I received an interesting email from a center-right reader yesterday, responding to my piece about the Republican National Convention turning into the "Mistake by the Lake." The gist of his note was pretty straightforward: this GOP gathering may have gone poorly, but the missteps were inconsequential.
Melania Trump's plagiarism was embarrassing, reader D.S. said, but there's not a voter in the country whose opinions were swayed by the controversy. Ted Cruz's refusal to endorse Donald Trump was an uncomfortable reminder about intra-party fissures, but it's only of interest to those who pay close attention to the granular details of politics.
The American mainstream electorate, D.S. effectively argued, doesn't care. People who were inclined to vote for Trump are still inclined to vote for Trump. Those who found his message compelling before the convention won't feel any differently as a result of a messy national convention.
It's a fair observation, but I think it's overlooking an important angle: the "opportunity cost" of the convention.
Readers with MBAs will probably tell me I'm butchering the definition, but as I understand it, an opportunity cost refers to the loss of a possible gain. You could have invested in A, which did well, but you instead invested in B, which didn't do well. The opportunity cost is the return you could have received from the superior investment you didn't make.
What does this have to do with the Republican convention? Quite a bit.
Donald Trump's acceptance speech at last night's Republican National Convention covered a fair amount of ground -- there are so many things he wants Americans to be scared of -- but the GOP candidate went out of his way to place a special emphasis on crime.
There is, however, a problem: crime rates are going down, not up. Though perspectives are often skewed by high-profile incidents, most Americans are safer from crime now than they've been in a generation.
For Trump, that makes lying necessary -- if voters aren't terrified, he's going to lose -- but for the Trump campaign, there's another rhetorical option available. New York magazine flagged this gem:
[W]hen CNN's Jake Tapper confronted Trump campaign manager Paul Manafort with the inconvenient facts about how historically safe most Americans are, Manafort chose to attack the messenger. Which is to say, to attack the Federal Bureau of Investigation.
"Empirically, according to FBI statistics, crime rates have been going down for decades," Tapper said. "How can Republicans make the argument that, somehow, it's more dangerous today, when the facts don't back that up?"
"People don't feel safe in their neighborhoods. I don't know what statistics you're talking about," Manafort replied. "The FBI is suspect these days, after what they just did with Hillary Clinton."
Got that? The FBI's facts are politically inconvenient to the Trump campaign, so as far as Paul Manafort is concerned, there's reason to mistrust both the data and the federal law enforcement officials who compiled the data.
Of course, the FBI's crime rates are based almost entirely on information provided by state and local law enforcement, but who knows, maybe the Trump campaign's chairman believes they're in on the scam, too. (If the parties were reversed, the political world would be spending today asking why a Democrat accused police officers nationwide of politically motivated corruption.)
But we can take this one step further. There's ample reason to believe the Trump campaign is taking on Hillary Clinton and independent data with equal vigor.
At roughly this point eight years ago, when Democrats were desperate to reclaim the White House after two terms of a Republican president, then-Sen. Barack Obama accepted the party's nomination and delivered a speech that emphasized unity. "In America, our destiny is inextricably linked," he said, "that together our dreams can be one."
The speech used the word "we" constantly. "America, we cannot turn back," Obama said. "We cannot walk alone. At this moment, in this election, we must pledge once more to march into the future."
The campaign's slogan, of course, was "Yes we can."
It was therefore a little jarring last night to hear one of the more memorable lines from Donald Trump's acceptance speech at the Republican convention: "Nobody knows the system better than me, which is why I alone can fix it." He added, "I will restore law and order to our country."
Trump concluded, "I am your voice."
The language was a little jarring, as The Atlantic's Yoni Appelbaum explained very well.
[Trump] did not appeal to prayer, or to God. He did not ask Americans to measure him against their values, or to hold him responsible for living up to them. He did not ask for their help. He asked them to place their faith in him.
He broke with two centuries of American political tradition, in which candidates for office -- and above all, for the nation's highest office -- acknowledge their fallibility and limitations, asking for the help of their fellow Americans, and of God, to accomplish what they cannot do on their own.
To be sure, the Republicans in attendance didn't seem to mind. The more Trump positioned himself as the nation's savior, the more the crowd cheered.
Fear is a powerful instinct. Fear is so potent, and the innate drive to protect one's self from harm is so overpowering, that it can override almost every other instinct, including those related to intellect and judgment.
Which is why Donald Trump desperately wants to frighten you.
The obvious problem with the Republican presidential nominee's convention speech last night is that it was less a speech and more a series of strung together scary falsehoods. In the actual United States, crime rates have dropped, but Trump insists they've increased. In our reality, illegal border crossings have fallen, but in Trump's mind, they've skyrocketed.
For those who care about facts, the United States has fairly low tax rates among industrialized democracies, but in Trump's version of reality, "America is one of the highest-taxed nations in the world." The truth is that the killing of police officers in the line of duty is down, but Trump nevertheless wants you to believe the exact opposite. In reality, Iran is not even close to the path to nuclear weapons. In Trump's mind, "Iran is on the path to nuclear weapons."
Early on in his speech, the GOP nominee declared, "[H]ere, at our convention, there will be no lies. We will honor the American people with the truth, and nothing else." Trump then lied in literally the next sentence.
But let's not miss the forest for the trees: Trump wasn't just lying for the sake of routine deception or even for self-aggrandizement; he was lying because it was the only way to leave the audience terrified. If he told the truth, voters wouldn't be frightened, and if voters aren't frightened, he's going to lose the election.
And so Americans were treated to the kind of demagoguery rarely heard from a presidential candidate of any era. Trump wants you to be afraid of criminals. And immigrants. And Democrats. And refugees. And government regulations. And quite possibly the monster that could be hiding under your bed.
Whom did Donald Trump's nomination acceptance speech speak to most and was it well-received by the rowdy crowd in Cleveland? MSNBC's Joy Reid reports from the floor of the Republican National Convention on the event's final night. watch
Katy Tur, NBC News political reporter, reflects on the past year of covering Donald Trump's presidential campaign and assesses whether his address to the Republican National Convention will appeal to voters outside his base. watch
David Sanger, national security correspondent for The New York Times, discusses Donald Trump's remarks on foreign policy and the role of the United States in NATO from his interview with the New York Times. watch
Senator Al Franken talks about how the Democratic National Convention will contrast with the Republican National Convention and why he's confident in how Hillary Clinton will perform as president of the United States. watch