CLEVELAND—The first day of the Republican National Convention opened in chaos and ended in disaster. We’ve covered the chaos, but the disaster requires a little explanation. That night, the headline speech belonged to Melania Trump, Donald Trump’s wife. Even with Trump’s rock-god entrance, the address itself was standard fare—a political wife softening her husband’s image and introducing him to the world at large. She hailed his decency, asserted his kindness, and praised him as an ideal husband and father. She didn’t stun, but she didn’t fail either, giving the best address of the night. Until it unraveled.
A Twitter user discovered that at least two paragraphs of Melania’s speech had been plagiarized from Michelle Obama’s speech to the Democratic National Convention in 2008. Side-by-side video confirmed the stunning similarities. What was poised to be a triumphant night for the Trump campaign abruptly turned into a fiasco. At the time of this writing, Trump and the Republican National Committee were still defending Melania’s plagiarism, doubling down in a remarkable display of stubborn intransigence.
There’s no way to spin this as good for the Trump campaign. It’s a disaster, full stop. But there is surely at least some upside in the idea that the media is talking about a plagiarism scandal instead of the parade of ethno-nationalist bigotry that defined all of the rest of Monday night. If you watched the RNC on television, you saw the highlights—Rudy Giuliani, Donald Trump, Melania Trump, and Iowa Sen. Joni Ernst. But if you were there, in the audience, you saw the full array of speakers. And the overriding theme was fear—fear of a brown horde.
Let’s start from the top. After forgettable speeches from D-list celebrities such as Scott Baio (most famous, at present, for tweeting a sexist photo of Hillary Clinton) and Antonio Sabato Jr. (a one-time underwear model who insists that Barack Obama is a Muslim) came a string of speeches devoted to the many ways Obama and Clinton have empowered or even supported groups portrayed as deadly threats to American security. So, the mother of one of the men killed in Benghazi—Patricia Smith, mother of Sean Smith—condemned Clinton in the harshest possible terms. “I blame Hillary Clinton personally for the death of my son,” she said, before winning a roar from the crowd with: “Hillary for prison. She deserves to be in stripes.”
On that score, Mark Geist and John Tiegen, former members of the Benghazi Annex Security Team, offered a graphic retelling of the assault in Benghazi, Libya, along with a condemnation of then–Secretary of State Clinton for “failing to protect her people on the ground.”
Having covered the threat from “radical Islam,” the speakers moved on to the perceived threat from the border. Attendees watched a video from Kent Terry and Kelly Terry-Willis, siblings whose brother was killed on duty as a border patrol agent. They heard from Mary Ann Mendoza, whose son was killed in a car accident involving an unauthorized immigrant, followed by Sabine Durden, whose son also died in a similar car accident, and concluding with Jamiel Shaw, whose son was killed in a gang shootout involving an unauthorized immigrant. Each speaker endorsed Trump’s call for a wall on the Mexican border, which gave clarity to the overall message: that Mexico sends crime to the United States and that “illegal aliens” (to use Mendoza’s term) are an imminent threat to the safety of you and your family. That unauthorized immigrants have a lower violent crime rate than native-born citizens didn’t enter the conversation.
(If you’re skeptical that this message is racist, replace “illegals” with “blacks” or “Jews” and consider how it sounds.)
With Muslims and immigrants out of the way, the convention moved to black activists. David A. Clarke Jr., the black sheriff of Milwaukee County, Wisconsin, gave a pointed critique of the Black Lives Matter movement, calling it “anarchy,” praising the recent acquittal of the officer charged in the 2015 death of Freddie Gray (which brought cheers from the audience), and accusing police reform activists of pushing a “hateful ideology.” Former New York Mayor Rudy Giuliani, who came later in the night, took a similar tack, blasting activists and accusing President Obama of bending to the will of “Islamic extremist terrorism.”
Terrorism. Immigration. Crime. Three fears that dominated the rhetoric on Monday night. And that rhetoric came with targets: “radical Muslims,” “illegal aliens,” and Black Lives Matter. As one Republican wonk wrote after witnessing this parade of speakers, “The Trumpified GOP had only two policy proposals last night: Deport more Mexicans, and kill more Muslims.”
There is no “pivot,” no “general election Trump.” The Donald Trump who shot to the top of the GOP primary with a message of fear and nativism—who accused Mexico of sending “criminals” and “rapists” and proposed a ban on Muslims—is the Donald Trump who will claim the nomination on Thursday. That’s the story of Monday night. That’s the story of this Republican convention.