Americans were reminded on Tuesday night that the president of the United States has just one big and very limited political talent: the capacity to elicit anger and resentment in a certain segment of the American electorate using a mixture of outright lies and flagrant demagoguery. That's it. When it comes to politics, he knows — and knows how to do — nothing else.
That was clear four years ago, and it was still true as the president launched his re-election campaign with a garish, interminable, and morally appalling rally in Orlando, Florida. The event's benediction was delivered by a megachurch pastor who suggested that "a demonic network that has been united against President Trump needs to be broken in the name of Jesus." The musical accompaniment to Trump's arrival on stage was the mawkish and facile flag-waving of Lee Greenwood's "God Bless the USA." And it was all downhill from there.
For 90 minutes, Trump railed against the fake-news media, Hillary Clinton, the Mueller investigation, and "open borders" Democrats who supposedly want to impose "radical socialism" in order to annihilate the American dream. He called the 2016 election "a defining moment in American history" and claimed that ever since his surprise victory the political opposition had been working "to take away your dignity and your destiny" by reversing the outcome and "erasing your vote." This was nothing less than an attempt to "destroy our country" and "strip Americans of their constitutional rights and flood the country with illegal immigrants."
On and on it went — with the hyperbole and vituperation mixed with braggadocio, exaggeration, and straight-up lies about his accomplishments. Trump made the preposterous claim that the American people were benefiting from "perhaps the greatest economy we've had in the history of our country." He asserted, absurdly, that "no one has been tougher on Russia," and that no president in American history accomplished more in his first two months in office than he did. He suggested, just as preposterously, that an administration thick with plutocrats and industry lobbyists was busy "draining the swamp." He claimed that 400 miles of his precious wall along the southern border would be completed by the end of next year. He denounced China, declaring they'd taken us for "suckers."
It was textbook right-wing populism, with Trump expertly transmuting his own and his audience's sense of impotence and aggrieved self-pity into the distinctively intoxicating blend of righteous rage and giddy delight that characterizes anti-establishment politics at its most effective. Trump mocks, belittles, provokes, condescends, and ridicules his opponents, both individually and as a group, just as he demonizes outsiders (those oh-so-scary immigrants) and valorizes heroes (fellow Republicans, law enforcement, and especially ICE officers who protect the country against those invading hordes). And of course he flatters the crowd constantly, repeatedly encouraging them to see him as their champion and fearless defender against their common enemies, whom he portrays as an "angry left-wing mob."
None of it was surprising. In fact, very little was new in Trump's performance on Tuesday (except for a perfunctory promise to cure cancer if he's re-elected). Long stretches of the evening were indistinguishable, in both style and substance, from Trump campaign events of 2016. We have every reason to presume this is precisely what we're going to hear day after day for the next 17 months — at rallies, in debates, and at campaign events.
Should Democrats be worried? After all, Trump defeated them the last time around with the very same script. Couldn't he do it again?
Of course he could. Especially if Democrats pick a nominee who, like Hillary Clinton, Trump can turn into an exemplification of a haughty, contemptuous, entitled, corrupt, self-dealing establishment.
But there are also reasons to be skeptical about the electoral potency of Trumpism in 2020. Trump ran against the ideal opponent in 2016 and yet he still barely won. How likely is it that he significantly increases his vote share in 2020 with an identical, sharply polarizing and antagonizing message? Not very. And winning a two-person contest with just 46 percent of the vote is really, really hard.
Two-and-a-half years ago, Trump proved that fire-breathing, rabble-rousing populism can appeal to enough Republicans to win the White House. The question is whether it repulses enough of the rest of the electorate to ensure he's denied his attempt to keep it.