Friday, July 22, 2016

Republican Convention Day Four: "Believe Me."

Here’s our take on The Donald’s big speech… is he ready for Prime Time?

It seems like it may come down to this: How bad are things, anyway? And, to a secondary and lesser degree, whose fault is it?

For whatever peculiarities have permeated this extraordinary election cycle, presidential politics at the stage of the Party conventions follow predictable, well, conventions.

The party in power must make the case for staying the course. The eternal slogan: “Four More Years!”

The party out of power must make the case for change… the famous Reagan Challenge: “Are you better off than you were four years ago?”

For all of his “outsider” and unconventional candidacy, last night Donald Trump fell in line with convention.  He made an urgent, dire, and indeed apocalyptic case for change.

Last night in Cleveland on the final day of the Republican Convention, Donald Trump laid out the vision that is informing and inspiring his candidacy. His speech could be viewed as the classic posturing of a negotiator. His first and entire intent was to frame the debate and unnerve his negotiating opponent, aggressively shoving the democrats back on their high heels, forcing them on the defensive about the catastrophic state of failure that is today’s United States of America.

There’s no mistaking this point: in order for Trump to make the case for change, he felt he must first make an uncompromising and unalloyed case that the state of our nation is the worst it has ever been.  Indeed, he framed his speech as his own view of the “State of the Union,” and he promised his perspective would be wholly truthful and not filtered through the classic Washington, D.C. lens of self-interest, corruption, and self-preservation.

“I am your voice,” Trump thundered,  targeting what he perceives to be an electoral majority that believes its needs are ignored, and whose desires are actively thwarted and belittled by distant, out-of-touch, establishment elites in Washington.  Elites, Trump contended, who are cynical, corrupt, and on-the-take, making millions off the backs of the working men and women of America.  In a terrifying world of cop-killing and mass-murders by terrorists, it is essential that America elects a new leader who sees the existential threat to our way of life, and who will put law and order first at home, and who will immediately act to destroy ISIS abroad.

Trump’s approach was based on a tried and true debating tactic: it is far easier to make an argument for change by talking about how terrible things are, rather than about your plan for making things better.

Donald Trump spared no aspect of American life from his scathing invective. The country is unsafe due to rampant crime and cop killers; we are in constant danger from the illegal immigrants who come into the country and murder innocent people; we are forever at risk from suspicious Muslims who pour into our country through non-existent borders.  Our manufacturing base has been destroyed by trade deals, bringing our economy to its knees.  The Middle East used to be fairly stable – Libya, Syria, Iraq, Iran, Egypt – until Hillary Clinton became Secretary of State.

As unstinting as Trump was in his assessment of the state of our nation, the words on paper  were the lesser half of his communication.

The tone with which words are delivered shapes their meaning, and triggers an emotional response which can have far more impact than mere verbiage. Donald Trump’s delivery in Quicken Loans Arena last evening was relentlessly dark, angry, and fiercely combative; it was high-testosterone, Alpha-male hostility. It is actually possible for me to imagine that the exact same speech, delivered with the steady manner and occasional aw shucks grin of a Ronald Reagan, might have resulting in a portrayal of 2016 America as merely the third or fourth circle of Dante’s Inferno rather than Trump’s ninth.

But rather than sunny Ronnie, Donald Trump was channeling (as BTRTN reported last Friday, before the Huff Post or NYT!) none other than Tricky Dick Nixon.  What an irony! Trump campaign director Paul Manafort openly acknowledged that Trump’s speech was based on Nixon’s “Law and Order” convention speech in 1968, but Manafort stone-walled on admitting that Melania’s speech was plagiarized from Michelle Obama. Call me crazy, but I would not have freely offered up the Nixon steal, and it would have been a beautiful moment if Melania Trump had openly credited Michelle with hers.

By 11:34 last night, we finally had the answer that we’d been anticipating for months. All along, your writers here at BTRTN and indeed many pundits and journalists have been waiting for Donald Trump to “pivot…” to expand his message in an attempt to win over the undecided voters, rather than counting on victory through merely energizing his base to turn out and vote.

