ANALYSIS — Donald Trump did more than perform his greatest hits Saturday night in Arizona, revving up his loyalists with claims of anti-white discrimination and contending that no U.S. election is legitimate unless Republicans count the votes.
The former president is the front-runner for the 2024 GOP presidential nomination, meaning his first rally of 2022 portends a potential campaign based — even more than his first two White House bids — on unfounded conspiracy theories and volatile claims about race.
Despite headlines about Trump “reaffirming” his false claims that the 2020 election was stolen by Democrats, even by his own standards, his remarks at his Florence, Ariz., rally went to politically and culturally dark places.
There were the usual claims about a massive crowd, this time in a rural prison town: “A person that comes here and has crowds that go further than any eye can see — there’s nobody that can see the end of this crowd.” Moments later, a Newsmax television camera displayed several rows of empty seats and people appearing to slip out early.
And Trump stuck to parts of his prepared remarks in between ad-libbed attacks on President Joe Biden, Democrats and even Republicans — when he wasn’t mocking his staff for failing to better secure his teleprompter on a breezy night. He read aloud sections ripped almost verbatim from the email statements his post-presidency office frequently blasts out.
But there was plenty new in this rally. Here are three debut items.
‘Back of the line’
Trump has pushed racial boundaries before. But, in large part, he did so over illegal — and, sometimes, legal — immigration. During the 2016 campaign, he dubbed many migrants from Central and South America as killers and rapists. As president, multiple lawmakers attending a White House meeting confirmed that he referred to Haiti and some African nations as “s---hole countries.”
His “American carnage” inauguration speech in 2017 and his “America first” governing philosophy, as well as his campaign’s “Make America Great Again” slogan, have been accused of sending subliminal race-based messages to his white conservative base.
There was nothing subliminal Saturday night.
“The left is now rationing life-saving therapeutics based on race, discriminating against and denigrating — just denigrating — white people to determine who lives and who dies,” Trump said.
“If you’re white, you don’t get the vaccine or if you’re white, you don’t get therapeutics,” he said falsely about COVID-19 vaccination and treatment. “You get it based on race. In fact, in New York state, if you’re white, you have to go to the back of the line to get medical help. Think of it. If you’re white, you go right to the back of the line.”
Trump cited a recent Wall Street Journal opinion piece criticizing the Empire State’s guidelines to prioritize some COVID-19 drugs for nonwhites and Hispanics/Latinos because “longstanding systemic health and social inequities have contributed to an increased risk of severe illness and death from COVID-19.”
That was still volatile rhetoric from the former president, considering it was Black Americans who for decades had to wait for medicines, goods and services in large swaths of the country where Trump is most popular. In a covert-to-overt shift, Trump diverted from signals and simply stoked white worries about the country’s changing demographics.
‘Erase American votes’
Another of Trump’s rally claims brought together race and his “big lie” conspiracy, which he now applies not only to Biden’s 2020 election victory but every future election, as well.
He and other Republicans have spent months casting doubts about U.S. elections being, in their words, “rigged” or stolen from GOP candidates. Trump went a step further in Arizona, contending without supporting evidence that Democrats “cheat” in every single cycle.
“We have more people than they do, but they know politics and they know cheating,” he said to cheers. “I sometimes say, ‘Well, would the Republicans ever do what they did?’”
The response from his aides, Trump said, is “‘Sir … we’re proud Americans, you know they won’t do it. They won’t do it.’” The former president then encouraged Republicans to tinker with elections to ensure their candidates win: “I say if it’s good for [Democrats], why aren’t the Republicans doing the same kind of thing with the ballots? You know, the [mail-in] ballots they used COVID as another method of cheating.”
Courts have repeatedly shot down Republicans’ legal challenges about the 2020 election, as have recounts and so-called audits. That hasn’t stopped Trump from repeating his false claims.
“Their scheme has always been to erase American votes with illegal votes and now they are doing so openly,” he contended of Democrats, without evidence, before pivoting to a voting rights bill the Senate is slated to take up this week. “They want to get rid of that filibuster, and they want to change it. Their legislation is not a voting rights bill. It’s a voting fraud bill. … They really wanted to flood the system with illegal and ineligible votes.”
‘For no reason’
Trump also debuted a few new lines about the Jan. 6, 2021, riot at the Capitol, which occurred after he had urged followers at a rally near the White House to go to the legislative hall where lawmakers were finishing the Electoral College process and “fight like hell.”
According to Trump, the attack “has become the Democrat Party’s excuse to justify an unprecedented assault on American civil rights and liberties [and] appalling persecution of political prisoners.” Rather than condemn what happened, he defended those being held for their actions before and during the riot.
“What’s happening to those people in those jails?” Trump said, before indirectly calling for those involved in racial justice protests in 2020 to receive similar treatment. “What’s happening to those people, and why aren’t they doing it to antifa and to Black Lives Matter, and to many other left-leaning — to put it mildly — groups? But the blatant abuse of power to harass their political opponents is disgraceful.”
He wasn’t finished, referring to the Capitol Police officer who shot dead rioter Ashli Babbitt as “an out-of-control dope.” Video evidence shows the officer, Lt. Michael Byrd, appearing to order Babbitt not to climb through a broken window just off the House floor before he fired his single deadly shot.
Like other rioters, Babbitt had, in the days leading up to the violence, expressed on social media support for Trump and signaled an intention to stop lawmakers’ legal duty to certify the election. On Jan. 5, she tweeted: “Nothing will stop us … they can try and try and try but the storm is here and it is descending upon DC in less than 24 hours … dark to light!”
No matter for Trump, who field-tested a contention that Byrd, who is Black, shot Babbitt, a white woman, for “no reason.”
The Florence crowd offered only tepid applause, at best. So the likely 2024 GOP nominee, who, as sources confirmed during his presidency, changes his rally remarks based on crowd reaction, tried again: “He’s a disgrace [for] the way he shot Ashli.” Again, merely a smattering of applause.
Trump then jabbed at the House speaker who led the charge to make him the only twice-impeached U.S. president, as well as the House Intelligence chairman, who is a frequent Trump target: “After Nancy Pelosi and Adam B. Schiff … go down to a shattering defeat. I hope. They’ve got to lose.”
That got a cheer from the crowd. Beneath his red, oversize “Make America Great Again” ball cap, Trump grinned.