'He's a salesman': why rallies are Trump's last best hope of clinging to presidency

David Smith in Washington
·7 min read
<span>Photograph: Brendan Smialowski/AFP/Getty Images</span>
Photograph: Brendan Smialowski/AFP/Getty Images

For Donald Trump, surviving coronavirus has become just another punchline on the campaign trail.

“I had so many doctors and each one of them studied different parts of the body,” the president told supporters in Waukesha, Wisconsin, last weekend.

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A roar of laughter.

“And I had a moment where almost every one of them was touching me simultaneously.” More laughter. “I didn’t like it!”

More laughter.

“I said, ‘Doc, I wanna to get out of here, I’ve gotta campaign, I’m in the midst of a campaign against ‘Sleepy Joe’. Can you imagine losing to this guy!?”

Cries of “No!” followed by Trump parodying the voice of a doctor, comparing himself to Superman and referencing “Barack Hussein Obama” – cue a chorus of boos.

Opinion polls suggest that Trump could be a dead man walking, hurtling towards a psychologically crushing defeat like one-term president Jimmy Carter against Ronald Reagan in 1980.

Yet on the trail he continues to project the image of a happy warrior cruising to re-election, regaling big crowds with selective poll numbers, bogus conspiracy theories and his own brand of humor. And his base remains loyal to the end with cheers, merriment and chants of “Four more years!”, “Lock him up!” and “Build that wall!”

If Trump does lose next week – and the polls have been wrong before so that remains a big “if” – he will go down with all guns blazing.

Donald Trump gestures to supporters after a rally in Bullhead City, Arizona, on 28 October.
Donald Trump gestures to supporters after a rally in Bullhead City, Arizona, on 28 October. Photograph: Isaac Brekken/Getty Images

Trump has always been in his element campaigning rather than governing. He continued to hold rallies even after winning the 2016 election, throwing out populist red meat and feeding off the energy of fervent crowds. Whereas Washington is difficult and messy, these public events offer simple affirmation. Free from the constraints of the White House, its protocols and its officials, he uses the rallies to indulge in free association riffs and play to the gallery.

Now they may represent his last best hope of clinging to the presidency. Rival Joe Biden is running a more low-key, in-person campaign with smaller and less frequent events, but has raised vastly more money than Trump and is outspending him in TV advertising.

The president evidently revels in the romantic self-image of an old-fashioned insurgent barnstorming small towns, standing on a soapbox, spinning a yarn and winning over all comers. The power of live performance appeared to work in 2016 in states such as Wisconsin, where Hillary Clinton did not show up and Trump won narrowly.

Charlie Gerow, a Republican strategist in Pennsylvania, told the Washington Post: “The rallies are not the be-all, end-all by any stretch. But they are an important show of strength to rally the base and increase the intensity of those people.

“Folks who attend a rally go home, talk to friends, talk to neighbors, talk to their family about what happened … Trump has thousands of little ambassadors going to their little corners of America, and the Biden campaign doesn’t have that.”

Donald Trump at a campaign rally in Lansing, Michigan, on 27 October.
Donald Trump at a campaign rally in Lansing, Michigan, on 27 October. Photograph: Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images

Trump rallies typically feature giant US flags and signs such as “Make America great again” (Maga) and “Pennsylvania workers for Trump”. In the pandemic era they often held in open air airport hangars against a backdrop of the Air Force One plane or Marine One helicopter.

The president enters to raucous adulation and hurls red “Make America great again” caps into a crowd where such caps outnumber face masks, except among people standing behind the president, and physical distancing almost nonexistent. A recent analysis by the USA Today newspaper found that Covid-19 cases surged in at least five counties where Trump had just held rallies.

The Republican nominee delivers almost the same speech every time with almost the same off-script digressions. He attacks the media for harping on “Covid, Covid, Covid” and, in a novel development, has recently taken to playing video clips of his opponent that he believes are damning.

The rallies are not the be-all, end-all by any stretch. But they are an important show of strength to rally the base

Charlie Gerow

There is also constant machine gunfire of false or inaccurate statements – the New York Times counted 131 of them at a recent rally in Janesville, Wisconsin – and unhinged assertions such as: “The Biden family is a criminal enterprise. Frankly, it makes Crooked Hillary Clinton look like an amateur.”

He also recounts his 2016 victory in excruciating detail and confidently predicts not only another victory but by a bigger margin. Indeed, inside the Maga bubble, defeat is so unthinkable that it is a laughing matter. “Could you imagine if I lose?” he asked at a rally in Macon, Georgia. “I’m not going to feel so good. Maybe I’ll have to leave the country, I don’t know.”

Trump appears to be channeling The Power of Positive Thinking by Norman Vincent Peale, who was pastor of the church he attended in New York, to will himself to an improbable victory. But he is not first to put a brave face on a troubled campaign.

Henry Olsen, a senior fellow at the Ethics and Public Policy Center thinktank in Washington, said: “All the candidates, even if they know they’re going to lose, do the best they can to present a strong positive face. I suspect if you were to go back and look at presidential campaigns where the loser was quite clear, like with [John] McCain in 08 or [Bob] Dole in 96, they’d still be going out making a strong case for themselves.

“I suspect that with Trump there’s more genuine belief than there might have been with those gentlemen but his campaign can’t be ignorant of the facts. They may have more optimistic numbers than the polls but there’s no way that they would have the president winning at this point.”

Donald Trump acknowledges the cheering crowd behind him at a campaign rally in Goodyear, Arizona, on 28 October.
Donald Trump acknowledges the cheering crowd behind him at a campaign rally in Goodyear, Arizona, on 28 October. Photograph: Ross D Franklin/AP

There has been one tweak. Whereas Trump’s rallies used to end with the Rolling Stones’ aching You Can’t Always Get What You Want, now they finish with the Village People’s YMCA. The 74-year-old usually offers a jovial dance of sorts with the air of a man who knows something the rest of the world does not.

To critics, however, it is all not so much a vaudeville act as the last stand of a demagogue.

Tara Setmayer, a former Republican communications director on Capitol Hill, said: “Donald Trump is a salesman. He’s been a pitchman con artist his entire life, selling things that are not real, that are not authentic, and convincing people that they are. This is exactly what he’s doing with his campaign.”

Setmayer, a senior adviser to the Lincoln Project, an anti-Trump group, added: “They are virtually broke for a campaign that’s raised over a billion dollars and squandered the money. They’re being significantly outraised and outspent on the airwaves in key battleground states to the point where Democrats are spending money in Texas and Georgia – places that Democrats never would have spent money in past elections.”

In chilly Waukesha last Saturday, Trump claimed that the turnout could have been three times bigger if space allowed and articulated his belief that, once again, crowd size will matter more than polling data, gut instinct more than conventional wisdom. “Something’s going on, and they see it,” he said, pointing to the media with a black gloved hand. “Something’s going on.”