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Donald Trump's convention speech was an overwhelming victory for fear

Trump delivers the speech.
Trump delivers the speech.
Jeff Swensen/Getty Images
Dylan Matthews is a senior correspondent and head writer for Vox's Future Perfect section and has worked at Vox since 2014. He is particularly interested in global health and pandemic prevention, anti-poverty efforts, economic policy and theory, and conflicts about the right way to do philanthropy.

Donald Trump 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’s hard to know where to start with the 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.

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