What drives people to Trump rallies? It’s not all about him, experts say

Former President Donald Trump will get a break from his New York criminal trial when he visits Wilmington on Saturday for one of his distinctive rallies.

He’ll likely draw a big crowd. Sales of T-shirts and red MAGA caps will be brisk. His speech will be familiar and untrue: The U.S has become a Third World country, the southern border is wide-open to terrorists and criminals and, of course, the 2020 election was stolen.

But these days what’s more interesting isn’t what Trump says, but why so many still show up to listen. I could ask a regular rally goer in a “Let’s Go Brandon” T-shirt, but I decided to go to the other end of the political spectrum to a couple of elites — two professors.

The first is Stephen Reicher, a professor of psychology at the University of St. Andrews in Scotland. He is an expert in group psychology and crowd behavior. He planned to study Trump rallies directly, but the COVID pandemic got in the way. He did, however, co-author a research paper on the relationship between Trump and his “engaged followership” played a role in the Jan. 6 attack on the U.S. Capitol.

Closer to home, I spoke with Marc Hetherington, a UNC-Chapel Hill political science professor who researches polarization of public opinion and is the author of a 2009 book “Authoritarianism and Polarization in American Politics.”

Reicher said that the former president has an impressive ability to move crowds.

“Whether you like him or don’t like him, I think it’s very hard to deny that in 2016 he was very skilled and a very streetwise political operator,” Reicher said of Trump. “He did create a vision that captured people’s imagination, he did speak for many people who felt that they’d lost control while losing status in the world, he presented himself as a champion of those people who others didn’t speak for. Certainly there was skill, brilliance to what he did.”

But Reicher said Trump no longer has the power of leading an insurgency and his speaking skills appear to be slipping.

“He always has a tendency to digress, to go off the subject, to speak in ellipses, but now there are simply some examples where it has reached the point of occasional incoherence,” Reicher said. “So there’s always the question about is he the same top performer as he was eight years ago?”

But as a researcher of crowd psychology, Reicher remains drawn to the phenomenon of a Trump rally. He compared the rallies to good vs. evil morality plays in which the audience becomes part of the performance that projects a vivid vision of the world.

“From both a social and political point of view, rallies are a really important manner of getting at the real belief system, the real ideology, the real world view,” he said. “That’s why for me the Trump rallies were so absolutely fascinating.”

For Hetherington, a Trump rally is as much about joining a crowd of like-minded people as it is about listening to the former president.

Of Trump rally goers, he said, “It feels to me that these folks are deriving some sense of shared identity with the people that they are there with. It seems to be less about politics and a lot about the camaraderie and community they are able to generate with the fellow believers.”

Hetherington has never been to a Trump rally, but he said the events are making less of an impression on the general public.

“After eight years of the same show, that same show just doesn’t have the same punch as it did when he first showed up on the scene with a frankly anti-democratic message as it relates to people who disagree with him,” Heatherington said.

In some ways, he said, Trump’s rallies are a throwback to the late 19th century when political parties had to stage huge, highly partisan gatherings to get their message out. Today’s media and advertising make such rallies unnecessary.

But the real driver of a Trump rally is the ritual of following the Trump show as many people travel to attend rally after rally, Heatherington said.

“It’s almost like following the Grateful Dead around to the concerts back 30 years ago,” he said.

Yes, it is. And in Wilmington on Saturday, there will be another stop on what’s become for American politics a long, strange trip.

Associate opinion editor Ned Barnett can be reached at 919-404-7583, or nbarnett@ newsobserver.com