"Are you safer than you were eight years ago?" That, according to Rep. Michael McCaul (R-TX), the House Homeland Security Committee chair who spoke Monday night in Cleveland, is the key question in this election. If you judge that question in terms of the rate of incidence of murder or violent crime more broadly, the answer is that yes, Americans are safer in 2016 than they were in 2008.
But this kind of dull, plodding fact was not the kind of thing the convention’s Make America Safe Again evening dwelled on. Nor was anyone inclined to mention that illegal immigration has fallen to its lowest level in more than 40 years.
Instead, the focus was on feelings. Feelings of fear, desire for a more forceful response, and the sense — apparently shared by a large minority of Americans — that Donald Trump’s brand of forceful bluster is reassuring.
Trump is an unusual candidate, and he’s organizing an unusual convention — one featuring fewer politicians and more C-list celebrities than America is used to out of these events. Here’s who won and who lost on the first day.
Loser: The GOP’s future
I’ve long been skeptical of the thesis that the shrinking non-Hispanic white share of the population portents demographic doom for the Republican Party. I have a Spanish last name, and my son is named Jose after my paternal grandfather, who grew up speaking Spanish at home in a Cuban immigrant household in Florida. I’m also a pretty basic white guy with blue eyes and three grandparents of Eastern European Jewish heritage.
My strong guess is that the future "majority-minority" America is going to feature lots of people like me — fractionally Hispanic or fractionally Asian people who function as white, sociologically speaking, just as Irish and Italian and Eastern European immigrants assimilated into white status over time.
Donald Trump is changing that calculus.
Trump dedicated the bulk of the first evening of his nominating convention to the idea that people of non-European ancestry are a threat to the physical security of the United States of America. The message "your kind isn’t welcome here" barely qualifies as a subtext of the Trump campaign — at times he’s straight-up said that a person whose parents immigrated from Mexico shouldn’t be allowed to serve as a federal judge. Scott Baio urged us to "make America America again." Several speakers implied that Latin American immigrants are the reason we have traffic fatalities in America.
And Republicans stood and cheered. Time and again the cameras panned over a sea of white faces standing and clapping for a demagogic anti-immigration message that made no pretense of being grounded in fussy concerns about labor market economics. This is the kind of thing that people remember.
A range of conservative establishment figures have expressed a range of discontented sentiments about Donald Trump over the past few months.
But the one conservative faction that is genuinely uniformly alarmed by Trump are foreign policy "neoconservatives" who believe in an expansive global military footprint for the United States that aims to overthrow hostile regimes and replace them at gunpoint with shiny new democratic ones.
This approach has never genuinely guided American foreign policy in a thoroughgoing way — George W. Bush certainly didn’t go for regime change in Saudi Arabia, for example — but it was certainly influential in the early 21st century and appeared to be on the ascendancy among Republican Party foreign policy specialists.
Trump’s approach to foreign policy is very different, and he’s shown that you can effectively take what is politically useful about neoconservatism — the nationalism, the support for "our troops," the pro-Israel bona fides — and essentially detach it from any pretense of interest in democracy, human rights, partnership with like-minded allies, or any of the rest of the superstructure of neoconservative ideology.
What’s particularly troubling for neocons, however, isn’t just Trump’s approach to these issues. It’s the fact that Arkansas Sen. Tom Cotton and Montana Rep. Ryan Zinke were featured speakers on Trump’s foreign policy night. Cotton and Zinke are both veterans, and both leading voices on defense and foreign policy issues in the GOP congressional caucus. Their eagerness to hop on the Trump bandwagon suggests that the practical politicians most likely to be dealing with these issues in the future are learning lessons from Trump’s political success and are relatively unlikely to turn back to the old neocon gospel even if Trump crashes and burns.
Loser: Joni Ernst
Savvy Republican Party elected officials are trying this week to walk a difficult, but at this point fairly well-marked, line. Their goal is to duly support the Republican Party nominee — the man who, after all, the vast majority of rank-and-file Republican voters will vote for — while making it clear as elite actors that they don’t really think Donald Trump is a good nominee or would be a fantastic president.
That’s why the heavily featured primetime speakers at this convention are mostly has-beens like Newt Gingrich or formerly marginal figures like Jeff Sessions or Ted Cruz.
Joni Ernst isn’t like that. As a woman and a veteran who represents a purple state that’s been leaning redder lately, she has "rising star" written all over her. She was the nominee the party establishment wanted for the open Senate seat in 2014, and it’s no coincidence that she was rapidly given a high-profile role delivering the State of the Union response. She’s absolutely the kind of person (like Barack Obama in 2004 or Julián Castro in 2012) you’d expect to see speaking in primetime on the first day of a normal party convention.
Joni Ernst took a political risk in deciding to be a full-throated Trump backer. She is repaid by speaking to an emptying arena.— Shane Goldmacher (@ShaneGoldmacher) July 19, 2016
But she seems to be the one person who hasn’t realized that this isn’t a normal party convention — it’s the convention to nominate a flagrantly unqualified Donald Trump.
I’m not going to pretend that Ernst is going to pay a fatal political price for embracing Trump a little too enthusiastically, but rising stars are held to a high standard in terms of their political judgment and their reputation. Her speech was competent, though not spectacular, but her decision to deliver it at all at a time when wiser politicians are ducking and covering was a mistake.
Worst of all, the earlier sections of the program ran long so she got pushed out of the broadcast networks’ hour of coverage. She covered herself in the Trump muck and didn’t even really get her 15 minutes of fame in exchange.
Loser: Melania Trump
Melania Trump's speech got fairly good reviews after she gave it on Monday night. Then Twitter started to notice that it looks a lot like she lifted part of it from Michelle Obama.
