Trump to Disaffected Americans: "I Am Your Voice"
CLEVELAND — In a lengthy and folksy capstone to an unusually contentious national political convention, Donald J. Trump accomplished Thursday night what three previous days of Republican backbiting, missteps, recriminations, and other speeches had not: Forcefully making the case to disaffected Americans that if he is elected president, they will have an ally in Washington.
“I say these words to you tonight,” he said at the end of a 74-minute stemwinder. “I’m with you. I will fight for you. And I will win for you.”
His speech was designed to appeal to the same disenfranchised group of voters that propelled him through the GOP primary field onto the stage here. But he also courted the Bernie Sanders supporters and Independents who could boost him to the White House in November.
“I have visited the laid-off factory workers and the communities crushed by our horrible and unfair trade deals,” Trump said. “These are the forgotten men and women of our country. … These are people who work hard but no longer have a voice. I am your voice!”
On its face, it seems incongruous that an ostentatious billionaire who acquires golf courses, mansions, and trophy wives—each more exotic than the one before—should emerge as the champion of working-class men and women who feel the American Dream is slipping through their grasp.
Yet, this is precisely what Trump pulled off, and did so without benefit of the tools of modern political campaigning. He didn’t rely on polls, focus groups, speechwriters, super PACs, extensive TV ad buys, or even professional advisers—and he was dismissive of those who did. For the better part of a year, this disdain was directed mostly at his fellow Republicans. But with his GOP rivals vanquished, Trump turned his contempt on the Democrats about to gather for their own nominating convention in Philadelphia.
“We cannot afford to be so politically correct anymore,” he said to thunderous applause. “So if you want to hear the corporate spin, the carefully crafted lies, and the media myths, the Democrats are holding their convention next week. Go there.”
Consensus at this convention, such as it was, centered on that theme: Republicans’ shared antipathy for Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton—especially Clinton. Often this hostility seemed over-the-top. Ben Carson, one of the 2016ers who lost to Trump, said flatly that Clinton was a disciple of a Chicago community organizer who once wrote that he was inspired by Satan. Carson apparently wasn’t kidding.
The most conspicuous example of anti-Hillary excess came when the delegates would be reminded of various Clinton transgressions and instantly break into the slightly scary chant of “Lock her up! Lock her up!”
When the crowd tried that Thursday night, Trump shook his head “no” and showed his extemporaneous chops by ad-libbing, “Let’s defeat her in November.” Halfway through his speech, when a Code Pink demonstrator sought to interrupt him, Trump stood patiently at the lectern for her to be removed and then added, to great cheers, “How great are our police—and how great is Cleveland!”
He’s learned a lot, this first-time candidate. At the outset of his speech, the crowd was yelling “Trump! Trump! Trump!” — until he told them to chant “USA! USA!” instead.
Trump’s campaign has singled out Muslim terrorists, violent crime committed by illegal immigrants, predatory economic practices by China and “horrible” trade deals facilitated by a corrupt Washington duopoly that makes politics a rigged game. He expounded on all this Thursday night, and to the crowd’s delight included his ubiquitous call for a “wall” on America’s southern border.
“We are going to build a great border wall to stop illegal immigration, to stop the gangs and the violence, and to stop the drugs from pouring into our communities,” he said as the audience interrupted him with applause. “By ending catch-and-release on the border, we will stop the cycle of human smuggling and violence. Illegal border crossings will go down. We will stop it.”
“We are going to be considerate and compassionate to everyone,” he added. “But my greatest compassion will be for our own struggling citizens. My plan is the exact opposite of the radical and dangerous immigration policy of Hillary Clinton.”
“Build the wall!” the crowd responded.
Until Thursday, this convention was notable for its glitches and disharmony more than its stagecraft.
Monday night’s highly anticipated speech by would-be first lady Melania Trump got rave reviews—until it was revealed shortly afterward that several passages were lifted, virtually word for word, from Michelle Obama’s 2008 speech at the Democratic National Convention. Instead of acknowledging the transgression, apologizing and moving on, the Trump campaign kept the controversy alive by going into denial mode.
