America in peril, but not the way Trump thinks

The bad news is that one of the two people who will serve as our next president revealed himself last night to be incapable of shedding his dark, conspiracy-laden vision of America, when it was most important to do so, which means it is in his DNA. The good news is that unless the rest of us get as scared and delusional as Donald Trump is, he can be beaten in November.

It is a rare speech that has more lines that elicit boos and jeers than applause. Trump knew his audience in the room and began by saying he wanted a country known for its "generosity and warmth" then adding that we also needed to be a country of "law and order." Guess which attribute captured the applause? Still, even with this crowd, the negativity seemed too much: There were times when the audience in the hall did not know how to react and Trump was waiting for applause and none came.

Never has there been a more unrelentingly negative acceptance speech at a modern political convention. I had predicted this week would be a replay of Pat Buchanan's famous "culture war" speech in 1992 but, by comparison to Trump's speech last night, Buchanan's speech seems like three verses of "Kumbaya."

The scariest line of all was this: "I have joined the political arena so that the powerful can no longer beat up on people that cannot defend themselves. Nobody knows the system better than me, which is why I alone can fix it." Normally, in a democracy, and especially in a democracy in a country with egalitarian myths woven into its deepest DNA strata, "I alone" are words that do not cling to each other. The words cling to the vision in the speech: Times are not tough, they are dire, and the normal rules are incapable of addressing the problems. Time for an authoritarian solution. This sort of thing has happened before. It never ends well.  

Early in the speech, he said:

The number of police officers killed in the line of duty has risen by almost 50 percent compared to this point last year. Nearly 180,000 illegal immigrants with criminal records, ordered deported from our country, are tonight roaming free to threaten peaceful citizens.

He did not explain what the first sentence in that paragraph had to do with the second, as there is no explanation, at least no logical one. The implication is that some "illegal immigrants" are responsible for the increase in the number of police officers killed although, in the two most recent incidents, in Dallas and Baton Rouge, it was former U.S. military personnel who shot the police officers. Should we build a wall around Fort Hood? Deport the veterans? Later in the speech, he said that nothing had moved him more in his thirteen month odyssey than the violence and tragedies that afflicted families at the hand of "illegal immigrants." Really? Is this the most pressing issue facing the country? He only cited three such cases. Our hearts go out to anyone who loses a loved one to violence, but should we be more concerned if the killer didn't have his papers? 

Later in his speech, he returned to the theme of scary immigrants and refugees. (This happened with some frequency, themes taken up and dropped, brought back later, maybe even a third time. Trying to scan the logic in the speech, as you would scan a poem for its meter, was akin to watching a long game of pinball.) He reiterated his call for a ban on immigration from countries with a lot of terrorism, which is what his initial call for a ban on all Muslims has morphed into. "We don't want them in our country," he said. He seems not to know how often this same desire has been expressed against others in our nation's past and how it always turned into policies that we later regretted. Or he knows but doesn’t care because he thinks he can scare enough Americans to get what he wants.  

Mr. Trump needs a lesson in the laws of cause and effect. He said of his opponent, Hillary Clinton, that "Her bad instincts and her bad judgment -- something pointed out by Bernie Sanders -- are what caused the disasters unfolding today." He want on to recite a litany of disasters from the rise of ISIS to the civil war and refugee crisis in Syria. Did she "cause" these things? Now, I have long argued that her tenure at the State Department was undistinguished but the creation of ISIS and its meteoric rise to power was driven by events on the ground, not in Foggy Bottom, and Clinton lost her fight within the administration to adopt a more aggressive posture in Syria early, when there might still have been time to avert the chaos that ensued. Trump spent several long minutes discussing the controversy with her email server, which is certainly something Mrs. Clinton did cause, but only Trump and the few millions of people who watch Fox News every night would characterize that mistake as he did, as something that makes her unworthy of the presidency. 

For all the fear-mongering, my favorite line of the speech had to do with veracity. He said:

I will present the facts plainly and honestly. We cannot afford to be so politically correct anymore.

So if you want to hear the corporate spin, the carefully-crafted lies, and the media myths the Democrats are holding their convention next week.

But here, at our convention, there will be no lies. We will honor the American people with the truth, and nothing else.

The problem is, of course, that he went on to articulate a set of half-truths, facts taken out of context, and outright lies. As the Washington Post’s fact checkers stated this morning, Trump’s speech was a "compendium of doomsday stats that fall apart upon close scrutiny. Numbers are taken out of context, data is manipulated, and sometimes the facts are wrong." They picked out twenty-five of the biggest lies and distortions leading me to conclude that with so many whoppers, we should crown Trump "Burger King" and let somebody else move in to the White House.

I will note, in passing and without comment, the irony of a man with a great deal of experience out-sourcing jobs to other countries promising "I am not going to let companies move to other countries, firing their employees along the way, without consequences."

Pope Francis, who is the person I think of as most unlike Mr. Trump as any person can be, has warned us all about the dangers of ideology. I agree with him wholeheartedly: Ideology can make people so zealous for an abstract idea that they become indifferent to the human consequences that attend the pursuit or realization of the idea. We all value equality, and so we should, but zeal for equality can become a bulldozer, overturning other important, if incommensurate, human values. But, there is something worse than an ideologue and that is a demagogue. He can blossom on both the left and the right. He is expert at eliciting emotional responses from people, not winning them with ideas, and then manipulating those emotions to gain or increase his political power. His recognizes soon that the most useful emotions to motivate and control are fear and resentment, and he traffics in them freely. He may or may not be a narcissist; It doesn't hurt or complicate his goals to be one. Like an ideologue, the demagogue invariably possesses a totalitarian itch.

What we saw last night in Donald Trump was one of the purest performances by a demagogue in recent memory. The headline from this morning's paper is "Trump portrays a nation in peril." That is true, that is what he unintentionally did. The peril is not violence perpetrated by "illegal immigrants." The peril is Trump himself, and the willingness of millions of people to look upon him as the person, and the only person, who can fix what ails our country. 

[Michael Sean Winters is NCR Washington columnist and a visiting fellow at Catholic University's Institute for Policy Research and Catholic Studies.]


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