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Trump brings divisiveness and invective back to the rally stage

President Trump speaks at a Sept. 22 campaign rally at Pittsburgh International Airport in Moon Township, Pa. (Mandel Ngan/AFP/Getty Images)

President Trump mocked Rep. Ilhan Omar (D-Minn.) from the stage, sarcastically dismissing her as “a beauty” and taking umbrage that the Somali-born Muslim lawmaker — a U.S. citizen — would dare to offer suggestions on how to run “our country.”

“How the hell did she win the election,” he snarled.

Trump accused Joe Biden, his Democratic presidential rival, of taking performance-enhancing drugs, crudely — and baselessly — alleging that the former vice president turned in a good debate performance only after his aides gave him “a big fat shot in the ass.”

And he claimed — falsely — that the deadly coronavirus, which has so far killed more than 200,000 Americans, “affects virtually nobody” and that states should reopen their schools.

In eight rallies over nine days, the president has offered a closing argument to voters that is both dark and outlandish, marked by offensive rhetoric laden with grievance.

Campaign advisers and allies say Trump has been agitating to get back out on the campaign trail in defiance of the coronavirus pandemic, resuming the rallies that energize his base and became a symbol of his underdog victory in 2016. The president believes that he alone, unfiltered, and speaking directly to voters, helped lift his campaign four years ago and that it will be key to his reelection as well.

Trump is running for a second term the only way he seems to know how: Off-script, with little to no discipline, spewing controversy and viscera from the stage. Yet if his words are divisive and shocking, they are also familiar — and may have lost some of their ability to persuade voters.

“If he’s doing his typical base-rallying rhetoric, it doesn’t have an impact because it has already fully polarized everybody over these past four years,” said Amy Walter, national editor for the Cook Political Report.

An ABC town hall with Trump earlier this month trailed behind CBS’s “Big Brother” and NBC’s “America’s Got Talent” in the ratings. The president’s acceptance speech at the Republican National Convention last month also lost in the ratings to Biden’s acceptance speech the week prior, as well as compared with his own 2016 convention speech.

A new Washington Post-ABC News poll released Sunday, meanwhile, showed the race largely unchanged since before the conventions, with Biden leading Trump by 10 points among likely voters, 54 percent to 44 percent, with the Democrat leading the incumbent by 30 points among women and with 58 percent disapproving of his handling of the coronavirus.

“This is Trump being Trump,” said Frank Sesno, a professor at George Washington University’s School of Media & Public Affairs and a former Washington bureau chief at CNN. “This is Trump unfettered and unbound. There are no advisers around him who are warning him of the dangers of an exclusionary message.”

Analysis: Trump’s rally rhetoric is becoming uglier

Still, Sesno added, Trump’s relatively steady poll numbers reflect “remarkable stability for such an unstable time and presidency.”

“He feeds red meat to his audience and his audience expects red meat,” Sesno said. “The vegetarians know this is the place for red meat and they go elsewhere.”

At his recent rallies, Trump has repeatedly downplayed the coronavirus, claiming, as he did two Fridays ago in Bemidji, Minn., that “we’re rounding the turn on covid” and that his administration’s response has been “phenomenal.”

Last Monday in Dayton, Ohio, Trump riffed that his team has done “such a good job except in terms of public relations” when it comes to the pandemic, and later that evening, several hours north in Swanton, Ohio, Trump felt emboldened enough to claim that the virus “affects virtually nobody,” and crowed, “Open your schools! Everybody open your schools!”

By Tuesday, in Moon Township, Pa., Trump even turned the deadly pandemic into a joke — that it sounds like “a beautiful villa.”

“Corona sounds like a place in Italy, a beautiful place — it’s corona,” he said. “No, it’s the China virus.”

At the rally in Minnesota — which is more than 83 percent white, according to the U.S. Census Bureau — the president expounded on the greatness of the state, crediting its citizens’ high-quality genetic makeup.

“You have good genes, you know that, right?” Trump said. “You have good genes. A lot of it’s about the genes, isn’t it? Don’t you believe that? The racehorse theory — do you think we’re so different? You have good genes in Minnesota.”

And Trump painted a dystopian vision of a nation under a Biden presidency, warning in Bemidji that the state would be turned “into a refugee camp” and “overrun and destroyed if Biden and the racial left win.”

Trump’s escalating attacks on election prompt fears of a constitutional crisis

The next evening, in Fayetteville, N.C, Trump said with no evidence that Biden “wants to indoctrinate your children with poisonous anti-American lies” — a claim he repeated several times in the following days. In Ohio, he promised that Biden would “destroy suburbia,” adding that the former vice president would put Sen. Cory Booker (D-N.J.), who is Black, in charge of housing programs.

Trump’s whole gimmick, said Al Cárdenas, the former chairman of the Republican Party of Florida, is fear.

“There’s an authoritarian move in the country, and a lot of the folks who support him seem to have bought in on this authoritarian stuff, and it’s driven nationally by fear and fear of cultural change,” Cárdenas said. “Fear is a very good tool leading to authoritarian approval, and the Trump campaign is playing this authoritarian card well.”

