What We Learned From Trump’s Orlando Rally

ORLANDO, Fla. — President Trump kicked off his 2020 re-election campaign on Tuesday night in Orlando. Here are eight takeaways.

Despite weeks of hype from the president and his campaign, the official kickoff rally for a re-election campaign that he has been running since the day he took office was, in the end, just another rally. Mr. Trump had no new campaign message to unveil. He had no new theory of the case to mount against any of his potential opponents.

He instead spent much of his time relitigating his outrage against Hillary Clinton’s email server, promising that he would build a wall that was “stronger, bigger, better and cheaper” and talking about the “Russia hoax.” When Mr. Trump seemed to sense that the crowd’s energy was sagging, he quickly started polling attendees about what campaign slogan he should use.

Mr. Trump’s portrait of the state of the country was bleak. Democrats, he said, are trying to undo his election and “rip” the Constitution apart. The infamous “swamp” of Washington that he promised to drain is still there, he said, seeping back into the foundations of the capital. And socialism is a threat at the gates.

Fear is a powerful motivator in all things, but particularly politics, and the president has deployed it with abandon over the last four years. This rally was no exception as he spoke of immigrants pouring over the border, the danger of gangs and jobs under threat from competition overseas.

The Trump campaign rented buses across Florida to bring in supporters. The result was a packed 20,000-seat arena, with an overflow audience outside. The president’s aides pointed out that the numbers were a contrast with those of most Democrats in the field.

Numbers have been Mr. Trump’s calling card throughout his career, and his rallies in 2016 put him on the map as a contender in a packed Republican primary race. He proved on Tuesday night that he can still draw a Beyoncé-size crowd in a state he won three years ago. But the crowd began to thin out before Mr. Trump was finished speaking, leaving patches of blue seats in the sea of red caps.

Mr. Trump’s campaign is building for him a traditional apparatus when it comes to its fund-raising and digital operations. But when it comes to the message of the re-election campaign, his aides are leaving it all up to him. The question is whether he can still set the agenda the way he did in 2016, when every candidate felt compelled to respond to his outlandish remarks.

It was not clear whether he still can do that. He said little new in his remarks Tuesday night, and CNN broke away from him after shortly after he began. Mr. Trump has always thrived on an ability to shock, but he might have fewer tricks this time around.

Mr. Trump turned to familiar turns of phrase by telling his supporters that he was fighting on their behalf, giving them a sense of ownership over his election. He described them as part of a movement that helped sweep him into office and helped “restore” power to voters in 2016.

But he was at his most specific when he described efforts to investigate him as a way to undermine his voters. “They are really going after you,” Mr. Trump said of efforts in the Democrat-led House to investigate his finances and allegations of malfeasance in his administration. In one of his most poignant moments, he said that when he walked into the White House for the first time, “I have never forgotten who sent me there.”

And he told attendees that their collective “political opponents” looked on their values “with hatred.”

The president has a front-runner in former Vice President Joseph R. Biden Jr. and more than 20 other candidates in the Democratic primary race whom he could target as foils. But he made clear in the first 11 minutes of his kickoff rally that the news media would be his main target for the next 17 months. “The fake news” was a phrase that he uttered at least four times in those minutes, pointing to journalists and egging on the boos and jeers of his supporters.

The news media, in Mr. Trump’s telling, is denying him credit he is due. The news media, in Mr. Trump’s telling, is helping spread the “Russian hoax,” which is what he has called the investigation by the special counsel, Robert S. Mueller III, into Russian interference in the election and whether the Trump campaign was involved. The overarching theme? Mr. Trump has been mistreated.

Mr. Trump’s victory in Florida in November 2016 was a piece of the puzzle in beating Mrs. Clinton, and his campaign is aware of the need for a show of strength in the state. So is Mr. Trump, who in his remarks described it as his “second home” where he owns a private resort, Mar-a-Lago, and a golf club.

The state is notoriously hard to poll and elections in Florida are always close, as anyone who recalls the 2000 presidential race can confirm. Mr. Trump is mindful that he needs to be in the state early and often.

For now he’ll take Hillary. He mentioned Mrs. Clinton by name more than half a dozen times before at least one mention each of two leading Democratic contenders in this cycle, Mr. Biden and Senator Bernie Sanders of Vermont.

Mr. Trump has been telling aides he wants to run against Mr. Biden because it is a race he recognizes. He views Mr. Biden as a male version of Mrs. Clinton — a centrist candidate who will allow him to run again as an outsider. But if his opponent is Mr. Sanders or Senator Elizabeth Warren, the president’s aides expect the race to play out along ideological lines, with Mr. Trump railing against socialism.

But without a clear opponent, Mr. Trump seemed content on Tuesday to hold up the specter of Mrs. Clinton. He talked about her deleted emails from the private server she used while she was the secretary of state. He suggested he would have been sent to the “electric chair” had he done the same thing. And he recalled how she denigrated his supporters as “deplorables.”

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