“I have visited the laid-off factory workers and the communities crushed by our horrible and unfair trade deals,” Donald Trump said last night. “These are the forgotten men and women of our country. People who work hard but no longer have a voice.
“I AM YOUR VOICE.”
Those words were capitalized in the written text of Trump’s acceptance speech. That all-caps sentence was meant to be a big deal. And so it is.
Franklin Roosevelt spoke up about “the forgotten man” during his 1932 campaign, in a time when the nation really had plunged into the kind of abyss that Trump spent well over an hour last night trying to convince his listeners is back again. But Roosevelt never claimed that he was his supporters’ voice. Nor did Lincoln or Washington.
“I have joined the political arena so that the powerful can no longer beat up on people who cannot defend themselves,” Trump also said. “Nobody knows the system better than me, which is why I alone can fix it.”
Not just “I.” “I alone.”
Yes, Donald Trump’s acceptance speech was remarkably dystopian, painting a picture of America in which good citizens cower in their homes, afraid to stir lest they be mowed down by marauding immigrants. Yes, it was a law-and-order speech—he used the phrase four times—modeled after those of Richard Nixon, whose 1968 campaign came at a time of devastating urban riots, generational upheaval, and a bloody war that would not end. And yes, it was a speech that hurled absurd accusations, backed up by fictitious facts, at Hillary Clinton—the last in a parade of such speeches at this year’s convention.
But what made Trump’s speech truly ominous and without precedent in American politics was the role he assigned himself—and the rest of us. We are mute and defenseless. He is our voice. He alone can fix our problems. That doesn’t really leave much for the other 300 million-plus citizens of our democracy to do. It doesn’t leave much for other elected lawmakers to do, either.
Were Trump to win, he would claim not merely a mandate, but a kind of personal and mystical authority. He would amend the phrase vox populi vox dei— “the voice of the people is the voice of God”—to vox Trump vox populi vox dei. Indeed, he so amended it last night.
What Trump has to offer, then, is not merely the right-wing xenophobic populism of, say, a Marine Le Pen. To this already toxic mix, he’d bring a level of personal authority and legitimacy that Le Pen and her ilk don’t claim for themselves. Armed with this additional authority and legitimacy, which no other governmental figure could claim, Trump could govern in a way that unbalances some of our checks and balances, moving our system towards a more personalist and authoritarian regime.
The paralysis of the federal government ever since Republicans won control of Congress in 2010 surely makes Trump’s intimations of one-man rule more appealing to some of the people whose voice he aspires to become. But just as I don’t think most Americans will agree with him that it’s Midnight in America, I also don’t think that most Americans will take kindly to the notion that Trump is their voice, and that he alone can fix our problems—not if the Democrats sufficiently highlight the implications of these unsettling claims.
While Trump’s speech added a whiff of authoritarianism to his nationalist populism, he sought at the same time to soften his tough guy image just a bit—appealing, for instance, to Republicans to stop demonizing the LGBTQ community. But his designated image softener was clearly his daughter Ivanka, who outlined a Trump domestic program virtually cribbed from the Democratic platform. Ivanka suggested that Trump would enact child-care subsidies and an end to the pay disparity between men and women—proposals that have never passed her father’s lips, much less those of any audible Republican elected official. If Trump is running as Nixon, Ivanka has positioned herself as his Daniel Patrick Moynihan—the Nixon aide who urged his chief to go liberal on domestic policy.
But while Ivanka’s task is to make her pop more acceptable to at least a few more college-educated women by election day, the campaign’s strategic center remains its macho appeal to blue-collar whites, and its efforts to lay the blame for their every discontent on Clinton. For that reason, it was fitting that Trump officially accepted the nomination on the day that Fox News discharged Roger Ailes. For it has been Fox, under Ailes’s direction, that over the past 20 years has created the message (white America and traditional culture are under siege from minorities and liberals), the mode of argumentation (factual misrepresentation), and the culture (an aging macho swagger) of today’s Republican Party. Ailes is leaving in disgrace, but he can be satisfied in the knowledge that the personification of his values is now the Republicans’ presidential nominee.
This story has been updated.