The first night of the Republican convention last week began with a clear message: Americans are in peril. “The vast majority of Americans today do not feel safe,” former New York mayor Rudy Giuliani said July 18, setting the tone in Cleveland.
A week later, Democrats in Philadelphia agreed about the peril. Where they differed, though, was the cause. “Donald Trump, with all his rhetoric, will literally make us less safe,” said Vice President Joe Biden. “No major party nominee in the history of the station has ever known less or been less prepared to deal with our national security.”
In parallel conventions, Republicans and Democrats spoke of the dangers facing the country in starkly different terms. While Republicans opened with fire and brimstone, the Democratic convention at times seemed impervious to the growing sense of unease outside the convention hall. When Democrats did speak of fear, the focus was on the prospect of a Trump presidency.
President Barack Obama listed accomplishments and promised a sunny future. Biden previewed an American 21st century. Vice-presidential nominee Senator Tim Kaine spoke of “the next chapter” in “our proud story.”
“America is already great. America is already strong. And I promise you our strength, our greatness, does not depend on Donald Trump,” Obama told the convention.
If there was unease in the Wells Fargo Arena, it was less about terrorism and more about Trump’s rising poll numbers. The Republican nominee has bumped up in swing-state polls after his convention last week and captured the news cycle on Wednesday by remarking that Russian hackers should release Hillary Clinton’s emails.
“Donald Trump is a walking, talking recruiting poster for terrorists,” said Rear Admiral John Hutson. “The real disaster would be to elect Donald Trump to be the face of the country that we love.”
“Trump is a risky reckless and radical choice and we can’t afford to make that choice,” said former New York City mayor Michael Bloomberg. “We must unite around a Democratic candidate and defeat a dangerous demagogue.”
Democrats find themselves in a difficult position: after seven-and-a-half years under Obama, anything less than confidence in the country’s safety would be an indirect affront to the party’s leadership. But they also feel the need to be sensitive to unease over the presence of ISIS in Syria and Iraq and the threat of attacks in the U.S.
Americans are more afraid of a terrorist attack at home than at any point since 2003, according to a CNN/ORC poll conducted in June that showed 71% of Americans believe an act of terrorism is very or somewhat likely in the very near future. Terrorist attacks in Orlando and San Bernardino as well as gun violence between police officers and black men, have shaken public confidence. Fear of attacks abroad has helped fuel the rise of Trump.
The trick for Democrats has been to acknowledge the dangers of terrorism without letting it overwhelm their message. If the theme of the first night of the Republican convention was “Make America safe again,” in Philadelphia, it was the less catchy, “America is safe enough but let’s make it safer.”
When Democrats on Wednesday did talk of danger, it was of gun violence at home, an impasse that Democrats have blamed on Republicans in Congress. The mother of Christopher Leinonen, a young man who was killed in the Orlando attack at the nightclub, spoke tearfully of her son’s death. Rep. Chris Murphy recalled the shooting at Sandy Hook. The daughter of the principal at Sandy Hook Elementary school remembered her mother. Charles Ramsay, the former Philadelphia police commissioner, remembered police officers killed by gun violence.
But at the end, it was President Barack Obama’s call to reject Trump’s gloom that defined the night. “I’m asking you to reject cynicism and reject fear, and to summon what is best in us and to elect Hillary Clinton as the next President of the United States,” said Obama.
And Kaine, Clinton’s running mate, made the choice a stark one. “I trust Hillary Clinton with our son’s life,” he said. “You know who I don’t trust? Donald Trump.”