The acceptance of a presidential nomination is a hallowed American political ritual and the highlight of every election year’s conventions. Comparing Trump’s 2016 and 2020 speeches, and the political theater that surrounded them, reveals how emboldened Trump has become in his authoritarian designs to protect White privilege, criminalize dissent and turn the Republican Party into an instrument for the consolidation of his personal power.
“America First,” the slogan popularized in this 2016 speech, under Trump’s scenario, also meant restoring the country’s international prestige and reversing the “death, destruction, and weakness” that was the legacy of Obama’s Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, then his political opponent.
Yet, something has shifted in 2020. Whereas foreigners were the agents of lawlessness in 2016 — Middle Eastern terrorists, Latino migrants and more — now Trump informs us the war has come home. Americans are the new target, in the form of “violent anarchists, agitators, and criminals” and “wild-eyed Marxists.”
In 2016, Trump burst on stage like a rock star, backlit and with smoke swirling around him. Four years later, thanks to the way his GOP enablers have accommodated him, he can feel that his stage show, curated down to the last detail, has been wildly successful. No longer is outlandish spectacle necessary; his calm descent of the stairs of The People’s House with his wife by his side telegraphed just how fully ensconced he is in the trappings of power.
Authoritarian leaders make everyone in their lives props in a spectacle designed to keep their enemies at bay and them in power. I will not soon forget the sight of those upturned faces gazing at the President on the South Lawn of the White House, choosing to sustain the alternate reality he has crafted.