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It started with an underwhelming crowd, which only matters because of how he’s hyped and exaggerated expectations for them.
To paraphrase the movie Spinal Tap, Trump’s popularity isn't waning, his appeal is just becoming more selective.
But even the crowd who did show up seemed to be more subdued than normal. Sure, they applauded. Sure, they cheered. But it seemed like they were going through the motions. There’s a difference between a crowd that is enthralled and one that is polite. This was a polite crowd (which is something you don’t often say about the MAGA crowd).
In fairness, they didn’t have much to cheer about. And it’s not just because so many things are going to hell right now. At one point, even Trump acknowledged that his speech (up until that point) had been “average.” I think he was grading on a curve.
One of Trump’s problems is that he’s competing with the expectations that he, himself, set. Once upon a time, his style was shocking and horrifying and (daresay) sometimes even fun. Today, it’s just tiring.
Like addicts who progressively need a bigger fix, Trump has desensitized us with four years of crazy tweets, stream-of-consciousness speeches, and rallies that are indistinguishable from a therapy session. He has flooded the zone with horribleness so that it’s harder to reach outrage now. One of his more offensive lines was about telling his people to slow down COVID-19 testing (so the numbers look better). The White House said, absurdly, that that was a joke. By Monday, my guess is, this line will be mostly forgotten.
Trump raised the bar in terms of the entertainment value viewers expect from a presidential candidate, even as he lowered the bar on the ethical and moral standards Americans expect from a president. Simply put, we’re used to his shtick. It’s baked into the cake. We can only be shocked so many times. He has reached a point of diminishing returns. While Trump tried to play some of his greatest hits (“Chinese virus, “silent majority,” judicial appointments, etc.) you can only hear “Free Bird” so many times. It felt like he had lost a step.
Perhaps the most entertaining portion of the speech was a twenty (or so) minute retelling of Trump’s confronting a slippery ramp, while wearing leather-soled shoes, at West Point. This was humorous, but only relevant in a defensive way. So the most enjoyable part of the speech was mostly damage control, about his fear of “falling on my ass,” and did nothing to make the case for his re-election. Meanwhile, the teleprompter segments of his speech, which all but guarantee he will hit his marks, felt perfunctory.
He also faces some serious substantive problems. The first being that demonizing Joe Biden has proven impossible.
Trump tried hard (maybe too hard) to frequently reference the former vice president, but he was even forced to concede that Biden is “not radical left. I don't think he knows what he is anymore. But he was never radical left."
That leaves Trump, trailing in the polls, with a bankshot that basically concedes that Biden is a decent and moderate guy, while introducing a plausible, but unproven, conspiracy theory. It’s not a clean hit.
Unable to cast his opponent as a villain (which would be both politically advantageous and entertaining), Trump’s only option is to suggest that Biden “is a helpless puppet of the radical left” and a “trojan horse for socialism.”
The problem for Trump is that he isn’t running against a man who burns churches or wants to defund the police or tear down statues. He’s not even running against Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez or Ilhan Omar or Nancy Pelosi. And while it’s possible that ideologically-motivated conservatives might concur with Trump’s guilt-by-extension logic, it lacks oomph when you can’t actually demonize your opponent.
The other substantive problem for Trump is that he’s already president So he represents the status quo, which feels unsatisfactory in a country suffering from a pandemic, civil unrest and iconoclasm, and also feels boring, sort of like trying to have a scandalous affair with someone you’re already married to.
The speech was long. Very long. Some people started walking out at about the 90 minute mark, as he was introducing the various politicians in the house. My sense was that he kept thinking that maybe if he kept going, something would catch on—that he would capture the crowd. But he never really did.
His second time around, Trump is finding that it’s always hard to try and strike lightning twice.
More than 120,000 Americans are dead on his watch, and Donald Trump endangered the lives of thousands of people by deciding to hold this Tulsa, Oklahoma, rally on Saturday night, where the virus was an afterthought in his speech. The very least he could have done was not be so boring.