Well … Donald Trump delivered quite the speech.
The newly official Republican nominee for president ended the fourth and final night of the 2016 Republican National Convention with one of the darkest, most foreboding, and aggressively fearmongering speeches in modern political memory. It was unapologetically nationalistic, revived the rhetoric of race-baiting organizations from the America First Committee to the 1968 Nixon campaign, and moderated none of Trump’s most contentious policies.
Indeed, it promised this whole election will be a referendum on Trump’s theory of what’s wrong with America, in which immigrants, terrorists, and gang members are violently rampaging throughout the nation and must be destroyed by a strong, forceful leader.
It was a chilling end to a convention marked by a million little screw-ups, from Melania Trump’s plagiarism to Ted Cruz’s poorly stage-managed non-endorsement to Trump’s alarming comments on NATO. It’s an ending that focuses the mind not on the event’s farcical elements but on the vision it was meant to promote, a vision Trump expressed all too clearly.
It’s hard to know where to start with Trump’s speech, but this paragraph is what I keep coming back to:
I have a message for all of you: The crime and violence that today afflicts our nation will soon come to an end. Beginning on January 20, 2017, safety will be restored.
This is not something a presidential contender in real life says. This is something a president-elect in a particularly unsubtle dystopian young adult novel about the danger of trading liberty for security says.
"The crime and violence that today afflicts our nation" is not the problem Trump thinks it is. Violent crime has plummeted dramatically in recent decades. America has more or less never been safer.
And what real problems remain — primarily in disadvantaged communities whose members are both too often harassed by police and too rarely protected by police — weren’t mentioned in Trump’s address. He didn’t speak about the problem of underpolicing in black neighborhoods, or the problem of domestic violence in families of all races, or the nationwide problem of sexual violence by family and acquaintances.
The violence of Trump’s speech was not the violence that is most common in America, violence by those close to us, in our families and neighborhoods. It is the violence of strangers, of the monster under the bed, of the boogeyman around the corner.
Trump told the crowd about Kate Steinle, who was killed by an undocumented immigrant in San Francisco last year. He told the crowd about Sarah Root, who died in a drunk driving incident involving an undocumented immigrant, painting her as a murdered victim of a menacing force from abroad. He recounted recent police shootings and terrorist attacks at home and abroad in nearly graphic detail.
The world he described was one where citizens are living under constant threat of attack, partly from terrorists but mostly from immigrants, who cross the border for seemingly no reason other than to massacre native-born Americans.
"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, just before talking about Sarah Root. The implication was clear: They are coming, and they are coming to kill us.
The America of this speech does not exist. In the real world, immigration does not increase crime, and in fact immigrants are less likely to commit crimes than natives. In the real world, cases like Kate Steinle’s are rare tragedies, and many fewer occur now than did 20 years ago, when the immigrant population was significantly smaller. In the real world, the problem of drunk driving is indifferent to drunk drivers’ legal status.
Trump’s speech was designed to pull off an impressive trick, to swamp these facts with a terrifying fantasy and make viewers buy it. Every indication is that this project is, thus far, failing. Trump is losing the presidential election. He has not convinced most Americans.
But to see a major American figure with an unmatched platform use it to spread baseless fear — fear targeted at a marginalized and oft-slandered group of Americans — is terrifying.
Tonight featured speeches from three billionaires: Trump, PayPal co-founder and venture capitalist Peter Thiel, and real estate investor Tom Barrack. They followed in the footsteps of casino billionaire Phil Ruffin and fracking billionaire Harold Hamm, who both had primetime slots on Wednesday night.
Put together, the 2016 RNC was a rare political event that consciously tried to amplify the voices of America’s richest people as much as possible. And in doing so, it revealed something interesting regarding how Trump thinks about wealth and human character.
Trump isn’t the only billionaire to make a foray into politics, but it’s hard to imagine, say, Michael Bloomberg surrounding himself with fellow billionaires at an event like this. That’s not because Bloomberg is some kind of class traitor or whatever. It’s because Bloomberg views his money as a tool that lets him be involved in politics, rather than evidence of his inherently superior character. That makes the idea of inviting yet more rich people seem foolhardy, likely to backfire and make Bloomberg seem out of touch and detached from ordinary Americans.
