Evening in America

Donald Trump

Donald Trump / AP

I had been of the mind that if only Donald Trump stuck to his prepared remarks and delivered them with some discipline, he would be the recipient of positive attention following his speech in Cleveland tonight, perhaps even in quarters that go beyond his natural base of support. But after that long, dark, angry, bridge-burning, personality-cult-driven, blood-and-soil speech, a kind of Buchanan-for-Dummies remix of the '92 convention, I can't see how this will be the case.

There are obviously Americans who go in for this sort of thing—a plurality of Republican primary voters, to be sure. But even in this relatively well-polished, disciplined, professionalized format, how high does the broader appeal of this stretch? And that’s even without accounting for the fact that there will be plenty of unscripted Trump in the next several months. If scripted Trump is blood-chilling, just consider the man in the raw.

Take his "answer" to a question posed yesterday by reporters from the New York Times regarding his regular threats to renegotiate American alliances, including with NATO members. Here it is in all its glory:

If we cannot be properly reimbursed for the tremendous cost of our military protecting other countries, and in many cases the countries I’m talking about are extremely rich. Then if we cannot make a deal, which I believe we will be able to, and which I would prefer being able to, but if we cannot make a deal, I would like you to say, I would prefer being able to, some people, the one thing they took out of your last story, you know, some people, the fools and the haters, they said, "Oh, Trump doesn’t want to protect you." I would prefer that we be able to continue, but if we are not going to be reasonably reimbursed for the tremendous cost of protecting these massive nations with tremendous wealth — you have the tape going on?

The cliché figure for describing such a way of speaking is "syntactical trainwreck." This is insufficient. It is indeed as though the train of Trump's syntax has jumped the tracks, but also as though the train has then rolled down a hill, and after that smashed into a building—say, a convent—and the convent has caught on fire, and the nuns are on fire, and the little Catholic nuns are running around screaming like terrified celibate Roman candles in the night because a train rolled into their convent and they are on fire. It is in this manner that this answer is a syntactical trainwreck.

What’s more, it’s the real man, who actually has political principles, much conventional wisdom to the contrary—and they are generally terrible. On foreign policy, they are certainly outside the Republican mainstream, such that his America firstism clashes with a whole variety of speakers even at the convention that nominated him.

Trump’s vision of America’s role in the world is precisely the mirror opposite of Obama’s. Obama doesn’t much care for his country because it could be so much more than it is. By progressing to an ever more just future, we can leave our wicked present behind.

Trump also doesn’t much care for his country, as this speech’s dark vision of the land made clear. But his vision is directed at the past. By returning to a time before a new coalition of ethnic minorities in an alliance with feckless elites overpowered the old consensus, America will be great again.

Is there a candidate in this race who loves this country, who thinks it could be better but also that there is so much to be gained by defending it, rather than by dividing it in two and claiming that half of the country is ruining it for everyone else? I don't think she’s running.