ORLANDO, Florida—Historians will look back at Tuesday night as the evening in which Donald Trump killed Hillary Clinton’s 2016 election chances.
Sure, it’s June 2019, but Trump couldn’t help but live in the past as he formally launched his reelection campaign. And like any throwback event, he broke out all the classics.
The old gang was all here: Mike, Eric, Don Jr. Lara, Melania, and, of course, Hillary, who was there in spirit though not in body.
“Deplorables,” “LOCK HER UP,” acid-washed emails, fake news, MAGA hats, invasion by immigrants, trade deals, U-S-A, and Trump’s alleged swamp-draining. For Trump, Tuesday’s big speech at the Amway Center in downtown Orlando may have been billed as a campaign launch, but it was really about reliving his past glories.
And the audience adored him for it, stomping their feet, screaming his name, and chanting about how much CNN “sucks.”
“If I deleted one email, like a love note to Melania, it’s the electric chair for Trump,” the president joked, bashing Clinton for her infamous email imbroglio.
“They called us ‘Deplorables.’ That was a big mistake,” Trump said on stage, once again never allowing anyone—let alone himself—to possibly let 2016 go.
In the hours ahead of the president’s remarks, Trump’s loyalists and diehards treated the 2020 kickoff like a tailgate as much as a campaign speech. Senior campaign aides like Brad Parscale, Marc Lotter, and Kayleigh McEnany mingled in the press pen and snapped selfies with excited, starstruck Trump followers. Mike Lindell, a Trump friend and the CEO and TV hypeman for MyPillow, and right-wing media personality “Dr. Gina” Loudon made the trek to toast the president’s re-election “kickoff.”
Even Seb Gorka, a former Trump administration official and lightning rod for controversy and backbiting, showed up to tell at least one political reporter to “go to hell.”
And finally, after a parade of warm-up speeches and the booming campaign-trail soundtrack that Trump personally curates (“Macho Man,” “Memory” from the musical Cats, “Candle in the Wind,” to name a few), Trump hit the stage shortly after 8 p.m. ET to ceremonially launch his 2020 campaign and restate his pitch for his reelection.
And he did so not just by recounting his Clinton triumph but by selling his roaring, jubilant audience a bill of absolute dread.
“They tried to erase your vote, erase your legacy of the greatest campaign probably in the history of our country,” Trump told the ebullient crowd of fans and voters. “They want to destroy you.”
“It’s not going to happen—not gonna happen!” he assured his fans. He railed against “ruthless” Democrats motivated by the pure “pursuit of political domination and control.”
This “left-wing mob,” Trump said, “would shut down your free speech, use the power of the law to punish their opponents,” and “flood the country with illegal immigrants” while stripping the constitutional rights of hardworking natural-born citizens.
There was a certain amount of cognitive dissonance to it all; like how Trump said he was finishing off the Washington Swamp on the same day he swapped out a former Boeing executive as his acting secretary of defense in favor of a Raytheon one; or when he said he was drawing down troops in the Middle East roughly 24 hours after his administration announced plans to send 1,000 more troops to the region; or how he proclaimed the virtues of criminal justice reform despite saying, hours earlier, that he still believes the Central Park Five are likely guilty.
But consistency and facts have never been Trump’s strong suits, nor his route to political victory. Visceral appeal is what he does best. Tuesday’s “kickoff” was filled with that, though whether that is a winning formula for 2020 may be harder to ascertain.
A potential problem, after all, with playing the hits over and over and over is that fewer people will want to listen. And in the very place where Trump held his ceremonial campaign launch, there were plenty of skeptics.
Though the president declared the area “MAGA country” on Tuesday night, he did so in the heart of a city that largely hates him. Orlando, and the Orange County area surrounding it, have leaned comfortably Democratic, though neighboring counties are decidedly more conservative. The 2020 Trump campaign, for its part, has vowed to pour vast resources into the Sunshine State, having identified Florida as perhaps the deciding factor for whether the White House remains in Republican hands come 2021.
Orlando, despite its liberal streak, serves as yet another good opportunity for Team Trump to harvest much-needed data from attendees and voters in the crucial swing state, a Trump campaign official told The Daily Beast. And more than a year out from the next presidential election, recent polling—including the Trump campaign’s own internal polling—shows that Trump has his work cut out for him to convince Florida to stay in his electoral camp.
Just a few blocks down from the Amway Center, Democrats and liberal activists were hosting counter-programming and a street protest that featured speakers presented as direct victims of Trump’s policies. The “Win With Love” demonstration took place outside Stonewall Bar Orlando, a gay bar named after the historic Stonewall Inn in Manhattan, and featured progressive representatives from minority and marginalized communities.
Between the Trump rally and the protesters was a soul food and barbecue restaurant called Chef Eddies. The Orlando restaurant bears Barack Obama’s face on several of its walls, and also photos of Democratic heavyweights such as Joe Biden and Bill Clinton visiting the establishment. On Tuesday, the restaurant spent the day serving Trump fans awaiting the president’s speech.
Eddie James, the restaurant’s proprietor and head chef, told The Daily Beast that he and his wife are big fans of President Obama and that he voted for Hillary Clinton in 2016.
“I started off thinking the same way about Trump that I did about Ross Perot, that a businessman would be good for the country—but I didn’t vote for him because by the time it came time to vote [in the 2016 election] there was so much chaos around him,” James said. “I’ll never forget the interview Trump did with Hardball [host Chris Matthews], when… he was saying women who had abortions had to be punished.”
James is obviously not one of the coveted Florida voters whom Trump has much hope winning over. However, the chef saw Tuesday as a reminder of Trump’s enduring power in the state.
“This is the first Trump rally I’ve been around,” he said. “I’ve seen more people, so many Trump supporters—[but] you see the news about all these people who are against him. It opened my eyes up to see the amount of supporters.”