Donald Trump's Speech: His Best Case Against Hillary Clinton, but Will It Matter?

2016-07-22T022617Z_1265526929_HT1EC7M06RBEM_RTRMADP_3_USA-ELECTION-REPUBLICANS
Republican presidential nominee Donald Trump takes the stage at the Republican National Convention in Cleveland on July 21. REUTERS/Jim Young

"Lock her up!" the crowd at the Republican National Convention shouted as Donald Trump wailed on Hillary Clinton. Would he take the bait and call for the incarceration of the former secretary of state? Somehow, he resisted. "Let's defeat her in November," he said, a playful response that sated the crowd.

Trump's speech was executed deftly, despite protests that silenced him for nearly a minute. He marched onstage to "Parachutes," one of the themes from Air Force One, a film in which Harrison Ford takes on Russian terrorists who hijacked the president's plane. Never mind that Trump is Russian President Vladimir Putin's buddy and has suggested America shouldn't honor its NATO obligations to the Baltic nations in Moscow's sights. The music sounded good.

Other parts of his speech were equally nonsensical and disingenuous. He said the U.S. should do only bilateral trade deals. Then he said he'd rewrite the North American Free Trade Agreement, which includes three countries, the U.S., Mexico and Canada. No matter. As John Belushi's frat brothers said in Animal House after he claimed America didn't quit when the Germans bombed Pearl Harbor: "Don't stop him. He's on a roll."

The first three nights of the RNC had been an exercise in anti-climax, an incoherent mess in which the good parts (the Trump kids) were overshadowed by weirdness (Ted Cruz's truculence), irrelevance (a retired general's weak cheers of "USA") and more irrelevance (what does the soap opera star who grows avocados have to do with me?). On Monday through Wednesday, the biggest moments typically came in the middle of the sessions. Then the moods fizzled.

Thursday night was different. It built. Ivanka Trump's smooth introduction of her father lived up to expectations. She offered humanizing touches, like him taking his "trademark felt-tipped pen" and writing notes to people he'd decided to help, or taking her to construction sites and promoting her career and that of other women.

The evening ended with Donald J. Trump, the Republican nominee for president of the United States, addressing the nation. He was the dessert. That alone made it a more effective night than the previous three.

Trump's lengthy address, which leaked to Politico hours before he was set to deliver it, won't be remembered as a piece of Churchillian rhetoric to be studied by speechwriters for ages, but it's solid. Unlike most of Trump's speeches, it was like a homework assignment that hit every point the teacher asked for. It went from point A to point B without compulsive boasting or bizarre quirks. It didn't denounce judges or impose a religious test for immigrants. It didn't even call Clinton "crooked."

In the speech, Trump followed a standard speechwriting technique: state the problem, argue your opponent would make it worse, then offer a solution.

The problem Trump laid out is that the country is imperiled. "Our convention occurs at a moment of crisis for our nation," Trump said. "The attacks on our police and the terrorism in our cities threaten our very way of life."

You can guess the rest: The country is besieged by illegal immigrants; the debt is mounting; the economy is sluggish; ISIS is growing. The Democrats are hapless, corporate-owned and ineffective. Clinton gave us the Islamic State group (ISIS) and Benghazi, Libya. She not only can't fix our terrible problems but will actually make them worse.

And then there was the pivot: "Hillary Clinton's legacy does not have to be America's legacy. The problems we face now—poverty and violence at home, war and destruction abroad—will last only as long as we continue relying on the same politicians who created them. A change in leadership is required to change these outcomes."

From there, Trump offered what you'd expect: pledges of tough trade deals and supreme competence, along with vows to get tough on ISIS, illegal immigrants and allies who won't pay their share. "As long as we are led by politicians who will not put America first, then we can be assured that other nations will not treat America with respect."

There were bouquets for Christians, gays and entrepreneurs, along with plenty for the working-class whites at the core of his constituency. "My opponent, on the other hand, wants to put the great miners and steelworkers of our country out of work. That will never happen when I am president," Trump said. "With these new economic policies, trillions of dollars will start flowing into our country."

Much of the speech was devoted to the recent shootings of police officers. Trump denounced them and didn't bother to assuage minorities who feel that they're not receiving equal treatment from law enforcement: "I have a message to every last person threatening the peace on our streets and the safety of our police," he said. "When I take the oath of office next year, I will restore law and order to our country." If that wasn't clear enough, Trump specifically called himself the "law and order candidate."

Trump also added a nice twist on Clinton's slogan: "My opponent asks her supporters to recite a three-word loyalty pledge. It reads: 'I'm with her.' I choose to recite a different pledge. My pledge reads: 'I'm with you—the American people.'"

It's about the best case Trump can make to the country. But in a campaign where there's a new bit of madness every day, there's always the chance his performance will quickly become moot.

A convention used to be a party's chance to ram an infomercial down the country's throat. But broadcast coverage is down to about an hour a night. Voters can ignore it or consume YouTube videos and Onion parodies instead. The four days in Cleveland matter, but they don't matter in the way conventions once did. So whatever good Trump did for himself with his unusually orderly speech probably won't make a big difference. But in a close election, every bit helps.