What is left to say about one of these things? On a Tuesday night at an arena, Donald Trump delivered remarks for an hour and 18 minutes. He talked about all of the things he has been talking about since 2015, when he began his campaign for the Republican presidential nomination, and all of the things he has added to the list of things he talks about since then. The arena was in America, which he says is a great place now, but could become bad very quickly were voters to make the wrong choice in the next presidential election. Members of Congress and the First Family were inside. Members of the Proud Boys were outside. Specifically, we were all in Orlando, but it could’ve been anywhere.
The only distinction was a minor change in branding. Trump called this rally “45 Fest,” and it was billed as the official start to his campaign for reelection. It’s not clear yet what — if anything — this means. How will the technical “start” of the campaign change anything, when most of the president’s time and verbal energy is already (and, really, always has been) spent campaigning in one way or another? It means a busier rally schedule, probably. Some more fundraisers. A higher volume of tweets lobbed in the general direction of the swarm of Democratic presidential candidates. As Vice-President Mike Pence reminded the crowd, the election is a ways off: “The 503 day campaign for America’s future starts tonight,” he said.
The glowing banners in the Amway Center said “KEEP AMERICA GREAT,” the new slogan the president has been halfheartedly referencing since he was elected. Smaller banners said “MAGA,” the acronym for the old one. Trump sounded uncertain about the alteration. As if talking to himself, he asked, who would change the most successful political slogan of all time? He joked (I think?) that if he loses, people will attribute the loss to his decision to adopt a new slogan. He riffed on this point for a moment, eventually concluding that the campaign had picked a new slogan that worked. At his request, the crowd chanted the phrase.
Standing next to me in the press pen, Congressman Matt Gaetz was watching but not chanting. In Florida, Gaetz represents the First District, but in Washington, he often represents Trump. He’s a loyal supporter and frequent cable news surrogate for the administration. Gaetz was in the press pen because he was looking for a Fox News camera and, later, when he appeared, Sean Hannity offered to let him host his show for an hour. Half-joking, I asked Gaetz why he wasn’t chanting. “I’m chanting on the inside,” he said, deadpan. Then he added, “If he loses, people will definitely point to this moment as the turning point, not Charlottesville.” I said I couldn’t tell if he was bullshitting me. With a smirk, he said, “Yes, you can.”
What else? Obviously, in talking about everything he talks about, Trump got most of it wrong, in one way or another, intentionally or accidentally or whatever the word would be for doing something accidentally but not caring about the accident. He lied, exaggerated, and misinterpreted. He spoke in that particularly bountiful, hyper-specific, yet somehow general and meaningless style in which he speaks. At one point, he said, “We will come up with the cures for many, many problems, many diseases, including cancer and others,” which brought to mind a similar promise made during his 2015 announcement speech in Trump Tower: “Just to sum up, I would do various things very quickly.”
And he talked a lot about Hillary Clinton, which, yeah, he always does. But there was something different about watching it in the context of the beginning of the new presidential campaign, something more pathetic and eerie about the chants of “LOCK HER UP” following the references to “Crooked Hillary” two and a half years after the election in which Trump defeated her.
Outside of the venue earlier in the day, Bob Kunst stood behind a fort of hand-drawn signs. I first met Kunst a few years ago, at some political event or other. He’s always outside these events with hand-drawn signs, usually wearing an eye-catching T-shirt, most often a bright blue one that reads “INFIDEL” in white block letters. During the 2016 election, I saw him so much, wearing that T-shirt and sometimes a Hillary Clinton mask over his face, that I was often comforted when I saw him outside somewhere, or walking with his props, because it confirmed that I’d arrived at the correct place in my rental car. But on Tuesday, I think we were all in the wrong place — Kunst included.
On his T-shirt was a pair of sunglasses with American flag frames and the caption “I CAN SEE CLEARLY TRUMP 2020.” He held a sign that read “HILLARY FOR PRISON.” The others surrounding him: “IMPEACH DISGUSTING DEMORATS” [misspelling probably intentional] and “TRUMP VS TRAMP.”
It seemed like he hadn’t even bothered — or needed — to make new ones.