Normally, this would be problematic enough in a normal convention setting. But this is not a normal convention. The problem here, somewhat ironically for a campaign that is so deeply steeped in nationalism and anti-immigrant sentiment, is that she’s Slovenian. And while it’s impressive that she speaks Serbo-Croatian, Italian, French, German, and English on top of her native language, she speaks English with a pretty heavy accent.
That, too, is perfectly fine — lots of wonderful Americans speak English with an accent — but it’s not an ideal characteristic for a high-profile public speech. And it’s especially problematic when you’re speaking at a nationalistic mass meeting.
Some observers on Twitter nonetheless thought Melania did well, making the case for her husband as a person and largely avoiding the racist demagoguery that characterized the bulk of the evening.
Melania Trump seems like a nice and decent woman. That she did not tell one story about the niceness and decency of her husband is telling.— Peter Suderman (@petersuderman) July 19, 2016
I tend to disagree. The speech lacked a single telling anecdote or charming personal story that only an intimate partner could provide. She testified to Trump’s loyalty and to the fact that he’ll never let you down, but she didn’t offer any examples. She’s also his third wife, which naturally raises the question of when, exactly, he became this doggedly loyal person who never lets people down.
Watch: Did Melania Trump plagiarize Michelle Obama?
Winner: Donald Trump
From day one, the essential tension of Donald Trump’s presidential campaign has been that the one thing he is really good at is getting attention but the main means at his disposal to get attention is saying or doing things that are either ridiculous or repugnant.
The "all publicity is good publicity" approach to life actually does work in many endeavors. There’s no need for Trump Tower to be a place most people want to live. You just need some people to really like it.
By the same token, getting good ratings for The Celebrity Apprentice or winning a plurality in a crowded Republican Party primary field are matters of appealing to minority tastes. But to win a general election for president of the United States, you need a kind of broad appeal that Trump has rarely mustered.
Day one of the convention was a day on which Trump successfully threaded the needle. Everyone in politics always pays attention to the conventions, and this convention was unusually closely anticipated due to the mystery and uncertainty around it. Trump had our attention. And nothing too crazy or repellent happened. Melania talked about how Trump is great. A bunch of senators and governors talked about how Republicans want to win elections.
The convention delivered an essentially on-message series of security-themed attacks on Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton: Benghazi, Fast and Furious, build the wall — all the greatest hits.
There’s no reason to believe this is political gold or that it singlehandedly resolves all of Trump’s major political weaknesses, but it demonstrated a kind of operational competence that we haven’t always seen from Trump. If he ends up winning in November, we may look back on this first night of the convention as the moment when he turned the page on GOP establishment doubts about him and started running to win.
Winner: The city of Cleveland
Expectations of violence, chaos, and blood in the streets were running high in advance of this week’s gathering. Conventions have frequently been the site of difficult clashes between protests and police, and Donald Trump rallies have frequently featured violence committed against or by protestors.
A Donald Trump convention seemed like a perfect storm for trouble. Add to that the promise by Bikers for Trump to "patrol the streets of Cleveland" and things look even more alarming. Last but by no means least, the Cleveland Police Department is under federal oversight due to revelations stemming from Tamir Rice’s death, everyone is on edge after attacks on police officers in Dallas and Baton Rouge, and Ohio is an "open carry" state.
But on Monday, nothing went wrong.
Protesters protested, police policed, and inside there were a bunch of speeches and videos. All was as it should be.
And as the Quicken Loans Arena lets out, convention-goers will discover that whatever its flaws, Cleveland is an excellent city for a big convention. The arena and other sports stadiums are right downtown walkable to most of the city’s hotels, the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, the Jack Casino, and a bunch of bars and restaurants.
Winner: Rudy Giuliani
The former New York City mayor seemed to have slipped into the sweet cocoon of irrelevance after the collapse of his 2008 presidential campaign.
But Monday night he delivered a real humdinger of a speech. It was full-scale, balls-out "cranky old man shakes his fist" territory. Giuliani was animated and engaged, and unlike other Republican Party elected officials he seems to genuinely believe that Donald Trump will make an excellent president.
He’s the perfect Trump spokesperson because in a way he was practicing Trump-style politics — soaked in macho posturing and racial conflict more than in the fine points of conservative small-government ideology — long before Trump was. Many political journalists find the rise of Trumpism more or less baffling, and I see where they are coming from, but having grown up in Giuliani’s New York I also find it very familiar.
Tonight, Giuliani found a welcome home in the new Republican Party that Trump has forged and laid the groundwork for a renaissance as an in-demand angry yelling man on the conservative speaking circuit.
Winner: The Benghazi acrostic meme
Ever since conservatives became inexplicably obsessed with the idea that there is some kind of Benghazi scandal, liberals have enjoyed making fun of conservatives' obsession with Benghazi.
The peak of Benghazi humor comes in the form of homages to conservative tweeter @spreadbutter’s classic Benghazi acrostic, which captures the right’s inchoate rage over this issue at its most incoherent. In order to display the acrostic with its canonical formatting, I’m going to embed a screenshot rather than use Twitter’s native embed function, which sometimes messes with line spacing.
This meme spawn some good jokes.
Sadly, jokes about this have gone into abeyance since Hillary Clinton’s grueling 11 hours of testimony before a congressional Benghazi committee turned into a triumphant moment for her.
Republicans got gun-shy about the Benghazi issue and started obsessing about Clinton's emails instead, making mocking them for being obsessed with Benghazi sort of pointless and off-base. But by scheduling both a Benghazi video and a speech by two men who were on the ground for the fighting allows us to Make Benghazi Jokes Great Again.