Donald Trump is not a candidate the American people would turn to in normal times. He’s too inexperienced, too eccentric, too volatile, too risky. Voting Trump is burning down the house to collect the insurance money — you don’t do it unless things are really, really bad.
Here is Trump’s problem: Things are not really, really bad. In fact, things are doing much better than when President Obama came into office.
Unemployment is 4.9 percent nationally — a number Trump knows is far from a crisis, because it’s lower than the unemployment rate Mike Pence is presiding over in Indiana, and Trump keeps bragging about his running mate’s economic record. The deficit has gone down in recent years, and the stock market has gone up. The end of the Iraq and Afghanistan wars mean fewer Americans are dying abroad. A plurality approve of the job Obama is doing.
So Trump needs to convince voters that things are bad, even if they’re not. He needs to make Americans afraid again. And tonight, he tried.
"Our convention occurs at a moment of crisis for our nation," Trump said. "The attacks on our police, and the terrorism in our cities, threaten our very way of life. Any politician who does not grasp this danger is not fit to lead our country."
As Jon Favreau, a former speechwriter for Obama, wrote on Twitter, this was Trump’s "Nightmare in America" speech. The address had one goal, and one goal only: to persuade Americans that their country is a dangerous, besieged hellscape, and only Donald Trump can fix it.
And so Trump spoke of the "illegal immigrants with criminal records" who are "tonight roaming free to threaten peaceful citizens." He warned of the gangs, violence, and drugs "pouring into our communities." He invoked "the mothers and fathers who have lost their children to violence spilling across our border."
Perhaps the night’s ugliest moment came when he spoke of Sarah Root, a college student killed by a drunk driver who was also an unauthorized immigrant. "I’ve met Sarah’s beautiful family," Trump said. "But to this administration, their amazing daughter was just one more American life that wasn’t worth protecting. One more child to sacrifice on the altar of open borders."
For the record, almost 10,000 people were killed in America by drunk drivers in 2010 — the overwhelming majority of them by American citizens. Trump had neither answers for nor interest in their deaths.
And it is when you tug on these threads that Trump’s speech unspools and its grossness, and uselessness, becomes clear.
There are many ways in which Americans are actually not safe. More than 600,000 Americans died of heart disease in 2015, many of them unnecessarily. More than 130,000 Americans died in accidents. More than 40,000 died by suicide. There were a record number of drug overdoses in 2014, and gun deaths in America are far beyond those in any developed country.
These tragedies can be ameliorated by policy. Cigarettes can be taxed, alcohol regulated, addicts treated, guns made less accessible. But Trump wasn’t interested in making Americans safer, and so he did not mention any of these policies. He was interested in making Americans more afraid, and so he focused on the dangers that scare us, as opposed to the ones that truly threaten us.
"The first task for our new administration will be to liberate our citizens from the crime and terrorism and lawlessness that threatens their communities," he said.
"Liberate." The America Trump speaks of requires an occupying force sent by a strongman to free and stabilize cities that have fallen into anarchy. But our cities have not fallen into anarchy. Our borders are not swarming with illegal immigrants. Murder rates remain far below what the America of the '70s, '80s, and '90s experienced. Terrorism is a horror, but successful terrorist attacks are a rarity, and one that would be most straightforwardly addressed through gun control. No liberation is necessary.
"In this race for the White House," Trump said, "I am the law and order candidate." And the law and order candidate can only win if there is a crisis of lawlessness and disorder. But there isn’t. Trump isn’t worried about your safety. He is worried about his own electoral prospects.
And this is what made Trump’s speech so truly ugly. It is one thing to whip up fear of the Other when the Other is a threat. But it is fully another to try to scare the shit out of Americans because you’re afraid they won’t vote for you unless they’re terrified. It is demagogic to warn, on national television, of foreign criminals "roaming" our streets simply because you’re behind in the polls. It’s telling that Trump fears only the threats that can be blamed on outsiders while ignoring the more lethal, more pervasive killers that afflict the citizenry.
Trump’s speech was a procession of horrors for which he did not even bother to propose real solutions. He has no actual fix to immigration, no theories on how to reduce crime. Here, his statement bordered on self-parody. "I have a message for all of you: The crime and violence that today afflicts our nation will soon come to an end," he said. "Beginning on January 20, 2017, safety will be restored."
But then, perhaps there’s truth to his absurd promises: When the crisis is invented, the solution is simpler. Once Trump no longer needs the nation to be afraid, he will stop scaring it. It is his nightmare, and only he can wake us from it.