On the night when it mattered most, Donald Trump harnessed the power of his populist campaign rhetoric and turned it into a potent, structured speech in which he contended that he — and he alone — understands voters’ angst in a frightening, rapidly changing world.
“I have joined the political arena so that the powerful can no longer beat up on people that cannot defend themselves,” the 70-year-old billionaire New York developer said.
“Nobody knows the system better than me,” he added, pausing for laughs and dramatic effect, “which is why I alone can fix it.”
Trump accepted the Republican Party’s presidential nomination Thursday in Cleveland, a little more than a year after launching an insurrectional candidacy that overwhelmed 16 other candidates and upended the modern GOP.
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He reveled in retelling the story of his improbable White House bid, decrying a political class whose campaigns he helped fund for years and a news media that gave singular attention to his celebrity candidacy.
“America is a nation of believers, dreamers and strivers that is being led by a group of censors, critics, and cynics,” Trump said. “Remember: All of the people telling you that you can’t have the country you want are the same people telling you that I wouldn’t be standing here tonight.”
Though toned down and scripted, Trump still sounded like his blunt, blustery self, speaking in direct and often-short sentences and offering a grim picture of America. Befitting one of the most uneven and unpredictable conventions in recent memory, Trump’s full remarks leaked, four hours before the nominee stepped onstage, to a super PAC backing presumptive Democratic nominee Hillary Clinton.
The day, like much of the four-day convention, began drenched in controversy, this time with fallout over Ted Cruz, the Texas senator and Trump primary runner-up who defiantly refused to endorse Trump from the convention podium the night before. Cruz, heckled by his home-state delegates at breakfast, defended his non-endorsement saying he wouldn’t be Trump’s “servile puppy dog.”
Trump ignited another political firestorm by telling The New York Times on Wednesday that as president he might not automatically defend NATO allies if they’re attacked — a significant reversal of U.S. policy condemned by European governments, the White House and Republicans leaders themselves.
He briefly touched on NATO on Thursday night, traditionally the first time a nominee appears at the convention hall.
Not so for Trump, who showed up at the Quicken Loans Arena — either in person or by video — three times before Thursday. On his biggest night, he was introduced by his popular, 34-year-old daughter Ivanka, who made perhaps the most revealing observation of anyone at the convention.
“If it’s possible to be famous and yet not really well known, that describes the father who raised me,” she said.
The younger Trump, tasked with making him more palatable with female voters, said her father would back better childcare policies for women — something Trump himself doesn’t mention on the stump.
“He is color-blind and gender-neutral. He hires the best person for the job, period,” she said. “Politicians talk about wage equality, but my father has made it a practice at his company throughout his entire career.”
Trump entered to the theme music of the film “Air Force One,” and briefly veered off script to talk not about one of his favorite subjects — poll numbers — but about his winning vote percentages.
Florida delegates sported matching “Make Florida Red Again” hats, an homage to Trump’s campaign slogan. The most important audience, however — millions of voters only just starting to pay attention to the presidential race — watched on television. Trump made a direct pitch to the supporters of Clinton’s primary rival, democratic socialist Bernie Sanders, twice invoking Sanders’ name.
In laying out his priorities, Trump continued to avoid offering many specifics. Instead, he continued to flout conservative orthodoxy and rhetoric. He didn’t, for example, mention abortion.
He promised a radically different approach to free trade: “I have made billions of dollars in business making deals — now I’m going to make our country rich again”.
He pledged to protect LGBT rights, mentioning the killings of 49 people at Pulse gay nightclub in Orlando: “As your president, I will do everything in my power to protect our LGBTQ citizens from the violence and oppression of a hateful foreign ideology.”
And he ignored the post-2012 GOP playbook that embraced immigration reform that would allow at least some people in the country illegally to stay.
“We are going to build a great border wall to stop illegal immigration, to stop the gangs and the violence, and to stop the drugs from pouring into our communities,” said Trump, who in his June 16, 2015, campaign launch — a day after Jeb Bush’s — referred to some Mexican immigrants as “rapists.”
“Of all my travels in this country, nothing has affected me more deeply than the time I have spent with the mothers and fathers who have lost their children to violence spilling across our border,” he said Thursday.
Trump also advocated for “immediately” suspending immigration “from any nation that has been compromised by terrorism” until they put in place “proven vetting mechanisms.”
He argued that Clinton, the former secretary of state, pursued a “failed policy of nation building and regime change” in Iraq, Libya, Egypt and Syria. But his criticism really dated back to the last Republican president, George W. Bush, and his foray into Iraq — a war endorsed by Trump’s running mate, Indiana Gov. Mike Pence.
“After 15 years of wars in the Middle East, after trillions of dollars spent and thousands of lives lost, the situation is worse than it has ever been before,” Trump said, attributing the full cost of the war to Clinton anyway.
“This is the legacy of Hillary Clinton: death, destruction and weakness,” he said.
He channeled the energy of Republican delegates, who are far more united over their dislike of Clinton than their love for Trump. But when they chanted “Lock her up!” Trump waved them off: “Let’s defeat her in November.” (Interrupted by a protester, Trump waited for things to quiet down and then brought down the house with, “How great are our police?”)
Clinton committed “terrible crimes” by storing her government emails in a private server, he said, even if the Justice Department — following the FBI’s recommendation — declined to charge Clinton with wrongdoing.
“Her single greatest accomplishment may be committing such an egregious crime and getting away with it — especially when others have paid so dearly,” Trump said.
Above all, Trump appeared intent on persuading voters that, for a man born into wealth who delights in showing off his private jet, he gets them — and will fight for them.
“Every day I wake up determined to deliver for the people I have met all across this nation that have been neglected, ignored, and abandoned,” he said. “I have visited the laid-off factory workers, and the communities crushed by our horrible and unfair trade deals. These are the forgotten men and women of our country. People who work hard but no longer have a voice.
“I am your voice.”