The last time Donald Trump delivered a major speech in Washington, DC, from outside the White House it unleashed a vicious mob attack. There was no violence this time, but his searing bombast may have heralded the dawn of a new era of American extremism.
Trump returned Tuesday for the first time since leaving the capital in disgrace in January 2021 and made clear he plans to take the country down a dark, demagogic, dystopian road in the coming months. His assurance that it is when and not if he launches a 2024 White House campaign never looked more locked in.
Trump vowed at the America First Policy Institute summit to “save our country,” chillingly employing many of the rhetorical devices of authoritarian leaders as he brimmed with bitterness, a persecution complex and stoked resentment against vulnerable members of society like the homeless and transgender athletes. The ex-President conjured an updated and intensified picture of the “American carnage” that he first laid out in his 2017 inaugural address. He bemoaned a “failing nation” swamped by historic inflation, begging the Saudis for oil, a media that sees itself as “the police of honesty,” deep state bureaucrats, “hacks and thugs” in Congress and cities overrun by undocumented migrants preying on innocent citizens that exemplify contempt for the law and the police.
Amid new signs of an expansive Justice Department probe into the election-stealing scheme launched by his cronies and shocking evidence about his 2020 coup attempt from the House select committee, Trump complained Democrats had “weaponized law enforcement … against the opposition party.” His railing against the investigations that could hold him to account for his dereliction of duty while in office highlighted the absurdity of the only president ever to launch an insurrection lecturing on law and order.
That was a point picked up by President Joe Biden, who tweeted: “Call me old fashioned, but I don’t think inciting a mob that attacks a police officer is ‘respect for the law.’ You can’t be pro-insurrection and pro-cop – or pro-democracy, or pro-American.”
As so often, Trump’s complaints about the supposed actions of others mirrored his own transgressions. It was he who tried to weaponize the Justice Department, to pursue political enemies, offer pardons to allies and to seek to overturn the 2020 election.
And when Trump complained that his Democratic foes were guilty of misinformation against him – “They say stuff and they think you are going to believe it” – he could have been describing his own lies and alternative realities that are amplified by the conservative media machine that convinced millions of Americans that the election was stolen.
Trump’s comments also seemed a hedge against any attempt by the Justice Department to hold him criminally liable for his conduct after the 2020 election. Still, Attorney General Merrick Garland vowed that outside political forces would not deter the department if charges were merited.
“We pursue justice without fear or favor. We intend to hold everyone – anyone – who is criminally responsible for the events surrounding January 6 or any attempt to interfere with the lawful transfer of power from one administration to another accountable,” Garland told NBC News’ Lester Holt in a taped interview that ran in part Tuesday on MSNBC. “That is what we do. We don’t pay any attention to other issues with respect to that.”
The key to Trump’s genuine appeal
In many ways, Trump’s pitch was a supercharged version of when he first launched his 2016 presidential campaign. He again railed against undocumented migrants and crime, and promised to build his border wall. He seized on the Biden administration’s economic struggles and portrayed his own tenure as a golden age by comparison when Americans were safe, prosperous and respected.
Democrats may not like to hear it, but Trump’s message remains a seductive one to many Americans who believe the country is beset by open borders, political correctness, weak policing and mistreated by leeching foreign allies. A democratic system channels the frustrations and beliefs of large sectors of society into political campaigns and administrations. (Not that Trump has shown he has much respect for the will of the voters.) So while Trump’s methods are often authoritarian and outrageous, he is not operating in a political vacuum. His strength as a candidate is that he sensed deep disillusionment with the political system in 2016 and rode it to power. He’s trying a similar formula now.
Some liberal critics of the media still complain that an ex-President gets so much coverage – years before the 2024 election – and that the attention only boosts Trump. But while he is banned from Twitter and has been mostly confined to conservative media for the last 18 months, the pulse of Trumpism beats strongly in the heartland. Forests of Trump 2020 and Trump 2024 banners outside major cities may be an anecdotal sign of strength, but they are ubiquitous and a sign that he touches some voters like no other politician.
