Trump’s speech reveals the candidate isn’t sure what his base wants

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SALEM, NH—Well, that was something.

By the time former President Donald Trump left a high school auditorium on Saturday afternoon — his return to the campaign trail after an unusually sleepy start to his 2024 campaign — he had ricocheted off many of his vigils: engaging in conspiracy theories, nursing conservative fears about race and gender, and offering an alternative reality to the record of his successor. The hour-long rant suggested Joe Biden would have been shrewd to throw his son, Hunter, under the bus, that the Taliban were unable to fight at night because they lacked ‘binoculars’ and wind turbines regularly knocked them down planes from the sky. .

It was, in essence, a standard Trump speech, but with a more uneven pace, and a little weirder and meandering.

For a shaky frontrunner facing criticism for the shaky start to his third White House bid, Trump’s first display did little to calm the jitters the candidate himself acknowledged.

“They said, ‘He’s not campaigning. Maybe he lost a step,” Trump said, mocking his critics. “I’m angrier now and I’m more committed than ever.”

Maybe, but words, even those that are hyper exaggerated and wandering, are not actions. Trump traveled to New Hampshire on Saturday to speak at the state party’s annual meeting, where he won support from the chairman of the party that ended his term on Saturday. He then flew to South Carolina, where he deployed a high-powered group of supporters to the state capital. As political events unfolded, these were fairly common and expected steps for presidential candidates.

“Together we will finish the unfinished business of making America great again,” Trump said in Columbia, South Carolina.

Yet Trump does not start out as a virgin national candidate. Trump’s image is pretty well done at this point. A paltry 5% of Americans said they had no opinion on the only president who was impeached twice and whose actions following the 2020 election led to a deadly attack on the Capitol, according to the latest CNN poll. Trump may want to campaign as a traditional candidate with the universal support befitting a former president, but that’s not his core skill, and he appears to lack the skills to keep his ship afloat when around two dozen would-be pirates are at the docks and considering their own next steps.

For potential Trump challengers, Saturday’s showing shouldn’t have scared anyone out of the running. Of course, Trump can always butcher political red meat with the best of them; he can strike down his foes without flinching, call the modern Democratic Party a tribe of socialists, Marxists and communists, and disparage Black Lives Matter protesters as criminals. But mentions of Hunter Biden’s wandering laptop seemed to land with a thud, and audience members seemed to go numb as ‘Crooked Hillary’ Clinton chimed in with remarks that sounded like a time capsule from a while ago. six years. Her boasts of being called “your excellency” now just sound sad.

Trump has a rich reservoir of material to mine, of course. If you take away his crass mannerism and slam-dunk rhetoric, his agenda as president has actually given conservatives much of the wish list that has been incomplete since the Reagan era. Trump cleverly pointed to the latent – ​​and not so latent – ​​public dissatisfaction with the border crisis, the economic disparities inherent in globalization, the rampant drug abuse crisis in this country. He, in turn, reshaped the modern GOP to suit his needs.

On this new New Hampshire jaunt, he used a more aggressive pivot for parenting rights and education — including, sadly, a lot of talk about school sports and trans kids — but he was lost in the process. in the midst of so much noise.

Former presidents leave office with truly unique stories, and Trump is no exception. On Saturday, amid a salvage of anti-trans exclusionary ideas and the outright election of school principals by anti-woke parents, Trump told the story of landing in another country. and to be shocked that Air Force One had to dim its lights and draw the shades for safety precautions. He spoke of his negotiating sessions with the Taliban and the five telephone operators who helped him make calls. Corporate clients could pay top dollar to hear such anecdotes on the conference circuit. Presidents Club members order six figures for an afternoon at a convention center, and Trump’s time in DC is certainly ripe for story time.

Which, if you listen carefully to public activists at Republican events in recent years — and especially after Jan. 6, 2021 — is where many party members would prefer Trump to spend his days. For a tee, they’re all praising what Trump has been able to accomplish, but aren’t exactly eager to rush into late-night tweets, performative trolling from anyone not wrapped in a Trump fleece, or erratic policy-making by intuition. These are objectively good anecdotes, though it’s unclear how any of them help convince voters that Trump should be given the nuclear codes again.

“I liked President Trump’s politics,” Michael Loftus told me as we waited in the school hallway for Trump to begin his speech. “But it is so divisive,” continues the 67-year-old retiree from Newport. “To move forward, we need someone who is not so controversial.”

That, no matter how much sandpaper Trump brings to his new workshop, will never be the case. That’s why Senator Lindsey Graham, appearing with Trump in South Carolina, took direct aim at this criticism: “How many times have you heard, ‘We like Trump’s policies, but we want someone new?’ There is no Trump politics without Donald Trump.

There may not be a Republican Party either.

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