This week in Cleveland, we got the answer. The extent of the pivot seems to be this: a VP who is neither Chris Christie nor Newt Gingrich, a self-congratulatory moment for not booing gay people or the notion of LGBT rights, and four kids who clearly love their Dad… although they have not yet reached the denouement in “The Empire Strikes Back” when it is revealed that he is Darth Vadar.

Trump’s speech will be criticized widely for its lack of specificity and substance; those of us who have been following this rather closely for the past year did not expect a sudden Saul-on-the-road-to-Damascus lightning bolt infusion of fact, detail, and granular policy into a Trump speech.

Rather, the Trump version of “supporting rationale” is the reassurance that Donald Trump himself is the person providing the information. “Believe me,” he nods, seemingly after every other sentence, with the attitude that these two words should be viewed as the functional equivalent of having been published in the New England Journal of Medicine, or as a string citation in a legal brief filed at the Supreme Court. “Believe me.”

Trump noted that would “make life better for kids in Baltimore, Chicago, Detroit and Ferguson.” He would “defeat the Barbarians of ISIS.” He would “repeal and replace the disastrous Obamacare.” He would “fix TSA at the airports.” “Beginning on January 20, 2017, safety will be restored.” In many such political speeches, one expects these types of sentences to actually continue, and proceed with to an explanation of how such grand things will be accomplished.  Trump prefers to simply end such assertions with a crisp period, or with that smugly self-satisfied “Believe me.”  He seems unaware that “believe me” is a line most often heard from twenty-somethings trying to convince a cop that they only had two wine spritzers.

In the end, Donald Trump’s singular objective appeared to be to create a case that life in America today is so terrifying, so rigged against the common man, and so full of uncertainty and risk that literally anybody would be better than Hillary Clinton. For that matter, there were nights in Cleveland when I thought the slogan “Anybody but Clinton” might have had more traction than “Vote for Trump.”

I have learned from watching CNN that I now must praise some aspect of his speech, as this appears to be de rigueur for all journalists so that they can claim to be “fair and balanced” (RIP, Roger Ailes).

How’s this? The very best thing I can say about Donald Trump’s speech is that I guarantee you not one word was stolen from Michelle Obama.

What does it all mean for the Democrats as they convene in Philadelphia?

They actually have a sincere communications challenge… but one that, if navigated well, can provide enormous momentum going into the full campaign season. The truth is that there is an enormous advantage in going second – that’s why the home team bats last – and my hope is that the Democrats leverage this opportunity.

The first challenge is delicate:  while acknowledging that our society faces real problems, the Democrats must – absolutely must – declare victory for the past eight years.

Fortunately, there is a very strong record for the Democrats to lead with… most pointedly if they set the stage with the condition of the country the last time the Republicans were in charge. Indeed, I would argue that the Democrats would be wise to kick off the convention by holding themselves up to the Gipper’s famous test: “Are you better off than you were eight years ago?”


  • A global economy in free fall due to lax enforcement and insufficient controls on major financial institutions; the life savings of everyday people decimated.
  • The automobile industry about to go in bankruptcy.
  • Unemployment rolls swelling by hundreds of thousands.
  • 5,000 Americans killed in a war undertaken under false pretenses.
  • Government response to Katrina.
  • Over forty million American men, women, and children without health insurance.


  • Unemployment at lows not seen in decades.
  • Financial markets and retirement accounts at all-time highs.
  • Millions now covered by health insurance.
  • Government response to Sandy (a pic of the Christie and Obama hug here would do real nice).
  • Financial controls (Dodd Frank) has stabilized financial markets.
  • Healthy auto industry.
  • The killing of Osama Bin Laden.

