CLEVELAND — During the 76 minutes of his acceptance address at the Republican National Convention on Thursday night, Donald J. Crump made his most determined and conscientious effort yet to discuss actual policy issues — as against the insults to adversaries and boasts of his electoral successes.
Oh, there were still lots of the latter. He’d only been speaking
a minute or so when he made a point of mentioning that in the primary season he’d polled “14 million votes, the most in the history of the Republican Party” and that “the Republican Party would get 60 percent more votes than it received four years ago.”
And he was certainly less than flattering toward his Democratic opponent-to-be, Hillary Clinton, whom he’d rebuked for “her bad instincts and her bad judgment” and whose “legacy” he described as one of “death, destruction, terrorism and weakness.”
But he responded with conspicuous — maybe even exaggerated — restraint when his repeated enumerations of Clinton’s alleged failures and misdeeds prompted the crowd of delegates and guests on the floor of the Quicken Loans arena to renew a mean-spirited chant of previous nights, “Lock her up/Lock her up….”
Said Trump in a show of mock magnanimity that calmed the roar: “Let’s defeat her in November.”
And his catalogue of complaints about Clinton’s performance as candidate and Secretary of State were cross-referenced to statements “pointed out by Bernie Sanders,” the erstwhile populist challenger to Clinton in the Democrats’ long-running primary contest.
This was more than a mere courtesy. Though Sanders has now formally endorsed Clinton and has made his share of denunciations of Trump, the GOP nominee apparently is taking very seriously the estimates in some quarters that as many as 10 percent of the Vermont Senator’s former supporters might switch their allegiance in November to Trump — who, like Sanders, had attacked Clinton for her ties to “big money” and trade agreements injurious to American workers.
Trump also played to a sense of grievances known to have been nursed by both Sanders and members of his unexpectedly immense primary-season following.
“I have seen firsthand how the system is rigged against our citizens, just like it was rigged against Bernie Sanders – he never had a chance,” said Trump, who ventured to make a cold claim:
“But his [Sanders’] supporters will join our movement, because we will fix his biggest issue: trade deals that strip our country of its jobs and wealth. Millions of Democrats will join our movement, because we are going to fix the system so it works fairly, and justly, for each and every American.”
Trump repeatedly touched base with the Republican mainstream, of course — condemning Obamacare, promising a “fast” restoration of law and order and public safety, and blaming President Obama and Secretary Clinton for the ominous advances of ISIS, as well as for the continued high rate of unemployment and under-employment of American workers.
But he made subtle and sometimes not-so-subtle appeals across party lines. Though to many ears it sounded seigneurial and condescending and even ironic, considering his own billionaire status, Trump expressed solidarity with workers as a class. And he was at pains to distance himself from the social conservatives in his own adopted party (and from the rigid strictures in the Republican party platform) on one key point.
While, like all previous speakers at the convention, he expressed abhorrence for the recent murderous assaults on police officers, he also lamented the deaths of African-American citizens at the hands of police, and there was this:
“Only weeks ago, in Orlando, Florida, 49 wonderful Americans were savagely murdered by an Islamic terrorist. This time, the terrorist targeted our LGBTQ community.”
Granted, that series of initials sounded strange when pronounced by Trump (each letter sounded awkwardly in its own space, like a bingo call or a Scrabble play), but he had a point to make:
“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.”
This was an unusually artful statement, simultaneously embracing a community still regarded with suspicion by many in his party (and, to repeat, in its platform) and, almost off-handedly, conferring a patriotic bona fides on its members.
He underscored his intent when he ad-libbed the following response to the applause his statement had generated from the floor:
"I have to say, as a Republican, it is so nice to hear you cheering for what I just said.”
The fact is that, for all the fidelity to GOP talking points checked off by Trump in his address, he found ways to indicate that he reserves the right to deviate when he feels like it, and he knows — as is recognized by all careful observers of his own campaign and, for that matter, of numerous other political campaigns in history — that personality can play a significant role in voters’ decisions in November.
Repeatedly on Thursday night Trump put himself forth as a figurehead to rally around. “I am your voice,” he proclaimed twice, amending that at another point to say, “I am your champion.”
That kind of grandiosity has ignited fears among his critics that Trump might see himself in the kind of strong-man role that dictators and would-be dictators have assumed at various points in world history. There was an unmistakably nativist — and, to many ears, troubling — timbre in his unvarnished statement that “Americanism, not globalism, will be our credo. “
But Trump — whose focus as a businessman has always been to employ his very name as an over-arching, all-absorbing brand — somewhat offset the impression of monomania here and there on Thursday night with statements of outreach. “We are a team,” he contended at one point.
And he offered voters of this ever-fickle democracy the one premise that is always at the heart of an election season — the opportunity to start over and do things differently.
“…Hillary Clinton’s message is that things will never change,” he said. “My message is that things have to change –and they have to change right now.”
The smart money is on Hillary Clinton for any number of reasons — Trump’s obvious unfamiliarity with basic issues and with the political process, his tendency to get off message in awkward and often repugnant ways, the continuing alienation of a large section of the Republican mainstream from this new pretender, and Hillary Clinton’s seeming lock on key voting blocs in key states.
But the fact is that, for better or for worse, personality can trump every known kind of advantage that can be demonstrated on paper (and yes, the pun is both relevant and intentional).
During the next week, at the Democratic National Convention in Philadelphia, it will be the task of Hillary Clinton and her party to make sure that can’t happen by making the most of what seems to be her obvious lead over Trump — and by expanding it, if possible.
It is possible, even likely, that she —and the Democratic Party — will do just that, but they could be in for some rude surprises if they, like 16 GOP opponents and the Republican establishment itself, take too much for granted.