Though the campaign initially curtailed Trump’s rally schedule — in part because of an embarrassing June rally in Tulsa, where a smaller-than-advertised crowd materialized — in recent weeks it has quietly resumed a more traditional schedule, albeit with mostly outdoor events.

Walter said that Trump’s freewheeling and fiery onstage performances seem driven, in part, by his craving for the adulation and energy he gleans from massive rallies.

“He seemed to just so desperately miss the crowd piece, that anytime he’s in front of a crowd, he just goes back into that crowd mode,” she said. “If this had been a normal year, where this was rally 7,000 instead of rally seven, I wonder if things would be a little different.”

Advisers say the campaign acquiesced to the president’s demand to get back out on the road, believing that rallies are a critical part of his success.

“You can’t get good Trump — the most charismatic, magnetic personality perhaps in the history of electoral politics — without the bad Trump,” said one campaign adviser, speaking on the condition of anonymity to share a candid assessment of the president. “The same qualities that make him this magnetic figure — the unpredictability, the comedy, the audacity — manifest themselves in good and bad ways, and if he didn’t do that, he probably wouldn’t be the same magnetic guy he is.”

Aides and allies say they have been exasperated by some of Trump’s recent rhetoric and believe he loses support when he is divisive and launches personal attacks. But they also say that much of what is labeled as problematic is simply overblown by the media and the Washington political class.

“His base loves him, and again, I do not think the American electorate — be it a portion of his base or undecided parts of the electorate — are noodling over a particular line of his speech,” said Brian O. Walsh, president of America First, a pro-Trump super PAC. “It’s been four years of noise, and we need to take that into context. Every day is a new headline saying this is a travesty or this is the end of the republic, and Americans are street smart and they get it.”

On Thursday, at a rally in Jacksonville, Fla., the president recycled some of his controversial assaults from earlier in the week, attacking Omar and mocking NBC’s Ali Velshi, who was hit by a rubber bullet while covering protests in Minneapolis.

Trump mispronounced Omar’s first name before claiming he was going to win in her home state because “they’re not too fond of her in Minnesota.”

“She has a total disrespect for our country and I think she has hatred for our country,” he said.

Previously, in Minnesota and Pennsylvania, Trump had also attacked Omar by talking about the U.S. citizen as a foreigner. “She’s telling us how to run our country,” Trump said Tuesday night in Moon Township. “How did you do where you came from? How is your country doing?”

Velshi, too, was a repeat target of Trump’s scorn, as the president regaled his crowds with a description of “that idiot reporter” getting injured covering the protests and describing it as “the most beautiful thing” and a stellar example of “law and order.”

“Now he got hit on the knee with a canister of tear gas,” Trump said Thursday. “They say it hurts, and that’s only going 52 miles an hour. A bullet goes about 2,000 miles an hour.”

Trump, who has spent months suggesting that Biden has cognitive problems, has now begun floating baseless claims that the former vice president is taking performance-enhancing drugs. “They gave him a big fat shot in the ass and he comes out and for two hours he’s better than ever before,” Trump said, apparently alluding to his concern that Biden may turn in a strong performance when the men face off Tuesday in the first presidential debate.

“Now we’re going to ask for a drug test, we are,” he said. “I’d like to have a drug test for both of us. I’ll take it, he’ll take it.”

Trump’s first indoor rally in months staged in defiance of coronavirus restrictions

In addition to railing against — again, without evidence — “fake ballots” from the rally stage, Trump also prompted widespread alarm this past week when he refused to commit to a peaceful transfer of power should he lose in November, and preemptively threw doubt on the result of any election in which he does not prevail.

“We want to make sure the election is honest, and I’m not sure that it can be,” the president said.

TJ Ducklo, a Biden campaign spokesman, said the campaign will continue pressing its own message about Trump’s bungled leadership.

“As horrible and offensive as many of his rallies are, he’s playing only to his base, not getting any meaningful media coverage, and doing nothing to appeal to the swing voters he needs to win. The musings of the hateful and erratic resident of 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue will not distract our campaign from talking about the issues that impact people’s lives — Trump’s failure to protect American lives during covid, his failure to get the economy back on track, and his failure to lead on racial justice.”

Trump campaign spokesman Tim Murtaugh, meanwhile, defended the president’s behavior, describing him as a counterpuncher when attacked.

“President Trump gives wide-ranging remarks at his campaign events, promoting his administration’s accomplishments and warning against the leftist agenda being carried by Joe Biden,” Murtaugh said, in an email statement. “Democrats and the media have spent every day of his presidency attacking him, undermining him, and trying to defeat him, and the President is one who likes to fight back.”

Packed rallies versus distanced gatherings: How Trump’s and Biden’s campaigns look different

Sesno said the ultimate impact of Trump’s nontraditional closing argument still remains to be seen.

“We say Trump has not paid a price for any of his extreme rhetoric, and in one way that’s correct,” Sesno said. “His base has held and he’s overtaken the party. But in another way he’s paid a terrible price — he’s been impeached, he has low approval ratings, he’s an underdog according to the polls.”

“But,” Sesno added, “it’s the way he’s led his life, and he’s going to see if he can get away with it again.”

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