Trump, by contrast, really does see his wealth as evidence of superior character. That’s the entire basis of his public personality. It’s evidence he has killer instincts, won’t give up, works harder than the rest, and so on. And Trump has been able to sell that idea, and that self-image, to the broader public, first on The Apprentice and now during the campaign.
If that’s your experience — that Americans are on board with the idea that wealth is a sign of good character and smarts — then of course you want to bring on a whole raft of billionaires to testify to how great you are. They’re trusted sources, attesting to how great a guy you are! Naturally, that’ll persuade people.
Given that relatively small minorities of the American electorate were either regular Apprentice viewers or voted for Trump in the primary, the evidence for this theory is rather weak. But whatever its electoral effects, it produced an astonishingly pro–0.01 percent convention.
Winner: Ivanka Trump
Ivanka has a tough line to walk this election. On the one hand, Donald is her father and her boss, and she needs to stay on his good side, and to remain one of his close advisers, for the sake of her career and future.
On the other hand, she’s an elite-educated New Yorker who runs in very liberal circles and who risks greatly damaging her brand as a sophisticated, cosmopolitan, smart businesswoman by tying herself too closely to an over-the-top nationalist campaign that repeatedly attacks the kind of city-dwelling media and cultural elites whom she counts as friends.
So Ivanka came up with a rather impressive solution: Praise her father as a man, but otherwise talk about motherhood.
No one watching this campaign to date would think that Donald Trump is particularly interested in the needs and concerns of working women. Just five years ago, he attacked a lawyer in a deposition for breastfeeding, declaring the act "disgusting." But to hear Ivanka tell it, Trump is running primarily to help upper-middle-class women lean in.
"As a mother myself of three young children, I know how hard it is to work while raising a family. I also know that I'm far more fortunate than most," she told the crowd. "American families needed relief. Policies that allow women with children to thrive should not be novelties; they should be the norm."
Is this a fair point? Absolutely. Does it have literally anything to do with Donald Trump? Not really, no. While Ivanka praised her father’s mentorship of women executives and claimed he walked the walk on pay equity, the focus of this long portion of the speech was primarily to make viewers think, Ivanka Trump is a sane person with reasonable ideas about making work friendlier to mothers — not, Donald Trump is a champion of gender equality.
The latter idea is just too implausible a message to be persuasive. But the former could work — and is the more important message for Ivanka to get across if she’s going to revive her career after her father’s likely election loss.
Loser: Donald Trump
Here’s the thing about Trump’s fear-based message: It probably won’t work.
If you poll Americans on what they view as the most important issue or problem in the country, without fail the economy tops the list, followed by national security. Immigration barely registers. A recent NBC poll put it sixth, after the deficit, health care, and climate change. CBS found only 5 percent named it first. These polls generally don’t even have a category for crime.
Which makes sense: Immigration does not appear to generate problems for the vast majority of Americans. Insofar as it affects them, it benefits them. Crime is on a decades-long downswing, and Americans have rarely been safer. These just aren’t high-salience issues for typical voters.
And you see this with down-ballot elections. Sen. Kelly Ayotte (R-NH) isn’t running around New Hampshire promising to end the lawless anarchy and frequent murders, because that is not in fact the situation the state faces. Same goes for Sen. Pat Toomey (R-PA), and Sen. Rob Portman (R-OH). Sophisticated Republican politicians on the ballot this fall do not follow this strategy.
There's a reason no Senate race is featuring crime. This is strange decision by Trump campaign. https://t.co/CoRfhWD3H5— stuart stevens (@stuartpstevens) July 22, 2016
And yet Trump does. He’d like you to believe that’s because he knows something establishment politicians don’t. But given how badly he’s underperforming the fundamentals in polling, it sure looks like he’s just screwing up. He’s picked a general election message that focuses on issues most Americans don’t care about, and those who do care about them tend to be African-American or Latino, and likely to react negatively and countermobilize in reaction to Trump’s rhetoric.
It is, one might say, sad!
