"The man cannot tell the truth, but he combines it with being a narcissist. A narcissist at a level I don't think this country has ever seen... Everything in Donald's world is about Donald. And he combines being a pathological liar, and I say pathological because I actually think Donald, if you hooked him up to a lie detector test, he could say one thing in the morning, one thing at noon and one thing in the evening, all contradictory and he'd pass the lie detector test each time. Whatever lie he's telling, at that minute he believes it."
In his acceptance speech on the fourth night of the Republican National Convention, Donald Trump believed every word he said. If anyone was surprised by the tenor of Trump's acceptance speech, it only means that they didn't watch any of his stump speeches over the course of the campaign. He might have been reading from a prompter, but the speech was vintage Trump. As is his custom, he either lied or misrepresented data to fit his narrative, he demonized individuals and institutions as part of the global conspiracy of corruption and incompetence--this time he added the FBI to his list--who stand in his path.
There was nothing new in the dystopian tenor of the picture he painted of America. This has been central to his rhetoric since the day he announced his candidacy in June 2015. His anti-immigrant, anti-trade and anti-Muslim themes, the anti-Semitic and white supremacist dogwhistles, have been interlinked in his vision of a working class America beset by crime, economic insecurity, and the predations of political and corporate elites.
Trump honed his skills at stoking the anger and resentments among older, working class voters as the leader of the Birther movement, and throughout his campaign he has never deviated from his core message. In his acceptance speech, Trump painted himself as the working class hero, who will champion the forgotten and voiceless Americans. Just as he did with the campaign slogan Make America Great Again, in his speech he succinctly summed up his message: I am your voice. In his narrative, and as rabidly embraced by those in attendance last night, the working class are the ones who have been the victims of crime and wage suppression at the hands of immigrants. They are the ones whose jobs have been lost and they are the ones who struggle to make ends meet as the result of trade deals that have enriched corporate leaders and politicians.
Many traditional Republicans--those who have been enriched by globalization, free trade and open borders--prayed that he would pivot in this speech. As if to signal that there would be no kinder, gentler, more compliant Trump in the offing, the day before his big speech, Donald Trump doubled down on his anti-NATO, pro-Putin stance that has enraged the Republican foreign policy establishment. Asked what he would do if Russian tanks rumbled into Estonia, Trump suggested that the United States has more important things to worry about than the fate of Europe. Americanism, not globalism, as he put it last night, has been his stance for a better part of a year now. So much for global leadership.
Trump did pivot in this speech, it just wasn't in the direction that establishment Republicans--or conservatives for that matter--had in mind. Conservative pundits have warned from day one that Donald Trump was not one of them. He was pro-choice before he was pro-life. His mangling of "Two Corinthians" was a sure sign that there was no bible on his nightstand. He was, they warned, a New York liberal; balls-to-bones, as the Oracle would have put it.
Over the course of the convention, you could see the magnitude of the pivot coming. Over the course of this convention, the Trump children have moved front and center as the apostles of the Church of Donald Trump. In his speech on day three of the convention--a speech largely overlooked because he was the speaker immediately following Ted Cruz--second son Eric Trump began to shift the vision of what we should expect from a Trump administration. He offered barely a nod to conservative principles, suggesting instead the rebuilding of the nation's infrastructure, its run down neighborhoods, and its schools. Ford, Nabisco, Carrier and other companies would bring their factories back home. It was not just that Eric Trump's vision was more FDR than Ronald Reagan, but his appeal to an audience will beyond the normal range of the GOP.
To the unemployed voter sitting at home watching me right now, wondering how you're going to make your next mortgage payment, or rent payment, my father is running for you... To the schoolteacher forced to walk through metal detectors each and every day into an underfunded school, my father is running for you... To single mothers, to families with special needs children, to middle class families who can no longer afford medical benefits sufficient to cover their everyday needs, my father is running for you.
The next day, Ivanka Trump took it one step further. First, as if to confirm what skeptical conservatives had long concluded about her father, she let the partisan audience know that she is not a Republican. Then she proceeded to expand her brother's summation of the Trump vision to include affordable childcare for all, equality of wages for women, and paid maternity leave.
