If elections are won on the theme of hope, Donald Trump may have been ill-advised. His acceptance speech was not only the longest on record for a US presidential nominee. It was by far the darkest.
By comparison, Richard Nixon’s famously gloomy 1968 address, which apparently inspired Mr Trump’s Cleveland speech, reads like a Disneyland brochure. The basis of Mr Trump’s message was a choice between a dystopian future of “poverty and violence” under Hillary Clinton, or a new age of “Americanism” that would put an end to the destructive forces of “globalism”. Only Mr Trump could arrest America’s disintegration. Only he could free it from the stranglehold of special interests. “The system is rigged,” said Mr Trump. “I alone can fix it.”
Mr Trump’s message is unlikely to send voters skipping to the polling booths. Yet it may stir up enough fear to make up for its missing hope. Indeed, opinion polls of those who viewed it were positive. It would be little surprise were Mr Trump to begin next week with a national lead over Hillary Clinton. Yet his message was based on a deeply alarmist premise. Until now, US history has rarely treated doom-mongers kindly. Among the memorable parallels, the closest is to Patrick Buchanan’s culture wars speech at the 1992 Republican convention, whose pitchfork rebellion some view as a forerunner to Trumpism. Mr Buchanan’s bid failed but the Republican divisions he exposed contributed to George HW Bush’s defeat later that year. Almost a quarter of a century later, Mr Trump’s party is now recognisably Mr Buchanan’s.
Mr Trump’s campaign credits Nixon’s 1968 address as the main inspiration for his acceptance speech. On Thursday he tipped his hat to Nixon’s “silent majority” by vowing that he would be a law and order president. Yet it was a far more foreboding text than Nixon’s. The latter began his address by warmly congratulating his defeated rivals — Ronald Reagan, George Romney and Nelson Rockefeller. Mr Trump skipped that part. Nixon promised a “new internationalism” abroad and vowed at home to “build new bridges to human dignity across that gulf that separates white America from black America”. Mr Trump proclaimed a new age of “America first”, while reiterating his pledge to build a wall with Mexico. He repeatedly linked America’s apparently surging crime rate to the country’s open borders.
His message was red meat to the assembled. The overwhelmingly white delegates were expecting nothing less. Periodically Mr Trump joined them in chanting “USA, USA”. At a convention that was mostly riven by disunity, the New York magnate hammered on the one theme that united all — a profound dislike of Mrs Clinton. Cleveland may well be remembered for the “lock her up” chants from the convention floor.
Mr Trump’s speech will also be noted for the least charitable assessment so far of Mrs Clinton’s years as secretary of state in which, he said, she left a trail of “death, destruction, terrorism [and] weakness” in her wake. Her election would mark a victory for the corporate and media forces that are willing her to succeed, he added. “They have total control over every single thing she does. She is their puppet and they hold the strings.”
The focus now shifts to next week’s Democratic convention in Philadelphia. Mrs Clinton faces a quandary. She does not inspire hope in the way her husband was once brilliantly capable of doing. Bill Clinton has also lost some of his mojo. But Mrs Clinton has the means to match Mr Trump’s fear.
The stage is set for the most negative — and alarming — presidential election in modern US history. Both candidates view the other as fundamentally illegitimate. Mr Trump depicts Mrs Clinton as a criminal. It is clear that most of his party agrees. “Hillary for prison 2016,” was among the best-selling memorabilia in Cleveland.
Mrs Clinton views Mr Trump as “temperamentally unfit to hold office”. That is a mild description of what most Democrats think of him. This will be a scorched earth election.
It is hard to see how either side could live with the other’s victory. We will know Mrs Clinton’s to Mr Trump’s battle plan soon enough. It is likely to play heavily on his character flaws.
Mr Trump, meanwhile, has taken his party into uncharted territory. The Republican Party of 2016 is hard to recognise from Mitt Romney’s just four years ago. At Mr Romney’s 2012 convention, it was almost obligatory for speakers to cite Ronald Reagan as their inspiration. In Cleveland, his name had all but vanished.
Reagan’s so-called 11th commandment was, “thou shalt not speak ill of a fellow Republican”. That edict was also committed to the funeral pyre in Cleveland. The party no longer has room for Reagan’s “morning in America”. Mr Trump has taken it into the evening.
Edward Luce is the FT’s chief US commentator