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.
For more along these lines, I’d encourage readers to check out many of the detailed fact-checking pieces that were published overnight.
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.
In fact, as far as the Republican presidential candidate is concerned, the United States is already a dystopian hellscape, where the sun no longer shines, where few can experience joy, and where all hope is lost.
But don’t worry, Donald J. Trump can make America great again.
Just don’t ask him how.
The fear-based politics was offensive in its own right, but it was compounded by the fact that Trump doesn’t even pretend to have solutions to the made-up crises he claims to care about.
For all of last night’s spectacle, the Republican presidential hopeful’s prescription for impending doom is noticeably short on actual ideas. Last night in Cleveland, we heard rhetoric about a border wall that even Trump’s allies concede won’t happen; we were reminded of Trump’s plan to approve a massive tax cut the country can’t afford; and that was about it.
The juxtaposition of Trump’s messages was jarring: modern American life is one of constant misery, which he’ll turn around with a handful of silly ideas and the force of his personality.
Maybe it worked. Perhaps there are millions of Americans who care more about what feels true and less about what is true. Maybe voters want a television personality with authoritarian instincts to assure them that he alone can solve all of their problems.
But from where I sat, last night was one of the uglier displays of nationalistic demagoguery in the history of American presidential campaigns. Voters shouldn’t believe the nightmare portrait Donald Trump painted last night, but that doesn’t mean his speech wasn’t scary.