President Trump accepted the Republican nomination Thursday night with his family flanking him on a dais constructed atop the South Lawn of the White House. His speech hit all the marks of Trump-ism. He said Joe Biden was inept and a vehicle for the socialist left, described how he's fulfilled the MAGA agenda, and reasserted his opposition to political correctness. "We are not a nation of timid spirits," he said. "We are a nation of fierce, proud, and independent patriots."
The setting of the convention was another reminder of how unusual the Trump era has been. Donald Trump appeared out of nowhere when he came down the escalator in June 2015. Since that moment, he has been the indefatigable element of American (and world) politics. There is no getting around him. We have been living in a world in which Donald Trump defines media coverage of his candidacy and administration, reshapes the Republican party, and tugs the government of the United States fitfully and persistently in a national populist direction. Then the coronavirus struck, and the oddities that have defined American life for the last half decade metastasized. And so we were left with a sitting president delivering a convention address from the White House for the first time since 1940.
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Donald Trump narrowly won the presidency four years ago because large swathes of America decided that the political class had failed them. He represented an anti-politics, a rejection of the bipartisan consensus on foreign policy, immigration, and trade that had influenced public policy since the disintegration of the Soviet Union in 1991. Trump defied the consensus, and he also flouted every single norm that has governed presidential decorum since at least World War II. As every pundit (including me) assailed his character and his methods, a plurality of Republican and then American voters gave him their assent.
Why? If you watched the Democratic convention, you would have no idea. You would think that Trump was some atavistic demon, conjured up from the lower depths of American history to slash and burn the harmonious global civilization Barack Obama was bringing into being. But that's not what happened. Donald Trump is our president because, since the end of the Cold War, American elites have been more concerned with their own self-interest than the condition of their fellow citizens who do not have college degrees. There is no getting around this. The Bobos spent 30 years getting rich, renovating their homes, and exporting their values through NGOs and trade and border policies that came back to haunt them. The result was a public consensus that the American dream was no more, that economic conditions for the non-affluent were terrible, that the government had sent patriotic young men and women to the Middle East for what many thought was no good purpose. And so a wild man became our president.
Here we are four years later. It has not been an easy ride. And yet somehow Trump and the country survives. His first administration was characterized by a roaring economy and a bitter politics, right up until the coronavirus appeared in America. "They are angry at me because instead of putting them first, I very simply said, ‘I put America first,'" Trump said on Thursday. Who would have thought, when the pandemic struck, that fear of the virus would be overwhelmed by the agenda of Black Lives Matter? And who could have anticipated, in January 2020, that one of the most important issues in this election would be crime and disorder in the cities?
I don't pretend to know what will happen in November. No one who lived through 2016 should be confident in their predictions. I have a profound fear of what is happening to my country, however. All of a sudden, legitimate concerns about racial equity and social justice are transmuted into justifications for vandalism, theft, violence, cancellation, and ostracization. Random communities—Kenosha, Wis., diners in Washington—become sites of revolution, rebuke, and disorder. This cannot last. What Trump offers isn't so much the end of the chaos—federalism and prudence circumscribe his sphere of action—but at least a rhetorical and gestural rebuke of the idea that my country was originally, and fatally, diseased.
It was not. I love my country, and the Constitution, and the principles that animated its Founders. And I don't think I'm alone. The Republican convention did a good job of demonstrating that white, black, Hispanic, and Asian Americans agree. What Donald Trump has done is reframe the 2020 election as a referendum on the American idea. And Joe Biden might not know how to answer.