And before much longer, Democrats, and the small but courageous band of anti-Trump Republicans, will have to confront the former President directly. Biden appears to have recognized this already given his own strident attacks on Trump over the last two days.
A second Trump administration would be more extreme
Trump’s speech Tuesday was an unmistakable sign he is on the comeback trail, is deadly serious about trying to regain power and would use any means at his disposal to make it reality.
This time around, Trump’s campaign would take place in the full knowledge of his authoritarian impulses and his willingness to use violence – on January 6, 2021. A second Trump presidency would make the first one look conventional and calm. The ex-President, for example, called on Tuesday for homeless Americans to be loaded up from city centers and taken to tented camps. He mocked trans athletes and said presidents should be able to send National Guard troops into Democratic states where governors didn’t fight violent crime. He called for quick trials for drug dealers to speed swift executions and demanded the return of “stop-and-frisk” policies in cities that critics decried as institutionalized racism.
“Our country is now a cesspool of crime,” the former President said, painting of a vision of country hostage to “drugged out lunatics” and “sadists.” He promised to purge the education system and to sack “rogue” bureaucrats who constrained his wildest impulses the first time around.
In short, Trump was advocating an all-powerful presidency that would trample over the guardrails of the law and the Constitution and the elected power of governors. In other words, an administration that would be even more aberrant and authoritarian than his first.
Unlike many of his campaign speeches, Trump did not dedicate his entire appearance to fomenting lies about his 2020 election loss. But he did fire up the crowd with claims that he won two elections, not one. This argument appears to be effective with his most fervent voters, according to a new CNN/SSRS poll released on Tuesday. Sixty-six percent of Republicans said Biden’s 2020 election win was not legitimate. Still, Trump’s continual harping on 2020 may not be a winning argument with a broader electorate. Some 69%, of those asked, a new high in CNN polling, reject the falsehood that the 2020 election was stolen.
Trump’s delivery on Tuesday was not the exuberant tour de force of his rallies. It also lacked the outrageous comedy of his events in his first campaign that did not always come across on television, but was vital in convincing supporters they were at the best party of their lives with a host who dared to say everything polite society disdained. On Tuesday, Trump’s monotone dirge summed up his own bitterness and his sinister arguments. Perhaps the most disturbing aspect of Trump’s appearance – given what we know about the steps he took to cling onto power in 2020 – was his use of authoritarian tropes. For instance, he portrayed himself as persecuted by the forces of the law – but insisted he endured the suffering to save the country.
“Who has been through anything like this?” Trump said, slamming the Russia probe, his two impeachments and the January 6 committee.
“I’m doing it for America. And it’s my honor to do it. It’s my great, great honor to do it. Because if I don’t do our nation is doomed to become another Venezuela or become another Soviet Union,” Trump said, tapping into a classic demagogue’s toolbox to pose as a Superman leader shouldering the peoples’ burden.
A 2024 campaign in all but name
Tuesday’s speech by Trump may come to be seen as the unofficial launch of his presidential campaign. He told Republicans convinced they will win the midterm elections in November they need help in the White House, and it will be coming soon.
But his march to the Republican nomination is far from assured. In the CNN poll, 55% of Republican and Republican-leaning registered voters said they did not want Trump as their party’s nominee in 2024. The GOP nominating system, however, means that Trump does not need majority support to secure a place atop the GOP ticket in 2024. A huge field like in 2016 could balkanize opposition to him within his party.
A consensus anti-Trump candidate whom his opponents unite behind could doom a campaign by the former President. But that would require a major contender to show the kind of courage in standing up to Trump that has been at a premium since the former business tycoon’s hostile takeover of the GOP in 2015.
Trump’s speech on Tuesday at times came across as an attempt to strangle any such attempts before they really get started. And it also underscored that not only has the ex-President not changed, but that the next stage of his political evolution will be darker and potentially more dangerous than what came before.