As I did in 2008 and 2012, I’m evaluating the acceptance speeches of the two major party candidates at their conventions. I’m evaluating them based solely on how well they communicated their positions to their audiences. I’m not going to critique their political positions. But with Donald Trump, it’s hard not to.
So, let’s try a thought experiment: Suppose for the last 13 months, you’ve been at a research station in Antarctica, or you have just been awaken from a sleeping spell by Love’s True Kiss. The acceptance speech at the Republican National Convention on July 21, 2016 is your first experience of Donald Trump as a presidential candidate. What would you think?
At first, you’d want to jump on the next plane to a remote output or find a witch with a poisoned apple. Why? The image Donald Trump portrays of America today is a frightening one:
Our Convention occurs at a moment of crisis for our nation. 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.
He describes the terror we face at home and abroad in frightening detail:
Homicides last year increased by 17% in America’s fifty largest cities. That’s the largest increase in 25 years. In our nation’s capital, killings have risen by 50 percent. They are up nearly 60% in nearby Baltimore.
Who is to blame for this horror? Among the culprits are illegal immigrants:
The number of new illegal immigrant families who have crossed the border so far this year already exceeds the entire total from 2015. They are being released by the tens of thousands into our communities with no regard for the impact on public safety or resources.
One such border-crosser was released and made his way to Nebraska. There, he ended the life of an innocent young girl named Sarah Root. She was 21 years-old, and was killed the day after graduating from college with a 4.0 Grade Point Average. Her killer was then released a second time, and he is now a fugitive from the law…
The Obama Administration:
…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.
And most especially Trump’s opponent Hillary Clinton (with an appeal to disgruntled Bernie Sanders supporters):
America is far less safe – and the world is far less stable – than when Obama made the decision to put Hillary Clinton in charge of America’s foreign policy. I am certain it is a decision he truly regrets. Her bad instincts and her bad judgment – something pointed out by Bernie Sanders – are what caused the disasters unfolding today.
After building this hellscape of domestic and international violence, debilitating trade imbalances, and political failure, Donald Trump showed how he is the hero to save us.
Tonight, I will share with you my plan of action for America. The most important difference between our plan and that of our opponents, is that our plan will put America First. Americanism, not globalism, will be our credo. As long as we are led by politicians who will not put America First, then we can be assured that other nations will not treat America with respect. This will all change in 2017.
The American People will come first once again. My plan will begin with safety at home – which means safe neighborhoods, secure borders, and protection from terrorism. There can be no prosperity without law and order. On the economy, I will outline reforms to add millions of new jobs and trillions in new wealth that can be used to rebuild America.
And as a hero, he will come to the rescue of common Americans:
My message is that things have to change – and they have to change right now. Every day I wake up determined to deliver for the people I have met all across this nation that have been neglected, ignored, and abandoned. I have visited the laid-off factory workers, and the communities crushed by our horrible and unfair trade deals. These are the forgotten men and women of our country. People who work hard but no longer have a voice. I AM YOUR VOICE.
He extended his appeal to those outside the arena in Cleveland. He addressed Bernie Sanders supporters when he talked about the imbalance of trade and a political system rigged by special interests. He addressed LGBT citizens by mentioning the shooting in Orlando. “I will do everything in my power to protect our LGBT citizens from the violence and oppression of a hateful foreign ideology.” (He didn’t mention the ideology in his own party.) He described how his policies would benefit people of color.
Finally, he countered all of the images of him being an out-of-touch egotist:
It’s because of [my father] that I learned, from my youngest age, to respect the dignity of work and the dignity of working people. He was a guy most comfortable in the company of bricklayers, carpenters, and electricians and I have a lot of that in me also…
At the same time, he made his opponent look more like the egotist:
My opponent asks her supporters to recite a three-word loyalty pledge. It reads: “I’m With Her”. I choose to recite a different pledge. My pledge reads: “I’M WITH YOU – THE AMERICAN PEOPLE.”
So, did Donald Trump’s speech work? Whether you like or agree with him or not (and I don’t), the answer has to be a resounding yes. His speech appealed to our fears, but fear can be a powerful motivator.
As he described the fears, he sought to position himself as the only one who can solve what frightens us. While he kept up the blistering attacks on the Democrats that went on during the week, he tried to soften their more disturbing edges. He defused a chant of “Lock her up!” towards Hillary Clinton waving them off and saying, “Let’s beat her in November.”
Overall, Donald Trump gave a rollicking, aggressive, and ultimately effective speech. He appealed to his base while extending himself to others. He made some efforts to counter the negative images he built over the past 13 months by explaining his positions and showing a desire to connect to the American people.
Hillary Clinton’s challenge will be to counter the charges Trump and the GOP have leveled against her, remind the audience of their own fears about Donald Trump, and show a common touch and the ability to connect with ordinary Americans. We’ll see how well she does this next week.