Donald Trump’s acceptance speech at the Republican National Convention was one of the longest in decades. At around 75 minutes, it was about the length of Barack Obama and Mitt Romney’s 2012 acceptance speeches, combined.
Trump laid out the many things he perceives to be off-track in America today, from rising crime to fear of terrorism to the frustration of the powerless. And he held out himself, and only himself, as the cure.
“Nobody knows the system better than me, which is why I alone can fix it,” Trump said.
Of course, that's one of the main reasons he’s won the GOP nomination. Many Republican voters are displeased – even angry – at the state of the nation. They’re drawn to Trump’s confidence that he can reverse this. The nation’s problems are big, in their view. It will take a big man to solve them.
Now Trump needs to try to persuade those beyond his core supporters that this style of confidence, which many criticize as unbridled hubris, is what is needed to lead the country.
It takes a certain kind of overwhelming confidence to run for the Oval Office in the first place. A normal person might look at the overwhelming demands of running the nation and think, “How could I do it?” A potential president may need to approach that thinking, “Where do I start?”
But expressing humility has long been an aspect of presidential campaigns. Maybe this is rooted in the fact that candidates did not used to actually campaign – it was seen as unseemly. They used to stay on their front porch and greet crowds. Surrogates gave speeches and partisan newspapers did the rest.
By the turn of the 20th century the more modern, boastful form of campaigning had taken root. But the bow to humility was still a part of it. Consider Adlai Stevenson’s acceptance speech at the Democratic National Convention of 1952. “I would not seek your nomination for the Presidency, because the burdens of that office stagger the imagination,” Stevenson told delegates.
And that was in Stevenson’s first hundred words. Imagine his reaction to hearing Trump, in 2016.
“When I take the oath of office next year, I will restore law and order to our country,” said Trump.
“Has any American political leader claimed so directly to embody the nation, to speak for it, to be its sole hope for redemption?” asks Yoni Appelbaum today in The Atlantic.
Of course there was a certain falsity to the “why me?” breast-beating of Stevenson and others. Stevenson desperately wanted to be president. His problem was that he twice faced the wildly popular hero of World War II, Republican Dwight D. Eisenhower. So he lost.
And voters may not care about this at all. They did not in Cleveland’s Quicken Arena, in any case. Pundits may have thought Trump’s speech dark and fearful. Delegates loved it. The Washington Examiner’s savvy Byron York went through the crowd afterwards, and got, he said, almost nothing but positive responses. The party, at least the party present in Cleveland, seemed unified.
“Did they see darkness and anger, as the commentariat did? Or did they see an extraordinary political performer with the potential to actually fix the nation’s problems?” York writes today.
But the expression of doubt in the face of a great task is not unrealistic. In politics in particular, it is a means of inoculation, a warning to voters that not everything will be fixed. They will try, they will do their best; but candidates aren’t gods. Crime – or terrorism, or declining middle class incomes – can’t be fixed overnight.
“Politics is a strong and slow boring of hard boards,” said the German philosopher and sociologist Max Weber.
Only four years ago Mitt Romney expressed something like this in his own acceptance speech. He was certainly more Stevenson than Trump.
After accepting the nomination, Romney said, “I do so with humility, deeply moved by the trust you have placed in me. It is a great honor. It is an even greater responsibility.”
Of course, Romney lost. Trump wants to win.