don’t be fooled: trump gave a remarkably effective speech 

I woke up this morning and started reading the post-mortems on Trump’s speech.  Andrew Sullivan pronounced it boring and lacking substance. Michael Barbero in the New York Times called it a missed opportunity.  People are getting comfortable that Hillary’s point-spread will hold and we will ride Trump out.

Those people are wrong. First, I’ll say this up front and as clearly as I can: I do not support Trump for President of the United States. His temperament, his instincts, his tactics and his values are antithetical to mine and I cannot support him. But having said that, I will also say that he gave a remarkably effective speech. And I think it will get him elected. Let me be specific:

1. In several ways last night, Trump stuck it as much to the Republicans as he did to the Democrats. He talked about falling wages for the last 16 years, not 8. His economic policies, which I will get to in a second, are in your face contradictions of Republican orthodoxy since Reagan, and most pointedly, he ended–definitively ended–the culture wars that were touched off at the very same convention in 1992. In other words, he is challenging *his own party*. That is far more powerful — and frankly welcome — than any attack levied at the other side.

2. So about those economic policies. The most prominent of them is Trump’s bluster regarding keeping jobs in America. I say bluster because as a good left-wing academic, my reaction is “he can’t do that!” But I’m going to fess up here. I started my career working with the United Auto Workers in Detroit. I have written about the Rust Belt since then and I have been saying all of that time that Ronald Reagan and Bill Clinton were wrong to write off American industry so easily and that various “retraining” efforts over the years were inadequate. It is incredibly gratifying to finally hear a major candidate for the Presidency say that he will use the bully pulpit to shame companies that offshore work to save a few bucks. Reagan and Bill Clinton made a Faustian deal that Americans would be better off with stagnant wages as long as the price of (imported) goods went down. That was wrong and Trump is saying it. The messenger is flawed. But the message is correct. And that he delivered it at the g*dd*mned f*ucking RUPUBLICAN CONVENTION was nothing short of astonishing.

3. Another pillar of his economic policy is to invest in infrastructure, particularly visible infrastructure like airports and roads and yes, a wall. Spoken like a developer, or a city mayor, or a university president, each of whom knows there is power in imagining physical space. It’s very astute. Obama proposed much the same with the stimulus spending and the high-speed rail network. The stimulus spending, while appropriately lauded for saving the world economy from ruin, did not result in anything tangible to be proud of. And the high-speed rail proposal went embarrassingly no where (in the face of hostile Republicans, particularly Gov. Chris let-them-eat-the-Washington-Bridge-instead Christie). I love me my Obama. But there’s no question he botched the framing of infrastructure spending. I have to say, Trump got it right.

4. On the international front, I have spent the last four years leading a Master’s program for young professionals about 1/3 of whom are on their way to jobs in international organizations, a.k.a. the “post-War international institutional regime” that includes NATO, the OECD, the WTO, UNESCO, the WHO, UNHCR, etc etc. I have a lot of respect for my students who work in these places and for the work they do. And I also know they they would agree that the system is a mess. Really. A mess. And a big part of it has to do with the way international organizations are funded and the outsized role that the US plays. The system needs a jolt. NATO needs a jolt. Again, Trump’s approach is wrongheaded. We should not be threatening our allies. But if Europe is going to congeal then it needs less US and more Europe in its defense spending. And that lesson could be applied elsewhere in the international system too. Trump could go too far.  Bush Jr. tried this with his finger-in-your-face UN Ambassador Bolton and the result was just a bigger push back and no action. But fundamentally, there are important truths that need to be addressed.

5. On to Trade. I agree with every informed reader of Trump’s fire-breathing on rewriting trade agreements when they say: good luck. It’s not that America was weak in these negotiations. The countries we negotiate with push just as hard for their interests as we do and the result is a compromise. No one gets everything they want. (Ditto on Iran).  Agreements like TPP also have a bigger purpose than just commerce; they are geopolitical moves on the grand scale. (Ditto on Iran).  But, for precisely that reason, what Trump proposed–moving away from multilateral agreements like TPP, NAFTA and the WTO, and toward one-on-one agreements–is not a policy proposal. It is the current fact (as my friend and colleague Yves Tiberghein has been saying for years). China long ago decided that it would give lip service to these big agreements and cut its own deal with the US and as a result the entire world has basically followed suite. All the action is in bilateral agreements. He is making such a big deal out of it in his speeches. But he doesn’t have to do anything to make this a reality. It basically already is.

