Why you should care
The Trump stadium tour is providing effective counterprogramming to Democratic debates.
The Twitterverse was quiet. After two days of Democratic debates, President Donald Trump had abstained from blasting his rivals, other than one tweet briefly stating that the people on stage would not, in fact, make America great. It was muted, a rare moment where the president was willing to play the part of an incumbent and act like his opponents were beneath the attention of the Oval Office.
That didn’t last, of course. It turned out he was just saving his best ammunition for his own fireworks show.
At a rally in Ohio on Thursday night, the reality TV show host submitted his most ambitious bit of counterprogramming in the 2020 race to topple him. After a brief aside about his time working in Cincinnati, he jumped into why he was there: “I was watching the so-called debate last night. And I also watched the night before,” he said, before delivering the most grievous insult a man obsessed with ratings can give: “That was long, long television.”
It’s no accident that he began his rebuttal by noting that Democrats “spent more time attacking Barack Obama than they did attacking me, practically.” As others have pointed out, it is a perilous task to criticize the still incredibly popular (especially among Democrats) president. And the more Trump can equate himself with Obama, the easier it is to paint the entire Democratic party as lacking sound judgment about Trump’s proficiency as president.
It turned out he was just saving his best ammunition for his own fireworks show.
Trump then embraced a highlight reel of grievances old and new. The classics: a resurgence of the “Lock her up” chant after a missive at Hillary Clinton (never mind the fact that it had been 999 days since the 2016 election ended). He mockingly called Robert Mueller “sharp as a tack,” a nod to the White House’s favorite whipping boy fresh off the former special counsel’s haltingly provided testimony before Congress.
But lost in that hubbub were new lines of messaging — ones that created the strongest contrast yet between the America Trump wants to paint and the one that Democrats deliberated about in the debates.
Consider three major talking points from last week’s debates. First, that progressive policies, from Medicare for All to student debt forgiveness, are required to reshape the nation’s economic well-being. Second, that immigrants crossing the border illegally are positive additions to society. And third, that troubled cities like Baltimore deserve respect, as many candidates defended the city after Trump called it “a rat-infested” place where “no human being would want to live.”
Six minutes into the nearly hour-and-a-half-long speech, Trump began addressing each of those stances. He criticized the Democrats for “being led by four left-wing extremists who reject everything that we hold dear” and promised that a vote for them would be one for “radical socialism.” While Democrats cast immigrants in a positive light, Trump falsely described the visa lottery system as one where foreign nations offer up robbers and murderers for entry to the United States. And finally, he tied that narrative to cities like Chicago (where, last year, “572 people were murdered,” he said) and Baltimore. “Democrats … want to spend hundreds of billions of dollars on illegal migrants instead of supporting their own struggling communities.”
These descriptions of America could not be further apart. Yet Trump has been given the space to make such outlandish claims while still arguing that Democrats are equally extreme. With everything on the table in this partywide purity test, from eliminating private insurance altogether to giving undocumented immigrants free health care, it becomes a much harder choice for moderates who otherwise may be fed up with Trump. Particularly in a strong economy that for any other candidate would provide an easy reelection ramp.
Which is why Trump’s greatest counter-message on Thursday night was his simplest one: Look at the prosperity. “We’ve created six million new jobs since Election Day,” he said. “More than seven million Americans have been lifted off of food stamps, and they’re happy, they’re happy. One-hundred-twenty-three-thousand more Ohio workers are employed today than when I was elected. Think of that number.”
Whether everyone feels those gains isn’t the point.
The joke in Washington is that Republicans are often performing for an audience of one on television, but it’s equally true that Trump performs as much for his own amusement as he does for his fans — look no further than the endless self-adulation about setting records for crowd sizes. So expect more of these counter-debate stadium tours as Trump sates his lust for the spotlight. There are only 10 more left before the general election. Who knows, Trump might even decide to skip debates altogether in 2020 and stick to the mega-rallies. It wouldn’t be the first time.