CLEVELAND — During the final, flailing weeks of Marco Rubio’s presidential campaign, the Florida senator tried to dub Donald Trump a "con artist."
Trump’s convention speech Thursday proved Rubio so very right.
In more than an hour of unremitting darkness, Trump wove a narrative with the chief purpose of convincing swing voters that the United States is on the verge of collapse from "crime and violence" — and that the only way to avert that collapse is to elect him president.
"Our convention occurs at a moment of crisis for our nation," Trump said. He continued: "The crime and violence that today afflicts our nation will soon, and I mean very soon, come to an end. Beginning on January 20, 2017, safety will be restored."
But it was a con job: a fraudulent, desperate attempt by a losing candidate to snooker the American public into electing him.
Trump’s speech hinges on the idea that crime is surging to terrifying levels. But this simply isn’t borne out by the evidence. So to make his case, Trump uses a combination of cherry-picked and out-of-context statistics, incomplete data, and flat out erroneous information to invent a crisis.
For a fuller debunking, read this article by German Lopez. But here’s just a taste:
Trump: "police officers killed in the line of duty has risen by almost 50% compared to this point last year."— Justin Wolfers (@JustinWolfers) July 22, 2016
Donald Trump just cited our data on homicides. Here's that 17% increase he mentioned. https://t.co/HZkEr0nfd2 pic.twitter.com/WDxQYrN8X5— Max Ehrenfreund (@MaxEhrenfreund) July 22, 2016
Indeed, before the speech even began — but after its text had leaked — Trump’s campaign manager, Paul Manafort, was confronted on CNN about how that dismal picture seemed not to align with the facts. And Manafort responded like a true con artist — by essentially saying that you shouldn’t believe your lying eyes.
Paul Manafort told @CNN he doesn't trust FBI stats showing crime has been dropping for years because of how it handled Clinton email probe— Chris Megerian (@ChrisMegerian) July 22, 2016
Trump’s intense focus on crime is odd considering the statistics
There is, of course, a long history of "tough-on-crime politics." Trump likely has two main sources of inspiration here. First, there was Richard Nixon’s famous "law and order" presidential campaign of 1968 — a favorite of Trump’s friend and onetime adviser Roger Stone. Second, there’s the New York City politics Trump experienced in the 1980s and '90s that helped lead to Rudy Giuliani’s election.
Indeed, the crime issue used to loom over national politics to a remarkable extent. One article in 1994 called the issue "the 900-pound gorilla of American politics" that year, and said "there is hardly a campaign for any office that doesn't feature the two candidates wrestling each other into the mud over who is tougher on crime."
But there’s a reason crime has receded as an issue nationally since then — it’s plummeted. Here’s a chart of the murder rate nationally:
Indeed, it’s notable that very few candidates other than Trump are trying to make crime a major issue, as GOP political consultant Stuart Stevens pointed out in befuddlement.
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
That, though, is where the con comes in.
Rather than pivot to the center, Trump has decided to try and con swing voters
For decades, Donald Trump has tried to sell the public an image of himself. The wildly successful real estate investor and dealmaker, who built an enormous fortune for himself. The glamorous playboy. The generous, open-handed donor to charitable causes. The guru who can teach you how to get rich too, should you enroll at Trump University.
Much of it has always been a con.
Trump inherited much of his wealth from his father, and his investment success is less impressive than you might think. He seems to habitually exaggerate how much money he actually has. The Washington Post’s David Fahrenholt has searched in vain to find evidence of much charitable giving from Trump. And as for Trump University, there is literally going to be a fraud trial about it.
Now, Trump can read the polls. He can see that unlike in the GOP primary, he has consistently trailed Clinton. He knows how unpopular he is.
An ordinary politician, who listens to traditional political advice, would respond to such a problem by changing his positions or his tone. And indeed, many political observers have long expected Trump to "pivot" to the center after the primary, to better court a general electorate.
But Trump has no interest in merely courting swing voters. Instead, it’s now clear, his play is to con them into believing there’s a terrifying national crime wave, caused by illegal immigrants, anti-police protesters, and other malefactors.
Trump has likely concluded that he can only win if voters believe the country is on the verge of collapse. Only then would they take so desperate a measure as electing Donald Trump.
It’s not clear how Trump’s speech — overly long, profoundly negative, and sure to be torn apart by fact-checkers — will play out with the electorate. The Democrats, especially President Obama and Hillary Clinton, are sure to present a starkly different and more optimistic vision next week.
Yet pundits have doubted Trump’s instincts before and been proven wrong. And as it stands now, the election is far closer than many expected, with Hillary Clinton only ahead by about 3 points nationally. Trump doesn’t need to convince all that many voters to surge to a lead.
This convention has made very clear that the Republican Party has now become the party of Trump. But what we don't yet know is whether we have become the country of Trump. We'll find out soon enough.