Writings and observations

Trump 84: Midnight in America

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Not even minutes were needed to draw the obvious comparison between the 1984 presidential campaign of Ronald Reagan, centered around the happy theme of “morning in America,” and the nomination acceptance speech this year by Donald Trump.

This new Republican candidacy, a mere 32 years from Reagan’s, was swiftly described as “midnight in America.”

And rightly so. In his telling this is a dystopian country, at imminent existential peril, overrun with vicious criminals and invaders and dangerous people. You step outside the front door at your peril . . .

And the GOP convention ate it up. For those of us who recall Reagan’s two successful runs for the presidency, the scene was astonishing.

When he ran in 1980, Reagan was not an incumbent and therefore had no incentive to argue that things were fine as they were; and he didn’t. But his tone, mood and persona projected optimism. It was a tonic. The 70s were a time of disappointment for many Americans, from Watergate to the energy crisis. President Jimmy Carter, trying to confront some of this, delivered an address widely called the “malaise” speech (though that word never appeared in it). Reagan spoke to positives, to a Pollyanna image really, but one many people wanted to hear and responded to. Republicans particularly, in those days, loved it. And they loved it even more when he could run an unalloyed “morning in America” message for re-election.

One of the things only a president can do is to use that singular pulpit to rally the country. Reagan did that. It was one of his best services to the country: He lifted up a country that was feeling down.

This year, Donald Trump, whose campaign book is titled Crippled America (recently retitled Great Again: How to Fix Our Crippled America, presumably on the advice of some campaign aide), seems bound to do exactly the opposite of Reagan: Take a nation that is essentially sound and moving toward peace and prosperity, and lower it, depress it, diminish it.

There are many more stirring orators than Hillary Clinton (even at her own convention), but listen to her speech alongside Trump’s and the contrast is stark: It speaks at least to the goodness and even greatness of the country, and to better days ahead. Trump offered none of that.

Crippled America? Midnight in America? Some of our presidents have lifted us up. We can ill-afford one that would slam us down. – rs

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