But you know what? I’m not sure it matters. Donald Trump isn’t a talented enough speaker to be a truly effective fascist dictator. His nomination acceptance speech at the Republican Convention wasn’t just over-long. It was a badly delivered, uncharismatic hector of a speech.
He delivered almost all of it in an unvarying shout, and it often sounded like he was discovering the sentences he was reading as they scrolled by on the teleprompter. The fascist dictators of the 1930s and '40s were terrible people, but they tended to have loads of charisma.
Here’s the thing. Trump seems like he has charisma, but I’m not convinced he actually does.
As I’ve written before, he’s really, really good at playing a reality-show contestant. And that means that he’s essentially working his own talking-head asides — the moments in a reality show episode when the camera cuts to somebody discussing what happened to camera after the fact — into his speeches.
He’ll play to camera, or he’ll wink a bit, or he’ll even toss in some sort of muttered aside into the text of the speech itself. That makes him seem if not folksy at least a little bit charming. He seems like your uncle who says terrible things, but you forgive him because he knows that you think they’re terrible.
For the entirety of his RNC speech, however, Trump tried to play the leader into a bold new tomorrow, the guy who would make America great again. Instead, he fumbled the speech for almost its entire length.
Trump is playing a character we know well — from entirely different contexts
Something that’s often poorly understood about Trump is that he’s, in some ways, a liberal fantasy, just flipped on its ear to become a conservative one. The outsider figure who comes into the political sphere and tells it like it is — only to have Americans realize how right he is — is a long-running type in vaguely liberal entertainments.
Perhaps the most notable one is a truly noxious speech you’ve seen float across your Facebook feed dozens of times (if you’re at all like me) — Jeff Daniels’s opening monologue from Aaron Sorkin’s three-season HBO show, The Newsroom. Watch it again:
Now think about this: Literally the message of Daniels’ speech is "Make America great again." Trump just took a framework created primarily by liberal scriptwriters and directors and suggested that what it would take to make America great was a hardcore embrace of nativist conservative proposals.
But the "outsider who tells it like it is" type is usually predicated on a political system that’s very different from the one we actually inhabit — one where people simply haven’t thought of the simple solutions said outsider can provide.
Donald Trump doesn’t live in that fictional world. He lives in ours. The deeper he got into his run, the more he realized that, say, if he proposed building a wall on the Mexican border, there would be lots of people who didn’t see that as a common-sense solution. So in many cases, he’s retreated to platitudes, now that over-the-top outrageousness no longer wins the day.
So of course Trump’s RNC speech was vague on specifics, beyond a couple of major platform points (and, yes, one of them was the border wall, though he backed off of his insistence that Mexico would pay for it). It was, on paper, a pretty good version of a Donald Trump stump speech, if an ultimately hollow one. But it would require great delivery to hide just how empty it truly was.
Again, look at the Newsroom clip above. It’s similarly empty, saying nothing. But because it’s delivered by a great actor — and, again, an actor, who’s trained to do this sort of thing — you find yourself taken in by it.
Trump didn’t manage that trick. The speech he delivered was a dark screed. Instead of hiding our fears behind a twinkly smile (as Reagan would have) or confronting fears with a sobering demeanor (as Obama did), Trump made fear the direct text of his speech. It was all there, on the surface, and the natural reaction was to say, "Hey. Wait a second. Are things really that bad?" If you weren’t predisposed to agree with Trump, it was hard to see this speech convincing you.
I hate to compare Trump to Benito Mussolini and Adolf Hitler, but I’m going to have to. On the raw level of delivering an ultimately empty speech that pointed to some undefined "other" in the name of fear-mongering, the two 20th century fascists were much more gifted and charismatic speakers.
Or, hell, look to Vladimir Putin in Russia to see a modern figure who’s very good at simultaneously communicating that the world is a terrifying place and only he can save you. In part, this sort of speech works best when it’s wedded to a leader who’s able to make following him seem not just necessary but sort of exciting.
I just can’t fathom people thinking Trump did that. I suspect in his heart of hearts Trump would love to be a strongman dictator, able to force the full weight of the US government do whatever he wants. In practice, he’s closer to Michael Scott from The Office — maybe delivering a good line here or there, but then turning to camera to make sure you caught the rare moment when he didn’t fall on his face.