I've watched 90 percent of Donald Trump's speeches at campaign rallies over the past month or so — including his latest Monday morning in Windham, N.H. And one thing has become crystal-clear: Trump is getting better and better at delivering the message that has rallied so many Republicans to his cause.
His standard stump speech now is essentially a greatest-hits version of the various riffs, attacks and asides that Trump has tried out on audiences since he got into the race in mid-June.
Watching Trump is, to me, like watching a stand-up comedian in terms of his process. Trump, ever the businessman-marketer, views his audiences as focus groups; he's forever testing lines to see not only which work and which don't but also how and when to deliver them for maximum impact.
There's no better example of Trump's workshopping of his lines than on immigration. He didn't mention a word about immigration until roughly two-thirds of the way into his very lengthy announcement speech back in June. But Trump quickly realized that his strong stance against illegal immigration and his focus on building a wall was striking a chord with GOP voters. So he moved it all the way up to the top of his speeches and made it, at least for a few months, the signature policy of his candidacy. (Sidebar: Trump has rewritten history on the issue as he has continued in the race. On Monday in New Hampshire, he told the audience he had "strongly" raised immigration in his announcement speech, which is, um, just not true.)
At this point, not only is Trump hammering away on immigration and the wall, he's modified his pitch into a sort of call and response with the audience. "Who's gonna pay for it?" Trump shouts to the crowd. "Mexico!" they respond gleefully. The performer doing the thing the audience came to see. Like Andrew Dice Clay telling dirty nursery rhymes. Or Jerry Seinfeld asking, "What's the deal with that?" Or Billy Joel playing "Piano Man."
One more example of how Trump works to get better: How he deals with protesters. Trump has long been willing to engage with his audience — "Are you one of the good guys?" he asks people making noise in crowds — but of late he's taken a far more aggressive approach to calling out people who disagree with him at his rallies. Last week in Burlington, Vt., Trump would yell, "Get 'em out of here!" each time he was interrupted by a protester. Then, sensing that the crowd loved it, he went on a tangent about how the security is playing too nice with protesters and they won't be so nice to the next person who protests. The crowd went bananas. Trump upped the ante even further — telling security to keep the protesters' coats when they were thrown out into the frigid Vermont night. He was joking — sort of. The crowd went even wilder.
Inherent in this comedian comparison is the reality that Trump is, at root, giving people what they want — which is not always the same thing as what they need. A comedian's job is to make people laugh — pure and simple. A politician's job is, yes, to persuade people to vote for him. But telling people what they want to hear solely because you know it's what they want to hear opens up a dangerous path for any politician.
Trump is either unaware of that slippery slope or, more likely, unconcerned by it. All politicians tell people what they want to hear, I can imagine him saying, I'm just better at it. (The pushback, of course, is that it's far easier telling people what they want to hear than what they need to hear. And part of being a politician — and a leader — is being able to tell people hard truths.)
Regardless of the end result of Trump's process, it's clear to me that it has helped make him a much more effective and efficient — some would say ruthlessly so — politician. His stump speech might seem chaotic and all over the place, but having watched its evolution over the past month or so, I can assure you there is careful calibration in it.
Trump knows exactly what he is doing — and he's getting better and better at giving people what they want. Period.