Today I watched live the speech made by Donald Trump to accept the Republican nomination for the presidency of the United States of America. I watched as a detached and curious observer since this was the first and only time I have observed a full Trump performance, rather than edited excerpts in the news.
His speech was energetic and extroverted. He was calm before the audience and surprisingly in tune with its moods. Every now and then he would join in the chant of the crowd, “U. S. A. U. S. A!” Another time, after Trump declared that he would deliver on one of his vague but triumphant promises – restoring safety, law and order, making America great again – the crowd chanted back to him, “Yes, you will, “in a seeming improvisation that taunted Obama’s wishful rhetoric of “Yes, we can.” And he set himself up as the outsider who is hated by the elites who benefit from a rigged system; the truth-teller who will lay out the facts of violent crime and poverty and international security failures; and the leader who gets grand things done, despite the censors, critics and cynics who oppose his grand visions.
I can claim no knowledge of the American mind or American popular sentiment. How Trump’s performance will play out in opinion polls, I do not know. There is no doubt that the policy content – the real plans to justify the overwhelming promises – were absent. I listened out for how, when he said he would outline his plan to restore jobs and prosperity, but I was disappointed. I paid attention when he began to say what he would do from day one to stop civil disorder and gun crime, but the rhetoric turned back on itself. I hoped to learn just how American diplomacy would proceed in a more multi-polar and insecure world when the U.S.A! puts itself first, rips up trade agreements, accuses other countries of cheating, and demands allies pay their way for the pax americana, but I fear that I will just have to wait with trepidation in the months ahead to see how this new area of strength is realised.
And yet I was left with two intuitive predictions. First, Trump will win. Second, Trump will not be able to do what he has promised.
The emotional torrents channelled by Trump are powerful. Although it is a conventional idea to denounce Trump as an ignorant and irresponsible demagogue – or perhaps we need a new word to describe a political leader whose power basis in television and entrepreneurial celebrity, the fact remains that the sentiments he stirs are powerful and authentic. People love their country. People want safety. And Americans cannot believe they are not number one. They feel left out, and let down, and they want desperately to fix things and fix things fast, as Trump echoed back to them. They sense the sneers and the contempt of the educated elite for the ordinary people left behind by the financial, media and political elites. Hilary Clinton has been typecast as that sneer, and people want to throw her out, or as the crowd chanted to lock her up. Trump’s speech stained her as corrupt, unpatriotic, soft on violence, and scornful of the poor, uneducated and struggling. Trump was ruthless in his exploitation of the fears, anger and insecurity provoked especially by the recent killings of police officers. These emotions will surge over all the doubts, however strong they are about Trump’s character, his fitness for the presidency, the grand folly of his ideas. All these attacks ignore his plea that “I am your voice” to a country that sees its leaders as betraying its greatness.
But those weaknesses of Trump will strand his presidency in a disordered society, broken political system, and hostile, suspicious world. I hear over the radio as I write this post that one newspaper said he “conjured up chaos and promised overnight solutions.” He will get things done, but the world will respond. He will build his wall, but at what cost and with what impact on central America. He will rile China and accuse it of currency manipulation, but will this provoke the final crisis for the USA dollar as the reserve currency? He will empower law and order, and provoke more violence, more rage, more desperation. He will cut taxes and search desperately to cut programs, but will wreck further the weak capability of the executive state in America. He will banish the elites and the opponents, and be fooled and befuddled by the svengalis and amateurs who replace him. He will bring to white heat a burning political system. He will fail.
And then what for America? The country is in decay, and it is lashing out like a wounded giant. But the giant is in an iron cage of its own making – all the declamations of pride, all the wild gestures, the threats, the desperation make no difference, and only damage the giant more. This wild, violent, bleeding, insulting and falling giant is what scares the world. But I suspect the world will do well as American falls, even if its desperate pride provokes more conflicts in the world. Trump will truly bring America into its darkest hour.