In Trump’s telling, the world is going to hell and America is going to a special circle within that hell. Terrorists are everywhere. Crime is on the rise. America’s institutions are collapsing. The government is too corrupt to stop any of it. And there’s only one person who can help: Donald Trump.
The conservative voters in the audience know this narrative well. It is fed to them constantly by talk radio and Fox News and by the elected officials of the Republican Party itself. The people Trump is speaking to—the people that made Trump the Republican nominee—already believe it, in part because it is also a narrative about white decline, tailor-made for those who are deeply afraid of a country in which white people are no longer in control.
It’s a simple narrative and it can be effective. But you have to believe that America is in the toilet, that crime is wildly out of control, that we need a strong man to protect us from nebulous threats already for it to be effective. But if you don’t believe that narrative, Trump did very little to convince you that it’s real, except to cite a few bogus statistics. He told, but didn’t show; he told very loudly, with stabs of his short fingers.
Conventions are supposed to build narratives, and Trump’s speech suggested that his campaign was trying to build one about the sorry state of America. Trump’s speech is a call back to everyone who said that immigrants will kill Americans, that Hillary Clinton will leave our soldiers to die overseas, that the government exists for no one’s benefit but its own. Trump is promising that he’ll bring “law and order”—a historically racist phrase, it’s worth pointing out—back to America. But what if you’re someone who feels safer than they did two decades ago? What if you’ve been one of the beneficiaries of the economic recovery set in motion by the Obama administration? 2016 sucks, but it’s not 1968, as much as Donald Trump would like it to be.