If Donald Trump is elected president, it’s not going to matter whether, or why, Melania Trump’s 2016 Republican National Convention speech lifted a paragraph from Michelle Obama’s 2008 Democratic National Convention speech.
But what is going to last beyond Election Day — whether Trump wins or loses — is the conviction, shared by a deep swath of the American population, that all unauthorized immigrants are (potentially dangerous) criminals; that Muslims, no matter where they were born, are not to be trusted; that it is important to declare that the lives of police officers matter but that to declare that the lives of the African-Americans those officers stop matter is an unacceptably radical and potentially terroristic act.
Those attitudes were on full and ugly display on night one of the convention. They were at the heart of the message of the first night of the Republican National Convention: "Make America Safe Again." If Donald Trump wins in November, those principles will be enshrined in policy. But whether he wins or loses, they have been established as acceptable things to say in political discourse, and everyday life, to an extent that was not the case when he launched his campaign a year ago.
You can make the argument that Melania Trump’s plagiarism scandal is an illustration of Donald Trump’s shoddy and unprofessional presidential campaign. I buy that. The problem is that Donald Trump has won the Republican nomination in spite of a shoddy and unprofessional campaign, in large part because he’s articulating the fears that many older white Americans have — that their country is in danger of losing its soul at the hands of an immigrant invasion, terrorist infiltration, and militant black radicalism.
More than any particular thing said during the first night of the GOP convention, what was alarming was its tone. It was an incredibly dark, even apocalyptic message: that America is under constant attack from enemies within and without, it’s losing, and soon it will be too late to rescue at all.
Previously, this fear has been overmatched by another, bigger fear: that those who believe this message can’t even express their opinions in public. At best, they’re worried someone will be offended or label them "racist"; at worst, they’re worried they’ll be the victims of vandalism or violence.
Donald Trump has spoken out loud about the things they’re afraid to: that immigrants are criminals, that Muslims don’t assimilate. As a result, more than any other national politician in decades, he’s changed the boundaries of what it’s acceptable to say.
It’s possible that the first night of a 2016 Republican National Convention would have had the same dark and dire tone if it had been a coronation of a different nominee. It’s extremely unlikely that it would have been quite so eager to raise the specter of thousands of immigrants clambering over a fence into the US. It’s unlikely that its attendees would have booed the wife of a member of the US House of Representatives when she said she was born in Mexico.
It’s amazing that the Republican Party found this not only appropriate to air on national broadcast television, but salutary. It’s indicative of just how emboldened people are, how much the norms of discourse have shifted.
Trump’s sloppy campaign will make it harder for him to win. But it won’t shift back those norms.