A salesman through and through, Donald Trump likes to use the curious insult “choker.” Although perhaps borrowed from sports, “choker” is best understood as a special bit of jargon for those who practice the art of the deal. A choker is someone who fails in the crucial last step of closing a deal, a loser who can’t quite pull it off. Trump has described Marco Rubio as a “lightweight choker” and used the word “choker” to characterize both Ted Cruz and Mitt Romney.
Trump threw “choker” around in 2016 when he was riding high, having first vanquished Rubio and Cruz before winning the presidential prize that eluded Romney. In his path to victory, Trump was the opposite of a choker. His campaign was often chaotic but would pick up momentum and focus before each primary and before the final presidential contest.
By contrast, in 2020, Trump seems to be choking badly. He was rattled in the first presidential debate and did himself no favors the second time, either. While he’s been energetically crisscrossing the country to hold rallies, his message has been scattershot, easily straying from talking about policy into arcane grudges against the media and an array of Democratic politicians.
To be sure, Trump has long had a tendency to digress in his lengthy speeches, which are almost always closer to headlong stream of consciousness than prepared oratory. Still, in 2016 his proclivity to wander was held in check by a disciplined core message of economic populism, which helped unify his arguments against not just Hillary Clinton but the broader political establishment as well.
In a speech at West Palm Beach, Fla,. on October 13, 2016, Trump gave perhaps his most powerful statement of the anti-establishment message that he kept hammering away at in the last weeks of his campaign:
The Washington establishment and the financial and media corporations that fund it exist for only one reason: to protect and enrich itself.
The establishment has trillions of dollars at stake in this election. As an example, just one single trade deal they’d like to pass involves trillions of dollars, controlled by many countries, corporations, and lobbyists.
For those who control the levers of power in Washington, and for the global special interests, they partner with these people that don’t have your good in mind. Our campaign represents a true existential threat like they haven’t seen before.
This is not simply another four-year election. This is a crossroads in the history of our civilization that will determine whether or not we the people reclaim control over our government.
The political establishment that is trying to stop us is the same group responsible for our disastrous trade deals, massive illegal immigration and economic and foreign policies that have bled our country dry.
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In 2020, Trump has given up the language of radical economic change. When he does talk about economics, it is not to promise transformation but to tout the status quo. Before the pandemic, he would call attention to the state of the stock market and employment. Covid-19 made that difficult for a while, but now the partial rebound of the last quarter gives him a chance to return to these themes and to warn that stocks and jobs would suffer under Joe Biden.
Thursday was, in theory, a good day for Trump to talk about the economy. As The New York Times reported, “Gross domestic product grew 7.4 percent in the third quarter, the Commerce Department said Thursday. The gain, the equivalent of 33.1 percent on an annualized basis, was by far the biggest since reliable statistics began after World War II.”
This good news was only partial, since the economy is still far short of a full recovery. Still, for someone as boastful as Trump, even moderate good news should be an occasion for a loud tooting of the horn. This is what Trump’s advisers were hoping he would do when he spoke in Tampa.
But at his Tampa rally on Thursday, Trump kept undermining his own economic message. At one point he said, “Weekly jobless claims—this is boring but it’s really good—just hit a seven-month low.” Telling an audience that a statistic about unemployment is “boring” is not the best way to energize supporters.
At another point in the rally, Trump complained about how fellow Republicans want him to talk about the economy, a task he clearly regards as drudgery. “I get a call from all the experts, right?” Trump said. “Guys that ran for president six, seven, eight times. Never got past the first round, but they’re calling me up, ‘Sir, you shouldn’t be speaking about Hunter. You shouldn’t be saying bad things about Biden because nobody cares.’ I disagree. Maybe that’s why I’m here and they’re not. But they say, ‘Talk about your economic success. Talk about 33.1 percent, the greatest in history.’ Now, look, if I do, I mean, how many times can I say it? I’ll say it five or six times during the speech.”
Trump himself would clearly prefer to talk about Hunter Biden rather than the economy. Which is why Trump immediately started moaning about how the unsubstantiated allegations about the Bidens weren’t getting enough media play. Trump also took the opportunity to go after Miles Taylor, a former staffer who had written the famous “Anonymous” op-ed column and book critical of the president. Trump went on an extended tirade against Taylor, ranting at one point, “There should be major criminal liability for some scum like this.”
There were a few moments when Trump was able to return to the economic populism that worked so well for him in 2016. At one point, he sounded like the rabble-rouser of old, saying, “For half a century, Joe Biden has been outsourcing your jobs, opening your borders, and sacrificing American blood and treasure in endless foreign wars. In 2016, Florida voted to fire the depraved political establishment, and you elected an outsider as your president, who is finally, if you don’t mind, putting America first.” But this was a brief moment that didn’t resonate amid the discordant clangor of the speech.
As The New York Times reports, “Trump’s own campaign advisers want him to hit on broader political themes, and steer away from personal attacks that will further alienate women and suburban voters.” But Trump is in no mood for either broader political themes or an overarching economic message.
One big factor is that the agenda he’s advocated has already exhausted itself. He’s renegotiated NAFTA, with minimal changes. His Republican allies have little appetite for large-scale infrastructure spending of the sort Trump has toyed with. The fact that the stimulus bill has stalled amid a severe recession shows how impossible it is for Trump to square his verbal commitment to populist policies with his need to keep congressional Republicans on his side.
Trump now talks about economics only in generalities about past achievement, not in terms of goals to aim for. Lacking a clear economic agenda, it’s not surprising that he keeps returning to the familiar comforts of attacking Hunter Biden, Miles Taylor, and the fake news media.
One reason Trump is president is that in 2016 he closed with a stirring call to economic populism. Four years later, he’s choking on his own spite.