Trump Sells a Story of American Redemption
Left with an economy and country in crisis, the president went for a theme last night of comeback and renewal.
WASHINGTON— The most effective speech at this year’s Republican National Convention was not given by a politician, including the president, nor the phalanx of family members that spoke on Donald Trump’s behalf.
“In 1967, at the age of twenty-two, I volunteered to serve my country in Vietnam. For jungles of Vietnam to the deserts of Iraq, I have gone where my nation asked,” said Keith Kellogg, a retired Army lieutenant general and currently the vice president’s national security advisor. “I have borne witness to soldiers’ last moments on Earth. … I was in the Pentagon on September 11, 2001. I lost friends there that day. In the years that followed, I watched my daughter, son and son-in-law deploy to Afghanistan.”
General Kellogg has cut an anonymous, but important figure in Washington in Donald Trump’s three-and-a-half years in power. He was National Security Council chief of staff to both Michael Flynn and H.R. McMaster, two flashier military men of his generation. After McMaster’s departure two springs ago, Kellogg nearly snagged the national security advisor job himself but finished runner-up to John Bolton, who Kellogg lambasted after his speech.
Bolton is “actually an architect of failure,” Kellogg said on Fox Thursday. “He had his own agenda. He pushed his own agenda. … I was in there when it happened. I saw him when he fabricated information and nearly caused us to commence military operations in Iran.” Kellogg said that Bolton put the kibosh on ending the Afghanistan quagmire and concluded of the man who wrote a vicious tell-all of the president he once served so closely: “So, is John Bolton a liar? Yeah, he is.”
But as interesting as internecine national security fights are to freaks like yours truly, the crux of Kellogg’s effectiveness this week was, of course, to provide a counter-narrative on the president he serves, so often demonized as a mere dilettante self-promoter, an eschewer of expertise— or a straight-up psychopath.
“I understand sacrifice. I know leadership,” the seventy-six year retired military man said at the convention. “Over the past three-and-a-half years, I have witnessed every major national security and foreign policy decision by the president.” Alluding to Bolton, Kellogg said: “I have been in the room where it happened.” Kellogg said, “I saw only one agenda and one guiding question when tough calls had to be made, ‘Is this decision right for America?’”
Donald Trump sought to live up to the characterization Kellogg supplied in his own address Thursday night. He did alright. “This election will decide whether we defend the American way of life or we allow a radical movement to completely dismantle and destroy it,” Trump said at the White House.
The line may as well have been cribbed from the influential Claremont Institute (which Trump bestowed the National Humanities Medal upon last year). The California outfit has argued for a more forceful posture to recent events than most Washington Republicans are comfortable with. Its leaders have written that “George Floyd’s death was the excuse for the current crisis, not the cause of it,” and reject the theory that the United States is “systemically racist.” The speech, in other words — despite reasonable complaints that it was over-long — was nonetheless one, clear thing: the address many wanted the president to give.
“At the Democrat national convention, Joe Biden and his party repeatedly assailed America as a land of racial, economic and social injustice,” Trump said. “So, tonight, I ask you a simple question: how can the Democrat party ask to lead our country when it spends so much time tearing down our country?”
As he has been known to do (literally), Trump hugged the flag. “In the Left’s backward view, they do not see America as the most free, just and exceptional nation on Earth,” Trump said. “Instead, they see a wicked nation that must be punished.” Biden “is a Trojan horse for socialism,” Trump said, lacking “the strength to stand up to wild-eyed Marxists.
To some of the president’s younger sympathizers, the language of anti-socialism may seem tired and errant in strategy, especially as the millennial generation gets walloped with its second, major economic crisis as it comes of age. Six months ago, these complaints would have been right. But these old concerns elide what has transpired this last spring and summer— not the more identity-neutral socialism of Bernie Sanders, but the crystallization of an identity-obsessed collectivism (yes) of America’s massive corporate and academic apparatuses.
Visa reports an “almost” V-shaped recovery this summer. In a time where, to many, money seems faker than ever (or as real as the $1200 debit card from Uncle Sam in their wallets), and the YouTube Music app endorses a march on Washington, there is perhaps a rising, justified unease over just how tight-knit and even propagandist this phenomenon is — “the successor ideology.” And “socialism” is as good a byword for it as any, especially as so many genuine socialists are on board.
But more than anything — though he could have said it in far fewer words — Trump gave a necessary speech of conceded disappointment. All is not well. This is not how he wanted to run for re-election: double-digit unemployment, riots and protests in America’s streets and over a hundred-thousand dead Americans. The communists got some things right, and V.I. Lenin’s battered maxim — “there are decades where nothing happens, and there are weeks where decades happen” — could be deployed today more readily than at any time in most Americans’ lifetimes.
Reality has left the president with little political choice but to tell a story of American renewal.
As Trump this week has trotted out five children from three marriages, businesses partners and friends from decades in public life, as well as new citizens and former inmates he has helped give a second chance, the theme of redemption, and comeback, as well as change is not altogether unfamiliar terrain for a man who took as rocky a ride as anyone in history to the Oval. As Evan Osnos reported Joe Biden’s father used to say: “The bigger the highs. … The deeper the troughs.” Or as Politicoreported of Trump associates, “Pessimism is hardly universal. Some Trump aides are reveling in the lowered expectations because it gives them a chance to replicate their come-from-behind spirit of 2016.”
“We will re-elect our president and principled Republican leaders across this land,” Vice President Mike Pence said Wednesday, in a more disciplined speech at Fort McHenry in Maryland. “And with President Donald Trump in the White House for four more years, and God’s help, we will make America great again, again.”
If there has been any blessing in disguise for the Trump campaign these last, hard six months, it’s been the ejection of the previous “keep America great” mantra— a thumb in the eye of crossover supporters of the president, or any citizen who had grand hopes for the Trump presidency. It makes psychological sense: after years in power, and after running on a message of transformation, it’s difficult to admit you have not, as yet, succeeded (Barack Obama’s 2012 “forward” slogan cleverly evaded this confrontation).
But this erasure — from “Keep America Great” to “Make America Great Again, Again” — was, of course, formalized with the defrocking of campaign manager Brad Parscale in July. In his place exists a more chastened Trump campaign. “These are voters that [sic] always need to be looked after, cared for and paid attention to,” Bill Stepien, Parscale’s successor, told Bloomberg in August. “Because if you lose focus on them, if you take for granted key parts of the electorate like that, there’s a chance that they stay at home or vote a different way.”
It’s going around. “A lot’s changed in four years,” said Sen. Tom Cotton, who aspires to be Trump’s heir, on Thursday. “No one who has seen the face of war desires to see it again,” Cotton declared, an astonishing proclamation for a figure who has cut an unbendingly-hawkish figure in his decade in Washington. “Too many of our fellow Americans are already honored at the hallowed grounds of Arlington.”
Things have certainly changed.