CLEVELAND, OH – JULY 21: Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump delivers a speech during the evening session on the fourth day of the Republican National Convention on July 21, 2016 at the Quicken Loans Arena in Cleveland, Ohio. Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump received the number of votes needed to secure the party’s nomination. An estimated 50,000 people are expected in Cleveland, including hundreds of protesters and members of the media. The four-day Republican National Convention kicked off on July 18. (Photo by John Moore/Getty Images)
CLEVELAND ― Donald Trump just went Richard Nixon one better ― or rather, one worse.
As signaled last Monday by his campaign chairman, Paul Manafort, Trump channeled Nixon’s 1968 acceptance speech when he addressed the Republican National Convention here Wednesday and promised to bring “law and order” to what he described as a chaotic society, with war in the streets and poisonous danger from abroad.
He would do so in the name of the “forgotten Americans,” whom he knew and understood, because he had been one of them.
But it wasn’t until six years later during the crisis of Watergate that Nixon let the rest of that cat out of the bag: He told a small circle of aides that, since he was president, he could do what he wanted.
The “imperial presidency” was banished shortly thereafter, as Nixon fled town and the Oval Office rather than be impeached.
Now Trump has proposed to take the next step: He is offering not so much a presidency as a protest movement that he will lead as he chooses because he, and he alone, can hear the voice of the “forgotten men and women” on behalf of whom he will bring “law and order” by whatever unspecified means he chooses.
Making promise after promise and accusation after accusation ― with neither solid facts nor plans to back up either ― Trump essentially asked the audience to trust his almost magical power, as if his words could some how make it all true, perfect and real.
The words “I am your voice” are destined to be remembered as among the most chilling ― and foreign ― ever uttered on a presidential stage.
No president has ever claimed to have a clairvoyant and direct sense of what the “people” want, and to be able to hear and amplify their voice ― let alone make that amplification the essence of his vision.
Presidents have been asked to have “vision,” and even eloquence, but never to somehow embody the life and voice of the nation.
This is a big country, and a diverse one, and we have tended more toward the practical than the apocalyptically egotistical. In fact, we have distrusted it deeply, and ridiculed presidents from John Adams to Barack Obama who use the word “I” too much.
Trump is the opposite. His speeches will never run out of the letter “I.” He essentially promised a triumph of the will, his will, in the name of the people.
This theory has a long tradition, and it is one that American culture and the Founding Fathers consciously and vehemently rejected. They knew the history of Rome, where tribunes ― in the name of the people but often for their own purposes ― wielded vast power.
They didn’t think anyone had a direct pipeline to the voice of the people except the people themselves. The founders feared both the mob and the monarchy, but most of all feared an alliance of the two.
That is why, in later years, Americans were more repelled by than accepting of the likes of Huey Long, and George Wallace and orators and agitators on the left who claimed to be the exclusive agents of the People.
There is more than a hint of that kind of alliance in Trump, who spits on learning, who decries intellectuals, who says outrageous things to incite voters without any regard for truth or responsibility.
His is not an American approach. And no, you don’t have to go all the way to Hitler to know what I mean.
Trump is more in the manner of a Latin American leader, a caudillo in Mexico, the Perons in Argentina, Castro in Cuba, De Gaulle in France and successive cults of personality in Russia. These are people who claim to hear in their own speeches the voice of the people, and who use that to assert extraordinary power.
But it is true that one of the great students of the role of the “voice” in modern society and politics was a strategist in Berlin in 1936.
“Speakers who aim for the reason are generally found in parliaments,” Joseph Goebbels wrote, prefiguring Trump’s own caustic dismissal of Congress, of Washington and of the mainstream media and universities. “Those who speak from the heart, speak to the people.”
“Instinct tells him what to say and how to say it,” he went on. “Language is united with ideas. He knows the secret corners and aspects of the mass soul and knows how to reach and touch them. … His voice reaches out from the depths of his blood into the depths of the souls of his listeners. He brings to expression the secrets of the human soul.”
Listen to the voice, America. It belongs to Donald Trump and he knows exactly what you want him to say.