I’m sure you had better things to do on Saturday evening than watch Donald Trump rant for nearly two hours to an audience of cheering fans in Rome, Georgia. His speech was rambling, unhinged, vituperative, and oh-so-revealing. In his first rally since effectively clinching the Republican Presidential nomination, Trump made what amounted to his response to Joe Biden’s State of the Union address. It’s hard to imagine a better or more pointed contrast with the vision that, two days earlier, the President had laid out for America.

And yet, like so much about Trump’s 2024 campaign, this insane oration was largely overlooked and under-covered, the flood of lies and B.S. seen as old news from a candidate whose greatest political success has been to acclimate a large swath of the population to his ever more dangerous alternate reality. No wonder Biden, trapped in a real world of real problems that defy easy solutions, is struggling to defeat him.

This is partly a category error. Though we persist in treating the 2024 election as a race between an incumbent and a challenger, it is not that so much as a contest between two incumbents: Biden, the actual President, and Trump, the forever-President of Red America’s fever dreams. But Trump, while he presents himself as the country’s rightful leader, gets nothing like the intense scrutiny for his speeches that is now focussed on the current occupant of the Oval Office. The norms and traditions that Trump is intent on smashing are, once again, benefitting him.

Consider the enormous buildup before, and wall-to-wall coverage of, Biden’s annual address to Congress. It was big news when the President called out his opponent in unusually scathing terms, referring thirteen times in his prepared text to “my predecessor” in what was, understandably, seen as a break with tradition. Republican commentators grumbled about the sharply partisan tone of the President’s remarks and the loud decibel in which he delivered them; Democrats essentially celebrated those same qualities.

Imagine if, instead, the two speeches had been covered side by side. Biden’s barbed references to Trump were all about the former President’s offenses to American democracy. He called out Trump’s 2024 campaign of “resentment, revenge, and retribution” and the “chaos” unleashed by the Trump-majority Supreme Court when it threw out the decades-old precedent of Roe v. Wade. In reference to a recent quote from the former President, in which Trump suggested that Americans should just “get over it” when it comes to gun violence, Biden retorted, “I say: Stop it, stop it, stop it!” His sharpest words for Trump came in response to the ex-President’s public invitation to Russia to do “whatever the hell they want” to NATO countries that don’t spend what Trump wants them to on defense—a line that Biden condemned as “outrageous,” “dangerous,” and “unacceptable.”

Trump’s speech made little effort to draw substantive contrasts with Biden. Instead, the Washington Post counted nearly five dozen references to Biden in the course of the Georgia rally, almost all of them epithets drawn from the Trump marketing playbook for how to rip down an opponent—words like “angry,” “corrupt,” “crooked,” “flailing,” “incompetent,” “stupid,” and “weak.” Trump is, always and forever, a puerile bully, stuck perpetually on the fifth-grade playground. But the politics of personal insult has worked so well for Trump that he is, naturally, doubling down on it in 2024. In fact, one of the clips from Trump’s speech on Saturday which got the most coverage was his mockery of Biden’s stutter: a churlish—and, no doubt, premeditated—slur.

And yet there was the G.O.P. strategist Karl Rove, writing this week in the Wall Street Journal that it was Biden who had “lowered himself with shortsighted and counterproductive blows” in his State of the Union speech. Trump’s entire campaign is a study in grotesque slander, but Rove did not even mention Trump’s Georgia rally while sanctimoniously tut-tutting about Biden. And I don’t mean to single out Rove; it was hard to find any right-leaning commentators who did otherwise. This many years into the Trump phenomenon, they’ve figured out that the best way to deal with Trump’s excesses is simply to pretend they do not exist.

Hanging over both speeches was the increasingly burning question of performance, as the country is now forced to choose between two aging leaders aspiring to remain in the White House well into their eighties. Trump has arguably lowered the bar for Biden, with his constant insults aimed at the President’s age and capacity, and Biden managed to clear it, turning his State of the Union into an affirmation—for fretting Democratic partisans, at least—that he has the vigor and fight to keep going in the job.

