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The Trump campaign has lost all the substance it once had

The Trump campaign has lost all the substance it once had
The Trump campaign has lost all the substance it once had


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Donald Trump's 2016 campaign was, among other things, one of the most impressive branding displays on a large scale and in a short period of time. There were hats. There were flags. And above all, there were slogans.

Make America great again. Build the wall. Lock her up. And later, Drain the swamp, which Trump conceded about the strain he initially hated. No matter: the crowds loved it, which was enough for Trump to decide he loved it, too.

One of the peculiarities of the Trump 2024 campaign is the absence of a similar mantra. At some recent rallies, neither Trump nor the audience even uttered the word Build the Wall, once a norm. Crowds turn instead to generic American chants or, as at a recent gathering in Phoenix, Bullshit, bullshit, bullshit!, which has a winning simplicity but lacks the specificity and originality of its predecessors.

In their place, Trump's discourse has become dominated by grievances about the wrongs he says have been done to him and his promises to seek revenge. It doesn't quite create the festive atmosphere of eight years ago, where many attendees were clearly having a good time. Even though the new, more prosaic sentiment lacks the dynamism of the past, it has still managed to generate enough enthusiasm that Trump is ahead in many polls and could return to the White House in a few months.

Even Trump seems to recognize the hollowness of his last campaign. In 2016, we had a great campaign and it was mostly about the border, he said recently in Nevada. And I did such a good job that in 2020, where we got millions more votes than in 2016, but I couldn't talk about the border.

The lack of catchy slogans might not matter if it was just slogans. But in 2016, they symbolized Trump's willingness to talk about topics that other candidates, including other Republicans, avoided. When Trump promised to build the wall, he was demonstrating that he was not beholden to the somewhat centrist immigration reform leanings of the rest of the Republican Party and that he did not care about political correctness. When he was attacked for his slogan, he smiled: The wall just went 10 feet higher.

The focus on the wall also showed that he was willing to deploy (potentially) common-sense ideas that other politicians were not. That helped Trump appeal not only to Republicans but also to disaffected voters of all stripes. He had several such policy positions, including breaking with the bipartisan consensus on free trade, pledging to protect Social Security and Medicare, and claiming to have opposed the Iraq War from the start.

Once Trump was president, only a small portion of the wall was built, and Mexico did not pay for it as Trump promised. But even though Trump likes to say at his rallies that he has built 900 miles of wall (an exaggeration), he is not promising today to finish the job. In fact, Trump is emphasizing fewer big transformative ideas compared to 2016. His promises are a scattered set of ideas targeting particular segments of the electorate: ending taxes on wages earned through tips, defending TikTok (a platform he once tried to ban), declassifying files on the John F. Kennedy assassination, overturning fossil fuel regulations. Although he promises to crack down on the border and deport undocumented immigrants, you won't hear a Round em up chant at his rallies. And Project 2025, his allies' proposal to overhaul the federal government by massively expanding political patronage, doesn't lend itself to a bumper sticker.

On other issues, he appears to seek to take a position that aligns with public opinion rather than offering his own bold proclamations. While Trump once trumpeted the appointment of the justices who overturned Roe v. Wade, he is now clumsily trying to formulate a position on abortion that does not alienate his base or influential voters, relying primarily on ambiguity. Regarding the war in Gaza, he criticized Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and called for a quick end to the conflict, but on Israel's terms. This may not be realistic, although it probably corresponds to the basic desire of many voters.

In place of all that, in his stump speech, were dark warnings about President Joe Biden and talk of retaliation against his political adversaries, including the current president. Trump spends much of his speech mocking Biden, calling him inconsistent and senile (sometimes awkwardly), while warning that Biden's administration has made the United States a failed nation and that his re-election could be fatal to the country. The disconnect between images of Biden as a doting fool and as an evil schemer is a problem that Republicans have struggled to reconcile, but which Trump has concluded does not need to be resolved.

Grievances are nothing new at Trump rallies, but four or eight years ago he used to talk about other people's grievances and promise to fix them. Now the grievances are largely his own, stemming from the legal proceedings against him and his defeat in the 2020 elections, so painful that he still won't admit it. To some of his die-hard fans, this may resonate as proof of his claims that he is their champion: he tried to defend them, so the powers that be came after him. (This is absurd if you actually think about the accusations against him.) Still, this only serves to rile up the base, rather than speaking to an imaginary silent majority, as he did in 2016.

In a strange way, Trump's campaign resembles the one run by rival Hillary Clinton in 2016. A big problem for Clinton was criticism that she had no compelling goal for her candidacy other than becoming president. Trump's campaign is now all about his desire to be president. He's running because he believes the presidency was stolen from him in 2020 and because it will give him a legal shield he desperately needs. Even Project 2025 is about the accumulation of executive power itself, rather than any particular policy goal. Just like Clinton, that could be enough to give Trump a majority of the popular vote; unlike her, it could lead him to the White House. But it doesn't offer much inspiration or fun.




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