Opinion

Trump's Grand Rapids rally was a perfect preview of 2020

It was his first real re-election event. Here's why.

My goodness gracious. He did it again. Addressing supporters at a rally in Grand Rapids, Michigan, President Trump said a naughty word. This was such a momentous occasion that even The New York Times decided to forego the customary asterisks and print "bullshit" in its full glory. Does this mean we live in exciting times?

At his first speech since the conclusion of Robert Mueller's special counsel investigation, the president spared none of his opponents. He called them names ("major losers") and insulted their appearances ("Little pencil-neck Adam Schiff. He's got the smallest, thinnest neck I've ever seen"). "I have a better education than them. I'm smarter than them. I went to better schools than them," he bragged. "Much more beautiful house. Much more beautiful everything." He even name-dropped "the deep state."

Grand Rapids was a fit setting for what was essentially Trump's first real 2020 campaign event, his chance to speak to voters in a state he will have to win without the Russia investigation looming over him. This was the city in which he made his very last speech in 2016 before the election. Thursday night was a very effective preview of what Trump's re-election campaign is going to look like. He's going to talk occasionally about how the economy is "roaring" and how ISIS has been "defeated 100 percent." He's going to gloat about the outcome of the Mueller investigation and come up with rude nicknames for Democrats. He is going to give the — accurate as it happens — impression that he barely understands the issues he is most often identified with by his supporters, as he did on Thursday night when he bragged about auto industry jobs supposedly pouring into Michigan without acknowledging the imminent layoffs at Ford.

The whole thing is in other words going to look a great deal like his previous campaign in 2016. Anyone who was hoping for a kinder, gentler Trump, one who would look to run on a (somewhat thin) record of achievement on trade, immigration, foreign policy, and taxes or talk up his willingness to work with Democrats is likely to be disappointed.

I say "anyone," but is there a single person who answers to that description? Trump's fans like him the way he is because he is that way. Pace his infamous claim in 2016, he probably couldn't get away with shooting someone in broad daylight — but he not only gets away with saying that he could: he gets applause for it. Trump is a fighter. Trump tells it like it is. Trump isn't a lib tight-ass weenie. He's going to get things done for the American people. He's going to drain the swamp — by hiring the same right-wing hacks who have been haunting the appetizer trays after Heritage Foundation panels on taxation for 30 years. He's going to make America great again — or is it keep it great now? I must say I missed the eruption of greatness into our republic that seems to have occurred at some point between November 2016 and the present. Just reciting the above litany makes me tired and bored. But I am not the president's target audience.

Donald Trump is not a professional politician, despite having held the highest political office in our country for more than two years now. Professional politicians did not beat him last time, and there are no compelling reasons to think they will do so next year. On top of his personal appeal, such as it is, he has the built-in advantage enjoyed by all incumbents and a dubious claim to a strong economy. Trump could be on pace to win in a landslide.

What can Democrats hope to do to prevent this? They could start by settling on a candidate early, preferably one who does not emerge from the first few debates and nominating contests looking and sounding like the bloodied victor in a freestyle cage fight. This is unlikely to happen, for two reasons. One is simply that the ideological gap between genuine progressives and centrist liberals is very real and very wide. There is probably no single candidate who will be acceptable to both wings of the party. My bet is on the side with all the money, to say nothing of almost total control of the actual party machinery. The other reason is simply that all of 15 or so of these people really want to be president. No one is going to come away with the Democratic nomination unscathed, but the eventual winner will set fundraising records for reporters to ooh and ahh over.

Meanwhile the temptation for the inevitable centrist Democratic nominee to make the election another would-be character referendum will prove overwhelming. Once again we will be reminded that the president sometimes uses crude language, that he demeans good people, that he is not always well informed, and that — wait for it — he intensely dislikes journalists. It will go about as well for whomever the party runs against Trump this time as it did for Hillary Clinton in 2016.

F. Scott Fitzgerald called this kind of behavior the definition of insanity. If he was right, insanity is far more boring to live through than some of us would ever have guessed.

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