Trump’s appearance in Georgia, by contrast, reflected a man not rooted in any kind of reality, one who struggled to remember his words and who was, by any definition, incoherent, disconnected, and frequently malicious. (This video compilation, circulating on social media, nails it.) In one lengthy detour, he complained about Biden once being photographed on a beach in his bathing suit. Which led him to Cary Grant, which led him to Michael Jackson, which led him back to the point that even Cary Grant wouldn’t have looked good in a bathing suit at age eighty-one. In another aside, he bragged about how much “women love me,” citing as proof the “suburban housewives from North Carolina” who travel to his rallies around the country. He concluded that portion of his speech by saying:

But it was an amazing phenomenon and I do protect women. Look, they talk about suburban housewives. I believe I’m doing well—you know, the polls are all rigged. Of course lately they haven’t been rigged because I’m winning by so much, so I don’t want to say it. Disregard that statement. I love the polls very much.

Makes perfect sense, right?

It was no surprise, of course, that Trump began his speech by panning Biden’s: “the worst President in history, making the worst State of the Union speech in history,” an “angry, dark, hate-filled rant” that was “the most divisive, partisan, radical, and extreme” such address ever given. As always, what really stuns is Trump’s lack of self-awareness. Remember his “American carnage” address? Well, never mind. Get past the unintended irony, though, and what’s striking is how much of Trump’s 2024 campaign platform is being built on an edifice of lies, and not just the old, familiar lies about the “rigged election” which have figured prominently in every speech Trump has made since his defeat four years ago.

Trump’s over-the-top distortions of his record as President—“the greatest economy in history”; “the biggest tax cut in history”; “I did more for Black people than any President other than Abraham Lincoln”—are now joined by an equally flamboyant new set of untruths about Biden’s Presidency, which Trump portrayed in Saturday’s speech as a hellish time of almost fifty-per-cent inflation and an economy “collapsing into a cesspool of ruin,” with rampaging migrants being let loose from prisons around the world and allowed into the United States, on Biden’s orders, to murder and pillage and steal jobs from “native-born Americans.” Biden, in Trump’s current telling, is both a drooling incompetent being controlled by “fascists” and a corrupt criminal mastermind, “weaponizing” the U.S. government and its criminal-justice system to come after his opponent. His campaign slogan for 2024 might be summed up by one of the rally’s pithier lines: “Everything Joe Biden touches turns to shit. Everything.”

Indeed, Trump’s efforts this year to blame Biden for literally everything have taken on a baroque quality even by the modern-day standards of the party that introduced Willie Horton and Swift-boating into the political lexicon. Consider their latest cause célèbre, the tragic recent death of a young woman, Laken Riley, in which the accused is an undocumented migrant. Trump explicitly blamed Biden and his “crime-against-humanity” border policies for her death. “Laken Riley would be alive today,” he said, “if Joe Biden had not willfully and maliciously eviscerated the borders of the United States and set loose thousands and thousands of dangerous criminals into our country.” Against such treachery, Trump offers a simple, apocalyptic choice: doomsday if Biden is reëlected, or liberation from “these tyrants and villains once and for all.” Wars will be ended at the mere thought of Trump retaking power; crime will cease; arrests will be made; dissenters will be silenced.

I recognize that a speech such as the one that Trump delivered the other night is hard to distill into the essence required of a news story. His detours on Saturday included complaints about Jeff Zucker, Arnold Schwarzenegger, Martha Stewart, Megyn Kelly, “the big plagiarizer from Harvard,” Ron “DeSanctimonious,” the Washington Post, “Trump-deranged judge” Lewis Kaplan, “the fascist and racist attorney general of New York State,” “corrupt Fani Willis,” Merrick Garland, and the F.B.I., which, Trump claimed, “offers one million dollars to a writer of fiction about Donald Trump to lie and say it was fact where Hunter Biden’s laptop from hell was Russian disinformation.” What was he talking about? I don’t know. The man has so many grievances and so many enemies that it is, understandably, hard to keep them straight.

But whether or not it’s news in the conventional sense, it’s easiest to understand the threat that Trump poses to American democracy most clearly when you see it for yourself. Small clips of his craziness can be too easily dismissed as the background noise of our times. The condemnation of his critics, up to and including the current President, can sound shrill or simply partisan. The fact checks, while appalling, never stop the demagogue for whom the “bottomless Pinocchio” was invented.

On Tuesday, days after this performance, Trump and Biden each locked up their respective parties’ nominations. The general election has now begun, and Trump, as of this writing, is the favorite. In the next few months, the Biden campaign and its allies plan to spend close to a billion dollars attempting to persuade Americans not to make the historic mistake of electing Trump twice. My thought is a simpler and definitely cheaper one: watch his speeches. Share them widely. Don’t look away. ♦





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