6. He made a devastating and effective attack on Hillary. But it wasn’t the constant disgusting hack-job on Benghazi. And it wasn’t on the emails (though that was pretty rough). No, the far far more debilitating charge that the whole convention led up to and that Trump nailed was on her femininity. Recall that the first day of the convention featured a parade of mothers angrily condemning Hillary for the death of their children.  It seemed like just the most crass way to score points on Trump’s issues.  But this trotting out (and absolutely shamelessly exploiting) of grieving mothers laid a foundation: the claim that Hillary is not a traditional woman with feelings, who seeks to comfort, who seeks to heal. The shiv came out during the acceptance speech: Hillary talks a lot about being the first woman prez.  But she doesn’t react the way a real woman would react to the deaths of military men or drunk driving victims. She’s not really a woman. This was a dog whistle, expertly executed.

7. The appeal to evangelicals was borderline brilliant. I grew up an evangelical Christian. I raised my hands in worship and spent lots of time around people in the process of getting slain in the spirit.  I am also an out and proud gay man.  My fellow liberals spend a lot of time talking about how ungodly Trump is (Leslie Stahl’s winky question being a prime example). My friends, you are missing the most fundamental thing about being an evangelical Christian. It isn’t really about God. I mean, it is. But in the end, it’s not really. Being an evangelical is about being “out and proud”. The point of evangelicalism is to project your beliefs in the midst, not only of non-believers, but of the keep-your-faith-close-to-your-chest mainliners too. It is about being unapologetic for your faith and being courageous enough to suffer ridicule for it. Evangelicals, in other words, are identifying with Trump for exactly the same reason that many gay men identify with straight divas like Judy Garland and Bette Midler: because he is out and proud and loud and courageous in the same way they are.

(Oh, and Trump likes the gays too. Let that sink in… Can Hillary on her blackberry compete?).

To summarize, let’s check in on the side show.  People were jumping up and down about what big balls Cruz had in walking into the hall and sticking by his principles.  And also that Trump made a mistake by not getting an endorsement first.  Uh huh.  Listen, Trump just stared down his party and forced them to cheer while he put up a gay Silicon Valley gadfly, his Democrat daughter talking about wage equality and his dismantling of the Reagan agenda. Cruz tilted at a windmill.  Trump carried out a hostile ideological takeover of the Republican Party including all of the sacred principles that Cruz stand for.  And in doing so Trump publicly wiped Cruz’s pea-sized balls off the stage with massive sweaty cojones.  It was absolutely riveting political theater and frankly it was beautiful.  Just as Mike Pense has, the party will drop all of the culture war crap and of course instead it will embrace straight up jingoism: We love gays and blacks and even Muslims as long as they chant USA when prompted.

The question this forces is: is nationalism worse than reflexive homophobia?  Oof.  How to answer that?  For 24 years, gays took the place of the Soviets as the great Republican other.  Now it is Islam’s turn.  And lets be clear, the headliners talk about “Radical Islamic Ideology,” but every evangelical in that room seems Islam itself as the enemy.  This to me is the most dangerous turn this convention took. I almost wish they’d keep picking on the gays.  We can stand up for ourselves and the consequences, while they have been grave, do not set us on a path to a war of civilizations.

A few points on what didn’t work:

1. Trump circled around the same themes too many times. I got dizzy on the merry-go-round from strength, to law and order, to trade, to Hillary, to strength, to law and order, to trade, to Hillary, to strength, to law and order, to trade, to Hillary… It’s an interesting rhetorical tool that I haven’t really seen deployed like that. It was meant to make it seem like all of these things are connected which is smart. But it went around two or three times too many.

2. Budgets are about priorities and I believe him that he will shift toward many of the priorities he outlined. But, Paul Ruan’s greatest achievement is to instil the notion that what is given must be taken away from somewhere. If you want a great VA and a Wall and to help kids with college debt, and to restore the military and get the best intelligence in the world, you need to take money away from… somewhere?  LForce him to outline what parts of the budget he will cut to make room for these priorities or make him own up to the fact that this will really make him the “king of debt” (debt, by the way, being something that liberals like Paul Krugman would be cheering if it were Obama; in other words, be careful what would wish against my fellow lefties).

3. The image of Trump walking on to that stage with his name in GOLD CAPITAL letters and proclaiming that HE is the only one who can save us was both jarring and exactly the image we all have been dreading for many years now. The evangelicals’ diva worship notwithstanding, it is this side of him where the con-man comes clear. And it is the root of his biggest–and I think really disqualifying–weaknesses: hubris. Hubris is this guy’s middle name. And hubris is what made potentially excellent presidents, like Nixon and Clinton, into… disappointments?  Nay, embarrassments.

