Updated at 1245 p.m. ET
There’s one line that has endured from the convention speech Donald Trump gave four years ago: “I alone can fix it.”
His message about what was at stake in the 2016 election was downright apocalyptic. “Our convention occurs at a moment of crisis for our nation, the attacks on our police and the terrorism of our cities threaten our very way of life,” he said.
It was a time of relative peace and prosperity. Fast-forward to 2020: the nation in upheaval over racial justice; more than 1,000 people die from the coronavirus every day, and millions more are out of work and school because of the pandemic.
Against that backdrop, the president is set on Thursday to deliver his sequel address in front of a crowd on the South Lawn of the White House — a speech that comes at a critical moment in his reelection campaign.
Leading up to the speech, Trump has been making many of the same arguments.
“I’m the only thing standing between the American dream and total anarchy, madness and chaos,” he said last week — even though the images of urban riots he often describes are things that have happened on his watch after his lofty “fix it” promise. He blames Democratic governors and mayors for the violence.
On the coronavirus, the greatest challenge of his presidency, Trump also has shrugged off responsibility. He blames China, where the pandemic originated, and largely delegated responsibility for fixing the problem to state governors.
He has also blamed Democratic governors for economic woes, falsely accusing them for shutting down their states “until after the election’s over because they want to make our numbers look as bad as possible.”
At times, in his speeches and his all-caps Twitter complaints directed at his own government, it seems as if Trump is running as the challenger rather than the incumbent.
In his speech, he will seek to cast the election as a choice between a weak establishment candidate in Democratic opponent Joe Biden — and himself.
“At no time before have voters faced a clearer choice between two parties, two visions, two philosophies or two agendas,” Trump is expected to say, according to excerpts reported by Politico and confirmed by his campaign.
“We have spent the last four years reversing the damage Joe Biden inflicted over the last 47 years. At the Democrat convention, you barely heard a word about their agenda. But that’s not because they don’t have one. It’s because their agenda is the most extreme set of proposals ever put forward by a major party nominee,” he is set to say.
Trump’s backers say he remains the upstart outsider, even though he’s the incumbent. “Why do you have a bunch of failed Republican establishment figures, stalwarts of the bureaucracy coming out and endorsing Biden? He’s always going to be an outsider,” said Sam Nunberg, who advised Trump in the early days of his 2016 campaign.
Trump’s supporters at the Republican National Convention have spent three nights building the idea of Trump as a near-messianic figure — that truly he’s the only one who can fix it. Last week, Trump reflected on that line.
“You know when I made that statement, I was a little embarrassed by it. Because it sounds so egotistical,” he said. “But there’s no other way to say it. We have to win the election.”
In 2016, Trump had a second theme in his convention speech — that he was a voice for the “forgotten man and woman.” Focus groups of voters loved that message, said Frank Luntz, a pollster and political messaging guru.
But “I alone can fix it” did not test well, and Luntz said it would be a mistake for Trump to revive that theme in his sequel speech.
“If he’s about ‘I alone can fix it,’ then the public will think, ‘Well, wait a minute. Over the last six months, you haven’t.’ And that is the wrong message for him at the very wrong time,” Luntz told NPR.
He said Trump needs to be honest with the public in his speech: Acknowledge things the way they are, and that the pandemic is not in the rearview mirror.
On the coronavirus, that hasn’t typically been the president’s approach. But Trump has been known to surprise, especially on the occasion of big speeches that are read from a teleprompter.