Four years later, President Donald Trump's "Making America Great Again" hasn't resonated in quite the same way

By Virginia Chamlee
November 03, 2020 02:30 PM
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Donald Trump at a campaign rally in Rome, Georgia, on November 1
| Credit: Justin Sullivan/Getty Images

Though the T-shirts, hats, flags and promises to "Make America Great Again" might mirror what helped him drum up support in 2016, President Donald Trump's campaign message has changed significantly over the past four years.

The former reality television star's provocative, pugilistic style is still there, of course — but this year, it's been muddied by a global pandemic that has affected both voters and the president himself.

Even if Trump hasn't changed much, the world around him has, and his campaign has struggled to adapt as a result.

Below, a look at where Trump's two campaigns have aligned — and how they've differed — four years after he was first elected.

What's Similar

Trump is a showman at heart, and he still loves to perform. And while he's worked to replay some of his first campaign's messaging, much of it hasn't had the same effect.

Trump's 2016 claims of Hillary Clinton's supposed criminality were often met with cheers of "Lock her up!" at his well-attended rallies. This year, the president has attempted to piggyback off that theme by yoking Democratic presidential nominee Joe Biden to illegal affairs.

Biden, whose favorability ratings are much higher than Clinton's, isn't quite as prime a target. Most of Trump's claims are unfounded and, what's more, many have more to do with the behavior of Biden's son, Hunter (who isn't running for office) than the former vice president himself.

Trump has seemingly recognized that the Biden jabs don't have the same effect on his audience as his old routine. As a result, he's often slipped back into the 2016 campaign-speak, bringing up Clinton as if she were his current opponent.

The "lock her up" refrain might be a familiar one for supporters, but it's not one that can necessarily translate to the ballot box.

Trump's campaign schedule — particularly in the final weeks leading up to the Nov. 3 election — has also mirrored 2016. In the closing days, Trump packed in multiple events a day, visiting a slew of swing states for rallies despite the ongoing pandemic.

Credit: MANDEL NGAN/AFP via Getty; Drew Angerer/Getty

What's Different

In 2016, then-candidate Trump worked to appeal to voters by painting himself as an outsider — one who would work to "drain the swamp" and shrink federal bureaucracy if elected.

In 2020, he has a four-year record to answer to.

His first campaign was one with a defined (albeit, controversial) message: it was anti-immigrant, it was anti-Clinton, and it promised a slew of aggressive foreign policies.

In the COVID-19 era, much of that sentiment is gone. Now, Americans have a common enemy — a virus that's claimed the lives of 231,000 in the U.S. as of Nov. 3 — and it's not one Trump seems particularly interested in fighting.

The pandemic dominating the headlines has meant that the president hasn't been able to break through to voters the way he did in 2016. Large-scale rallies were put on hold after Trump himself was diagnosed and then hospitalized with the virus.

But even after being sidetracked by his own diagnosis, Trump forged ahead, committing to large, in-person rallies that flouted rules put in place to help slow the spread of the virus.

The promise of "Keeping America Great" might resonate at rallies, but polls show it hasn't among undecided voters and the millions who have gotten sick, seen loved ones die, or lost their jobs due to the pandemic.

While Trump's delivery hasn't changed much in four years, his subject matter has. Broad references to putting Hillary Clinton in jail might have drawn applause, but in recent months, Trump has waded more deeply into the Fox News/QAnon bubble.

As Vox's Jane Coaston wrote last month, the president appears to be performing for an audience of those who spend hours per day on Twitter, rather than on the more moderate and independent voters who won him the election.

Where 2016 Trump pointed to caravans of immigrants threatening to overtake the border, 2020 Trump delivers speeches full of references with which the casual rally attendee might not necessarily even be familiar.

Hunter Biden's "laptop from Hell;" vague references to big tech; and China's purported orders of soybeans were all recent topics brought up while Trump was campaigning.

Perhaps the most notable difference, aside from an economic and political landscape that's shifted due to COVID-19, is the electorate itself.

The number of those who identify as undecided voters have shrunk in four years and those supporting third-party candidates aren't likely to make as much of a mark on the 2020 elections.

Part of the allure of a Trump presidency, back in 2016, was the great unknown: Trump was recognized as a celebrity, but not as a political figure, and could make any number of promises without offering a resume to back it up.

Four years later, voters know him. And polls show that familiarity could lead to a far bigger predicament that Trump faced heading into Election Day in 2016.