WACO, Texas — Donald Trump’s first major rally on Saturday since launching his third presidential campaign was everything that his Republican critics had once claimed would be his undoing.
January 6th, they declared at the time, was supposed to be the end of him. Then it was his fixation on 2020, his various feuds, and his many legal distractions. Finally, it was his elevation of losing candidates in the midterms coupled with his undisciplined campaign launch, both of which raised concerns about his electability.
Trump has made some adjustments, including a new slate of campaign promises tied to the post-presidency culture wars that rivals like Ron DeSantis have focused on. But in general, he’s leaning harder than ever into the cult of personality approach that his foes hoped had run its course with voters — and so far, it’s working.
Before even speaking, he opened with a recording of a song in support of jailed January 6th participants, “Justice For All,” as he and some in the crowd stood with hands over their hearts. In recent days, he has taken to calling for new protests (so far unsuccessfully) and warning of “potential death & destruction” if he’s indicted in one of four active criminal investigations.
His opener, Texas Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick, had to clarify that the choice of Waco was not tied to the 30th anniversary of the deadly siege that later served as a rallying cry for anti-government extremists like Timothy McVeigh. Another warm-up act, Ted Nugent, called Volodymyr Zelenskyy a “homosexual weirdo,” further illustrating the gulf between DeSantis, who has struggled to unite Republicans with his Ukraine position, and Trump, whose supporters have no expectation of unifying the party.
Trump’s own speech devoted considerable time to attacking Manhattan DA Alvin Bragg over a potential looming indictment related to his alleged hush money payments to adult film actress Stormy Daniels. He called on Rep. Marjorie Taylor Greene to run for Senate and complained that DeSantis was disloyal — an angle of attack his own advisors have told him is irrelevant to voters. And he also lamented that “every piece” of his “personal life, financial life, business life, and public life has been turned upside down.”
“2024 is the final battle. That’s going to be the big one,” Trump told his supporters. “You put me back in the White House, their reign will be over and America will be a free nation again.”
Trump’s vulnerabilities are real, but the thousands who attended his rally in Waco also illustrated his strengths. He has a large base of supporters who see his personal struggles as proof he’s the only one for the job.
“With all the hoaxes and all the witch hunts — I mean, they’ve been after this guy since 2015, and they’ve impeached him twice, okay? And there was nothing there,” Dolores Duderstadt, a retiree from San Antonio, said, referring to the indictment hovering over Trump’s head.
So far, neither DeSantis nor any other Republican has shown they can attack Trump and count on the same support. The former president can rely on his allies to try and bully DeSantis into unequivocally defending him from an indictment, even as he faces little visible pushback for trashing DeSantis with gay-baiting innuendo at the same time.
Meanwhile, Trump’s message that “they’re not coming after me, they’re coming after you,” as he put it on Saturday, continues to resonate with some voters. Yolanda Cruz de Abulail, a 55-year old naturalized citizen who teaches in Texas, said she had been flirting with voting for DeSantis as a change of pace, but was disappointed in his response to Trump’s potential indictment and would now keep her vote with Trump.
“When they came out and said they’re going to indict Trump, that is when I realized what was at stake,” she said.
Still, attendees were mostly not feeling the same level of vitriol against the Florida governor as Trump is beginning to dish out. (NBC noted that Trump’s DeSantis attacks at the rally, which received a muted response from the crowd, were softer than his private comments to reporters on his plane). Many still see DeSantis as someone who could successfully run in the future, or even run with Trump.
“I wish they would stop attacking each other,” 44-year-old Chris Blount, a retired military member and industrial electrician, said. “If DeSantis and him get together, we could have 12 years in this country of just some awesomeness,” he added.
Room for Disagreement
While national surveys are trending toward Trump, Axios recently reported on two new polls from Public Opinion Strategies that showed DeSantis ahead of Trump by eight points in Iowa and tied in New Hampshire in a head-to-head matchup.
“The media went nuts over a couple of national Monmouth polls but polls of Iowa and NH look much different,” Matt Whitlock, senior president at CRC Advisors Inc., tweeted.