April 5, 2023 - 4:30pm

In a speech yesterday about his arrest and indictment, Donald Trump notably failed to make use of a golden opportunity to reclaim the carnivalesque comic verve that characterised his 2016 campaign — unique abilities that allowed him to effectively target opponents and attract media attention. This continued shift in tone, where Trump comes off as bitter, is a potential liability to his aspirations to reclaim the presidency.

Trump’s previous charm offensive, which involved an idiosyncratic, conversational approach to public speaking, has been replaced with a more defensive posture. If he wants to win over independent voters who are on the fence about the 2024 election, he will need to revamp his rhetorical strategy to incorporate more of the oddball wit and Queens-accented effervescence that bolstered his earlier political career.

None of the comedic horsepower and shooting-from-the-hip style that allowed him to memorably criticise his adversaries — calling out former Congressman Barney Frank for his “protruding nipples” and joking about how he “fully understood” why Arianna Huffington’s husband “left her for a man” are two vintage put-downs that come readily to mind — has been on display lately.

Given that the New York indictment, seen as the weakest among the many ongoing Trump-related investigations, will give him a great deal of screen time to appeal to hesitant Republicans and independent voters, the former president has a real opportunity here. But instead he has looked like a beaten man. As he was escorted around Manhattan, fingerprinted, and appeared in court, Trump remained mostly silent, only voicing his “not guilty” plea and posting on his social media site, Truth Social. Later, when he addressed a supportive crowd that included Congresswoman Marjorie Taylor Greene and MyPillow CEO Mike Lindell at his Mar-a-Lago estate, he listlessly attacked those involved in his various legal proceedings despite warnings against doing so.

One target was Jack Smith, the special counsel investigating his involvement in the January 6 Capitol riots and alleged mishandling of confidential documents. Trump referred to him as a “lunatic special prosecutor” and made a joke about what his name was “prior to a change,” which some have interpreted as a jab at Smith’s gender identity (Smith, for the record, is not transgender). It was strange, to be sure, but a far cry from delivering the shock value that came with unexpectedly referencing longtime foe Rosie O’Donnell in response to a question during a 2015 debate about whether he had ever called women “fat pigs.” Neither insult is politically correct, but the latter is a much stranger — and thus more evocative — non sequitur.

He was always mean, certainly, but there was an underlying optimism and “it’s all in the game” sort of bonhomie now lacking from his rancorous barbs (his last moment of genius was likely his impromptu eulogy in September 2020 for the late Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg: “She just died? I didn’t know that. She led an amazing life, what else can you say?”). If he insists on feeding his audience more of the same sour grapes, he’ll likely fare worse in the general election than he did in 2020.

Oliver Bateman is a historian and journalist based in Pittsburgh. He blogs, vlogs, and podcasts at his Substack, Oliver Bateman Does the Work