President Trump’s rallies have been compared to Grateful Dead concerts, not just because they attract hardcore fans who see themselves as part of a community, but also because they offer a rhetorical playlist that is at once predictable yet apt to surprise.
The standards bring chant-along excitement: “Build the Wall!” “Lock Her Up!” “Fake news!”
The improvisational riffs elicit applause and laughs: “Upstairs, downstairs, where was it? I don’t know. But I had one beer. That’s the only thing I remember,” Trump said last week in Southaven, Miss., in lengthy mockery of Christine Blasey Ford’s claim of sexual assault years before by Brett Kavanaugh, Trump’s pick for the Supreme Court.
Nearly two years into his presidency, these operatic, roughly 80-minute performances offer the most tangible proof that Trump has never left the campaign trail, or sought to expand his fan base. All sitting presidents do a fair amount of campaigning and fundraising. None has started earlier or sustained it like Trump, who held nine rallies in the weeks after winning election and then hit the road again within a month of taking office — Tuesday’s rally in Council Bluffs, Iowa, was his 32nd since his inaugural.
Trump’s devotion to the roadshows demonstrates just how much he ties his success to the adulation of his most loyal fans and also, aides say, how much he craves it.
As Democrats threaten to retake Congress in next month’s elections, Trump has revved up Air Force One. Last week, he hit Tennessee, Mississippi, Minnesota and Kansas. This week he plays back-to-back evenings in Iowa and Pennsylvania, then has a night off before gigs in Kentucky and Ohio.
Political consultants, psychologists, sociologists and historians see them as essential texts for deciphering the Trump movement. “These are like morality plays,” said Stephen D. Reicher, a psychology professor at the University of St. Andrews in Scotland who has studied Trump rallies for what they reflect about crowd behavior, leadership and collective action.
“They are performances which enact Trump’s view of the world.”
Here, then, is something of a playbill:
The hero: That’s Trump, of course. “Nobody could do it. Nobody could get it done,” he said in Minnesota about a trade provision. “I did it in two minutes.”
Increasingly, however, he includes his audience, in an us-versus-them embrace. As he often says of his following, “It’s the greatest movement in the history of our country.”
The villain: Enemies are essential to Trump’s narratives. Reicher said Trump needs two kinds: those from within and those from without, so that he can act as “a slayer who slays these two dragons” for the benefit of those in the room.
Outside enemies include China, immigrants, the MS-13 gang and Muslim terrorists. Inside threats are “the elites,” Democrats and the media.
Some enemies are a bit of both. In Mississippi, he said “we” don’t want companies to fire employees, build products abroad and then send them back to the United States with no tariff. “They’re globalists,” he said ominously. “Globalists. We don’t like the thinking of the globalists.”
The media offer an in-the-flesh enemy, with reporters literally penned in the back of the arena like cattle at a livestock show. “Look back there, look at all that media. Look at all that media,” Trump said in Rochester, Minn., on Thursday, glaring contemptuously as the audience booed loudly.
Hecklers occasionally play a role. Trump revels in making fun of them, reminding the crowd of the threats among them. Such protests are quickly drowned out by shouts of “Trump! Trump! Trump!”
Warnings of dystopia: Most politicians paint a bleak future if their opponents win. Trump takes it to a new level, often with distortions or lies depicting Democrats as “the party of crime” and “an angry mob” that’s “willing to do anything to hurt anyone to get the power they so desperately crave.”
“If Democrats take over Congress, the stock market will plummet,” Trump said in Minnesota. Retirement accounts will crash. The political system “will grind to a really messy halt.” They’ll raise taxes, cripple law enforcement, destroy Medicare and invite gangs to take over cities.
“The Democrats embrace socialism,” he continued.“We’re not going to be Venezuela — you see what’s happening? — and open our borders to deadly drugs and violent gangs.”
Damsels, causing distress: Trump has long had a gift for tapping into white male anxieties over immigration, the economy and the ascendance of minority groups. Yet Joshua Zeitz, a historian who has written about presidents and populism, said “this is now assuming a real gender component.”
That shift was most prominent in Mississippi, when Trump mocked Ford, to laughter from the crowd, and warned of the dangers to men of a runamok #MeToo movement.
In the same rally, Trump responded “I love you too” to a man in the audience who’d shouted the endearment. “If that was a woman, I’m in big trouble,” he joked. “I hope you’re a guy. Are you?”
Trump is also fond of conjuring a time of traditional gender roles. He often tells a story of an unnamed man who tells Trump that his wife used to think he was a loser but now — thanks to the president — she calls him a “financial genius” because their 401(k) is doing so well.
Grievances large and small: Frank Luntz, a longtime messaging consultant for Republicans, said Trump’s many expressions of aggrievement serve an important function, making his audiences feel that they know his mind and they’re “having a one-on-one conversation” about shared enmities. But the complaints also distract, Luntz said, from Trump talking of policy goals and taking credit for the strong economy.
In Mississippi, Trump singled out a New York Times reporter in the rear. Without naming her, he went on at length about the time she appeared on a television talk show and laughed at the idea that he could win the Republican presidential nomination. Only the most devoted political junkie could follow the yarn, yet the crowd applauded uproariously when he asserted of reporters that his election was still “driving them crazy.”
That was quickly followed by a complaint about a Washington Post reporter who tweeted a picture in December that misleadingly showed a small crowd at a Trump rally. The reporter apologized, but months later Trump used the incident to lament “the elites’” treatment of the proud Trump “deplorables.”
“Did they fire that reporter? No. Right?” Trump asked. “Isn’t it incredible? Isn’t it sad? And look what happened to Roseanne. Did they fire Roseanne? Yes.”
The jester: Trump’s comedy bits can be disarming for citizens accustomed to scripted politicians. He often does purposely amateurish imitations of people — for example, deferential generals, wily foreign leaders, Vermont’s independent Sen. Bernie Sanders, other politicians or a faux-newsman telling Trump in stentorian tones to “act presidential.”
He spent several minutes in Topeka, Kan., mocking Massachusetts Sen. Elizabeth Warren’s unfounded claims of Native American heritage, using the derisive nickname “Pocahontas,” telling the crowd that he dreamed of running against her and the rest of a Democratic field in 2020.
“I’m hitting them so hard that they’re disappearing and I don’t want to do that,” Trump said, “because I may get somebody that’s actually good to run against me. And that would not be good.”
Sometimes, when the applause lingers or chants endure, Trump turns around and faces the supporters arrayed behind him, like a bandleader waiting for the soloist to finish.
“He is kind of a political lounge act,” said David Axelrod, the former political strategist for President Obama. “This isn’t a chore for him. This is oxygen.”
The bit actors: The big political question is whether Trump, who’s always the star of his own show, can transfer his electoral success to local candidates he’s supposed to be promoting for the midterm elections.
His appeal, as always, is to his core supporters who have stood by him through all manner of controversies, rather than to the swing voters whom many candidates court. Trump wagers that coverage in the local media combined with conservative media will boost turnout among “his” voters.
For some in the audience, “the only reason they would consider voting in a congressional election is because Trump asked them to,” Luntz said.
“People think they have a personal relationship with the president of the United States,” he said. “That’s never happened before. They are not necessarily connected to politics and they are far from partisan.”
Trump has increasingly invited local candidates onto the stage, even as he appears a bit bored when they talk. “The key is the laying of hands,” Luntz said.
The risk, Luntz added, is that Trump’s more inflammatory comments, even his mere presence, turn off moderates or further motivate Democrats.
The reviews are coming Nov. 6.