This summer, Donald Trump went almost two months without holding a standard campaign rally. Even as he downplayed the coronavirus pandem...
This summer, Donald Trump went almost two months without holding a standard campaign rally. Even as he downplayed the coronavirus pandemic, obstructed the government’s response to it, and pressed departments of the executive branch into the service of his reëlection, he was tacitly acknowledging the coronavirus’s power. But now, out of electoral necessity, or vanity, or obstinance, or some combination of the three, Trump is back on the road. Since late August, he has held more than a dozen rallies in swing states. He’s been holding these events on airport tarmacs, the better to fly in and out of quickly, minimizing his interactions with the (often maskless) attendees and maximizing the taxpayer-funded branding boost that comes from treating Air Force One like your personal campaign bus.
The mood remains exuberant, despite the new state of public-health emergency, economic crisis, popular protest, political violence, and constitutional turmoil that exists outside of the rallies’ security perimeters. The President visibly enjoys himself, exaggerating, denouncing, provoking, and exclaiming, while audience members decked out in Trump merchandise stand and cheer and laugh, packed shoulder to shoulder. “I’m not going to live my life scared,” an Ohio man named Brian Carroll, wearing a “Trump 2020” hat and blue-tinted sunglasses, told a reporter asking about the absence of masks at a rally near Toledo, on Monday. “It does not bother me one bit.” If anyone remembers that Herman Cain, the onetime Republican Presidential candidate, died of COVID-19 a few weeks after attending Trump’s rally in Tulsa, in June, they appear to be keeping it to themselves. Local officials have been less sanguine about Trump’s indifference to crowd-size limits put in place to blunt transmission of the virus. “You think he’s gonna listen to me?” Rich Fitzgerald, the county executive in Allegheny County, Pennsylvania, where Trump appeared on Tuesday, told a local TV station. “He gets subpoenas he ignores. He doesn’t listen to the court, he doesn’t listen to Congress. One thing after another, he doesn’t play by the rules.”
In 2016, these rallies were the defining events of Trump’s campaign. “He is not trying to persuade, detail, or prove: he is trying to thrill, agitate, be liked, be loved, here and now,” George Saunders wrote of them that summer. “He is trying to make energy. . . . And make energy he does.” A recent Times article about the CNN executive Jeff Zucker reminded readers that even a shot of the empty stage before Trump’s speeches was once considered good television. (“DONALD TRUMP EXPECTED TO SPEAK ANY MINUTE,” one memorable chyron read.) Trump and his allies would point at the atmosphere and the size of these rallies (which they often embellished) as proof that—despite his deficit in the polls, his fund-raising disadvantage, and the improvised, ragtag operation he was running—he was still in the race. After his surprise victory, these pronouncements took on the aura of myth.
Now, once more trailing in the polls and facing a fund-raising deficit, Trump appears to hope that he can again generate and harness some energy at these rallies, to pull off another surprise victory. But these are different times. The networks have wised up to or moved on from the novelty of these events. Recently, Bill Stepien, Trump’s campaign manager, circulated a memo, obtained by Axios, in which he argued that the rallies were nevertheless generating millions of dollars’ worth of “calculated earned media values.” But the search for alternate measures of value suggests a campaign scrambling for positive signs, and there’s even evidence that some inside Trump’s circle view these rallies as potential liabilities. On Friday, Trump was onstage at a rally in Minnesota when news broke that Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg had died. His aides, according to the Times, decided not to relay the news to Trump, fearing that if the President told his audience “the crowd would cheer.”
In recent days, two new slogans have débuted at Trump’s rallies. The first, visible on pre-printed flyers distributed by the campaign and shouted with gusto by the crowds, is “FILL THAT SEAT!” On Saturday, Trump plans to announce his nominee to replace Ginsburg on the Supreme Court, and his fans, as the campaign anticipated, have quickly thrilled to this unexpected political gift. Trump has been teasing them about his potential pick. “Give me a free poll,” he said in Ohio, on Monday. “Who would like to see a woman Justice of the Supreme Court?” A loud cheer went up. “Who would like to see a male Justice of the Supreme Court?” He paused, and a smaller cheer came from what sounded like mostly women in the crowd. “The only one I hear there is women, some women,” Trump said. “What’s that all about?”
The other new slogan, which Trump has had less success in encouraging his fans to take up, is “WE LOVE YOU!” Trump claims that this chant began spontaneously at a rally a few days ago, but even his fans don’t seem to be buying that. “This chant is going on, like it’s crazy, and it’s ‘We love you, we love you, we love you,’ ” he said at a second Ohio rally on Monday. “And, you know what . . . I don’t want to say it. I’m just saying, they have not been able to find in the history of politics in this nation—even, we loved Ronald Reagan. But they have not been able to find where people broke out and said ‘We love you’ about—I guess I have to call myself a politician. . . . No, but think of it. How nice is that? I never heard it.”
The difference between these two slogans, and the audiences’ reaction to them, underscores Trump’s situation. He currently holds in his hands the power to shape the next decade or more of jurisprudence at the Supreme Court. (FILL THAT SEAT!) But he may not have much power to shape public opinion over the next six weeks. (WE LOVE YOU!) There have been recent moments at rallies when even Trump’s hold on the crowds has faltered. In Ohio, they booed the state’s lieutenant governer, Jon Husted, when he tried to encourage them to wear Trump-branded face masks. Some more boos came down when Trump himself was onstage, when he offered praise for the state’s governor, Mike DeWine, who has been credited with steering the state out of the COVID-19 spike that it endured earlier this year. “What’s that all about?” Trump said, with a smirk.
Trump is asking his fans to risk their health to make his campaign look better. And yet, if he wins another surprise victory in November, it won’t likely be because of these rallies. The fight over Trump’s Supreme Court pick in the Senate, the three upcoming debates between him and Joe Biden, and his continuing threats to fight election results that go against him—these are the topics that will dominate public attention in the weeks ahead. A brief news conference at the White House, on Wednesday, in which Trump threatened not to allow a peaceful transfer of power if he were to lose the election generated more headlines—and rightly so—than a week’s worth of rallies. But that’s unlikely to keep Trump off the road. He’s having too much fun.