Republicans kicked off their 2016 convention in Cleveland on Monday evening focusing on national security and promising to “make America safe again.” But the speeches—by TV celebrities, a former U.S. general, and Donald Trump’s wife—seemed designed to make Americans feel less safe.
The speakers mostly painted a picture of a dystopian America, where illegal immigrants commit violent crimes, President Obama is purposefully weakening the country’s borders, and Syrian refugee sleeper agents are trying to swindle their way into the United States to plot terrorist attacks.
Those talking points—which aren’t unique to the Trump campaign—surely resonated with many Republican voters, but the speakers offering them had little in the way of specific, concrete proposals for how their standard-bearer would reverse what they described as the Obama administration’s ruinous security policy at home and abroad.
Leading Republicans launched broadside attacks on Obama’s foreign policy record and worked to tie the presumptive Democratic nominee and former Secretary of State, Hillary Clinton, to him.
“Open borders. Executive amnesty. And the surge of Syrian refugees. This is a dangerous liberal agenda and it’s time for a change,” Rep. Michael McCaul, the chairman of the House Homeland Security, said in one of the early speeches of the night, which finally wrapped up around 11:30 to a much emptier convention hall than when the speeches kicked off more than three hours earlier.
But speakers seemed at a loss to describe where exactly Obama and Clinton had gone wrong, other than failing to grasp the nature of a “war” against terrorism and an unwillingness to use the term “radical Islam” to describe the perpetrators of lethal attacks in the Middle East, Europe, and the United States.
“What is needed by Trump and the campaign is to focus on delivering a coherent strategy when it comes to national security,” David Shedd, a former director of the Defense Intelligence Agency and a career intelligence officer, told The Daily Beast. “To date, that has been missing from the Trump campaign. What is missing from the many sound bites from Trump and others linked to his campaign is a clear, coherent message defining the issues and a plan for addressing those issues around the globe.”
None of that materialized in Cleveland. Instead, convention attendees were treated to a litany of well-worn grievances against Clinton and Obama largely focused on the Democrats’ perceived weak response to ISIS and other terrorist networks and their response to the terrorist attacks on a U.S. outpost in Benghazi, Libya, in 2012.
Notably, not a single speaker offered a detailed account of Clinton’s use of a private email server, even after the FBI Director blasted Clinton’s decision as “extremely careless” earlier this month; Republicans in Congress launched new investigations into her email use; and a new poll showed Clinton losing ground to Trump in battleground states as a result of the email scandal.
Former New York Mayor Rudy Giuliani offered one of the night’s most passionate speeches, rallying the crowd with a call to back police officers who’ve come under attack following a spasm of violence that have left cops and civilians dead. But despite professing to know Trump for nearly two decades, he offered little more than platitudes about how his fellow New Yorker would change America to a safer place.
Trump will “lead by leading, not by following,” Giuliani promised.
The first speakers of the night tended to rail against Clinton’s response to the Benghazi attack, with the mother of Sean Smith, a State Department officer killed in the assault, offering a heartfelt and painful remembrance of her son.
“Donald Trump is everything Hillary Clinton is not. He is blunt, direct, and strong,” said Patricia Smith. “He speaks his mind and his heart. And when it comes to the threat posed by radical Islamic terrorism, he will not hesitate to kill the terrorists that threaten American lives.”
Again and again, speakers returned to Clinton’s role in the response to the Benghazi attacks.
But the campaign left until the end of the night a speech by retired Army general and ex-Defense Intelligence Agency Director Michael Flynn, who could have offered the most informed critique of Obama and Clinton’s foreign policy. Flynn served in the Obama administration and was forced out after accusing the White House of underestimating the threat posed by al Qaeda and other terrorist groups.
Flynn closed out the crucial 10 p.m. hour after the stand-out speech of the night by Melania Trump, the GOP candidate’s wife. The crowd began filing out as Flynn—speaking in a monotone punctuated by a cough—offered broad, general complaints and few specifics.
“Let me be clear: Coddling and displays of empathy towards terrorists is not a strategy for defeating these murderers as Obama and Hillary Clinton would like us to believe,” Flynn said, exhorting his audience in the hall and at home to “Wake up, America!”
As convention goers drifted out of the arena, he tried to fire them up with chants of “U.S.A.!” and “Trump!” but had little success. Even as he spoke, the Republican convention sent out a text to attendees: “Let’s end it on a high note,” it read, with a Melania Trump quote, as if the speech preceding Flynn’s was the last of the evening.