How many times have Donald Trump's supporters and critics debated whether he will pivot to a larger, more presidential candidacy? Too many to count. So put aside any talk of pivoting — the fact is, Trump delivered a focused, powerful, and disciplined speech Tuesday night in West Bend, Wis., about 45 minutes north of Milwaukee. Trump focused largely on problems that disproportionately afflict black Americans, arguing that his proposals on crime, immigration, trade, jobs, education, and other issues will improve African-American lives more than Hillary Clinton's.
Trump began by declaring, "We're at a decisive moment in this election," which few would deny, given Trump's perilous position in the polls. Last week he laid out a jobs plan, Trump said, and on Monday he outlined a plan to defeat radical Islamic terrorism. Now, he came to discuss "how to make our communities safe again."
Calling the recent riots in Milwaukee "an assault on the right of all citizens to live in security and live in peace," Trump won applause with the declaration that "Law and order must be restored."
"The main victims of these riots are law-abiding African-American citizens living in these neighborhoods," Trump continued. "It's their jobs, it's their homes, it's their schools and communities which will suffer the most as a result. There's no compassion in tolerating lawless conduct for anyone."
Trump charged that Clinton and the Obama administration have pushed a "totally false" narrative of widespread police abuse across the United States. "The problem in our poorest communities is not that there are too many police," Trump argued. "The problem is that there are not enough police."
"Those peddling the narrative of cops as a racist force in our society — a narrative supported with a nod by my opponent — share directly in the responsibility for the unrest in Milwaukee and many other places," Trump said. Clinton and others, he charged, "have fostered a dangerous anti-police atmosphere."
"The war on police must end, and it must end now," Trump said, again to applause. "Our job is not to make life more comfortable for the rioter, or the robber, or the looter, or the violent disruptor, of which there are many. Our job is to make life more comfortable for the African-American parent who wants their kids to be able to safely — safely — walk the streets and walk to school. Or the senior citizen waiting for a bus. Or the young child walking home from school."
"My opponent, Hillary, would rather protect the offender than the victim."
Trump pointed to the spectacular success of "my wonderful friend" Rudy Giuliani in reducing crime in New York in the 1990s. "Imagine how many lives could have been saved, all across this country, if Democratic politicians hadn't blocked in their cities what Rudy did in New York City?" Trump asked. "I'll make sure we deliver safe neighborhoods here in Milwaukee…but also across this country."
Trump then made a direct appeal — certainly the most forthright of his campaign — for black votes. "When I am president I will fight for the safety of every American — and especially those Americans who have not known safety for a very, very long time," he said. "I am asking for the vote of every African-American citizen struggling in our country today who wants a different future."
Trump went through the standard statistics of social dysfunction — crime, poverty, single parenthood, failing schools, and more. Democrats have promised to fix such problems, Trump said, and have failed.
Trump then broadened the argument to include his signature issues. Trade competition with China, he said, has disproportionately harmed poor Americans. "We opened our markets, they've taken our jobs…and African-American neighborhoods, along with many other neighborhoods, have suffered greatly."
Meanwhile, Hillary Clinton is running to protect the wealth and prerogatives of insiders, Trump charged. "It's the powerful protecting the powerful," he said. "I am fighting for you."
Trump went down the sins of the "media-donor-political complex" — "one disastrous foreign war after another," "our border open," "one trade deal after another." "Aren't you tired of a system that gets rich at your expense?" Trump asked. "Aren't you tired of big media, big businesses, and big donors rigging the system to keep your voice from being heard? Are you ready for change?"
"I'm not part of the corrupt system. In fact, the corrupt system is trying to stop me."
Trump related his strongest issues to what he said were their effects on black lives and fortunes. Clinton's immigration policies will hurt black workers, he said. Clinton's trade deals will do the same. Trump's plans on taxes, regulations, and education will mean more jobs.
"To every voter in Milwaukee, to every voter living in the inner city or every forgotten stretch of our society, I'm running to offer you a much better future, a much better job, and a much higher wage," Trump said.
In all, the speech lasted 38 minutes, which is about half an hour shorter than many Trump rally speeches. It covered a lot of ground, without the asides and diversions that can characterize Trump speeches. As it was being delivered, journalists listening in the room and beyond knew they were hearing something different.
CBS News' Major Garrett tweeted, "Having been listening since August 2015, objectively best drafted & best delivered Trump speech of campaign. Will resonate." The Pittsburgh Tribune's Salena Zito tweeted that Trump "just gave a very good, excellent, red meat, presidential timber speech. Literally."
Trump supporter and vice-presidential finalist Newt Gingrich tweeted, "Trump speech was the clearest appeal to the African-American community of any Republican nominee. If he builds on this, it could be big."
There's no doubt Democrats will scoff at Trump's effort. After all, he is polling near zero with blacks in some surveys, and has the support of tiny fractions of African-American voters in others. The audience in West Bend was overwhelmingly white. And Trump has been a harsh critic of Barack Obama for a long time.
"Spent years attempting to undermine the legitimacy of the first black POTUS, now he wants our votes?" tweeted Goldie Taylor, an editor-at-large at the Daily Beast. Interim Democratic National Committee chair Donna Brazile retweeted Taylor's message, adding, "Once again, Trump delivers a very divisive speech on community policy and rebuilding trust in our country."
Joy Reid, the former MSNBC host, slammed Gingrich (who once called Obama the "Food Stamp President") for praising Trump's speech. Reid also passed on a tweet from Planned Parenthood official Kaili Joy Gray that said, "Ohhhh, I get it. This speech is written for conservative pundits to talk about how this speech is written for African-American voters."
There will be much more along those lines in coming days. But the fact is, beyond the relatively minor accomplishment of exceeding the pundits' low expectations for his performance, Trump gave a big, serious speech that will have to be reckoned with. This one will be argued about for quite a while.