Donald Trump hit the 2024 campaign trail for the first time over the weekend, making stops in New Hampshire and South Carolina.
It was an underwhelming weekend.
Multiple news outlets took note of the fact that Trump — an ex-president mind you — spoke to just 400 people in New Hampshire, a far cry from his massive rallies as a candidate in 2016 and 2020.
Others noted that Trump’s speech — in New Hampshire especially — was rambling and, well, boring. Time magazine described the address as “stream-of-conscious remarks that seemed vamped.”
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New Hampshire Republican Gov. Chris Sununu, a regular Trump critic, was even more dismissive of the former president.
“Frankly he gave a very mundane speech,” Sununu said. “The response we've received was 'he read the teleprompter, he stuck to the talking points, he went away. He's not really bringing that fire, that energy I think that a lot of folks saw in '16. I think in many ways it was a little disappointing to some folks."
So, what gives? Did Trump lose his mojo somewhere between 2020 and now? And can he get it back?
Here’s what I think is happening here: Trump is struggling in a race without any opponents. Without a foil to run against, he is powerless — or close to it.
Think back to the 2016 election. From the second Trump got into the race, he always had someone to run against.
At first it was former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush, who was the perceived frontrunner for the nomination. Trump spent months blasting Jeb as “low energy” (ironic!) and someone who was part of the old Republican party that he was running against.
(In those early days, Trump also would occasionally swerve to attack Kentucky Sen. Rand Paul as well; at the start of one GOP debate in 2015, Trump said of Paul: “First of all, Rand Paul shouldn't even be on this stage. He got number 11. He's got 1 percent in the polls and how he got up here — there's far too many people anyway.”)
When Bush was vanquished, Trump turned his fire to Florida Sen. “Little” Marco Rubio.
Rubio briefly engaged with Trump — remember the hand size debate? — to his detriment.
After Rubio came Texas Sen. “Lyin’’ Ted Cruz, the last man standing between Trump and the Republican nomination. Trump went after Cruz’s wife’s looks, his father’s alleged involvement in the assassination of John F. Kennedy and his faith.
The general election was more of the same. Trump attacked Hillary Clinton’s health, her character and her readiness to do the job.
The method was the same — over and over again. Trump talked almost nothing about his own plans if elected. He spent the bulk of his time on the campaign trail running down his selected opponent. It’s what animated and energized him.
For Trump, running for office wasn’t (and isn’t) about outlining a vision for what he would do in office; it was about identifying his enemy and then doing everything he could to destroy that person.
Marc Fisher of the Washington Post wrote the book, literally, on Trump (it’s called “Trump Revealed.”) I talked to Marc for my own forthcoming book (pre-order now!) and he had some interesting insight on what motivates Trump — and why his campaign isn’t lighting anyone on fire these days.
“In the world of sports as in politics as in business as in his personal life, the same rules apply,” Fisher told me. “You are either a winner or a loser. If you are a loser you barely have any reason to live…[Trump] defines winning as beating some guy —showing up some fancy person.”
That right there gets to the nub of it. For Trump, campaigns are about “beating some guy — showing up some fancy person.” It’s about finding the weak spot in the person trying to beat you and using it to destroy them. Everything in Trump’s world is seen through the lens of combat, of either beating or being beaten.
Which brings me back to our current moment. Trump is the only announced candidate for president in either party. (Read this for some theories as to why Trump announced so early.) There’s no one to bully. No one directly in front of him to beat. No opponent.
Which puts the burden on Trump to say, well, stuff that a candidate would. Like policy proposals. Or a vision for the country if he wins.
Which he has never really been able to do. When he does try to do it, Trump reads the speech off a teleprompter with a wooden delivery that is a striking break from his usual off-the-cuff style.
What we are seeing is that Donald Trump without someone to run against is, well, sort of boring. The thrill is most definitely gone.
Now, this state will not last forever. Former South Carolina Gov. Nikki Haley is expected to get into the Republican race as soon as next month. Former Secretary of State Mike Pompeo looks like a candidate. Ditto former vice president Mike Pence. And, eventually, Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis will run.
So, Trump, relatively soon, will have people to run against. Will that fix what has ailed his 2024 campaign to date? Maybe. But right now there’s no question that Trump is struggling to rekindle the magic of his past races.
Wish trump's 'motivation' would not be described as 'combat'. It's bullying. He's either being 'victimized', or looking for someone to bully. It's NOT combat.
I would love to see him flounder away and self combust. Grew up outside NYC, he was always in the news and couldn’t stand the lying, bullying, man-child. How he won in 2016 still stuns me. Yes, I understand how it happened but can’t fathom that anyone would vote for him. Good God, if he’s elected again we have more problems than we can even imagine. Someone else needs to win the primary, for the country’s sake.