Witcover: Trump promises re-run of 2016 hate and derision campaign

On the premise that that one ugly but successful presidential campaign warrants another, Donald Trump offered a reprise of 2016 at his recent kickoff rally in Orlando.

Complete with repeated lies about his own actions and policies and slanders against all Democratic challengers — particularly front-runner Joe Biden — the president dusted off his strategy of slash-and-burn, to the vocal approval of his assembled faithful.


He painted a broad-brush portrait of his "Make America Great Again" movement as having been "under assault from the very first day." Still, he said, "we accomplished more than any other president in the first two and a half years ... under circumstances that no other president had to deal with before, because we did it in the middle of a great and illegal witch hunt."

Mr. Trump went on in that vein, heaping one generality on another, insisting that "the only collusion was committed by the Democrats and fake news. ... They spent $40 million, probably a hell of a lot more than that. ... Nobody has been tougher on Russia than Donald," said the man who repeatedly has treated Vladimir Putin as his best friend.


The overflow crowd in Orlando cheered, applauded and occasionally booed as of old at references to the Democrats in 2015-16, when the enthusiasm for Mr. Trump's naked appeals to division had first fired up his constituency.

He used this repetition from his widely successful playbook then in an obvious and determined effort to revive the old mass excitement in the face of negative public-opinion polling, some of it provided by Democratic candidates seeking to depose him next year, suggesting his new vulnerability.

It clearly has gotten under his notoriously thin skin as he strives to fan the flames of voter resentment against what he calls "the elites." He argues they flaunt their privileged economic and social stature over middle-class working men and women who have strayed from the once faithful Democratic fold.

This demographic, especially in the Rust Belt, enabled Mr. Trump to carry Pennsylvania, Ohio, Michigan and Wisconsin in 2016, whose electoral votes delivered the Oval Office to him even as he lost the popular vote to Hillary Clinton by nearly 3 million ballots.

Joe Biden, who long has fashioned himself as Mr. Middle Class with his roots in coal-country Scranton, Pa., already has zeroed in on these states. Mr. Trump has tried to cast him as disloyal because Mr. Biden's father moved the family to Delaware in search of work when Joe was a boy.

More telling may be the former Delaware senator's record after 36 years in the Senate as a committed liberal but with some politically vulnerable votes, including support of President George W. Bush's invasion of Iraq in 2003. It was based on flawed intelligence that Iraq had weapons of mass destruction poised to attack the West.

Mr. Biden said then he cast his vote after the junior Mr. Bush told him he needed it to win United Nations support for military action. Mr. Bush never acquired it but went ahead anyway. Mr. Biden later said he eventually opposed the U.S. involvement. But that vote remains political ammunition in the arsenal of Democratic candidates against Mr. Biden who opposed the Bush war.

In the early months of the Democratic competition that has drawn an amazing 23 entrants, the self-identified progressives in the pack focused on Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders, comfortably ahead of them in the polls then. He has slipped somewhat by now, enabling some of these progressives to put Mr. Biden in their sights.


This week's two-night Democratic debate event may substantially clarify the outlook, discouraging some of the also-rans from carrying on. Some of them may have attained by then as much of the free television time they hoped for.

Others may not be able to maintain the foot soldiers on the ground required to organize in the flood of state caucuses and primaries beginning in Iowa and New Hampshire early in 2020.

Jules Witcover is a syndicated columnist and former long-time writer for The Baltimore Sun. His latest book is "The American Vice Presidency: From Irrelevance to Power" (Smithsonian Books). His email is