Is Trump really changing his campaign style, or repeating his old playbook?
It's been nearly five months since former President Donald Trump stood at a lectern in his Mar-a-Lago resort and predicted voters would "unify" around his message of "national greatness and glory to America" as he launched his second re-election bid for the office he lost in 2020.
After a debatably lackluster start, Trump returned to typical bombastic form at his first major campaign rally in Waco, Texas, this week, leaning heavily into the extremist rhetoric which marked the closing days of his presidency, and which ultimately culminated with the Jan. 6 Capitol riot. And while a number of challengers, both high profile, and lower, have tossed — or prepared to toss — their hats into the ring for the GOP's presidential nomination in 2024, Trump has continued to extend his sizable lead over the nascent Republican field.
Now, as we approach the six-month mark of Trump's third presidential run, some political commentators have begun asking whether this latest campaign is simply more of what we've already seen from the once and aspiring future POTUS. Or is it, as his team has repeatedly claimed, a pivot toward a more traditional, deliberate style of campaigning?
'Back to basics — for the first time'
Writing on the Trump campaign's first few months' focus on smaller-scale events and policy-oriented videos in late January, The New York Times' Michael C. Bender and Mei-Ling McNamara highlighted the conspicuous pivot from his previous, freewheeling presidential runs, saying "Mr. Trump's attempt to drape himself with the trappings of a traditional campaign is an unspoken acknowledgment that he begins the race in one of the most politically vulnerable positions of his public life."
Pointing out that even in these constrained settings some of Trump's "old habits die hard," Bender and McNamara conclude that at that stage in his campaign, at least the focus was as much about calming the nerves of potential donors spooked by the GOP's poor showing in 2022 as it was about projecting stability towards voters themselves.
Speaking with CNN in early February, one former aide also lauded Trump's smaller-scale, more intimate events, explaining that "he is at his best in smaller settings. I know he obviously likes doing rallies but the more events he can do like this weekend, the better. That moment of the lady praying over him, you can't get that if you're just flying in and out for a campaign rally."
Like the Times, CNN's Gabby Orr, Kristen Holmes, Kaitlan Collins, and Kate Sullivan point out in their report on Trump's seemingly re-imagined campaign style that the new sense of scale and intimacy is a tactical decision to put the candidate "directly in front of local party figures whose voices and endorsements can carry weight in early-voting states."
'The script doesn't change'
Despite — or perhaps in spite of — that conscious effort on the part of his team to launch a more focused, more deliberate race than his 2016 run, many observers have begun to see Trump revert to his old patterns of campaigning in recent weeks. "This is the same Trump we saw in 2016, 2018, 2020, and 2022," Roll Call's Stuart Rothenberg wrote after Trump's Waco rally. "He is the same mean-spirited narcissist he always has been, except maybe a little worse."
As The Washington Post's Dan Balz mused, even with Trump's potential criminal indictment, a nomination battle, and a looming rematch with Biden, this current election cycle is "[shaping] up as another like no other." Trump's essential game plan remains the same no matter which way the various factors end up: "attack attack attack." In this, Balz argued, "the former president will continue to try to turn every legal investigation into a political fight, as he has done since he became president. He will play victim and demand that his party defend him against the Democrats, the legal system, the left and the media." Particularly after his Waco rally — with its airs of hyperbolic bombast and grievance venting — Trump's tactics are essentially unchanged no matter the best-laid plans his advisers had worked on in those early campaign months.
In a blistering op-dd from the New York Post's editorial board published ahead of Trump's Waco rally, the Rupert Murdoch-owned outlet was blunt in its assessment of what it framed as a fundamental flaw of Trump's constitution. "When Trump ran in 2016, he was an unknown entity," the board wrote in a piece titled "Trump won't change, and that shows he can't win."
"Independents took a chance, wanting to break from the stagnant political machines that sought to anoint Hillary Clinton," the board continued. "But he's not a mystery anymore. Americans know that Trump can't stop himself from nursing piddling grudges and throwing out childish insults."
Taken all at once, this seems to be the prevailing dynamic at play in Trump's third run for the White House; a deliberate and semi-successful launch of his campaign with the deliberateness and focus of a more "traditional" candidate, counteracted by a candidate who cannot help but turn back toward the style and scale he's used to, and which he's used to great effect in the past. If he continues to lead the GOP pack as the primary race pushes into 2024, it will likely be as a result of these two forces working in various measures both with, and against one another.
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