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Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883

What did we learn from Trump’s Waco rally? He’s stuck in the past

Former president Donald Trump addresses supporters during a rally in Waco, Texas, on March 25, 2023.
Charles M. Blow New York Times

In the first big rally of his 2024 presidential campaign, Donald Trump didn’t dwell on the symbolism of speaking in Waco amid the 30th anniversary of the deadly siege there that still serves as a right-wing cri de coeur against federal authority.

He didn’t have to.

This speech, like so many of his speeches, was a mix of lies, hyperbole, superlatives, invectives, doomsaying, puerile humor and callbacks to old grievances – messaging that operates on multiple levels.

Some of his followers hear a call to arms. Some hear their private thoughts given voice. Others hear the lamentations of a valiant victim. Still others hear a wry jokester poking his finger into the eye of the political establishment.

In attacking Gov. Ron DeSantis of Florida – a likely rival for the Republican nomination – for perceived disloyalty, Trump invoked a former Tallahassee mayor, Andrew Gillum, who ran against DeSantis in 2018. A year and a half later, Gillum was found in a Miami Beach hotel room with what reports called “a reputed male escort and suspected methamphetamine.”

But those facts weren’t enough for Trump, who turned up the sensationalism, calling Gillum a “crackhead,” getting a laugh from the crowd.

It’s a standard part of Trump’s routine: Comedians aren’t bound by the truth – or the sensitivities of race, gender and sexuality – after all. To get laughs, they’re granted license to engage in all manner of distortion, and that’s what Trump does.

In fact, Trump’s entertainment quotient doesn’t get nearly as much attention and analysis as it deserves. His supporters like him in part because of the irreverence he brings to the political arena.

He called Stormy Daniels “horse-face” and said that if he’d had an affair, she would “not be the one” – a remark not only crude and sexist, but one that belies the reality that more than a dozen women have accused him of sexual improprieties.

Remember: Before Trump, when national politicians were of the more traditional variety, a man commenting on a woman’s looks, even in an attempt to flatter, was rightly off limits. A decade ago, when President Barack Obama jokingly called Kamala Harris the “best-looking attorney general in the country,” he was so roundly criticized that he was forced to apologize.

But when Trump disparaged Daniels, the crowd cheered him on.

Trump is the Andrew Dice Clay of American politics, appealing to machismo, misogyny and mischief – a type of character that’s a constant in American culture.

Clay himself was just a darker version of characters from 1970s pop culture, like Danny in “Grease” and Fonzie in “Happy Days.” And they were just bubble gum-and-giggles versions of characters played by James Dean in the 1950s.

Trump took an American archetype and added horror, actual political power and a potentially empire-ending ego. His humor and audacity are often part of the narrative of the American folk hero, a status that Trump has attained among his followers.

Indeed, the atmosphere outside of Saturday’s rally, on a beautiful spring day, felt like tailgating before a concert.

This is part of what makes Trump so dangerous. For some, the extreme fandom creates community. For others, Trump worship could inspire violent fanaticism, as we saw on Jan. 6, 2021.

It’s a formula, and among die-hard Trump fans, it works. But, as the charm of the formula fades, it may also prove to be Trump’s Achilles’ heel. He’s stuck in a backward-facing posture when the country is moving forward. Instead of vision, Trump offers revision.

Trump is still exaggerating old accomplishments, relitigating a lost election and marking enemies for retribution. He’s stuck in a rut.

He has an obsession with enemies, personal, real or perceived. He needs them, otherwise he’s a warrior without a war.

All the while, Republicans around the country looking for someone new, arguably led by DeSantis, have moved on to their own war, a new war, a culture war.

It’s not focused on them personally but on using parental fears to further oppressive policies. While Trump disparaged minorities on a national level – civil rights protesters, immigrants and Muslims – today’s Republicans have started to codify oppression on a local level.

They provide legislative bite for Trump’s rhetorical bark. They’re what Trumpism looks like without him, what intolerance looks like when you dress it up and make it dance.

They’re the vanguards of the ridiculous war on wokeness. But this isn’t Trump’s lane. It’s not his invention. And his pride resists a full embrace of it.

Trump spoke for about an hour and half Saturday but mostly saved the culture-war rhetoric for the end, threatening an executive order to cancel funding to schools that teach critical race theory, “transgender insanity” or “racial, sexual or political content.”

It was a sweeping threat but even there he promised to do it through easily reversible executive dictate rather than through more sturdy legislative mechanisms.

Trump had a moment. He won an election (even if it came with Russian connections and James Comey’s bad judgment). And for four years, the proverbial inmates ran the asylum. But that time has passed. Trump hasn’t moved, but the ground beneath him has shifted.

After Trump’s speech, I went back to listen to his first speech after announcing his candidacy in 2015. The tone and themes were strikingly similar. He hasn’t grown much, personally or politically, since then. He’s more sure of himself and more vulgar, but narcissism is still his engine.

Ultimately, if his legal issues don’t do him in, his inability to grow beyond nostalgia and negativity could.

Being the personification of a television rerun, a horror comedy with retro reference, isn’t a match for this moment. This is not 2016.

This article originally appeared in The New York Times.