Written by Maggie Haberman, Annie Karni and Michael D. Shear
President Donald Trump delivered a fierce denunciation of his rivals, the news media and the political establishment Tuesday as he rallied a huge crowd of raucous supporters in Florida to officially open his reelection campaign, evoking the dark messaging and personal grievances that animated his 2016 victory.
Almost four years to the day since he announced his first, improbable run for public office from the basement of Trump Tower in Manhattan, Trump mocked and disparaged Democrats, calling them the leaders of an “angry, left-wing mob” and declaring that the 2020 election will be a “verdict on the un-American conduct of those who tried to undermine our great democracy, undermine you.”
He extolled his record as president — especially his tax cuts, deregulation and the growing economy — but did not offer any new policies or a cohesive new agenda for a second term that might expand his political appeal. As he formally declared his intention to run again, he told the audience that his new slogan would be “Keep America Great,” pledging to wage a relentless battle on behalf of his supporters.
“Our political opponents look down with hatred on our values and with utter disdain for the people whose lives they want to run,” Trump told a packed arena, later mocking Joe Biden, the former vice president and a Democratic rival for the presidency, as “Sleepy Joe.”
But for the most part, Trump avoided mentioning the nearly two dozen Democrats competing for the right to challenge him. With only a few exceptions, he resisted the temptation to use his favorite denigrating nicknames.
Standing in front of a sea of people wearing his signature red “Make America Great Again” hats, Trump unleashed a torrent of attacks, falsehoods, exaggerations and resentments that were the trademark of his first campaign and have been on almost daily display during his time in the White House. His warning for his voters: The establishment will stop at nothing to rob you of another four years.
“They tried to take away your dignity and your destiny. But we will never let them do that, will we?” the president said, declaring victory over a political machine that opposed his election. “They tried to erase your vote, erase your legacy of the greatest campaign, probably the greatest election in the history of our country.”
Egged on by the enthusiastic crowd, the president cited a familiar list of grievances during his 76-minute speech. He railed against the “witch hunt” conducted against him by special counsel Robert Mueller and the “18 angry Democrats” who worked with him even as he insisted — falsely — that Mueller had cleared him of all wrongdoing in the Russia election meddling case and the obstruction of justice investigation that followed. And he remained fixated on his 2016 opponent, Hillary Clinton, and her “33,000 emails,” once again prompting chants of “lock her up.”
For Trump, Tuesday’s rally was the beginning of what polls suggest will be a difficult 18 months as he seeks another four years in the White House. Already trailing Democrats in many voter surveys and having never cracked 50% in approval ratings since taking office, Trump has turned himself into one of the most polarizing presidents in U.S. history.
But his decision to formally start his reelection bid in front of a frenzied crowd of die-hard supporters made it clear that he has no intention of backing away from the dire warnings about immigration and trade that have been his focus since he announced for the presidency in 2015. Nor will he abandon the personal attacks against his critics and the establishment that have supercharged his most loyal fans.
Instead, Trump is betting that the 2020 campaign will be a “Back To The Future” replay of the 2016 one, when a reality TV star and New York real estate mogul campaigned as a disrupter with nothing to lose and shook the political establishment to its core. This time, though, he will have the full support of the Republican establishment backing his campaign.
In his inaugural address, Trump bragged about having begun a historic movement fueled by the anger and frustration of Americans whose fortunes had been ignored by the ruling establishment in both parties. He promised an end to American carnage and vowed that the “forgotten men and women of our country will be forgotten no longer.”
To win reelection, Trump must convince those supporters that he has not forgotten them despite having failed to make good on some of the most important campaign promises. The wall he promised along the border with Mexico is still not built. Obamacare has not been fully repealed. The nation’s infrastructure is still aging and crumbling. The economy is booming, but many people still feel the sting of financial uncertainty.
Giant television screens, food trucks, a band known as the Guzzlers and a celebration of all things Trump turned the 20,000-seat Amway Center into something between a playoff game and a music festival before Trump strode to the lectern.
Trump supporters stood in a downpour for hours before the main event, waiting to get into the arena. Some had been die-hard supporters since Trump opened his previous bid in 2015. Some were newer converts, who said they have been convinced over the past four years that his policies have improved their lives. And others came hoping to hear of what his intentions were if he were reelected.
“I just want to hear what his plans are for the next term,” said Terry Castro, 72, a retired business owner from Florida whose husband served in the military.
That was part of the challenge for the Trump campaign as it planned the event for a candidate who has not articulated a clear vision for what he wants to do with a second term.
But for a president who wants to be seen as an outsider despite occupying the Oval Office, the rally presented an opportunity to, at least for one night, turn the clock back to 2015, when Trump began campaigning as a disrupter with little to lose by making bold promises like the construction of a wall along the southwestern border.
But the stakes this time are much higher. And despite the accessories, and a crowd size Trump will be able to brag about, aides privately acknowledged before the speech that the candidate would offer little new in his message.
Trump, after all, has been running for reelection since he moved into the White House: He filed papers with the Federal Election Commission for his reelection campaign on Jan. 20, 2017, the day he was inaugurated. The MAGA rallies he has regularly held in friendly red states have lost their novelty and much of the news media’s interest.
But the rally was expected to help consolidate his base in a must-win state where advisers view his poll numbers as too soft to be comfortable. Campaign officials are also hoping that packing a 20,000-seat stadium, a show of force no Democratic candidate can match, will reassure Trump, who has been rattled by his flagging poll numbers and frustrated by watching from the sidelines as the Democratic primary race heats up.
Without a new message or a clear agenda for a second term, Trump’s advisers are banking on the belief that the same basic playbook — Trump’s preternatural ability to shock and entertain — will again animate his core voters and retain the swing voters who gambled on him in 2016.
It remains to be seen if that strategy will succeed again or whether something new will emerge. “Trump hasn’t yet said how he wants to define the race,” said Jason Miller, a communications adviser on the 2016 campaign. “That’s ultimately going to be up to him.”