Monday began with a #NeverTrump insurgency on the floor of the hall in the early evening. It was deftly quashed by GOP officials and parliamentarians, but the “vote your conscience” mantra of the rebels turned into a zombie that would come back to haunt them two days later in the form of Ted Cruz, who pointedly declined to endorse the nominee, telling Republicans watching on television to “stand and speak and vote your conscience,” advice Clinton was only too happy to tweet out to her followers.
Meanwhile, John Kasich, one of Trump’s 2016 sulking primary opponents, flitted around Cleveland making appearances—but not at the convention. This wouldn’t have been so noticeable except that he’s the governor of Ohio.
The Trump campaign’s response to this breach of manners was, naturally, to lash out at Kasich by saying that he was “embarrassing” his state. Meanwhile, the New York Times published a mid-convention story revealing that Kasich had turned his nose up at Trump’s offer to make him the “most powerful vice president in history.”
All this, particularly Cruz’s gambit, overshadowed the high points of the proceedings. Vice presidential nominee Mike Pence—remember him?—got high marks for his acceptance speech. Donald Trump Jr., Eric Trump and Ivanka Trump all turned in effective speeches that confirmed the widespread perception that Trump’s kids are among his campaign’s greatest assets.
Yet, improbably, in the midst of chaos, it all came together just in time, on the convention’s last night, like a real estate project that takes shape just as the bank's money runs out. The evening began with testimonials from an array of speakers ranging from former Minnesota Vikings quarterback Fran Tarkington to the Rev. Mark Burns, an African-American pastor from Easley, S.C., who led the crowd in a chant of “All lives matter!”
But Burns also shushed the crowd to say that he had sympathy for the message of the Black Lives Matter movement, at least a portion of it, the part dealing with the despair that infects a neighborhood without any prospects for employment or a good education. Trump, Burns said, knows how to create jobs, and with them, hope.
Trump himself expanded on this theme. “When I am president, I will work to ensure that all of our kids are treated equally, and protected equally,” he said. “Every action I take, I will ask myself: Does this make life better for young Americans in Chicago, Detroit, or Ferguson, who have as much of a right to live out their dreams as any other child?”
Jerry Falwell Jr., another warm-up speaker, sounded a similar theme. “I truly believe Mr. Trump is America’s blue-collar billionaire,” he told the delegates.
“The most effective politicians were never career politicians,” Falwell added. “Donald Trump follows in this rich tradition. He has created jobs for thousands and is one of the greatest visionaries of our time.”
The roster of speakers was ethnically diverse and amply represented by women. This was no accident; it was a carefully cultivated theme. “In my father’s company,” asserted Ivanka Trump simply, “there are more female than male executives.”
Taking Stock Every Four Years
Amid the staging and hagiography for the nominee, quadrennial political conventions are a time when the parties take stock of themselves. In years such as 1964 and 1980—and 2016—the parties are remade in the image of the nominees, although it can feel to the losing side like a hostile takeover. Certainly that was the case this year. But then a telling moment takes place, sometimes little heeded, that unites a party—and sometimes the country. One of them took place Thursday night, when venture capitalist Peter Thiel addressed the convention.
Sixteen years ago, gay Republican Congressman Jim Kolbe addressed the convention that nominated George W. Bush. Although Kolbe didn’t even mention his sexuality, it was known, and several members of the Texas delegation bowed their heads in prayer, as if trying to save the soul of a sinner.
On Thursday night, Thiel, who co-founded PayPal and was the first outsider investor at Facebook, gave an impassioned speech about fixing the economy. But it was a line about his personal life that stood out.
“I am proud to be gay, I am proud to be a Republican, but most of all I am proud to be an American,” Thiel said. The GOP delegates and attendees gave him a standing ovation. Trump went them one better.
“Only weeks ago, in Orlando, Florida, 49 wonderful Americans were savagely murdered by an Islamic terrorist,” he proclaimed. “This time, the terrorist targeted our LGBTQ community. No good. And we’re going to stop it. As your president, I will do everything in my power to protect our LGBTQ citizens from the violence and oppression of a hateful foreign ideology.”
When the crowd cheered loudly, Trump deviated from his text once more. “And as a Republican,” he said, “is it so nice to hear you cheering for what I just said. Thank you.”
RCP's Tom Bevan, James Arkin, and Caitlin Huey-Burns contributed to this report.