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Did Donald Trump convince Americans on Monday night that their country is in deep trouble?
Even in a lackluster debate performance, Trump was able to repeat his core campaign themes: America is in shambles, Hillary Clinton is part of the leadership class that has failed the nation and only a strong leader like Trump can fix the problems. In Trump’s telling, America has third-world quality airports, cities with high crime rates and low employment, a permanent underclass of African-Americans and companies rushing to take jobs out of the country and leave American workers unemployed.
“Our country is in deep trouble,” Trump said at the beginning of the debate, and then spent much of the rest of it detailing exactly why.
Here are some of his descriptions of America in 2016:
- “We’re losing our jobs, so many of them.”
- “Our country is losing so much in terms of energy, in terms of paying off our debt.”
- “We have a situation where we have our inner cities, African- Americans, Hispanics are living in hell because it's so dangerous. You walk down the street, you get shot.”
- “New companies cannot form and old companies are going out of business.”
- “We’re in a bubble right now. And the only thing that looks good is the stock market, but if you raise interest rates even a little bit, that’s going to come crashing down.”
- “We have a country that’s doing so badly, that’s being ripped off by every single country in the world.”
- “Our country has tremendous problems. We’re a debtor nation. We’re a serious debtor nation. And we have a country that needs new roads, new tunnels, new bridges, new airports, new schools, new hospitals. And we don’t have the money, because it’s been squandered on so many of your ideas.”
- “When we have $20 trillion in debt, and our country's a mess, you know, it's one thing to have $20 trillion in debt and our roads are good and our bridges are good and everything's in great shape, our airports. Our airports are like from a third world country. You land at LaGuardia, you land at Kennedy, you land at LAX, you land at Newark, and you come in from Dubai and Qatar and you see these incredible -- you come in from China, you see these incredible airports, and you land -- we've become a third world country.”
- “The companies are leaving. I could name, I mean, there are thousands of them. They're leaving, and they're leaving in bigger numbers than ever.”
- “In Chicago, they've had thousands of shootings, thousands since January 1st. Thousands of shootings. And I'm saying, where is this? Is this a war-torn country? What are we doing? And we have to stop the violence. We have to bring back law and order.”
- “We have gangs roaming the street. And in many cases, they're illegally here, illegal immigrants.”
- “We have the greatest mess anyone's ever seen. You look at the Middle East, it's a total mess.”
As Trump repeatedly blamed Hillary Clinton for these problems, she joked at one point, “I have a feeling that by, the end of this evening, I’m going to be blamed for everything that’s ever happened.”
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Trump’s portrayal of America was a mix of accurate statements, exaggerations and falsehoods. Trump correctly described the challenges in Chicago. According to the Chicago Tribune, more than 2,800 people were shot in Chicago in the first eight months of this year. There were 487 homicides.
“August most violent month in Chicago in nearly 20 years,” a recent headline in the Tribune declared.
Politicians in both parties say the U.S. should fix its infrastructure, including roads and airports, although Trump’s party is the one generally blocking more in spending on transportation.
But Trump’s view that blacks living in cities are in “hell” dismisses the millions of African-Americans in areas like Washington, D.C., Atlanta, and New York City whose lives are not defined by crime or poverty.
On the economy, America remains a global powerhouse, and a recent U.S. Census Report showed wages growing for Americans at all income levels.
But Trump is trying to win an election, not provide a journalistic account of the actual conditions in America. And his gloomy take on the United States is in some ways what its citizens feel. Polls show Americans view race relations as being much worse than in 2009, when President Obama entered office.
More Americans agree with the negative portrayals of the American economy given by Trump than the more positive views of Obama. A recent Bloomberg News poll showed that 66 percent of Americans view the nation as on the “wrong track,” compared to 28 percent who said it is going in the right direction.
In the debate, Trump attacked a series of American institutions: elected political leaders, the media, the Federal Reserve, the business community. There has perhaps never been a better time for an anti-institutional presidential campaign, with polls showing Americans don’t even trust their religious leaders or the police as much as they once did.
Clinton seems aware that Trump may be speaking to American’s feelings of pessimism. She offered different solutions and criticized Trump’s rhetoric, but largely did not try to reject his descriptions of the problems, other than defending the black community.
Trump was unconvincing in detailing his solutions to these problems. And questions about his temperament and judgment (he continued to falsely suggest Hillary Clinton, not he, was the key driver of the birther movement) remain.
But in the Republican primary, GOP voters, even those who questioned his solutions and his temperament, backed Trump because they agreed with how he described America. His pessimism matched theirs.
Trump on Monday brought this pessimism to its largest audience yet. The next few days of polls will show if the broader American electorate shares his assessment.