Donald Trump will lose, but his darkly dystopian vision of America might win
The Republican presidential nominee tells a remarkably coherent story of fear, anxiety, and dread
Donald Trump is going to lose the general election in November.
He's going to lose because, as viewers have seen over and over again during this week's Republican National Convention, his political operation is incredibly poorly run, incapable of competently managing a four-day televised event, let alone a nation of 320 million people.
He's going to lose because the Republican Party Trump now leads is dominated by partisans so extreme that they cheer ravenously and repeatedly at the prospect of jailing the Democratic Party's nominee for president.
He's going to lose because he is so dangerously ignorant about the world — and so ignorant of his ignorance — that he blithely tosses off sentence-length policy proposals that would radically alter America's role in the international order and likely destabilize whole regions of the globe.
It is a very good thing that Trump the man is so obviously, undeniably unsuited to the office of the presidency — and that he's so atrociously bad at delivering scripted remarks. Because if a halfway competent public speaker leading a halfway competent political operation delivered Trump's acceptance speech on Thursday night and then followed it up with a well-run general election campaign that relentlessly drove home its message without unending gaffes and distraction, he would have a very serious chance of beating Hillary Clinton in November and becoming the 45th president of the United States.
Such a victory would make the 2016 election a watershed event in American history — certainly the most dramatic political pivot point since Ronald Reagan was elected in 1980, but quite possibly the most sweeping ideological and tonal shift since 1932, if not before.
Perhaps the most shocking thing about Trump's acceptance speech is what was missing from it.
There was no hint of civil religion (or mention of God until the pro forma and perfunctory "God bless America" tacked on to the end). No talk of national mission at home or abroad. No sense of common cause, enterprise, or endeavor. No placing of the United States in the grand sweep of world history. No talk of American soldiers liberating foreign lands from the yoke of tyranny in either the recent or distant past. No vision of America as a beacon of hope for the oppressed. No praise of entrepreneurial creativity or achievement. No promise to protect human life from the time of conception and no case for traditional marriage. In other words, there was no ringing invocation of the ideals and principles that typically ornament the speeches of Republicans and Democrats alike — freedom, equality, liberty, democracy.
In place of all that was a simple but remarkably coherent story of fear, anxiety, and dread.
Americans find themselves surrounded by and increasingly immersed in chaos. Crime is rampant and rising rapidly. Our selfless protectors — the police — are gunned down in cold blood, while the perpetrators are protected by the invincible shield of political correctness. Disorder consumes vast swaths of the globe, radiating anarchy and violence. Terrorism is spreading, while our leaders seem powerless to stop it. Uninvited immigrants stream over our borders, stealing our jobs and threatening our safety.
Our leaders claim to rule in the public interest, but in fact they enrich themselves at the public's expense whenever possible, rigging the system, fixing trade deals that increase business profits while impoverishing communities, setting up complex rules from which they exempt themselves. They thrive while the rest of us get screwed.
What we need is the firm reestablishment of law and order — and someone to listen to stories of our struggles and act on our behalf, to cut through the noise and the nonsense and the self-perpetuating system that keeps the ruling class in power and the rest of us in its thrall.
"I am your voice."
That was Trump's singular message: Elect me, and I will speak for you, make you feel safe, protect you, and put you back to work. I will fix the problems, lock up the criminals, lock out the invading hordes, wipe out the terrorists, and of course, make American great, and one, again — united in solidarity as a nation guided by a leader who for once puts the people first.
The speech contained virtually no concrete proposals, simply a vow to fix every one of an interminably long list of fundamental problems, with the implication being either that Trump alone possesses the skill to address them — or that he alone possesses the will to do so. The second option is actually the more powerful message, since it implies that those who rule the government and the economy have chosen to abdicate their responsibilities, leaving Trump as the one man willing to do what America needs to right itself.
The speech was a fever dream, conjuring a nightmarish alternative reality of American life in 2016 using a series of exaggerations and lies. But like all such political fantasies it had enough truth and grew out of enough real concerns to sound cogent and compelling. Trump connected a lot of dots. He made it all make sense. And he was the triumphant, selfless hero of the story.
Delivered by a dynamic speaker, honed and reinforced by a well-run, well-funded, tightly disciplined campaign, this darkly dystopian, anti-globalist message just might catch fire, matching the pessimistic public mood, tapping into the same vein of deep and volatile discontent with the economic and political status quo that fueled Bernie Sanders' surprisingly potent challenge to Hillary Clinton; that animated the drive for Brexit, as well as Jeremy Corbyn's improbably successful campaign for leadership of the Labour Party; and that is destabilizing center-left and center-right governments in countries across the Western world.
But the Republican nominee is not a dynamic speaker. His populist message will not be reinforced by a well-run, well-funded, tightly disciplined campaign.
Which means that Donald Trump is going to lose in November.
But both of our parties disregard the power of his populist message, and they do so at their peril.