In his marathon speech to a gathering of conservative activists last weekend, Donald Trump unloaded more than 16,000 words, according to the official White House transcript.
But amid all the meandering and asides, the belittling taunts (“Little Shifty Schiff” for Democratic Representative Adam Schiff) and geysers of grievance, Trump may have synthesized the essence of his reelection strategy in just three words toward the back end of his two-hour harangue: “I’ll protect you.”
With that concise phrase, Trump revealed volumes about his view of the electorate and the coalition that he hopes will carry him to a second term. The comment underscored his determination to convince his followers of a two-stage proposition: First, that they are “under siege,” as he put it, by an array of forces that he presented as either hostile to their interests or contemptuous of their values, and second, that only he can shield them from those threats.
That dark and martial message shows that Trump continues to prioritize energizing his core supporters—blue-collar, older, and nonurban whites uneasy about demographic, cultural, and economic change—even at the price of further alienating voters dismayed or disgusted by his behavior as president. It also shows that, even as an incumbent, Trump is drawn far more toward running on fear than on hope. At points in his speech to the Conservative Political Action Conference (CPAC), Trump dutifully followed the usual path of presidents seeking reelection and touted the economic progress since his inauguration—the message that most Republican strategists believe represents his best opportunity to recapture white-collar suburbanites in particular. But Trump showed far more passion in warning against all the dangers he described as massing against his supporters. The speech demonstrated yet again that he’s more comfortable positioning himself as the lone sentry manning the watch at “midnight in America” than as the optimist who has delivered “morning in America,” as Ronald Reagan memorably put it.