Donald Trump's America: Scary but fixable

Story highlights

  • Trump painted a foreboding picture Thursday
  • Trump has demonstrated a knack for channeling the nation's mood

Cleveland (CNN)It's scary out there.

Donald Trump painted a foreboding picture Thursday of an America adrift as he accepted the Republican presidential nomination with a sober speech in Cleveland.
    He invoked a nation imprisoned by its own rotten political establishment and clawing special interests, at risk from terrorists who could be disguised as Syrian refugees and stalked by tens of thousands of illegal immigrant criminals.
    Trump has demonstrated a knack for channeling the nation's mood. His convention message is tailored for a country grappling with mounting anxiety over a rash of terror attacks at home and abroad, and a feeling that something is badly wrong after a spate of shootings of police officers, rising racial tensions and a globalized economy that has left many Americans behind. Trump's speech may have hit on a message that could propel him to the presidency.
    Instead of reaching for inspirational vignettes most nominees use to inspire their nation to greatness, Trump dwelled on the relatives of those killed by undocumented migrants and depicted a violent and dangerous land.
    Trump started on the speech weeks ago, but as he went along, he found his vision validated by events — like the Dallas police ambush and the Orlando nightclub massacre -- according to the aide who worked on the speech.
    "As events happened in real life, obviously, that shaped the focus of the speech," Trump aide Stephen Miller told CNN.
    Trump's campaign manager Paul Manafort, meanwhile, dismissed complaints that the GOP nominee's speech, which laid out a Richard Nixon-style law and order message, was overly threatening.

    'It was reality'

    "He was going to tell the truth. It wasn't dark. It was reality."
    In the hall and among the Trump wing of the Republican Party, it appeared that Trump delivered.
    Joni Ernst, part of a new generation of Republicans who have gravitated toward Trump, tweeted that Americans had been abandoned, and Trump had "heard these voices loud and clear."
    Some Republicans found the speech not to their liking. Meghan McCain, daughter of the 2008 Republican nominee, tweeted "The Party I was part of is dead." Many other Republicans stayed away from the convention and decided to stay off of Twitter Thursday night.
    Trump's strategy was classic populism -- conjuring up a dark and stormy world. He played upon his image as a man of action and a business leader to suggest that only he -- a non politician -- could turn the nation around.
    "Nobody knows the system better than me, which is why I alone can fix it," said Trump, who one friend described from the stage as a "blue collar billionaire."
    The power of Trump's rhetoric was sufficient to drown out some of the most embarrassing moments of a sometimes erratic GOP convention.
    No one on Thursday night was talking about Ted Cruz's insurrection from the convention stage Wednesday when he refused to endorse Trump. And the plagiarism controversy over the speech delivered by Trump's wife, Melania, was not on anybody's lips.
    The question now, as Republican delegates head home and the political circus decamps to Philadelphia for Hillary Clinton's anointing by Democrats next week, is whether Trump did what he needed to do in Cleveland.
    Ford O'Connell, a Republican strategist, said that notwithstanding Cruz's intervention on Wednesday, Trump succeeded in pulling together the Republican Party, which initially viewed him with suspicion around him.
    "I think that he united the base," O'Connell said, arguing that Trump needed to ensure that more than 90% of GOP voters showed up in November if he has a chance to win the election.

    GOP unity

    But Trump needed to do more than unite Republicans in Cleveland. Given that he trails Clinton by roughly five points in most national polls and is down in many swing states, he needed to broaden his support among non GOP voters.
    He also had to prove that he has the knowledge, temperament and experience to be President despite never having held public office.
    Only time will tell if he met that bar -- the debates with Clinton in the fall will test that proposition more deeply. But his restrained demeanor in his teleprompter speech on Thursday could help.
    After winning the nomination with a bull-in-a-china shop persona, some experts also thought Trump needed to pry open a window into his soul and soften the hard edges of his personality.
    Though his family excelled at the convention -- his son Donald Jr. in particular -- it was not clear that Trump will ever change his style.
    Ivanka Trump, the candidate's daughter, shone on Thursday night with an upbeat speech after she strode on stage to the strains of "Here Comes the Sun" by the Beatles -- a stark contrast to her father's dark vision.
    It is too early to judge the size of the billionaire's convention polling bump and whether he was able to reshape the race.
    But what is certain is that the week in Cleveland lived up to its unconventional billing.
    By traditional measures, Trump and his campaign committed what would unequivocally be regarded as a string of serious gaffes. But such is the unorthodox nature of his presidential bid and the unpredictability of an election that has broken all the political rules, no one knows if he is seriously hurt.
    Still the two-day plagiarism controversy, the feud with Ohio Gov. John Kasich in a state that will be crucial in November, and the failure to make an endorsement the price for Cruz's convention address were all self-imposed errors that hint at persistent organizational woes.
    Trump's curious decision to give an interview to The New York Times on the eve of his convention address casting doubt on NATO's security guarantees that are the bedrock of the West was also a case of unusual timing -- not to mention a foreign policy judgment that quickly trigged panic in Europe.
    And the week was also notable for its loose organization, as prime-time speakers went long and some of the party's top future stars -- like Ernst -- were left speaking to a mostly empty convention hall late at night.
    The convention often lacked a clear narrative thread -- the theme of each night was lost at times as speakers strayed from the topic. The fixation on Clinton, characterized by cries of "Lock her up! Lock her up!" from the convention floor provided the most lasting image of the convention.
    While hating on the Clintons is guaranteed to invigorate Republican base voters, it seems less guaranteed to impress wavering independents in swing states -- even given deep doubts about Cinton's character and honesty.
    As Democrats gear up for their convention next week, some are confident that Trump made little headway among an electorate that is more diverse than his political strategy seems to assume.
    "I don't think they expanded their appeal an inch at that convention with 'lock her up' and Rudy Giuliani standing up and screaming," said Mark Alderman, a veteran Democratic donor and former transition chief for President Barack Obama. "They fed their base."
    The final image of the convention came with Trump and his family basking in cheers on stage as red, white and blue balloons fell from the rafters.
    The music pounding over the speakers — "You can't always get what you want" by the Rolling Stones — might just have been one last Trumpian swipe at the GOP establishment as he heads into the fall campaign.