CLEVELAND — Donald Trump, in the most important speech of his presidential campaign, Thursday night outlined a dark view of the current state of the country, blaming the political class for not standing up for “forgotten” average Americans — and making the case that he alone holds the solution to middle-class ills.
Trump, while formally accepting the Republican presidential nomination, tried to unite the fractious party he now leads by tapping into unrest in the aftermath of recent shootings, the fear of terrorism and conflict abroad, and the economic struggles in a skittish nation.
He promised a safer nation and called for tougher domestic security, offering echoes of Richard Nixon. He cast himself as a fearless leader while ridiculing presumptive Democratic nominee Hillary Clinton as a tool for special interests worldwide who seeks to benefit only herself.
“The forgotten men and women of our country — and they are forgotten. But they won’t be forgotten for long. These are the people who work hard but no longer have a voice,” Trump said. “I am your voice!”
Trump’s remarks concluded a four-day convention that began with accusations that his wife plagiarized a Michelle Obama speech, and then continued with Senator Ted Cruz’s refusal to endorse the nominee in a 20-minute prime-time speech.
Trump did not outline new policies and still refrained from adding specifics on how he would accomplish his goals. But his speech was perhaps the most coherent case for his candidacy, one that distilled some of the erratic rhetoric of his campaign rallies into a clearer argument.
The crowd, which just one night before was tense over Cruz’s extraordinary speech, was boisterous and united behind Trump.
While the arena on all other nights had hundreds of empty seats, on Thursday night they were filled with a crowd chanting over and over “USA! USA! USA!”
Trump called himself the “law and order candidate” and said he would protect the little guy against the powerful elites who he said control Clinton like a “puppet.” He also asserted that he could unite a divided country in a way that President Obama has not.
“The irresponsible rhetoric of our president, who has used the pulpit of the presidency to divide us by race and color, has made America a more dangerous environment than, frankly, I have ever seen,” Trump said.
“Americans watching this address tonight have seen the recent images of violence in our streets and the chaos in our communities,” Trump said. “Many have witnessed this violence personally, some have even been its victims. I have a message for all of you: The crime and violence that today afflicts our nation will soon — and I mean very soon — come to an end.”
As soon as he is inaugurated, he proclaimed, “Safety will be restored.”
The speech was Trump’s biggest opportunity to recast his campaign in a way that sheds some of his harsh rhetoric and transitions into something that is more palatable for a general electorate. It had a more presidential tone as he sought to reassure voters that he’s responsible enough to assume the role of leader of the free world.
Throughout the speech, Democrats issued a stream of press releases accusing Trump of lying and bending the truth. On the subject of a crime increase, the Clinton campaign called it a “scare tactic” and cited fact-checkers who have scored Trump’s claims false. A Democratic group backing Clinton called the address “depressing and divisive.’’
He read from a teleprompter, as he has done on several other occasions, and spoke forcefully. The address lasted an hour and 15 minutes.
But he never mentioned Cruz and didn’t include a reference to forcing Mexico to pay for a wall along the US southern border. He did not repeat GOP activists’ call to put Clinton in jail, something that was a common refrain throughout the convention as the crowd again and again chanted, “Lock her up!”
Instead, Trump ripped into Clinton by outlining a starkly different worldview and attempting to cast her as part of a cabal of special interests who will “keep our rigged system in place.”
He ridiculed her decisions as secretary of state, saying she left the Middle East in turmoil and paved the way for the Iran nuclear deal, and even speculated that Obama might have regretted appointing her to the job.
“This is the legacy of Hillary Clinton: death, destruction, terrorism, and weakness,” he said. “But Hillary Clinton’s legacy does not have to be America’s legacy.”
“The problems we face now — poverty and violence at home, war and destruction abroad — will last only as long as we continue relying on the same politicians who created them in the first place,” he continued.
“A change in leadership is required to produce a change in these outcomes.”
Trump twice made direct appeals to supporters of Clinton’s rival for the Democratic nomination, Bernie Sanders.
“Her bad instincts and her bad judgment — something pointed out by Bernie Sanders — are what caused so many of the disasters unfolding today,” Trump said.
Trump did not explicitly blame President George W. Bush, but he criticized American foreign policy that led to “15 years of wars.”
“Iraq is in chaos,” Trump said. “Iran is on the path to nuclear weapons. Syria is engulfed in a civil war and a refugee crisis that now threatens the West. After 15 years of wars in the Middle East, after trillions of dollars spent and thousands of lives lost, the situation is worse than it has ever been before.”
Further taking his party toward a more isolationist foreign policy — one that opposes free trade and rejects military intervention — he said that he would focus instead on the United States.
“Americanism, not globalism, will be our credo,” he said. “As long as we are led by politicians who will not put America first, then we can be assured that other nations will not treat America with respect — the respect that we deserve. The American people will come first once again.”
He painted a dim view of the current state of the country, rattling off crime statistics, low wages, and a dangerous world.
“Not only have our citizens endured domestic disaster, but they have lived through one international humiliation after another,” he said.
“I have embraced crying mothers who have lost their children because our politicians put their personal agendas before the national good,” he added. “I have no patience for injustice, no tolerance for government incompetence, of which there is so much, no sympathy for leaders who fail their citizens.”
Before Trump spoke, speakers tried to lay the groundwork for his address.
“We are at a crossroads where our first priority must be saving our nation,” Jerry Falwell Jr. said.
“Donald Trump wants to make sure you can pay the mortgage, put gas in the car, and buy new clothes for the first day of school,” said Reince Priebus, chairman of the Republican National Committee. “Donald Trump is committed to hitting terrorists hard and making the safety of every man, woman, and child in America his No. 1 priority.”
In one indication of how Trump is changing the tenor of the Republican Party, he made a direct appeal to the gay and lesbian community.
“As your president, I will do everything in my power to protect our LGBTQ citizens from the violence and oppression of a hateful foreign ideology,” he said, while making reference to the recent shootings at a gay nightclub in Orlando.
He paused after the crowd erupted in applause.
“I have to say, as a Republican, it is so nice to hear you cheering for what I just said,” Trump told the audience.
About an hour before Trump spoke, Peter Thiel, a venture capitalist who cofounded eBay, received a loud round of applause after declaring he was gay.
“I am proud to be gay,” he said. “I am proud to be a Republican. But most of all I am proud to be an American.”
Not long afterward, Trump’s oldest daughter, Ivanka, introduced her father.
“Tonight,” she said, “he is the people’s nominee.”