Loser: Peter Thiel
While leftist outlets sometimes stereotype Silicon Valley as a cesspool of Randian objectivism gone awry, the reality, as journalist Greg Ferenstein has written, is that the tech industry is dominated by center-left Democrats, who might be a bit more sympathetic to anti-regulatory efforts by companies like Uber but broadly support the safety net, environmental protection, and LGBTQ rights.
And Silicon Valley is definitely on board with trade and immigration. Tech is a remarkably globalized sector. Code has a way of bridging language and cultural gaps, and the internet has made cooperation between programmers in Denmark and Japan and South Africa and Brazil and beyond not just possible but easy. Tech companies are among the biggest users of H-1B visas, recruiting heavily in the Indian subcontinent and East Asia. It’s no accident that Mark Zuckerberg’s biggest intervention in politics to date was co-founding the immigration reform group FWD.us.
So Donald Trump is, in many ways, the anti–Silicon Valley candidate. The forces he blames for destroying the American middle class are some of the forces driving the tech industry’s remarkable success. His ardent, unapologetic nationalism runs directly counter to the programming world’s broadly cosmopolitan zeitgeist. Leaders like Zuckerberg, Facebook board member Marc Andreessen, and many more have reacted to his candidacy with disgust and horror.
And so the decision of Peter Thiel, fellow Facebook board member and larger-than-life Silicon Valley VC, to speak at the convention seems destined to marginalize him and reduce what moral and intellectual authority he had in that world in a lasting way. He’s a powerful figure, but not so powerful that disgust over his decision to so publicly promote the most bigoted major party nominee in recent memory won’t hurt him.
What motivated Thiel to support Trump isn’t mysterious. Thiel got his start fighting "political correctness" at Stanford, he does not care much for immigrants (having donated $1 million to the far-right anti-immigrant group NumbersUSA), and he has strong anti-democratic opinions of a kind that naturally lend themselves to support for a candidate who has a, shall we say, conflicted relationship with democratic norms.
The appeal of Trump to someone who thinks the big problem on college campuses is that the claims of black and Latino activists are taken too seriously, and who wants dramatically less immigration, and who does not trust the democratic process, should be obvious.
But you’d think Thiel would nonetheless have the good sense to preserve his power and influence in the industry where he made his fortune. He could quietly back Trump. He could anonymously donate as much as he wanted to a 501(c)(4) that could then give the money to a pro-Trump Super PAC. He could do it all behind the scenes and not piss off colleagues.
Instead, he gave a major televised address. It was a baffling move, one that seemed to offer no upside for him.
Watch: Peter Thiel on Donald Trump
Loser: Reince Priebus
One of the stranger moments of Thursday night was the airing of a brief video featuring successful 2014 GOP Senate candidates enthusiastically praising the Republican National Committee for its help. Sen. Shelley Moore Capito (R-WV) was pumped about how it let her tailor her message to West Virginia. Sen. Cory Gardner (R-CO) loved their Latino outreach program. Sen. Thom Tillis (R-NC) was into the phone-banking operation.
It was like an ad or infomercial trying to persuade people set on running for office but somehow undecided on what party to run under to pick the Republicans. What possible purpose that would serve remained … unclear.
The mystery was solved at the end of the video, which pivoted from praising the RNC to praising its leader: Reince Priebus. Reince does right by his candidates. He keeps the party together. Even Trump himself added a sound bite about how Reince is awesome.
The whole thing reeked of overcompensation. Let’s be real: Reince Priebus has utterly failed at running a convention. This whole thing has been far less crazy and far more incompetent than anybody could’ve expected. There weren’t riots in the streets or hyper-extreme primetime speakers or anything like that.
But there was a primetime speaker who refused to endorse the candidate and who was allowed to go on for some reason anyway — and who was booed extensively, causing yet more drama, with no apparent attempt by Priebus or other leaders to calm matters.
There was another primetime speaker who straight-up ripped off a speech from Michelle Obama, of all people. Night after night there were unplanned delays, drama about speakers going over and pissing off later speakers, and plenty of off-the-record shit-talking to reporters.
This is not what a well-managed convention looks like. It was chaos, a sign of a total failure of the officials in charge to keep things in check and make sure everything got done right, at the right time, with minimal friction. Priebus’s biggest job this week was to make everything run smoothly, apart from any broader ideological or party-building project. He fell way, way short.