Donald Trump had to do two things in his acceptance speech last night. He had to appear sane. And he had to appear competent.
He managed both with (to me) surprising command.
The stage was well set by several warm-up acts. Particularly impressive (from the point of view of show biz and messaging) were the talks by the Silicon Valley entrepreneur Peter Thiel, who expertly checked the box marked “successful gay Republican patriot,” and Trump’s friend Tom Barrack of Colony Capital, whose light touch and warm-‘n-fuzzy anecdotes presented a kinder, gentler Trump than the public has been used to seeing. Trump is “not a politician but a builder,” Barrack said to the delight of the convention-goers.
The slick video biography of Trump showed the world a wildly successful but compassionate Mr. Trump, a novelty character deeply at odds with the man who swaggered through the primary season disgorging insults and barbs.
Then there was the calm, thoughtfully delivered speech by Trump’s daughter Ivanka, who, among other things, declared that women in the Trump Organization earn equal pay for equal work. This theme was well calculated to appeal to one of Trump’s biggest electoral liabilities, the distaff side of the populace. It was an impressive performance; indeed, Trump has been exceedingly well served by his family. His sons were articulate and on point, as was his daughter Tiffany and his wife Melania (the speechgate pseudo-scandal is circling the dustbin of history).
But of course the highlight of the evening was Trump’s long acceptance speech. He pushed all the right buttons: “safety, prosperity, peace,” and the evening’s announced theme, “Make America One Again.”
Here we are, beneficiaries of nearly eight years of Obama’s version of racial healing, with the country torn by racial animosities not seen since 1968. Trump presented himself as an alternative, a president who would eschew the vicious banalities of political correctness in order to foster “a country of generosity and warmth, but also a country of law and order.” “How great are our police!” he exclaimed to loud applause.
With greater coherence than I have seen in him before, he reviewed Obama’s and Hillary’s records on foreign affairs, noting that the harvest of their tenure has been “death, destruction, terrorism, and weakness.”
The red line in Syria that Obama drew and then ignored, the nuclear agreement with Iran — “one of the worst deals ever negotiated” — the chaos in the state formerly known as Libya, and on and on. Israel is “our greatest ally” in the Middle East, Trump declared, while asserting forthrightly: “We are going to defeat the barbarians of ISIS and we are going to defeat them fast.”
At the same time, one of the major themes of the talk was “America first.” Working men and women who have been “forgotten,” whose well-being our society has left by the wayside: “I am your voice,” Trump said. Here’s where he brought in one of the main issues that catapulted him to the political limelight: immigration.
Last night, the narrative did not revolve around building walls and threats of deportation, but around managing immigration for the benefit of America workers.
On the Supreme Court, Trump promised to nominate as a replacement for “our beloved” Justice Scalia, someone of “similar views.” He affirmed his support for the Second Amendment and his (newfound) pro-life stance, and he touched on various strategies to enhance prosperity.
It was a masterly performance, I thought: calm, specific, and — mirabile dictu — well-informed. There were plenty of things I disagreed with, not least the aroma of protectionism on trade. But all in all it was an excellent speech, excellently delivered. Perhaps the greatest rhetorical artistry came with the refrain about Hillary Clinton: “Let’s,” Trump said a couple of times, lowering his voice, “let’s defeat her in the fall.”
I am under no illusions about the rosy view of Donald Trump that was presented at the RNC. These festivals of self-congratulation are not conducted under oath. I’ve spoken to many people who have had business dealing with Trump. A small handful have glowing things to say; most regard him as a scoundrel.
Over the last year, I have written a dozen or more columns detailing what I regard as the weaknesses and deficiencies of Donald Trump. In essentials, my view is not dissimilar to the view expressed by Trump critics like Daniel Pipes, who just announced that he quit the GOP rather than vote for Trump.
That said, I have to admit that a different, more commanding, more coherent Donald Trump emerged at the RNC. I understand that the spectacle was heavily stage-managed and choreographed to the last detail. But behind the smoke and mirrors I sense the lineaments of a candidate who, first, could beat Hillary Clinton (for me, a categorical imperative) and, second, is not as wild and erratic as I had thought.
I am prepared to be disappointed on both scores, but am moderately chuffed by the direction in which Trump appears to be moving.