The speech that Donald Trump ultimately delivered was his standard stump speech appended to the most significant commitment to what can only be described as liberal, big government spending and social priorities--for lack of a better term--than I can recall. "Every action I take," Donald Trump stated, "I will ask myself: does this make life better for young Americans in Baltimore, Chicago, Detroit, Ferguson who have as much of a right to live out their dreams as any other child America?"
And then came Trump's comments about the Orlando terrorist attack, and his commitment to protect the LGBT community:
"The terrorist targeted the 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."
[Note: Andrew Sullivan commented while live blogging the speech: "I keep giggling at “LGBTQ”. Who actually uses all five consonants, except those saying it for the first time? But Trump seems genuine in his support for gay people and our humanity. It’s cynical and sincere."]
And the crowd went nuts yet again, to such an extent that even Trump seemed to be perplexed at the enthusiastic response. This is, after all, the Republican National Convention that has restorative therapy for gay children as part of its platform. When the crowd settled, he went off script to comment: "And I have to say, as a Republican, it is so nice to hear you cheering what I just said. Thank you. Thank you."
Trump's speech was a home run, from a political standpoint. From any objective viewpoint the tenor of the speech was nakedly authoritarian, and from a content standpoint it was utter nonsense. There has likely never been a convention speech that offered so much to so many, with so little to back it up. Bernie Sanders was raked over the coals for advocating a higher educational entitlement projected to cost $75 billion a year. Donald Trump, meanwhile, proposed $10 trillion in tax cuts, said he would pay off $19 trillion in national debt, and now proposes to rebuild the nation's transportation and other infrastructure at a cost of trillions more. He will eliminate ISIS and Islamic extremism (eliminating Saudi Arabia, perhaps?) Yet there is no uproar, only the cheers of a political party that has not only suspended disbelief, but seems content to move forward with a candidate who can only be described as delusional.
Donald Trump not only knows his audience, but their commitment to him now transcends their commitment to the Republican Party. From the early days of his campaign, Trump has been at odds with central tenets of modern Republicanism. This election year that was supposed to be dominated by billionaire campaign contributors and the social Darwinist principles advocated by House Republicans. Trump upended all of that from the get-go, with his attacks on globalization, free trade and the corruption of political money.
Rather than pivoting back toward the GOP mainstream, Trump used this speech to broaden his working class appeal, and to show his supporters--to their evident glee--the alignment of their interests with those of others in similar economic circumstances--single mothers, Latinos and African Americans. For decades, this alignment of interests among working class whites and minorities has been the Holy Grail in the Democratic Party. It was astonishing to see Trump pursue that path, just days before the Democrats gather in Philadelphia.
The success of this speech will be seen in the weeks ahead in whether it shifts Donald Trump's unfavorability rating in public polls. Like Hillary Clinton, Trump's success in the fall will depend on a combination between his success in driving up negative perceptions of her, as well as moderating negative perceptions of him. While this speech appears on the surface to constitute an effort to expand his voter base to include the single mothers, African Americans and Latinos that he appealed to in his speech, it is more likely that the pivot was targeted toward suburban white woman.
Suburban Republican woman living in the battleground states of Ohio, Virginia, Pennsylvania and Colorado have been a critical swing group for several election cycle. According to public opinion polling, more than half of college educated white voters, and women in particular, have indicated that they view Donald Trump as racist. For those voters, softening the negative view of Trump as a racist, xenophobic bigot is critical if he is to have a chance to win their votes, and in turn the election, in November. The Trump campaign needs to make it palatable for suburban women to tell their friends they are supporting Trump. Thus, a speech that put the travails of African American youths, struggling Latinos and the persecution of the LGBT community front and center.
The speech, like his campaign, was a tour de force of egoism and self-delusion. But as Ted Cruz suggested, he believes every word of it. And as we learned over the course of the week, his children believe every word of it. And if the roars of the crowd are any measure, the assembled base of the Republican Party has united as one and believe every word of it. Now it comes down to college educated Republican women. If they buy into the sincerity of his words--and set aside, or at least suspend, their revulsion at the years of racial, xenophobic and bigoted rhetoric that have defined his political career--this speech will come to be viewed as a critical moment in the election.