One doesn’t have to squint too hard to see Monday night as a possible preview of a presidential general election campaign that will be at a frenzied pitch in just a year’s time.
Standing in New York City’s Washington Square Park before a crowd of more than 20,000, Democratic presidential hopeful Elizabeth Warren gave an extended address where she pledged to fight Washington corruption and the vested corporate power that feeds it.
A few hours later, near Albuquerque, New Mexico, Donald Trump gave another one of his trademark campaign rallies in an arena filled with roughly 9,000 supporters (and more outside). He promised to fight the Washington elite whose policies, he said, threatened the lives and livelihood of regular Americans.
The president almost literally has been running for re-election since the January 2017 day he took the oath of office.
Ms Warren, while still trailing former Vice-President Joe Biden in national opinion surveys, is pulling even or ahead in numerous early state polls, including one recently conducted in convention-delegate-rich California.
The Massachusetts senator has momentum on her side. Mr Trump has the trappings of the presidency on his. On Monday night both candidates railed against perceived enemies and positioned themselves as outsiders in a pitched fight for the future of the America.
The president’s pitch
In his 90-minute, mostly unscripted remarks, the president boasted of the strength of the US economy, the Mexican border wall he says is being built and the US military. He spent more time outlining threats, however – the Green New Deal, “job-killing regulations”, violent undocumented immigrants, the Robert Mueller Russia investigation, the “Deep State”, insufficiently loyal Republicans and “phony Democrats”.
“The radical left Democrats want to demolish everything that we’ve gained,” Mr Trump said in one particularly breathless passage. “They want to raise your taxes, they want to bury you in regulation, they want to take away your health insurance – 180 million Americans – they want to erase American history, crush religious liberty, indoctrinate our students with left-wing ideology, and left-wing Democrats want to confiscate your guns and eliminate your God-given right to self-defence.”
Despite having spent the past two-and-a-half years in the US capital, the president cast himself as an outsider fighting against “the Washington elite”.
“We’re taking power out of Washington and giving it back to the great people of our country and to the people of New Mexico,” he said, later adding that the politicians in Washington “have not been loyal to you”.
He boasted that, despite this, the nation was “turning around so rapidly”. Factories were re-opening, and jobs were returning. Four years after promising to make America great again and end corruption – “drain the swamp” – he told the New Mexico audience that his presidency had delivered.
The anti-corruption candidate
Two thousand miles away, a politician who has held elective office in Washington for seven years gave her own distinct take on the forces aligned against the American people – the rich and the powerful; “shadowy right-wing groups” and deep-pocketed lobbyists able to influence politicians and policy.
Standing beneath an arch built to commemorate George Washington’s April 1789 inauguration a few miles away, Ms Warren said as president she would bring the kind of “big, structural change” necessary to end runaway income inequality in the US and the political corruption that it sows.
“Corruption in Washington has allowed the rich and the powerful to tilt the rules and grow richer and more powerful,” she said. “But this small slice at the top hasn’t just scooped up a huge chunk of the wealth that all of us have worked so hard to produce, they have gobbled up opportunity itself.”
She added that this small percentage at the top has multiple chances to get ahead – while many Americans don’t get even a single opportunity.
“We have the power to fix that,” she said, going on to outline plans that include a “wealth tax” on the nation’s richest individuals.
For Warren, the symbolism of the location wasn’t the arch she stood beneath, but its proximity a textile factory that was destroyed in a fire in 1911, killing 146 workers.
“The tragic story of the Triangle factory fire is a story about power,” she said. “A story of what happens when the rich and the powerful take control of government and use it to increase their own profits while they stick it to working people.”
She noted, however, that the incident helped spur the US labour movement and led to the kind of structural changes that many at the time thought were impossible – government-funded retirement and healthcare for the elderly, new workplace safety regulations, a minimum wage and unemployment insurance.
These policies were enacted, she said, through a combination of working within the political system – something the Harvard professor-turned-senator knows – and sustained external pressure.
It’s getting personal
Both Donald Trump and Elizabeth Warren referred to each other in their speeches. The president obliquely warned that he would again start criticising the Massachusetts senator for her past claims of having Native American blood.
“Oh, it’s coming back, don’t worry about it,” he told the cheering crowd.
Ms Warren, for her part, said Mr Trump was “corruption in the flesh” – and renewed her calls for his impeachment and removal from office.
“He’s sworn to serve the people of the US, but he only serves himself and his partners in corruption,” she said.
Two campaign events. Two cheering crowds. Two candidates that may, in the not-too-distant future, be directly competing for the presidency – and trying to claim the populist outsider high ground against the other.