Donald Trump's campaign slogan might as well be "Make American Terrified Again." He is running on fear: fear of crime; fear of illegal immigrants; fear of Black Lives Matter and Muslims and Mexicans; fear that everything in America has gone wrong; that the economy is broken; that the terrorists are everywhere; that the police are losing control; that America's enemies are laughing at it; that the culture has been taken over by a cabal of billionaires, socialists and that criminal Hillary Clinton.
His speech closing the Republican National Convention, and accepting his party's nomination for President, sounded like something from a fringe party candidate. But the fringe is now the centre of the Grand Old Party, and Mr. Trump is the owner of the Republican bus.
If you listened carefully to his words, you may have wondered what country he was talking to, and about. All politicians play on their constituents fears to some extent – Democrats, after all, are campaigning on fear of Mr. Trump. (Can you blame them?) But the GOP nominee took the game to new depths. He walked listeners through an America with one foot in the abyss, and in need of extreme measures – extreme, but extremely vague – to save it.
This was not Ronald Reagan's Morning in America. It was not George H.W. Bush's land of a Thousand Points of Light. Instead, it was the most fear-filled nomination speech since Richard Nixon – though Nixon at least had the excuse that, back in 1968, the apocalypse was distinctly visible just over the horizon.
The boys were coming home in body bags from Vietnam by the thousands. Race riots had torched city after city. Law and order really was falling apart, with crime rates beginning a terrifying spike that would not cease until the late 1980s. Nixon was selling paranoia to the silent majority, at a time when there was rather a lot more for the silent majority to be paranoid about.
There are a lot of similarities between the Nixon and Trump campaigns. Nixon aimed at voters with legitimate worries about law and order and illegitimate fears about blacks and civil rights; Mr. Trump's target audience are Americans with legitimate economic concerns – and fantastical fears about crime, illegals, terrorism and the country's changing culture and racial makeup. Both have white voters as their core constituency. But Mr. Trump's pitch is both more extreme, and more shallow.
In an acceptance speech with few concrete policies, this was the feature offering: "We are going to build a great border wall!" declared Mr. Trump for the hundredth time. "To stop illegal immigration, to stop the gangs and the violence, and to stop the drugs from pouring in to our communities!"
The Republican Party has long been the party of law and order, and tough on crime. And ever since the Nixon era, it has known how to subtly use dog whistles of race and culture to signal to certain voters that it is with them. Mr. Trump's marketing genius has been to grotesquely amplify and coarsen the Republican formula.
He has distilled out all the moderation and subtlety. What's left is a concoction that is harsher, meaner and dumber. It is paranoia on steroids, and policy-making by 'roid rage.
Even those who long disagreed with the old Republican Party must now mourn it, just as an atheist might mourn the Catholic Church if it disappeared, and was replaced by fanatics and know-nothings.
In his convention speech, Trump torqued long-standing Republican electoral strategies, while junking long-standing Republican principles. The GOP, the party of free trade, is now the party of anti-free trade. It is led by a man who promises to rip up trade agreements, including NAFTA. And he's appealing to left-wing Bernie Sanders voters in part with that pitch. He's identifying a very real economic concern of many Americans, and offering a crackpot solution.
But above all, what Trump offers is authoritarian government. He is angrier than any mainstream candidate in generations, and more willing to paint anything and everything about the current state of the country in the most apocalyptic light. But his solutions to real and imagined problems are as thin as can be.
On foreign affairs, for example, he promises to simultaneously get more involved in the Middle East and to get out, to crush terrorists abroad without becoming embroiled in foreign conflicts, and to wage war against America's enemies without going to war. In recent interviews with 60 Minutes and The New York Times, he proved incapable of explaining any of this, or even of talking for more than a couple of sentences without contradicting himself.
And for millions of Americans, it clearly doesn't matter. He is not the man with the plans. He is just The Man. He does not have solutions; he is the solution. Give me the crown, and I will protect you. That way lies madness, and democracy's end.