It was supposed to be a comeback.
President Trump held his first rally in 110 days on Saturday in Tulsa, and though the lackluster turnout turned the rally into a punchline, crowd size is rarely the most accurate measure of a campaign’s health, especially during a pandemic. More than empty seats, the bigger concern for Trump is he still doesn’t have a reelection message.
Trump opened his speech saying, “we begin our campaign,” as if he hadn’t already been campaigning his entire first term, and as if he hadn’t already held a formal reelection kickoff rally last year in Orlando. It seemed to signal the possibility of a new beginning. It was not.
During his remarks, Trump used various phrases that over the past several weeks have been floated as contenders for his new reelection slogan. “I stand before you today to declare the silent majority is stronger than ever before,” he said. “We are the party of law and order,” and “ladies and gentlemen of Oklahoma, the best is yet to come.”
None of these phrases were central to his speech, though. Trump spent more time describing how he walked down a ramp and drank water at the U.S. Military Academy.
So much has changed since March when Trump held his last rally before lockdown. More than 119,000 people in the U.S. have now died from COVID-19, unemployment hit its highest level since the Great Depression, and a majority believe Trump has made things worse following protests over police brutality and racism. Americans today are the unhappiest they’ve been in half a century.
Trump won in 2016 promising to restore American greatness, but this ain’t it.
The rationale for “Keep America Great,” the long-planned slogan Trump had trademarked before he took office, has gone up in smoke in a matter of months.
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“Make America Great Again” succeeded in part because of its vagueness. MAGA could mean whatever you wanted it to mean. That its sequel is unfit for the current moment speaks not only to the depth of our multiple national crises, but the difference between running as an outsider with no experience and as an incumbent with a record.
Trump also has yet to find chants-as-policy-proposals that resonate in 2020 as much as “build the wall” or “drain the swamp” did in 2016. The wall isn’t built, Mexico isn’t paying for it, and the swamp isn’t drained. It’s easier to make big promises before you have the power to do anything about it.
Trump’s rally in Tulsa was an opportunity to make a new argument for why he deserves another term, but it didn’t sound as if the campaign had done much to refresh its messaging.
Vice President Pence, who opened for Trump, ended his remarks Saturday with a slight update to the campaign’s old slogan, saying “make America great again, again,” but Trump didn’t make the same acknowledgement.
“Together, we will make America wealthy again, we will make America stronger again, we will make America proud again, we will make America safe again, and we will make America great again,” Trump said.
It’s a message he’s been repeating for years that’s more urgent today than it was before. The problem for Trump is now he’s the person who could have done something about it.