Commentators have criticized Trump for holding these events, which closely resemble the rallies that defined his presidential campaign. “Donald Trump is addicted to campaign rallies,” wrote Jack Moore, because “he just wants to get in front of a crowd of people who still like him.” Many Americans have wondered: Is it normal for a president to stoke popular emotions this way?
Yes and no. Emotion has long created a shared language through which voters and politicians can link policy initiatives with popular will. Campaign rallies, too, have served as a key element of the democratic system for over a century — enabling politicians to promote their policy agendas and affording ordinary Americans a rare opportunity to engage directly with leaders.
Trump’s tactics aren’t new, but his agenda is. His emotional campaigning serves solely as a tool for self-aggrandizement, rather than fulfilling its historic function of channeling voter enthusiasm toward a particular legislative program. His rallies, which are notably about him and not about policies, raise deep concerns about a president who uses emotional politics to build a cult of personality rather than to pass laws.
Emotion wasn’t always a part of American politics. Before the 1880s, American presidential candidates didn’t even campaign during election season; doing so would have suggested both an unseemly desperation for the job and a troubling willingness to cater to the whims of the multitude. When Republican nominee James Blaine went on a speaking tour during the 1884 campaign, critics accused him of trying to manipulate voters’ emotions.
In the late 19th century, however, the jarring transformation of the United States from a rural, farm-based nation to an urban, industrialized society left Americans feeling alienated and unmoored. Seeking meaning and purpose in their increasingly unsettled lives, many sought, for the first time, an emotional connection with their political leaders. Politicians responded by embracing a uniquely emotional style of public speaking that thrilled audiences and won leaders massive personal followings.
Perhaps the most successful speaker to embrace this “personal magnetism” was former Nebraska U.S. representative William Jennings Bryan, a three-time presidential nominee who achieved national prominence with a dazzling speech at the 1896 Democratic convention. Like Bernie Sanders today, Bryan used his narrow loss that year as a springboard for a nonstop series of speaking tours to promote his policy platform. Some observers were horrified by Bryan’s behavior. “Good government can never be, has never been, the offspring of hysterical screaming,” complained Louisville Courier-Journal editor Henry Watterson.
But emotional politics served a democratic purpose. In an age before pollsters and social media, rallies and speaking tours enabled politicians to gauge and shape popular opinion both on the campaign trail and while in office. For the first time, voters had a measure of direct influence over their leaders. “If you speak to the multitude and they do not respond,” Bryan urged his fellow candidates, “do not despise them, but rather examine what you have said. … Mankind deserves to be trusted.”
While the development of mass media made it much easier for politicians to communicate regularly with voters, it did not replace the emotional power cultivated at campaign rallies. As Jimmy Carter’s pollster Pat Caddell wrote in 1976, “Governing with public approval requires a continuing political campaign.”
The democratic value of emotional politics lies in its ability to connect politicians with voters regarding shared issue concerns. Bryan’s rallies reshaped discussions about monetary policy, Woodrow Wilson went on a speaking tour to promote the Treaty of Versailles after World War I, and even Sanders has recently used his massive crowds to call attention to student loan debt and the minimum wage.
Trump’s rallies, however, have little to do with pending policy. In Cedar Rapids, Trump bragged about his accomplishments and ridiculed Democrats and the media, but spent little time promoting the health-care bill his party was desperately trying to pass; he spoke of future legislative proposals only briefly and in general terms. Behind him, in an ironic echo of George W. Bush’s infamous “Mission Accomplished” speech during the Iraq War, signs read, “Promises Made, Promises Kept” — suggesting Trump prefers empty declarations of victory to the hard work of policymaking.
Throughout American history, emotional politics has sat poised at the juncture between democracy and demagoguery. At their best, campaign-style rallies can refresh a president’s legitimacy by helping secure the consent of the governed for the policies he hopes to enact. But a president who uses them simply to stroke his own ego, who can’t be bothered to defend his own policies to the people he represents, demonstrates an alarming lack of interest in the democratic process.