WASHINGTON — President Donald Trump’s silent confession lay tightly wrapped inside the trappings of the White House, a fireworks show on the National Mall and a long speech in which he accepted the Republican Party’s nomination and congratulated himself for a job well done.
It’s the quiet part he won’t dare say out loud: as of now, he’s in control here.
“In a new term as president, we will again build the greatest economy in history — quickly returning to full employment, soaring incomes and record prosperity!” Trump said Thursday night from the South Lawn of the White House.
“We will defend America against all threats and protect America against all dangers,” he continued. “We will rekindle new faith in our values, new pride in our history and a new spirit of unity that can only be realized through love for our country.”
It’s not clear what he is waiting for. He has the power now that he says he needs to make the country “great again — again,” as Vice President Mike Pence put it earlier this week.
At the end of a week of dizzying contradictions spun by speakers at the Republican convention, the most brazen was Trump’s implicit assertion that he is responsible for everything good that has happened during his time in office and that others — Democratic mayors, China and “the deep state” high on the list — are to blame for all of the country’s problems.
The nightmare scenario he says would play out under Democratic nominee Joe Biden — violence in the streets of major cities, no defense for a pandemic, American troops projected abroad and an economically disadvantageous relationship with China — is the current reality.
But Trump’s narrative is understandable — necessary, even — through the lens of politics. The fundamental challenge of his re-election effort is to convince enough voters that he’s powerless.
He has presided over the deaths of 180,000 Americans from a disease he once credited China for working to contain; nearly 30 million people out of work and tens of thousands of small businesses closed as a result of the pandemic’s spread in the United States; and civil unrest over racial injustice that he both denounces and stokes.
He did not “build the greatest economy in history” by any recognizable measure. Annual gross domestic product growth — less than 3 percent per year before the pandemic — has been modest. Financial markets have seen record highs — as they do in most administrations. But while unemployment levels reached lows not seen in half a century under Trump, they also hit their high point since the Great Depression earlier this year.
He portrays his reaction to the coronavirus as perfect: speedy, full and effective. A muddled federal response, the death toll and the economic fallout tell a more textured story.
Built into Trump’s strategy is another basic contradiction: that America is beset by Americans.
In other words, he has met the enemy, and it is his countrymen — or more than half of them.
“As long as I am president, I will defend the absolute right of every American citizen to live in security, dignity and peace,” he said. “If the Democrat Party wants to stand with anarchists, agitators, rioters, looters and flag-burners, that is up to them, but I, as your president, will not be a part of it.”
It’s the Constitution, not a political party, that protects the right to burn the American flag. But more important, Trump called for “a new spirit of unity” while labeling more than half of the voting public criminals or supporters of criminals.
Trump has already demonstrated that he can win the presidency with the backing of less than 46 percent of the electorate. He doesn’t have to convince most voters to ignore the facts on the ground in favor of the hellscape he envisions under a Biden presidency. He just has to keep his base and get enough people to turn against Biden or just stay home in key areas to tip swing states in his favor.
Steve Guest, an aide at the Republican National Committee, hinted at the main omission in Trump’s remarks in an email sent to reporters early Friday morning.
“Tonight, the Republican National Convention reminded the American people of President Trump’s belief in American greatness, how he made America great, and how he is committed to restoring American greatness in his second term.”
No one else was president between the time Trump “made America great” and the time he “committed to restoring American greatness.”
Ironically, for a president who so often says the quiet part out loud — to the consternation of his critics and the thrill of his supporters — silence has become the key to his re-election message.