We justifiably mark Donald Trump’s campaign launch on June 16, 2015, as the beginning of his push to the White House. That was the day that he slipped down that escalator in Trump Tower and began riffing about Mexican immigrants and how America doesn’t win any more before formally declaring his candidacy.
But that wasn’t the day that his campaign first seemed real. At that point, he was still just Donald Trump, the guy from the TV and the tabloids. The day his campaign really became tangible came a few weeks later, at a rally in Phoenix — the place to which Trump will return Tuesday night.
Two related things happened around that July 11, 2015, speech in Phoenix that defined the next two years. Trump showed, first, that his harsh anti-immigrant rhetoric had a fervent audience. And he showed, second, that he wouldn’t pay a price for defending his rhetoric against the Republican establishment.
It’s important to remember the immediate reaction to Trump’s campaign launch. That speech was riddled with inaccuracies and, to a large extent, Trump was dismissed as being an insincere or impossible candidate. At the time, he was polling at 3.6 percent, according to RealClearPolitics’ average of polls, good enough for ninth place in the crowded Republican field. Two weeks later, he was still at only 4.2 percent in that average, vaulting up into eighth place.
That was about the time that the backlash to Trump’s comments about Mexican immigrants being criminals and rapists was heating up. Univision cut ties with Trump on June 25, drawing national attention to his comments and his rhetoric. Others piled on, mirroring to some extent the recent exodus of corporate support Trump saw after his response to the violence in Charlottesville. Macy’s, a longtime corporate partner of Trump’s, bailed on him on July 1, 2015, saying that it had “no tolerance for discrimination.” The chef who’d signed on to anchor the restaurant in his D.C. hotel backed out a week later. This was the normal process: Someone says something offensive, he pays the price, and that’s that.
That wasn’t what happened to Trump. As these controversies dominated headlines, Trump saw his support start to spike. By July 11, he was at 6.5 percent support, in seventh place. His rally on that day was originally scheduled for a hotel, but huge demand pushed the campaign to space at the Phoenix Convention Center. Originally planned for several hundred people, the crowd eventually numbered in the thousands.
Trump had jolted a voting bloc into action. Normally, corporate chastising of bad actors becomes the end of the story in part because it’s hard for those who stand with the person who misbehaved to express their agreement. In this case, people who agreed with Trump on immigration could show that support visibly, by showing up at his rally. So they did.
There, Trump continued to hammer on the same theme. The day before the rally, he invited the families of people killed by immigrants in the country illegally to join him at a news conference focused on the issue. One of those parents, Jamiel Shaw, was invited to introduce Trump at the Phoenix rally; Shaw ended up speaking for several minutes in support of Trump’s candidacy.
The rally was carried live on cable news networks, one of the first Trump events to earn that sort of attention. Trump got to make his case to the whole country, live.
Some of the spike in Trump’s poll numbers after the Phoenix rally was part of the aggregated effect of the attention being paid to his position on immigration. Some of it was thanks to the rally itself. Either way, 10 days before the rally, he was in seventh place. Ten days after, he led the field — and would hold that lead with only one exception throughout the primaries.
A Time report from the rally describes Trump’s now-familiar formula as a novelty.
“Casting himself as more than a billionaire real-estate magnate and reality television star on his bid for the White House,” it began, “Trump claimed Saturday to speak for a ‘silent majority’ of Americans who are frustrated with the direction of the country.”
The “rambling speech” hit on illegal immigration, on the Islamic State, on the boycotts of his products, on celebrities, on the lying media, on how bad Jeb Bush is and so on. (Bush had attacked Trump’s rhetoric the week prior.)
Trump reserved special attention for the Republican establishment, including Arizona’s senior senator.
“I mean, right here in your own state, you have John McCain,” Trump said. “I just hate to see when people don’t have common sense, don’t have an understanding of what’s going on, or perhaps don’t want to know. Maybe it’s campaign contributions. Maybe it’s special interest. Maybe it’s lobbyists. But for some reason, some people don’t get it and I don’t think they’ll be in office much longer.”
McCain wasn’t going to let this slide. A few days after the rally, he bashed Trump for “fir[ing] up the crazies” in the Republican Party with his anti-immigrant rhetoric. The pejorative use of “crazies” aside, McCain was generally right: Trump had indeed fired up a dormant, apathetic part of the GOP.
How’d Trump respond? By telling an audience that he prefers heroes who weren’t captured.
This was too much! You can’t say that about McCain. This, surely, is the end of the Trump phenomenon. Right? Now, it seems funny to think that this would hurt Trump at all since we have seen so many incidents — including this one — in which Trump paid no price for saying things that just aren’t said.
Disrespect for immigrants is one thing. But disrespecting the Republican establishment as you sought its nomination seemed like lunacy. It wasn’t; Trump’s now the president.
That was two quiet lessons learned, centered on that rally in Phoenix. There’s political utility in bashing immigrants and there’s political utility in bashing Republicans. Those two lessons more than any others defined Trump’s candidacy.
In September of last year, Trump returned to Phoenix for another speech on immigration.
“You know this is where it all began for me. Remember that massive crowd also?” he said then. “So, I said let’s go and have some fun tonight. We’re going to Arizona, okay?”
What’s more fun than returning to the place where your instincts were proven right?