Trump’s Confession

The former president’s campaign announcement included an inadvertent admission that he has a big problem.

Black-and-white close-up photo of Donald Trump speaking into a microphone
Joe Raedle / Getty

The critical consensus on Donald Trump’s 2024 campaign launch is that it was boring in both delivery—uninspired and listless—and content, mostly rehashing themes he’s played since he started running for president in 2015.

But underneath the weird ad libs and overwritten Stephen Miller rhetoric, the speech revealed a new and important challenge for his comeback attempt. In 2016, Trump’s appeal to many was that he was perceived as a bold truth-teller: Unlike both Democrats and his fellow Republicans (he and his backers contended), he was willing to say what everyone could see. But in 2024, Trump finds himself in the opposite position: trying to convince voters that reality is different from (and worse than) what they see and feel.

The early part of the speech was dedicated to the kind of doomsaying familiar from Trump’s 2016 nomination-acceptance speech or from his “American carnage” inaugural address in 2017.

“We are a nation in decline. We are a failing nation. For millions of Americans, the past two years under Joe Biden have been a time of pain, hardship, anxiety, and despair,” Trump said. “The blood-soaked streets of our once-great cities are cesspools of violent crimes which are being watched all over the world as leadership of other countries explain that this is what America and democracy is really all about.”

This account may appeal to hardcore MAGA fans (though not apparently to some speech attendees who sought in vain to step away), but as Trump himself acknowledged a few moments later, it doesn’t resonate with other voters. In launching his campaign, Trump had to reckon with the Republicans’ huge disappointment in the midterm elections, which most observers see as the result of voters rejecting the candidates and causes (especially election denial and ending the right to abortion) that he backed. He did so by deflecting blame—some to the GOP, and some to the voters, who he argued simply didn’t see what was happening around them. In short: The people have spoken—the bastards.

“Much criticism is being placed on the fact that the Republican Party should have done better, and frankly, much of this blame is correct, but the citizens of our country have not yet realized the full extent and gravity of the pain our nation is going through, and the total effect of the suffering is just starting to take hold,” he said. “They don’t quite feel it yet, but they will very soon. I have no doubt that by 2024, it will sadly be much worse and they will see much more clearly what happened and what is happening to our country, and the voting will be much different.”

Arguing that voters would agree if only they weren’t too dumb and blind to see is an uncomfortable position for any politician, but it’s especially challenging for Trump because his original appeal was built on his willingness to speak the supposedly obvious facts that other politicians would not. He would tell voters that the political system was rigged toward donors. He would say that free-trade policies had harmed many Americans. If they were racist or xenophobic, he’d speak their truths, too. The central appeal was common sense, even when it was neither common nor sensical.

Trump’s critics howled that this was absurd and that he was a serial liar. They were right, but they didn’t grasp that he was able to convey something that felt right to many Americans, an impression captured by a famous New Yorker cartoon by Paul Noth.

Why did that not work in the midterm elections, nor in 2020? What’s changed is not Trump’s rhetoric but the context in which he delivers it.

One problem is exaggeration. Crime is rising and this clearly does trouble voters as a group, as I wrote just before the election, and that is especially dangerous for Democrats. Americans want safe neighborhoods and are troubled by violence. But c’mon: “The blood-soaked streets of our once-great cities are cesspools of violent crimes”? Does anyone, even Miller, believe this?

Second, voters see the problems he’s talking about, but it doesn’t matter enough. A raft of data shows that voters this year were deeply concerned about the economy and crime, but they gave Democrats an unprecedentedly good showing anyway. One reason for this is backlash against the Supreme Court overturning Roe v. Wade (a decision issued by justices who comprise one of Trump’s signature accomplishments), but another, I’ve argued, is that voters are repulsed by Trump’s attacks on normalcy, rule of law, and the institutions of democracy—including the literal attack he incited on January 6, 2021.

Third, independent and centrist voters may have experienced Trump as a breath of fresh air and been willing to give him a chance to run the country in 2016, but now they’ve seen what happens when he tries. “I never respected critics,” Trump said last night. “They tell people what’s wrong, but they can’t do it themselves.” Yet that is exactly his M.O. Trump didn’t build his border wall, he didn’t repeal Obamacare, he didn’t cut the federal debt, he didn’t disarm North Korea—though he talked a good game about all of these things.

Trump’s dishonesty has started to catch up to him. Consider this account of his presidency from the announcement speech: “Two years ago when I left office, the United States stood ready for its golden age. Our nation was at the pinnacle of power, prosperity, and prestige, towering above all rivals, vanquishing all enemies, and striding into the future confident and so strong … There was never a time like this … When the virus hit our shores, I took decisive action and saved lives and the U.S. economy.”

Is this how you remember 2020? If not, you’ve seen a key weakness of the 2024 Trump campaign. Once, he was the guy telling people what other people were unwilling to say. Now he’s stuck begging them to believe something other than what they’ve seen.