I would submit the Democrats would be wise to take aim at a core component of Trump’s assessment of the widespread discontent with government.  A key source of discontentment, Clinton might offer, is the gridlock caused by parties that announce their sole intention to thwart the goals of the other and freeze governing to inaction rather than lose on any point.  Clinton could note that Trump would have you believe that a bully bent on forcing his personal agenda is how we can improve government.  Such a course is only doomed to harden the lines that divide us.

It is not mine to write this defense. But the Democrats absolutely cannot allow Donald Trump’s assessment of America in 2016 under eight years of Democratic leadership to stand unchallenged. That’s job one.

The second “must” is a frank discussion of challenges. Again, it is not mine to write the policy, it is mine to point out that the Democrats must be perceived as the party that seeks wise, nuanced, and effective solutions to very real and current global and domestic issues that are layered with history and divisiveness. Hillary Clinton must explain that Trump’s oversimplification of exceedingly complex issues risks wildly exacerbating and inflaming the issues.

I have noted in previous columns that Hillary Clinton must articulate an activist, aggressive plan for dealing with ISIS. Today, it appears that the Democrats do not have a plan for how to fight this war. It is all well and good for Hillary Clinton to say that it is na├»ve and dangerous of Trump to speak of “bombing the shit out of ISIS,” but she must counter with the more intelligent and effective game plan. She must center her policy on coordinated action among nations, as well as characterizing Trump’s unilateral militancy as just another Republican cowboy ready to try shock and awe in a new town.

The Democrats must counter the “law and order” platform of the Republicans with a staunch assertion of support for law enforcement, but an equally strong need to identify and prosecute rogue officers, and a plan to assess and address institutional racial bias where it exists.  

Third, the Democrats must offer concrete, detailed plans and programs – if only to relentlessly point out how utterly lacking in substance Donald Trump’s campaign has been.

At the end of the day, Donald Trump’s showmanship was in full evidence on Tuesday night. He speaks with an absolute certainty that he is right, he is a man of action, and that he gets things done. Indeed, his certainty in himself is usually the primary reason he offers to support his contentions and his solutions.

There was a fascinating difference last night between the prepared text of Trump’s remarks last night and the actual speech that he delivered.

Repeatedly, in his live performance, he interjected the phrase “Believe me! Believe me!”

Those words never appear in the text, but they were repeated as if a needed dash of seasoning at the end of each sentence in the live speech.

It is as if he sensed the flimsiness of his facts or lack of substance to his solutions, and sought to buttress them in real time with the most compelling evidence he can offer: “Believe me.”

The Democrats would be wise to attack this phrase.  Why, why, why, should America believe Donald Trump? Why shouldn’t he be held to the standard of substance and details that every other candidate is held to? Why, for one example, should he alone not have to release his taxes? Why does he get to say that he will renegotiate deals, but not explain how? Why must we simply believe him?

Last night, Donald Trump made his case.

The good news for the Democrats is that he did not pivot. He presented a ferocious, grim, uncompromising view of a nation in disarray and defeat.

Interestingly, the overwhelming image coming out of Cleveland this past week was the isolation and singularity of the Trump campaign. It was a convention that traditional party leaders and many recent presidential contenders chose not to attend. Trump was openly snubbed by the man who ran second

Instead, the Trumpublican convention in Cleveland was highlighted by old time hacks passed their prime (Christie, Gingrich, and Pence) and five notable speakers who all happened to be named Trump.

As if to make the point even more emphatically, the only solutions Trump offered in a one hour and twenty minute speech were the opinions and actions and alleged expertise of one man.

Believe me.

1 comment:

  1. I'd add gay marriage to that list of successes. May be more a matter of state action, but we wouldn't be where we are if Catholic Ol' Uncle Joe hadn't gone off the reservation (or appeared to, in my view) in favor of it at a time when Barack was on record in favor of civil unions. Not just a matter of fairness and equality--it encourages wealth accumulation as in other families (leading to stability and productive investment) and more potential homes for adoptions. (BTW, How the fuck much must Peter Theil hate himself standing on that stage last night?)


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