Analysis: Donald Trump rehashes nativist playbook as he seeks to cow Republican challengers

Lies. Check. Grievance. Check. Bluster. Check. A dystopian vision of the country that roundly rejected him. Check.

In the unedifying game of Donald Trump bingo, the speech he delivered from the gaudy, gold-leafed ballroom of his Mar-a-Lago resort in Florida had it all. Surrounded by a dwindling band of allies and advisers, the 76 year-old doubled down on the falsehoods and rhetoric that swept him into high office in 2016, and announced his intention to seek the Republican presidential nomination in 2024.

But in subtle ways, this was a different Trump speech. It purposefully avoided attacks on his enemies and competitors in the Republican party, and made only fleeting references to the wild-eyed conspiracy theories about election fraud which led to a deadly attack on the US Capitol, and ensured his place in infamy as the only US president to be impeached twice.

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Those omissions, and the timing of Trump’s speech, were significant. He may still be playing the strongman, but he is a diminished force. By announcing his candidacy before the final tally of the US midterm elections is in, he is seeking to steal a march on his rivals within the GOP, and attempting to quell the growing number of Republicans who cite the disappointing election results as evidence that Trump is yesterday’s man.

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To that end, there was one line in Trump’s meandering address that stood out above all others. Setting out the challenge of ousting Joe Biden from the White House, he implied that only he could deliver victory. “This is not a task for a politician or conventional candidate,” he said. “This is a task for a great movement.”

In those two sentences, the impelling force behind Trump’s attempt to become only the second president to serve two non-consecutive terms was laid bare. He cast himself as the wronged and vengeful autocrat, imploring his people to help return him to power.

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That represents a defining test of Republicans. Many in party clearly still view Trump as an asset. In early polling of the Republican primary race, he has a significant lead, and in the majority of national surveys, he is 20 to 30 points ahead of his nearest challenger, Ron DeSantis, the Florida governor widely viewed as the closest rival to Trump for the nomination.

Yet there may be tentative signs of a shift. On the eve of Trump's speech, the conservative group, Club for Growth, released polls which showed him trailing DeSantis in head-to-head matchups in Iowa and New Hampshire, states which hold early votes in the nomination process. Those results will provide encouragement among Republican power brokers who sense that, far from being an asset, Trump is, at best, a liability.

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Donald Trump's speech at his Mar-a-Lago resort in Florida marked the launch of his 2024 presidential campaign. Picture: Joe Raedle/Getty Images

What is clear is that the dire electoral performance of various Trump-endorsed, election-denying conspiracists in the midterms demonstrated that voters want something different. As Larry Hogan, the outgoing Republican governor of Maryland, observed: “I think it’s basically the third election in a row that Donald Trump has cost us the race, and it’s like ‘Three strikes, you’re out’.”

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It is perhaps a sign of Trump’s limited political powers that there was nothing in his Mar-a-Lago speech that was likely to change anyone’s opinion of him. It was an address so listless that even Sean Hannity, the Fox News host and long-time Trump supporter, chose to cut away before its conclusion.

At no point did Trump engage with the new political reality facing his party by acknowledging the poor performance of the candidates he had backed. Instead, he appeared to blame the midterm results on the electorate’s failure to grasp the “total effect of the suffering” under Biden.

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Indeed, suffering was a constant theme in a gloom-ridden speech. Just as Trump began his candidacy announcement in 2015 by warning that the country was in “serious trouble,” and spoke of “American carnage” at his inauguration address, he painted an apocalyptic vision of the US in 2022.

Reeling out well-trod nativist talking points, he described its cities as “cesspools of blood” and spoke of being “poisoned” by migrants with “bad and sinister” intentions. The wider world, he added, stood on the brink of nuclear war. The language and imagery was calculated, designed to invoke fear, mistrust, and division – the very forces must rely on if he is to get back into the White House.

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Trump, true to form, he also cast himself as a victim at the hands of the state in his attempts to reclaim the Oval Office, and railed that “the gravest threats to our civilization are not from abroad but from within.” It was an oblique reference to the mounting legal threats he faces, from the House select committee’s investigation into his role in the Capitol riots, to the various other lawsuits and investigations into the Trump Organisation’s finances. Those probes will continue, irrespective of Trump’s attempts to discredit them.

As is customary, Trump also kept fact checkers on their toes. Time and again, his hour-long speech delivered exaggeration and deceit in the form of a host of false and misleading claims. He insisted he imposed tariffs on Chinese goods, said sea levels would only rise by an eighth of an inch over the next three centuries, and boasted that his administration had fulfilled its signature policy of building a wall at the Mexico border.

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When Trump paused from threading one lie after another and took leave from his teleprompter, disarray inevitably followed. He said that under his leadership, the US went “decades without a war,”referenced the “House of Representators,” affected a bizarre impersonation of Angela Merkel, and promised to stop Biden winning in 2020,

There was a time when such malapropisms and gaffes would have invited scorn and laughter. But that moment has long since passed. Trump made it clear that he is deadly serious about reclaiming the presidency. How serious America is about stopping him will become clear over the next two years.

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