CLEVELAND — “What are y’all doing about the gang violence and the relentless murder of young blacks by each other in Chicago? What are y’all doing about that?”
Paul Braswell, a delegate to the Republican National Convention from Texas, put these questions to me a few seconds after we met. I had identified myself as a writer for a progressive magazine in Chicago, and he had some thoughts about the use of “progressive” and about Chicago as well.
It turns out he doesn’t like either of them very much.
“Progressive indicates that you’re moving forward with something,” he said. “That’s not my perspective on it. It would be better if they would quit misusing words.”
I wanted to ask Braswell about Donald Trump’s economic policies and agenda. He wanted to talk about gun rights.
“I don’t want to be confrontational, but I want you to understand my perspective on this,” he said. “I’m not seeing things work very well (in Chicago). So I’d like you to think about this: Is it really progressive to keep doing the same thing?”
The short version of his solution to the violence in Chicago is looser gun laws, leading to more good guys having guns. That’s no surprise, and didn’t make much of an impression. But his concern with how words are used stuck with me, and it made me think about the four-word slogan that has become Trump’s trademark.
That slogan, “Make America Great Again,” has become something of a national joke. But in Cleveland this week, the genius and gut-level power of those words are hard to ignore, and not just because the slogan is plastered on thousands of shirts, hats and buttons stacked on tables and stuffed in kiosks across this city.
They’re hard to ignore because the slogan has become the galvanizing theme holding this fractured party together. “Make America Great Again” sums up everything conservatives are for, just as, at least in their imagination, “Chicago” sums up everything they’re against: high taxes, lawlessness, meddlesome bureaucrats and Democratic governance.
That doesn’t mean there’s much actual substance to the slogan. When I ask delegates and other Republicans here about how Trump’s ideas will make America great again, they recite his resume, and usually end up offering some version of the often-repeated idea that Trump “gets things done.”
“Mr. Trump has business experience,” Braswell said. “He knows how to run a company. He’s worked for a living. He’s paid payroll taxes. We’re talking about someone who’s gone out, found a product, sold it to people and then been able to hire people. He understands the obligations that come with that.”
“If you never done anything but spend other people’s money, you don’t know what the hell to do,” said Sheila Griffin, an observer at the RNC and chair of the Pinellas Suncoast Black Republican Club in Florida.
“But Trump has spent his own money. He’s taken the risk on his own back. Other people who’ve spent other people’s money all their lives, they don’t have a clue. I don’t know how they’re going to come up with policies when they don’t know what it’s like to live out here,” she said.
“Make America Great Again” is less about specific policies than Trump’s broad vision. The four simple words resonate on multiple levels. They promise action: Elect me and we’ll build a big, beautiful wall. They proudly put the United States at the center, after nearly eight years of President Barack Obama’s global apology tour (as conservatives often put it). They harken back to a vague golden era and point forward to the better future awaiting us when that era is restored. And, most importantly, they emphasize Trump’s reputation for business prowess and getting things done.
Bernie Sanders achieved something of the same effect with his calls for a political revolution. As with his identification as a democratic socialist, Sanders’ rallying call was open to interpretation but precise enough to get the point across.
And Hillary Clinton? Maybe the greatest mystery of her campaign is that a politician who is famous for calculation, and who has had several elections to calculate and is even married to one of the greatest political calculators of his generation, could do no better than “I’m With Her.”
As Braswell might ask: To what end?
Clinton certainly does have policy proposals. But the ones that are best known, like a $15 minimum wage, feel tacked on in response to the challenge from her left by Sanders. They’ve never been a central part of her campaign.
It’s often noted that Trump lacks substance — that he’s a showman and a shallow salesman. These things are no doubt true. Yet they’re said as if they’re disqualifying and mean that Trump can’t and won’t be elected. Perhaps the most sobering revelation of the past few days at the RNC is a fact I knew — we all know — but never truly digested, probably because the full implications are so hard to absorb or face up to: Donald Trump is a salesman whose product is himself.
And he’s frighteningly good at it.
He understands the power of words, of slogans — of “the vision thing,” as George H.W. Bush once called it — in a way that Clinton just doesn’t. In the end, Trump may be so toxic to so many groups that he’s simply unelectable. But the distance between the two candidates on this score doesn’t bode well.
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