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Trump’s dark, dystopian — and false — version of America

He offered some evidence that was supposed to prove the case — on crime, immigration and foreign policy — but it was highly selective, if not completely misleading. 

Republican presidential nominee Donald Trump speaking during the final session of the Republican National Convention on Thursday.
REUTERS/Brian Snyder

In accepting the Republican nomination for president Thursday night in Cleveland, Donald Trump portrayed the America he wants to lead as a nation in crisis, a crime-ridden dystopia.

He gave some statistics that were supposed to prove that, but they were highly selective. In fact, the U.S. crime rate has been declining impressively for about the past 20 years, under both Democratic and Republican presidents, which is a really great thing. But most Americans believe the crime rate is going up, and Trump seeks to exploit that belief by promoting the falsehood of rising crime and claiming to have ideas for restoring “law and order.”

He portrayed the United States as a nation in danger of being overrun by illegal immigrants who are being “released by the tens of thousands into our communities with no regard for the impact on public safety or resources.”

He told a heart-breaking story of Sarah Root, a young woman from Iowa who died after being run over in Nebraska by a 19-year-old Honduran immigrant who was in the United States illegally, and who was driving drunk. If you heard only Trump’s presentation of the story, you would probably assume that immigrant, Eswin Mejia, who is still at large, had murdered Root. But of course the case is a terrible tragedy for the Root family even if Mejia didn’t mean to kill her.

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Trump, who advocates the deportation of all estimated 12 million undocumented immigrants in the United States, said that, to the Obama administration, Sarah Root was “just one more American life that wasn’t worth protecting.”

At times, when Trump made his case for a tougher policy on immigration, the audience in Cleveland chanted “Build the Wall,” or something similar that I couldn’t quite make out.

Trump said last night in Cleveland that household incomes in America are down more than $4,000 since the year 2000. It was interesting that he chose a figure from 2000, since that was the year Democrat Bill Clinton left office and Republican George W. Bush was elected. Bush, of course, presided over the next eight years, which ended in a disastrous economic collapse, a collapse for which many critics believe Bush’s policies bear significant responsibility. For the most part, Trump meant to disparage the economic policies of the Obama administration, in which Hillary Clinton served as secretary of state for the first term.

Since the crash of 2007-2008, which affected the whole world, the U.S. economy has made one of the strongest recoveries in the world. The stock market is at record highs. The unemployment rate hovers around the figure that economists call “full employment,” though that idea can be overstated, because the unemployment rate doesn’t count so-called discouraged workers who have given up on finding jobs. And many workers are still underemployed. But the growth rate in the U.S. GDP during the Obama years has outperformed the economies of most other wealthy industrialized nations. There are still plenty of weak spots in the economy but Trump, obviously, was interested in awfulizing the picture and maximizing the blame that could be assigned to Obama and especially Clinton.

Trump also described U.S. foreign policy over recent years as something of a hellscape, especially in the Mideast, with the obvious hope it would be blamed on Clinton’s work as secretary of state. He implied, ludicrously, that things were hunky dory when Clinton took over the State Department leadership. Here’s the Trumpian summary:

“America is far less safe – and the world is far less stable – than when Obama made the decision to put Hillary Clinton in charge of America’s foreign policy.

“I am certain it is a decision he truly regrets. Her bad instincts and her bad judgment – something pointed out by Bernie Sanders – are what caused the disasters unfolding today. Let’s review the record. In 2009, pre-Hillary, ISIS was not even on the map.

“Libya was cooperating. Egypt was peaceful. Iraq was seeing a reduction in violence. Iran was being choked by sanctions. Syria was under control. After four years of Hillary Clinton, what do we have? ISIS has spread across the region, and the world. Libya is in ruins, and our Ambassador and his staff were left helpless to die at the hands of savage killers. Egypt was turned over to the radical Muslim brotherhood, forcing the military to retake control. Iraq is in chaos.

Iran is on the path to nuclear weapons. Syria is engulfed in a civil war and a refugee crisis that now threatens the West. After fifteen years of wars in the Middle East, after trillions of dollars spent and thousands of lives lost, the situation is worse than it has ever been before.”

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In truth, Clinton and Obama inherited a disaster from Bush in the Mideast, a disaster caused substantially by Bush’s decision to attack Iraq and overthrow Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein on the basis of false claims that Saddam had weapons of mass destruction. Obama opposed the war before it started. Clinton, to her discredit, voted to authorize it and took far too long to acknowledge that it was a mistake. Trump claims to have opposed the Iraq war, “from the beginning,” but has produced no evidence to back that up and there is actually evidence that he half-heartedly endorsed the war in advance.

