Democrats battle Trump with optimism

The overriding emphasis on optimism at this week’s Democratic convention stands in contrast to Trump’s tone. But on Wednesday the anti-Trump barbs became more pointed.

Jim Young/Reuters
Barack Obama embraces Democratic presidential nominee Hillary Clinton after calling on Americans to reject cynicism and fear, 'to summon what's best in us' and elect Mrs. Clinton president in his speech to the Democratic National Convention in Philadelphia on July 27, 2016.

[Updated at 7:17 a.m. on July 28, 2016.]

When it comes to tone, the contrast between the conventions in Philadelphia and Cleveland could not be more stark.

Democrats this week have been hammering home those differences: an ostentatious emphasis on love, hope, change, optimism, and togetherness.

“This year, in this election, I’m asking you to join me – to reject cynicism, reject fear, to summon what’s best in us; to elect Hillary Clinton as the next President of the United States, and show the world we still believe in the promise of this great nation," said President Obama on Wednesday night. “We don’t fear the future; we shape it, embrace it, as one people, stronger together than we are on our own.”

Even the criticisms of Republican nominee Donald Trump – while plentiful, and increasingly piercing as the week has gone on – have been more muted than the “Lock her up!” rhetoric so plentiful at the Republican convention. 

The question is which vision will resonate with American voters who, by some measures, are less optimistic and more distrustful of government than at any time in recent history.

Trump got a significant post-convention bounce, according to some polls. It may have been fleeting, but there seems to be no question that for certain groups of voters, his more dystopian picture of an America in decline – threatened by lawlessness, disorder, terrorism, racial tension, and economic collapse – is one that resonates with them.

While Trump supporters say he’s demonstrating the clear-sighted wisdom and courage needed to protect America, Democrats say he is stoking fear.

“Both parties are struggling to tell a story about who the country is and where it’s going that includes everybody,” says Robert Jones, CEO of the Public Religion Research Institute (PRRI), a nonpartisan research organization, and the author of “The End of White Christian America.”

“Donald Trump’s strategy has been to double-down on looking back to this mythical golden age, and Democrats are trying a different strategy of looking forward to pluralism and a younger demographic and what it looks like,” he adds. “The danger for Trump is that it’s going to be an appeal that doesn’t resonate outside of white Christian working-class Americans and he’ll lose a generation of supporters. The challenge for Democrats is that those white working-class voters still make up 40 percent of the country. You can’t have a message that excludes them either.”   

Veering into an anti-Trump tone

Historically, American presidential candidates have run – and won – on optimism, and the Clinton campaign is banking on that being the case even in this year of anti-establishment sentiment.

“Our convention is going to be optimistic, it’s going to be hopeful, and it’s going to be talking about specific plans,” Clinton campaign manager Robby Mook told reporters Monday morning.

For the first half of the convention, that was largely the case, even down to the signs distributed for delegates to wave on the floor: “Stronger Together.” “Rise Together.” On Wednesday night, top Broadway performers coming out to sing “What the world needs now is love,” after which the audience chanted “Love Trumps Hate” for several minutes.

But the same evening, the convention veered much more sharply into an anti-Trump tone, away from the relentlessly upbeat first two days.

“Unlike that immigrant-bashing, carnival barker Donald Trump, Hillary Clinton understands the enduring symbol of the United States of America is not a barbed-wire fence. It is the Statue of Liberty,” said former Maryland Gov. Martin O'Malley. "I say to hell with Trump’s American nightmare. We believe in the American dream.”

'We don't abandon our values'

Still, if Trump titled his book “Crippled America” and declared himself the “law-and-order candidate,” the only one who can fix a rigged system and “make America great again,” the dominant themes in Philadelphia have been ones of togetherness, diversity, and an emphasis on American values of inclusion rather than a need to close off borders.

Monday night, New Jersey Sen. Cory Booker’s speech on love and gratitude induced comparisons by some commentators to President Obama’s 2004 convention speech that helped launch his meteoric rise. 

“Americans, at our best, stand up to bullies and fight those who seek to demean and degrade others,” said Senator Booker, who delivered his remarks in the strains of a sermon. “In times of crisis we don’t abandon our values – we double-down on them. Even in the midst of the Civil War, Lincoln called to the best of the country by saying, ‘With malice toward none and charity toward all.’ ”

Michelle Obama, in the best received speech of the convention so far, reminded her audience of the core American principles of opportunity.

“Don’t let anyone ever tell you that this country is not great,” she said. “That somehow we need to make it great again. Because this right now is the greatest country on Earth.” 

