After the longest convention speech in modern history, the big question is: which Donald Trump will show up during the final 14 weeks of this election season? Will it be the man who forcefully delivered a carefully scripted speech to a national audience, or the one whose interview just the day before with the New York Times threw a hand grenade into the Republican foreign policy establishment and the NATO alliance?
Donald Trump faced two main political challenges in his acceptance speech—unifying a badly divided party and expanding his support beyond the passionate minority that has rallied to his cause.
How did he do?
On the first challenge, pretty well. For the first time in weeks, he didn’t attack other Republicans, although it must have been tempting to say something about Ted Cruz. In fact, he has flipped his campaign in recent weeks to focus on security and law and order issues that tend to bring Republicans together, and they dominated the first and longest part of the speech. He endorsed the policy concerns of the party’s major interest groups, including the NRA. His promise to repeal the decades-old ban on political speech by tax-exempt religious organization was well received in the convention hall. Only the corporate and financial communities came away empty-handed. The party of business could not have been happy about Trump’s repeated opposition to almost every trade deal that has been negotiated in the past quarter century—or his declaration that the era of multilateral trade agreements is over.
Turning to the second challenge, he and his warm-up acts did in fact reach out beyond the base. Much of Ivanka Trump’s introduction sounded like it was straight out of a Hillary Clinton speech on women, family, and workplace issues. Preceding Ivanka was Peter Thiel, the founder of PayPal, who is an entrepreneur and, as he told the Republican convention, proud to be gay. But perhaps the most surprising outreach came from Trump himself when he talked about protecting the LGBTQ community against Islamic terrorism after the hateful attack in Orlando. And then Trump followed up with an unscripted comment meant to emphasize the point: “As a Republican, it is so nice to hear you cheering for what I just said.”
Nonetheless, his Nixonian invocation of “law and order” gave no ground to the many African-Americans who experience contemporary policing as oppressive and unfair. His stated determination to enforce the law against illegal immigration could not have swayed the millions of Latinos whose families will be directly affected. And while his daughter’s speech rang a responsive chord with women and millennials, the positions she espoused have yet to come from the candidate himself.
Trump’s acceptance speech matters because his support in the electorate has remained stuck in the low 40s for several weeks. The gap between him and Hillary Clinton has narrowed during this period, but only because her support declined in the wake of FBI director James Comey’s criticism of the handling of her State Department emails. No one believes that Mr. Trump can win with 41 percent of the vote, even if the Libertarian and Green Party candidates do much better than ever before. So he needs to move some voters in groups not naturally inclined to back his candidacy.
And while he mostly stuck to the teleprompter and avoided the egocentric musings that have characterized so many of his past speeches, his suggestion to the New York Times that he might not honor our NATO commitment to come to the aid of threatened member states who didn’t pay their fair share raised new questions about his grasp of the issues with which a president must deal. Although Trump made an impromptu stab at explaining his position during his acceptance speech, his effort probably did little to calm those who wonder if he knows what he’s doing.
The broadest question is whether Trump’s dark picture of a country under threat, in decline, and undermined by elite corruption is shared by a majority of his fellow-citizens. While most Americans are frustrated, many fewer are as angry as were most of the Republican delegates in the hall. Are the American people prepared to lurch from hope and change to fear and loathing?
All in all, Trump’s acceptance speech left Republicans more reassured and unified than they had been during the first three days of their convention, but it is less clear that it laid the foundation for a successful general election campaign.
Elaine C. Kamarck is a Senior Fellow at the Brookings Institution and author of Primary Politics: Everything You Need to Know about How America Nominates Its Presidential Candidates. She is a superdelegate to the Democratic convention.