CLEVELAND ― Be afraid. Be very afraid.
That was the essential message of the Republican National Convention this week and it was the same essential message that Donald Trump conveyed to the American people on Thursday evening, when he formally accepted his party’s nomination for president.
Maybe it isn’t surprising. From the day Trump announced his candidacy, warning about mythical rapists that Mexico was sending across the border, the real estate mogul has been telling people that they and their livelihoods were under siege ― from undocumented immigrants, global corporations, Muslim terrorists, elitist liberals, and criminals shooting cops.
He hit all of those themes in his speech Thursday and he hit them hard ― so hard, in fact, that he barely had time for anything else. The speech was long, even by convention speech standards. According to C-Span, it was the longest since 1972, eclipsing even Bill Clinton’s marathon in 1996.
Despite all that time, Trump gave almost no attention to other issues.
School choice and Obamacare each got just one line, while abortion got none. He spent a few minutes on the economy, but nearly all of it was about trade ― and how he intended to protect American jobs by ripping up old trade agreements and imposing tariffs on countries that don’t compete fairly.
The economy section also included one comically vague line ― “I will outline reforms to add millions of new jobs and trillions in new wealth” ― followed by a warning that his efforts “will be opposed by some of our nation’s most powerful special interests. That is because these interests have rigged our political and economic system for their exclusive benefit.”
The section on immigration, naturally, dwelled on the stories of people murdered by undocumented immigrants ― and some highly questionable statistics on how immigration has affected the economy. Even in those few moments when Trump was trying to appeal to idealism, he did so by portraying stories of people or communities under assault.
Maybe nobody should be surprised. Trump delivered his speech from a teleprompter, sticking mostly to the prepared text that had leaked hours before. But it was not much different from the extemporaneous riffs he’s been delivering at campaign stops for months ― or from what previous convention speakers, particularly former New York Mayor Rudy Guiliani and former House Speaker Newt Gingrich, had said on previous nights.
Still, many political professionals had long assumed, and many Republican strategists had desperately hoped, that Trump would use this convention speech to “pivot” to a more positive, more inclusive America. It wouldn’t have been that difficult, if Trump had been even slightly interested in doing so.
Four years ago, Mitt Romney, the former Massachusetts governor, gave such a speech when he accepted the Republican presidential nomination. He talked about his biography, his vision for a prosperous and peaceful America, and some of his ideas about how to get there. It was unabashedly nationalistic, but, unlike Trump’s speech, it was optimistic too ― like when Romney paid homage to Apollo 11 astronaut Neil Armstrong, who had just died.
“I don’t doubt for a second that Neil Armstrong’s spirit is still with us,” Romney said, “that unique blend of optimism, humility and the utter confidence that when the world needs someone to do the really big stuff, you need an American.”
Conventional wisdom says that Trump’s speech won’t help him ― that optimism beats pessimism, that hope beats fear, that light beats dark. And that’s an opportunity for Hillary Clinton.
She may not have the rhetorical tools of either of the two most recent Democratic presidents. But in her best speeches from this campaign season ― the one on Roosevelt Island when she officially launched her campaign, and the one at the Brooklyn Navy Yard when she clinched the number of delegates she needs for the nomination ― Clinton was able to give uplifting messages.
Trump is also fighting demographics. His angry, dark campaign has gotten him this far because it appeals to a constituency within the Republican Party that is overwhelmingly white and, according to polling data, overwhelmingly convinced that it is losing control of the country to the non-white population.
But the non-white population is getting bigger and bigger, which means that Trump can’t win unless he somehow runs up unprecedented margins among whites (which he hasn’t done so far) or makes inroads with African-Americans and Latinos (which seems impossible, particularly after Thursday night).
Still, a Trump victory is far from unthinkable. After The New York Times polling model predicted that Hillary Clinton has a 76 percent chance of winning, writer Josh Katz noted that it meant Trump could still win ― and that his chances were about the equivalent of a pro basketball player missing a free throw.
Sometimes that happens.
Be afraid. Be very afraid.