Trump more attuned to zeitgeist?

Those messages have been well received by delegates here – and echo the optimistic messages candidates typically employ – but it’s also possible that Trump is more attuned to the current zeitgeist.

After all, the success of Sanders was also rooted, in many ways, in his ability to address voters’ concerns and frustrations. Trump has focused on lawlessness and terrorism – pointing the finger at undocumented immigrants and Muslims. Sanders tapped into fury at Wall Street and campaign corruption, and highlighted class divisions.

And both he and Trump tapped into Americans’ economic insecurities, anger at Washington and the establishment, and their sense that the system is rigged against them.

This year is becoming known as the anti-establishment, anti-incumbent year for a reason, says Tarin Nix, a political consultant from New Mexico who’s in Philadelphia as a Hillary delegate. She says that she hopes that phenomenon has seen its peak, but worries that some people, responding to the fears stoked by Republicans, and fed up with the status quo, may go into the voting booth in November and secretly vote for Trump.

“I think that for the last eight years they ran on hope, and people don’t feel like hope delivered. The argument is that hope didn’t deliver, but fear does,” Ms. Nix says. “The goal of this convention is to prove that hope and progress can still come out ahead of fear and hate.”

Polls show racial, partisan divides on optimism

Numerous polls have shown a divide on optimism that exists on racial as well as partisan lines – one reason, perhaps, that Clinton fared better with minorities and Sanders did well among white voters. A poll conducted by the Atlantic and the Aspen Institute last year found that less than half of white Americans believe the country’s “best days” lie ahead of it, compared with some 80 percent of African Americans.

And an NBC Wall Street Journal poll last year found that just 22 percent of likely Republican voters are optimistic about the direction of the country, compared with 89 percent of likely Democratic voters.

Meanwhile, when PRRI asked respondents in its annual American Values Survey whether they believed America has changed for the better or the worse since the 1950s, the country was divided down the middle, says Jones. White Christians, Republicans, and older white Americans believe it’s changed for the worse, while African-Americans, Latinos, younger Americans, and Democrats say it’s changed for the better.

“It’s not an exaggeration to say that Trump’s ascendancy as a lead candidate has turned into a referendum on the death of that cultural and economic world of the 1950s, particularly for white, working-class Americans,” says Jones.

More distrust of government

Many analysts have drawn comparisons between this year and 1968, a year that also saw significant turmoil: student protests, riots, the Vietnam war, racial tensions, assassinations. And the Trump campaign said his convention speech was modeled on Nixon’s 1968 speech, which also promised law and order and painted a bleak vision of an America in crisis: “cities in smoke and flame,” “sirens in the night,” and “Americans dying on distant battlefields abroad.”

Last week, Trump told his audience that “our Convention occurs at a moment of crisis for our nation. The attacks on our police, and the terrorism in our cities, threaten our very way of life. Any politician who does not grasp this danger is not fit to lead our country.”

But American voters are also a very different group than they were in the 1960s: not only more diverse, but also less likely to trust government and institutions. Whereas Nixon was banking on Americans’ faith in government and institutions to restore order, Trump is capitalizing on his outsider status.

'I don't want to go back to the 1950s'

In Philadelphia, Clinton supporters and delegates say they understand why Trump’s message – in which he and his surrogates talk about soaring crime rates and unemployment (sometimes using inaccurate statistics, according to fact-checking groups), and warn of more terrorist attacks and a crashing economy unless he closes off borders and restores order – may appeal to Americans feeling left behind or left vulnerable by liberal policies they see as naïve or ill-founded.

But they hope that Clinton’s message resonates with more people, and appeals to Americans’ best instincts.

“No one is arguing that the way things are today is perfect,” says Diane Stollenwerk, a Clinton supporter from Baltimore, walking outside Philadelphia’s City Hall with her wife.

“I think the crossroads is whether you fix it by dividing people further or you fix it by bringing people together,” she adds. “The message this week is about bringing people together, and for those of us who are motivated by love and a positive optimism, it’s far more uplifting to think that’s how we’re going to fix the challenges as opposed to thinking about dividing, because that’s never an effective strategy.”

Bear Atwood, a Clinton delegate and lawyer from Mississippi, agrees.

“I think there are solutions, moving forward solutions, and I don’t want to go back to the 1950s, thank you very much,” says Ms. Atwood, taking a short break from the convention floor to have some pizza. “Where’s the perfect moment? I think it’s ahead of us.”

Story Hinckley contributed reporting from Philadelphia.

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