Still, it is less than honest to suggest, as Trump’s presentation does, that Clinton inherited a happy, peaceful Mideast and messed it up. I don’t know a good word for this particular category of falsehood.

In his effort last night to imply that the United States was being played for a sucker all over the world during the Clinton years at State, Trump brought up the Iran nuclear deal. The negotiations for that started under Clinton at State but were concluded under her successor, John Kerry.

Here’s how Trump summarized that one:

“The Iran deal, which gave back to Iran $150 billion and gave us nothing – it will go down in history as one of the worst deals ever made.”

History hasn’t issued a final report yet, but although Trump says the Iran “gave us nothing,” he leaves out the main thing that the United States and its European allies wanted from the negotiation, which was to prevent Iran from developing nuclear weapons. In exchange for the United States and its allies relaxing crippling economic sanctions on Iran, Iran agreed to allow intrusive inspections of nuclear research sites to assure that Iran wasn’t developing a bomb.

Those inspections are occurring and, so far, are going well. It’s possible to believe that Iran is cheating, but it’s easier to believe that this was a triumph for hard-headed diplomacy to avert a bigger crisis. If Iran suddenly gets a bomb, we’ll know better. But for now, Trump’s description of the deal  as one in which the U.S. got “nothing” is something between a lie and a stupidity.

And, by the way, if Trump had been interested in communicating clearly, instead of saying that the deal “gave back $150 billion” to Iran, he would have said that this was money owed to Iran for oil sales, money that had been frozen by the U.S. and its allies for increased leverage in the negotiations.

Having actually told a series of lies and half-truths about Clinton’s record at state, here is how Trump summarized what he felt he had established:

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“This is the legacy of Hillary Clinton: death, destruction and weakness.”

Mr. Trump said a lot more. In fact, he spoke for more than hour. But he didn’t do much to improve his record with me as a truth-teller.

I checked in on some of the analysts in the immediate aftermath of the speech, and heard:

Mark Shields, commenting on PBS, gave this first reaction to the speech: “If I had to sum it up in one sentence it would be: ‘It’s always darkest just before it goes pitch black.’ It was not ‘Morning in America.’ It’s ‘Midnight in America.’ It was a pretty dreary recitation of the national condition.”

On Fox, Sean Hannity summarized his feelings: “I think [Trump] effectively prosecuted the case that many, many things are broken, that Hillary Clinton is an insider, that she is corrupt, that she has failed, and how he, as an outsider, can fix very specific problems with a new approach that only an outsider can bring.”

On CNN, liberal commentator Van Jones was downright upset: “A relentlessly dark speech. He was describing some kind of ‘Mad Max America.’ I’ve never felt this way in my life. I’ve read in history where there have been moments where a big authoritarian leader has risen up, and I felt that tonight, and it was terrifying to me.”

Anna Navarro, a former Republican operative of the Never Trump school, also speaking on CNN: “If you are an American who was hoping to see the Donald Trump from the primaries pivot into a more unifying general election candidate, you are sorely disappointed today… I’m getting texts from Republican members of Congress saying ‘I’m embarrassed for my party. He sounded like a fear monger.’”

Jeffrey Lord, one of the designated Trump supporters, also on CNN and responding to Navarro: “This isn’t fear mongering. This is a statement of reality. People are right to say that there’s something going wrong and we’re in crisis. Donald Trump is saying to them: ‘I hear you. I will fix it.’ It can’t be any more stark when you have dead policemen on the streets of Dallas and Baton Rouge. When you’ve got dead Americans from Texas on the streets of France. That’s crisis.”

David Axelrod, former Obama campaign strategist (also on CNN): “This is the operative question: Will the things that [Trump] did in the primaries get him the votes he needs in a general election, in a much broader, more diverse electorate. He is making the bet that that same message can win in a very diverse country. I think that’s a very tough bet.”

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CNN politics reporter John King: “Look, how many times have we said this: Trump is Trump. He’s gonna do what he thinks is right. He’s gonna trust his gut. This is the message he thinks is gonna work and we’ll see if he’s right or not, because he’s proven a lot of people wrong in the past year.

Meanwhile, back on Fox, Frank Luntz had apparently been conducting one of his on-air focus groups through the whole Republican convention. He started out with 17 people, all of whom described themselves as undecided heading into the week. With the Trump speech ending the convention, he took a final vote to see who had made up their minds. The results: seven for Trump; none for Clinton; four for “none of the above,” and six still “undecided.”

If you’d like to read the text of Trump’s full speech, as prepared for delivery (and pretty close, with a few ad libbed asides, to what he said) it’s available here.