As editor of COMMENTARY and as a newspaper columnist, I have commissioned, edited, and written hundreds of thousands of words on the dreadful mistakes and parlous consequences of the Obama presidency. I’d link to examples, but there are too many, and I wouldn’t know where to begin. Under Obama, America has become less free, more regulated, and less bound to constitutional norms. And I believe his foreign policy has made America less safe and the world more chaotic.
Still, what Donald Trump did in his acceptance speech at the convention Thursday night in trying to establish the contrast between himself and Obama’s successor Hillary Clinton was shocking, even for the shock-jock of presidential candidates. It was a blast of anti-American sentiment and Spenglerian despair that might fit his own political marketing plan but is nothing less than a repellent slander against these United States. I could be fancy and find myself a quote from Tocqueville, but it’s really the philosopher Merle Haggard who said it best: “When you’re running down my country, Hoss, you’re walking on the fighting side of me.” Trump spent nearly 77 minutes running down my beloved country, and I don’t take kindly to it.
Whether it was a political success or a political failure is something that will be suggested by the polling response and where things stand in relation to Hillary Clinton after the conclusion of the Democratic convention next week. If there’s one thing I’ve learned in the past year, it’s humility when it comes to predictions, so I make none. But I know a little bit about speechwriting, so indulge me in a peroration about why the speech was, quite simply, spectacularly lousy as a piece of rhetoric and argument.
Major political speeches are usually balancing acts between light and dark, between expressions of the positive and the threat posed to it by the negative. They establish the existence of something good and what qualities of goodness it possesses, explain how it is being warped by something bad, and offer a way to repair the damage and restore the equilibrium. This isn’t just a boilerplate structure. You do it this way because it is a reflection of reality. Speeches are both diagnoses of problems and prescriptions for solutions, and unless the diagnosis describes a recognizable reality, the solutions will ring either hollow or exploitative.
You talk about the good and the bad because that is how life is. Nothing save actual evil is without virtue; there is nothing that is not unmixed. That was not true of Trump’s United States. He did not offer a portrait, a description, a sense of what America is or has been or can be at its best and take off from there to describe what has gone wrong and how to fix it. There was almost no light and almost complete darkness.
The America Donald Trump portrayed is a horrible place, awash in barbarity, crime, disorder, decay, deceit, rigging, cheating, exploitation. It is very nearly beyond salvation, in such dire straits that a man who was having a wonderful time in business felt called upon to serve as “your voice” because “only I can fix it” the problem.
I don’t know how to say this except sentimentally, but there it is: America in 2016 is still America. It is still the greatest, and noblest, and freest, and most just society the world has ever seen and a shining beacon of hope to the world. And when it is caricatured, when it is degraded, when its people are told by one of the two people who might sit in the White House for the next four years that they live in a barbaric and hopeless dystopia from which they need to be saved by a strong hand rather than in a great country where some things have gone off the tracks and need to be placed back on them—the person who does such a thing has indulged himself in a deeply unpatriotic act of rhetorical infamy.