Trump made his campaign storyline clear: America’s problems come largely from outside our borders.
In his speech accepting the Republican nomination Thursday night, Donald Trump broke every rule of conventional politics. Breaking the rules has worked extraordinarily well for him, but Thursday night’s speech was his first appearance in a new game, at a new level, against a new opponent. Can his old strategy win?
By conventional thinking, an acceptance address is a leadership speech. As the new nominee, having vanquished his opponents, Trump is now on a higher plane, speaking to the whole country and inviting voters to picture him as president. By tradition, he would be magnanimous, inclusive, uplifting, reaching beyond the segment of Republicans who gave him the nomination to welcome all voters of all parties.
Trump did the opposite. From beginning to end, he stoked fear and anger in fearful, angry voters. This wasn’t a presidential speech; it was a gloves-off attack speech. It was red meat for his base of fervent supporters but made no attempt to reach beyond them, except for one sentence inviting Bernie Sanders supporters to come over to his side. The speech whipped most (not all) of the convention delegates into a frenzy but seemed unlikely and unintended to attract others into his camp.
In the speech’s final moments Trump made a weak attempt at outreach — “So to every parent who dreams for their child, and every child who dreams for their future…. To all Americans tonight…” But this came after 70 minutes of making clear that he wasn’t speaking to all Americans. He was speaking to those who feel victimized by globalization – “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. People who work hard but no longer have a voice. I AM YOUR VOICE.” (The all-caps are in the draft that was leaked yesterday.)
The speech’s most striking feature was what it told those voters about the source of their suffering. Trump spent relatively little time attacking Hillary Clinton, Barack Obama, “big business,” and “elite media,” though they all took their lumps. The main problem, he made clear, comes from outside the country. “The number of new illegal immigrant families who have crossed the border so far this year already exceeds the entire total from 2015,” he said. “They are being released by the tens of thousands into our communities with no regard for the impact on public safety or resources…. Decades of record immigration have produced lower wages and higher unemployment for our citizens…” He repeated his promise to build a wall on the Mexican border, eliciting thunderous applause and chants of “Build that wall! Build that wall!”
He rejected the Trans-Pacific Partnership – “not gonna happen!” he ad-libbed – and repeated his promise to re-negotiate NAFTA or “we’ll walk away.” He emphasized his “America First” theme and explicitly rejected globalization – “Americanism, not globalism, will be our credo.”
Trump made his campaign storyline clear: America’s problems come largely from outside our borders, so we’re going to stop letting those problems in. Will that isolationist pitch resonate with a majority? To the world’s shock, it resonated with a majority of U.K. voters last month, even though opinion polls said it wouldn’t. It would be foolish to think the same can’t happen here.