Oh wait, who are we talking about? Why  Bill Clinton.  Hillary’s husband. So here is my piece of advice to camp Hillary: I think a strong argument against Trump is that he is too much like the worst parts of Bill and that those traits will overwhelm any of the good he might seek to achieve. There is one and only one person who can make that argument with absolute power and effect: Hillary Clinton. Something along the lines of: I saw first hand how to be a President and I saw how NOT to be a President. I know what a cancer hubris is in that office and I will not make that same mistake.  If she can slay Bill and Trump like that… see my bit about speaking truth to your own side above. Hillary’s cojones would rule all the Seven Kingdoms and Essos too.  If she did it would move me and a lot of people off of “yes, I’ll vote for her” to “I’m With Her”.

But again, l don’t expect that. So for the good of the Republic, I simply hope that Hillary takes a page from Bill and learns to “triangulate” by adopting elements of Trump’s speech and make the case that she would simply be the better president. Because she would be. But I will admit after that speech, I’m worried that she won’t have the chance.

Written by seansafford

July 22, 2016 at 4:58 pm

7 Responses

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  1. Sean, you’re scaring the hell out of me.


    brayden king

    July 22, 2016 at 5:30 pm

  2. Interesting points, Sean. But your conclusion about the consequences of the speech (i.e., Trump’s victory) assumes the existence of large campaign effects in presidential elections. Political scientists tend to downplay those, and at best, estimate them at a couple of percentage points. That’s particularly true when it comes to policy appeals (fear mongering, race baiting, and ethnonationalism a la Trump may be another matter, but that’s not the focus of your post). It doesn’t help that Trump’s convention speech polled pretty poorly compared to past candidates. Also, it is likely that any boost he could get from his messaging would be offset by his poor (actually, non-existent, thus far) campaign operation which is likely to depress turnout among Republicans (see research by Ryan Enos). Finally, there are important demographic ceilings on his appeal to white identity politics.

    Liked by 2 people


    July 22, 2016 at 6:43 pm

  3. This post scared me, but the more I think about it the harder it is for me to see how your points add up to your conclusion that this speech (and the positions embedded in it) will get him elected. Yes, he offers a number of different positions from prior Republican contenders, but how does that generate the votes necessary to overcome structural factors like a (slowly) improving economy (as Bart pointed out) and voter’s priors? The demographic and electoral map shows that he has to pull voters from somewhere, and he is polling zero percent among African-Americans in some communities, 70% of women have an unfavorable opinion of him, and he is losing college-educated voters.

    Your insights about evangelical voters are insightful, but (based on the primary) they are a group that is already in his camp. Points 4 and 5 highlight important issues that are consistently bottom tier issues for voters. This leaves points 1, 2, and 3. Maybe there are enough voters who are sick enough with the status quo that they will support a wild card, and maybe he develops a more concrete discussion of infrastructure development and an inclusive approach to talking about support for workers (one that isn’t so xenophobic) to attract voters in more significant numbers. I just have a hard time seeing that happen.


    Tom Maher

    July 23, 2016 at 12:01 am

  4. Many of Trump’s ideas about the relationship with the EU and NATO reminds me of Robert Kagan’s important book “Paradise and Power.” The book essentially argues that the European welfare model is based on an economic fiction that could only be sustainable as long as the US carries most of the economic burden of Military expenses to keep Europe safe from Eastern invasion. Trump is the first candidate to really challenge this model.



    July 23, 2016 at 3:53 pm

  5. […] via don’t be fooled: trump gave a remarkably effective speech  — […]


  6. I like your analysis, but I hope that the speech doesn’t have a big impact on the campaign overall. To me (and Tom says this above) it confirmed his appeal amongst people that already believed in him, and at most probably convinced a few republicans that were debating “voting their conscience” that they could tolerate Trump.

    As an American living in post-Brexit England at the moment, it does seem like Trump has tapped into a very real vein of grievances, one shared by the discontented on both sides of the pond. Your point about the Faustian deal of lower wages vs. cheaper imports says it very well. Globalisation has left a sizeable group feeling like progress is leaving them behind. Trump and the Brexiteers are offering impossibly simple solutions to difficult problems while other politicians try to find the most adequate way to muddle through, which leads to solutions no one loves but the least number of people hate.

    So, yeah. For those that don’t know or don’t care enough about the details, Trump is proposing an enticing quick fix to all their woes: elect me and all your problems go away.

    I just hope enough people see through it.



    July 24, 2016 at 7:32 pm

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    August 11, 2016 at 2:22 pm

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