“Remember,” Trump told the crowd after repeating numerous falsehoods about widespread election fraud, “I am not the one who is trying to undermine American democracy, I am the one who is trying to save it.”
Trump’s Saturday speech was the first stop on a summer tour that is expected to feature campaign-style rallies, high-dollar fundraisers and an overall uptick in his public appearances after months of quietly plotting the next chapter of his political career with aides and longtime advisers. It was also a major test of his ability to be an instrumental surrogate for Republicans as the party approaches a grueling midterm cycle.
While insisting that he remains eager to help the GOP retake control of the House and Senate next fall, Trump has recently ignored the advice of aides and allies to tailor his message to the future.
Multiple people inside his orbit have urged him to craft a fresh stump speech — one that draws voters’ attention to Republican policy initiatives and what the party perceives as Biden’s failures — instead of recycling debunked claims about the 2020 election or giving a platform to voter fraud conspiracy theories. As previously reported by CNN, his allies fear the latter approach could repel certain voters who might make or break Republican chances of ending the Democratic Party’s control of Congress in 2022.
But Trump’s appearance in Greenville may have been a setback toward those efforts.
During winding remarks Saturday night, Trump jumped abruptly from critiques of Biden and congressional Democrats to nostalgic reflections on his time in office — offering few nods in between to the GOP’s legislative agenda except to hit on culture war issues that lawmakers have used to animate the party’s conservative base.
“The Biden administration is pushing toxic critical race theory … into our nation’s schools,” Trump claimed during a lengthier riff against his successor. “Joe Biden and the socialist Democrats are the most radical Democrats in our nation’s history.”
But some Democrats seized on the former President’s reemergence, suggesting that Republicans will suffer electorally for continuing to bear hug Trump.
“More than 400,000 dead Americans, millions of jobs lost and recklessly dangerous rhetoric is apparently not enough for Republicans to break with a loser president who cost them the White House, Senate and House,” Ammar Moussa, rapid response director for the Democratic National Committee, said in a statement to CNN.
While facing an otherwise muted response from the crowd through most of his remarks, he received a standing ovation upon suggesting that China should pay the United States $10 trillion in Covid-19 reparations and encouraging other countries to ignore their debts to the Chinese government until such reparations are paid.
“The time has come for America and the world to demand reparations and accountability from the Communist Party of China. We should all declare with one unified voice that China must pay — they must pay,” Trump said.
As the crowd awaited the former President, loud rock and pop music — including staples of Trump’s own campaign playlist — blasted more in the manner of a political rally than an exclusive sit-down dinner. A few audience members who wore Uncle Sam hats and American-flag-patterened shirts stood out among the more conservatively-dressed delegates gathered in the room.
The anticipation built until Whatley gave a brief introduction of Trump, describing him to the roomful of Republicans as “our president” moments before he took over at the podium. For nearly the entirety of Lee Greenwood’s “God Bless the USA,” Trump waved and clapped and pointed at the excited crowd — behaving much like he did on the campaign trail in 2016 and, later, 2020.
But despite the energy at the start, the former President was relatively subdued throughout most of his remarks — particularly following his surprise endorsement of Budd. As he weaved through policy areas where he claimed the Biden administration was failing Americans — and where he felt his own administration had succeeded — crowd members remained politely engaged but hardly raucous. There was only perfunctory applause as he touted the success of Operation Warp Speed at developing a Covid-19 vaccine in record time or played up his achievements in foreign policy.
His change in energy seemed to rev up a listless audience, many of which had been looking at their phones or yawning as Trump’s speech crept over the hour-long mark.