Newsletter 24: Flashing Back to Trump’s Acceptance Speech at the 2016 RNC

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I’ve decided to start putting some of the best newsletter essays here on Medium, so more people can read them. You’re still better off just subscribing. This one is from October 2016, when I wrote about the experience of covering Trump’s acceptance speech at the 2016 Republican National Convention in Cleveland. I was terrified then. It got worse. Please vote.

On the last night of the Republican National Convention in Cleveland, which I was covering for Bloomberg Politics, I didn’t have any major assignments. I’d done most of my work for the week, all the Bloomberg passes at Quicken Loans Arena were already taken and I had too early of a flight the next morning to spend the night out looking for drunk Republicans. So I stayed in. I was sharing an apartment with the brilliant Sasha Issenberg, who was going to be out working all night, so I grabbed a six pack of beer and a notebook and turned on CNN to watch Donald Trump’s acceptance speech.

I only made it through one beer, and I put the notebook away five minutes in. Not to put too fine a point on it, but Trump’s speech was one of the most terrifying things I’ve ever seen. It wasn’t just that Trump is, well, Trump, and that he was accepting the nomination of one of the two major American political parties to become the most powerful person on the planet. It was the speech itself, and how well it was delivered. This was not the rambling Trump we saw before, and after. This was a focused, sharply scripted Trump, at the peak of the Trump Experience, a night he’d certainly been imagining in his head his whole life, a vindication of every hater and loser who ever doubted him. This was Authoritarian Trump. It is one thing to see Trump’s bloated, braying Alpha routine at a rally in Florida. It is quite another to see him backed by the awesome power of the staging of a political convention. Seriously, look at this photo.

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If you cracked open Trump’s brain, I think this is what it would look like.

But it wasn’t just all that power. It was Trump’s vision of the world, in which everything was collapsing and your life is miserable and the whole planet is going to hell and we really should just burn the whole place down. It was nothing but thundering images of murder and disease and rot and despair and, more than anything, rage. The television seemed to shake when Trump was speaking. It was 70-plus minutes of unadulterated fury.

And everyone in the room ate it up. It was a frenzy. It was a speech that was muscular and powerful and visceral and undeniably effective. It was then, for the first time I think in the entire campaign, it looked like Trump could win. The problem with the thought of Trump winning that night wasn’t that I disagreed with his policies (what policies you could find), or whether or not I found him a loathsome person. I have voted for people in both parties, and I have voted for and against people with whom I suspect I would not personally be friendly. What scared me so much that night is that that rage seemed to have found a home in the America people. What scared me is that it looked like it might work. Reason magazine’s Peter Suderman wrote that night, “The simplest and more straightforward way to interpret Trump’s speech was as a warning that outsiders are coming to America to kill you and your family … a fictitious, nightmarish vision that a power-hungry narcissist invented for the purpose of acquiring power for himself by being elected president. That’s the all-too-possible nightmare that should terrify us most.” I woke up several times that night in a sweat. I don’t like emotional reactions to politics; I don’t trust emotional reactions, in general, let alone with something so important and universal as the highest office in the land. But I was scared. I won’t lie to you. I was legitimately scared.

I flew home the next day still rattled. Everything just felt different in a world where such a speech could thrive, where such a speech could be one of the central public addresses of our public discourse. I couldn’t get it out of my head. It blared through my skull. “Death, destruction and weakness.” “I will restore law and order to our country.” “I AM YOUR VOICE.” I could almost feel blood vessels popping in my brain.

I drove home from the airport and parked my car in our driveway, still unable to stop obsessing over the speech. Is this who we were? Is this what we had become?

And then a bus drove by. Some kids on a summer field trip. A landscaper did lawn work across the street. There were baseball games that night. A movie I wanted to see was opening. I had to pick up my older son from a camp in which they made pottery out of clay with their hands. It was some old friend from college’s birthday. I banged my toe on the kitchen table pouring tea. The neighbor’s dog wouldn’t stop barking. The mailman smiled and said hello.

Life was going on. The world was imploding all around us, everything I believed was good about us, all of us, as a people, was beginning to appear in serious question, and we seemed a couple wrong moves away from either Triumph of the Will or Mad Max. (And I wasn’t entirely certain which was worse.) But people were going about their business, following their regular plans, honoring their schedules, getting their work done, living their lives. There is value in the normalcy, in the routine, in the day-to-day. Whatever swirls around us, whatever awfulness there might be in the world, whatever perils might await us … we still get up in the morning and go about our business, still hopeful enough to keep plugging forward. I found it stabilizing. I found it reassuring. I even found it energizing. If everyone else, people who have it so much worse, can keep plugging along, then dammit, I can too.

The last week has been the lowest week of our public discourse than I can remember in my lifetime. I want to walk around putting my hands over everyone’s ears. It is demoralizing and destructive and degrading. I am so relieved that my sons are too young to understand what has been happening. I sort of wish we all could be.

I try to remember that it means something that we’re all plugging forward, even those whose personal experiences in their past have made this week particularly painful to endure. There is relief in the stability, in the normal, in the routine. Everyone’s still going out and living their lives, no matter how dark it might get around them. There are still games. There are still PTA meetings. There are still people nervous about their Homecoming dances. It has been a hard, relentless slog of a year. But we’re still out there. People are still good. People still believe they will be happy. People still want to keep going. I thank them all for it. We’re all getting ourselves through it. It helps to look around and see everything remaining in order. I still wish I could put my hands over everybody’s ears.

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Written by

Writer, New York, NYT, MLB, WaPo, others. Founder, Deadspin. Author of four books, with fifth, “How Lucky,” coming May 2021. https://williamfleitch.substack.com

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