The critiques of Donald Trump made devastatingly clear that he’s a preposterous, dangerous candidate for the presidency. The case for Clinton was compelling, and almost every party leader who mattered showed up to make it.
That included President Obama, who answered Trump’s shockingly gloomy vision of America with a stirring assurance that we have every reason to feel good. Clinton forcefully amplified that assessment. She peddled uplift, not anxiety.
But in 2016, is that the smarter sell? Are prettier words the better pitch?
They made for a more emotional, inspiring convention, so much so that many conservatives loudly grieved the way in which Democrats had appropriated the rousing patriotism and can-do American spirit that Republicans once owned. But Trump has surrendered optimism to Clinton at precisely the moment when it’s a degraded commodity, out of sync with the national mood. That’s surely why he let go of it so readily.
Clinton has many advantages in this race. I wouldn’t bet against her. I expect a significant bounce for her in post-convention polls; an Ipsos/Reuters survey that was released on Friday, reflecting interviews spread out over the Democrats’ four days in Philadelphia, showed her five points ahead of Trump nationally among likely voters.
But she nonetheless faces possible troubles, and the potential mismatch of her message and the moment is a biggie. She has to exploit the opportunity of Trump’s excessive bleakness without coming across as the least bit complacent. That’s no easy feat but it’s a necessary one. The numbers don’t lie.
In a Gallup poll two weeks ago, just 17 percent of respondents said that the country was on the right track, while 82 percent said it was on the wrong track. In an NBC News/Wall Street Journal poll shortly before that, the corresponding figures were 18 percent and 73 percent.
And while that degree of negativity is unusually pronounced, a general pessimism about America has persisted for well over a decade, paving the way for Trump. As my colleague Ross Douthat recently noted, “The last time more than 40 percent of Americans said the country was on the right track was a month after the president’s re-election, and the wrong track number was stuck above 60 percent well before Trump’s primary-season ascent.”
If it has now crept considerably higher than that, it’s no wonder, and it’s not because Trump is talking so much trash. It’s because the world is presenting so many nightmares, each fast on the heels of another.
In early July, five police officers were assassinated in Dallas, followed by three more in Baton Rouge.
In the last two months, there was the massacre in Orlando, followed by the massacre in Nice, not to mention the massacres in Afghanistan and Syria and Iraq or the French priest whose throat was slit last week. Many Americans sense that they’re living amid pervasive, random terror. And yet terrorism went entirely unmentioned on the first day of the Democratic convention.
The Republicans of course took a different, darker tack — Trump in particular. Much was made of how he cherry-picked his crime statistics for the most rancid fruit, warping reality to fill the streets of America with as much blood and foreboding as he did.
But if he got the particulars largely wrong, he got the apprehension mostly right, and Democrats’ rebuttals since then have failed to grasp how strongly his panicked portrait of America resonates with many Americans.