A Speech to Trump All Speeches

In the wake of Trump's nomination speech, I encountered at least half a dozen tweets from high-profile media personalities (Sally Kohn, Ezra Klein, Melissa Harris-Perry to name a few) who made it explicitly clear that last night's spectacle left them disturbed, and more importantly, fearful. We have good reason to believe that these declarations were not rhetorical flourishes, but are genuine expressions of horror about "where we are headed." This is understandable, considering that in recent years we have never seen anything like last night, or anything even remotely close to it.

A mere eighteen months ago, all of this was completely unthinkable to even the most idealistic among us. We were supposed to be reading editorials about how Jeb Bush's plan for 4% GDP growth is untenable and why a distinct absence of George's folksy charisma would hurt him in November. That was the plan, and why shouldn't it have happened? The chattering class had unshakeable command of the public discourse, its content and its limits. They had mocked us out of existence, the guiding assumption being that the smug style and exclusion were the cosmopolitan solutions to the "provincial question." After all, didn't the Daily Show DESTROY those people? Didn't National Review set in stone the parameters of what it means to be right-wing? Our concerns and ideas and hopes and dreams were reduced to a now familiar punchline, which was in turn supposed to recede into a dead past.

But as Faulkner wryly observed, "the past is never dead. It isn't even past." True indeed, because last night it came roaring back to thunderous applause--revived, transfigured, and instantiated in the person of Donald J. Trump. For 75 glorious minutes, Trump, seemingly possessed by the inexplicably pro-LGBT (and Q!) spirit of Pat Buchanan, annihilated shibboleths from both the GOP and the political culture at large. It was unapologetic, unalloyed, "high energy" nationalism, an ideology that apparently does not understand or care that "public intellectuals" had consigned it to history's proverbial dustbin. Basking in the glow of his coronation as the official Republican nominee, Trump spoke (or more accurately, shouted) the unspeakable with verve and conviction. His words revealed the liberal media and Beltway-Right pundits as paper tigers, and then burned them to ash.

Trump's speech demands an exhaustive analysis, and hopefully in the coming days someone will give it the attention it deserves. Still, I feel compelled to offer a few preliminary remarks, mostly personal impressions.

First, as someone who has listened to dozens of Trump's speeches, I can safely say that this was the Ur-Speech. While obviously not temporally prior to his earlier ones, in hindsight they cannot help but appear as lesser pieces, pallid descendants and imitators wholly lacking last night's force and unity. All of Trump's disparate themes (trade, immigration, security) and leitmotifs ("Build the wall!," "Chie-nuh!") were present and raised to new heights. It was as if his previous speeches culminated in, and were subsumed by, last night's address. Truly, it was the apotheosis of Trumpism. This will be a tough act to follow (a fact whose recognition I hope inspired a nasty coughing fit in Hillary).

Second, I was worried that reliance on the teleprompter would imbue the speech with an element of inauthenticity (the deadliest poison known to oration), but contrary to my expectations, Trump came across as sincere while still retaining the spontaneity that has come to characterize his rally performances. He struck a wonderful balance between staying on script and his usual, off-the-cuff style. Trump seemed much more at ease in front of the teleprompter last night than in other appearances.

Third, hearing the speech was above all an emancipatory experience. It's ironic that for years, establishment politicians have constantly invoked freedom (to the point of deforming and then fetishizing the concept) in their rhetoric, yet nothing was more liberating than a speech that barely mentioned freedom at all. The reason for this is because Trump represents not the bogus "freedom" for foreigners to experience the joys of "humanitarian interventions", or the "freedom" for autogynephiles to share locker rooms with little girls, but the freedom to be ourselves, to speak our minds. Trump rightfully recognizes that political correctness is a form of social domination, and is one that has for decades hamstrung the mainstream Right (often at the behest of its so-called leaders) both politically and culturally. It was liberating to point at the screen in the presence of friends and family and say, "Yeah, I agree with that guy, and with the thousands of people applauding him," for once. A lesson we can learn from the gay rights movement is that to be who you are is to be who you are in public (it is why they have parades, after all), and Trump's speech, and its enthusiastic public reception, moves us closer to that. When the personal is the political, shifting the Overton Window is every bit as much about an impulse towards authentic freedom as it is about getting our candidates elected.

Finally, while not about the speech itself, the aesthetics of the event are worth considering. It was less Triumph of the Will and more Las Vegas, absolutely going beyond the limits of good taste and into the realms of excess and kitsch (this was an event for Republicans, at the end of the day). Normally that would be a bad thing, but because of the peculiarities of Trump and his campaign, I found all of it--the dozens of flags, the luminous stairs, the massive projector displaying Trump's name and its golden frame--strangely endearing.

All things considered, the event was a YUGE success. Establishment pundits, media mandarins, liberals, leftists, cuckservatives, all have good reason to be fearful. A new (old) force has burst into the public sphere, radiantly confident, and it will not be going away no matter how many dismissive, snarky articles they write.