CLEVELAND — I knew it would be a long night, a brutish assault on one’s cognitive intelligence, when Donald Trump launched his acceptance speech with a promise to speak “honestly.” He promised, “There will be no lies. We will honor the American people with the truth, and nothing else.”
As if. When a con man offers to sell you Arizona land with a view of the ocean, it’s best to guard your wallet.
All week long at the Trump convention, Mike Pence went around saying that Trump was the new Ronald Reagan, which was a real laugher, given the fact that Trump and Reagan have zip in common. Reagan, for starters, didn’t viciously slime his Republican rivals, nor did he depict America as a disastrous dystopia, nor did he ever scream himself red-faced over a span of 75 minutes.
No, Trump’s inspiration last night was clearly that canny fearmonger of ’68, Richard Nixon. Trump borrowed heavily from Nixon’s “law and order” template — he bellowed, “I am the law and order candidate!” — but, perhaps more importantly (and oh so predictably), he emulated Nixon’s well-honed gift for shameless lying. Not that Trump actually needs any help in that department, from anyone.
Actually, it was like watching a new Batman movie and learning that the Joker had hijacked a nomination. And by the way, it’s a bit rich that a guy with a record of mob ties and a looming trial for his fraudulent university has the gall to parade himself as the candidate of law and order.
But who knows, maybe it doesn’t matter a whit that Trump lied about his vow not to lie. He is a master at stoking (white) fear and exploiting (white) grievances; his visceral acceptance speech was tailored for Americans who feel picked on and screwed over, and they don’t care about parsing facts. They just love the way Der Leader stirs their emotions. And perhaps we’ll discover in November that they’re the majority. If so, his victory would validate blatant lying and devious half-truths as never before.
But if credibility still means anything, if we still have any standards, then his portrait of a dark America begs to be challenged. It’s hard to know where to begin.
He harangued a lot about “the crime and violence that today afflicts our nation,” about the “lawlessness that threatens their communities.” He cited as proof a double-digit percentage increase in murders over the past year in our 50 largest cities. What he didn’t say — and this is what the FBI stats say — is that violent crime has steadily fallen over the past 25 years, and that crime today is much lower than it was in ’68 when Nixon campaigned for law and order. Crime experts also say that a one-year spike, the kind Trump cited, looks huge (or yuge) only because the homicide rate has been so low for so long.
He was particularly incensed that a “border-crosser” had recently killed a young woman in Nebraska. He assailed the “nearly 180,000 illegal immigrants with criminal records [who] are tonight roaming free to threaten peaceful citizens.” What he didn’t say – and this is from a Department of Homeland Security study — is that you have a far greater chance of being killed in this country by a white citizen. Between 2010 and 2014 (as I pointed out earlier this week) a grand total of 121 people released from immigration custody were later charged with murder. That’s roughly one-thousandth of a percent of all the undocumented immigrants in America.
Another Trumpian scare: Syrian refugees. In his words, “there’s no way to screen these refugees in order to find out who they are or where they came from.” He has peddled that lie for months, and just rolled it into his speech. Truth is, we’ve had a vetting system since 1980. Multiple federal intelligence and security agencies vet the refugees, and the process for each one typically takes one to two years.
Another Trumpian scare: Nuclear weapons from Iran — thanks to Hillary Clinton. Because “Obama made the decision to put HIllary Clinton in charge of America’s foreign policy.” Thus we got “the signing of the Iran deal, which gave back to Iran $150 billion and gave us nothing.” In truth, the actual amount of Iran’s frozen assets is closer to $60 billion, and Iran has access to only a chunk of it. And in truth, the deal has definitely given us something: on-site monitoring, a surrender of 97 percent of Iran’s enriched uranium, and Israeli intelligence has concluded that Iran can’t build a nuke for the duration of the deal. And by the way, the deal was inked roughly 18 months after Clinton stepped down as Secretary of State.
Another Trumpian scare: Americans left helpess and gunless, because, as he said last night, Clinton “wants to essentially abolish the Second Amendment.” But in truth, Trump can’t actually quote Clinton, because there’s no evidence whatsoever that she has ever said such a thing. What she has said is that she wants to find ways to curb gun violence while protecting the right to bear arms.
Another Trumpian scare (this one so terrifying that my teeth are chattering): Clinton’s legacy of “death, destruction, terrorism, and weakness.” In his version of history, Clinton is the reason we have ISIS, because “in 2009, pre-Hillary, ISIS was not even on the map.” The truth, for anyone not wishing to be suckered by Trump, is that ISIS was birthed in Iraq in 2006 — three years before Clinton became Secretary of State. It was a byproduct of George W. Bush’s disastrous American invasion. And even though it’s true that ISIS gained steam during the Syrian civil war, Secretary Clinton had pushed at the time — unsuccessfully — for the delivery of arms to rebel forces.
One last Trump con: His lament that “Libya is in ruins” because of Clinton’s push for regime change. Well, here’s a 2011 quote from someone else who pushed for Libyan regime change: “If you don’t get rid of Qaddafi, it’s a major, major black eye for this country.” And another, from 2011: America should “immediately go into Libya, knock this guy out very quickly, very surgically.” So said Donald Trump.
Last night, the lies and cons took a number of forms. Early in the speech he took a stab at substance, promising to “outline reforms” that would bring America “millions of new jobs and trillions of new wealth.” He said, “these reforms … I will outline tonight.” But somehow he never got around to the outline. As usual, hewing to the Great Man Theory of History, he simply said, “Nobody knows the system better than me, which is why I alone can fix it” — just like he vowed to erase crime by dint of his Oval Office presence. Someone outside his fawning family cocoon should remind him that there are three branches of government and the separation of powers.
Did his speech last night resonate beyond his credulous fan base? Can he craft an electoral majority with his magical thinking? We’ll soon find out. But it appears that he has long prepared to test that proposition.
As he boasted nearly 30 years ago in a best-selling book, “I play to people’s fantasies …. That’s why a little hyperbole never hurts. People want to believe that something is the biggest and the greatest and the most spectacular. I call it truthful hyperbole.”
I call it something else.