear of almost every kind of threat, from Chinese currency to thousands of criminally inclined refugees. Never mind that studies show immigrants are less likely to commit crimes. Never mind that crime statistics are down over time, according to the FBI.
The cognitive dissonance began with Peter Thiel, who talked about being a proud gay man and the useless distraction of “fake culture wars,” not understanding that those who fought for LGBT rights were derided and mocked for decades for prioritizing that particular cultural battle. He acknowledged not agreeing with all of the party’s positions, but failed to mention that the RNC platform advocates conversion therapy and opposes marriage equality.
Ivanka talked about how female-friendly her father’s company was, but like Melania Trump on Monday, she offered very little in specifics. He sounded like someone she had once sat next to on a cross-country flight, not someone she’d spent her life with.
But Thiel, who rushed through his remarks, and Ivanka, who was glacially composed through her anodyne speech, were no match for Trump, who held the crowd’s attention simply by shouting his way through his record-long 76-minute diatribe.
His only stumble was over the acronym “LGBTQ,” tentatively sounding it out in a reference to the shooting at the Pulse nightclub in Miami. But he didn’t dwell on that awful day or the hate that motivated it for long. “No good,” he said, before moving on to the next travesty destroying America and repeating “law and order” a dozen more times.
What linked Trump’s speech to the majority of other speakers this week is a pathological obsession with Clinton. According to Trump, she is both a puppet of her elitist paymasters and an all-powerful, shadowy entity capable of committing almost every evil act imaginable.
But the point of this speech was never about logic; appealing to reason was never the big idea. The point was to stoke fear, to wear the audience down, to break down their defenses so that the terrifying end-times clash-of-cultures messages got through.
“I am your voice,” Trump said. “Nobody knows the system better than me, which is why I alone can fix it.”
As a commentator on PBS’ “NewsHour” coverage of the speech noted, Trump frequently sounds like someone at the center of a cult of personality. Trump painted Clinton as a spectral villain, but in the end, he’s the one who sounded like a messianic narcissist.
The biggest disjunction of all came around the midpoint of his speech, when he said “Anyone who endorses violence, hatred or oppression is not welcome and never will be.” Fine, stirring words, but Trump, like most B-movie villains, couldn’t see how hypocritical that sentence was. He’d spent the better part of an hour whipping up racist tendencies and describing a xenophobic America that, according to him, views much of the rest of the world with fear, if not outright disgust.
Much of his message was coded (“inner cities,” “America first,” “violence spilling across our borders”), but it wasn’t difficult to understand what kind of beliefs Trump was espousing. At the end of a long week, it was hard not to construct a mental wall to stem the flow of Trump’s fear-mongering, but enough got through. Viewers heard him, and his peroration got the convention attendees on their feet, cheering and clapping.
But it wasn’t for them, apparently, even though Trump often paused to soak in the love of the crowd.
“He’s going to speak to the nation, not to the Republican Party,” his campaign advisor Paul Manafort said earlier that evening, before Trump came to the stage. “Now he’s focused on the broader message to America.”
If it was meant to be broad, it felt awfully narrow.