The question going into tonight was one of metamorphosis: in accepting the Republican nomination, would Donald Trump finally transform from Rally Trump to Teleprompter Trump?
You’re probably familiar with Rally Trump. He’s brash, boastful, bullying—a name-calling creature of impulse, an impresario of resentment and fear. His chief argument for making America great again is simply enumerating the ways in which it’s not great now (often spuriously), and then presenting his own greatness as the fix.
His alter-ego, Teleprompter Trump, is supposedly more muzzled—his more sober rhetoric less nasty and self-aggrandizing. He’s supposed to cut back on the blatant falsehoods that Rally Trump favors. His method for making America great again is to actually lay out an argument for what’s wrong, and offer a vaguely concrete, vaguely feasible vision for how to fix it. Something remotely presidential.
Teleprompter Trump was supposed to emerge in May after he clinched the Republican nomination—early June at the latest. After all, it’s what candidates far less polarizing than Trump do when they enter the general election: take what worked in the primary, water it down, and stretch it to appeal to a broader audience.
Strangely, though, Rally Trump stuck around, swapping out Lyin’ Ted for Crooked Hillary, cranking up the conspiracy theorizing and vitriol. Peddling the myth that the “best people” and experience in deal-making can fix the country’s ills. Talking about himself. But as he took the stage in Cleveland with the challenge of unifying the party and, presumably, driving down his chart-popping unfavorable ratings, it seemed safe to hope that now was the time for Teleprompter Trump to shine.
It’s clear tonight that Rally Trump can read just fine from a teleprompter and still double down on fear-mongering and race-baiting, on whipping up white angst. The sentences were smoother. And the data points weren’t drawn from obscure ideologically-driven think tanks. But there was nothing new in tonight’s speech—no unveiling of more expansive ideas.
America’s challenges painted in Cleveland here tonight are still plot arcs from Rally Trump’s cartoon cosmos. The villains are immigrants; they alone are to blame for domestic terrorism. Trade agreements, too. And, above all, Hillary Clinton. Refraining from calling her “Crooked Hillary” doesn’t change the fact that Trump blames literally every problem in America on Clinton. She has somehow pulled off this Sauron-scale villainy thanks to her corruption, cronyism, and (somewhat improbably given the previous two items) staggering incompetence.
The solutions are the same. They rest almost entirely in the grand tautology of the Trump candidacy, that winning can only be done by winners. Preventing police from being shot both by evil or mentally ill people and in the line of duty merely requires hiring “the best prosecutors and law enforcement officials in the country to get the job done.” Rally Trump, we can assume, has these people’s numbers in his rolodex. Renegotiating trade deals will revive American manufacturing. And closing the borders will stop terrorism.
Trumpian simplicity is plenty seductive. This afternoon, I spoke with another delegate who was demoralized by Trump’s nomination. He said that what Trump had to do tonight to even have a chance of winning him over is to articulate his vision for America.
Moments later, I chatted with another delegate—a Latino Rubio-supporter. He had come to the convention skeptical of Trump. But after listening to Trump’s Benghazi speakers and the Trump children’s testimonies, he said, he’d come around. And small wonder—the America Trump promises is free of painful tradeoffs, imperfect solutions, and ever-shifting variables. Who wouldn’t want that world?
In a way, Trump does have a vision for the country. It doesn’t pick up the grainy topography of problems or potential solutions. It sees only infrared blazes of blame. Who knows if he’ll win the election. Even if he doesn’t, though, Trump made it clear tonight that he intends to teach American voters to see the world as he does. And inevitably, many will learn.