The crowd was into it. Trump’s crowds are generally heavily white and heavily blue-collar, and the crowd in Manchester wasn’t an exception. Everyone’s heard “Paradise City,” of course, but some people embrace it more than others. The crowd embraced it.
After a few more songs — the Rolling Stones, Phil Collins, Survivor — things got real. The lights dimmed. Red and blue spotlights began sweeping over the crowd, and AC/DC’s “Thunderstruck” kicked in. In the crowd, people flicked their phone cameras open and lifted them up to get a picture of the president taking the stage.
But then he didn’t.
The song faded out. The crowd applauded, as though they’d come to see an AC/DC light show. A moment later, an announcer introduced Trump and another cheer went up. Lee Greenwood’s “God Bless the U.S.A.” began — a noticeably lower-energy tune — and people again waited. Somewhere, Trump had emerged, if a small ripple of cheers from near the stage was an indicator. But it took nearly five minutes for Trump to step up into view of the audience.
And people could not have been more excited.
For almost five more minutes, the crowd raucously applauded the president, waves of clapping fading and swelling again, over and over. I’ve seen a good number of political rallies, and the audience response at a Trump rally is unlike anything anywhere else. Trump could probably have simply said, “New Hampshire: Thank you!” walked away and left at least 50 percent of the audience perfectly content with their decision to attend.
But he didn’t. Instead, he launched into an hour-and-a-half-long speech outlining the case for his reelection. Or, to be less generous about the content: He simply launched into an hour-and-a-half-long speech.
A Trump speech is to a speech what a dog’s walk is to getting somewhere. You have a starting point and an ending point and you have a general direction, but that dog is going to meander. The more leash you give it, the farther it goes, and on Thursday night in New Hampshire, Trump was given about two light-years of leash.
Using a transcript from Factba.se, we tried to visualize how the speech went.
See what happens? Trump gets up to the mic and starts riffing. On occasion, he’ll come back to the prepared remarks, sitting there patiently in the teleprompter for minutes on end. Eventually, the clock starts ticking, and the audience starts getting distracted, so Trump just powers through the speech, adding just enough red meat — Protect the Second Amendment! The wall is being built! — to keep people hooked through the end.
But his fans aren’t there for the speech — they’re there for the riffs. It’s been said ad infinitum, but it bears repeating. Hardcore support for Trump isn’t predicated on the policies he advocates, however much he misrepresents what he’s done or what he’s doing. It’s predicated on the fact that Trump, at last, is telling the elites who’ve run the country where they can shove it. It’s predicated on the fact that they, not those elites, are now the ones in power. Trump can spend five minutes talking about how Republican Party chair Ronna McDaniel kept telling him to come to Michigan in 2016 because the point is that they won Michigan and the elites didn’t.
There’s an almost defensive quality to Trump rallies, an effort to be ostentatiously indifferent to the concerns of others. A popular T-shirt reads “Trump 2020: Flick your feelings,” substituting in the word “flick.” When Trump says something with which the crowd agrees, something disparaging the powerful or the elite or Democrats, some people in the audience will turn toward the assembled media and raise their middle fingers — for the media are those elites made manifest in the room. It’s a one-animal zoo, the media in a little cage right in the middle, the other focal point in the ellipse of attention in the room. A Trump rally is a chance for Trump supporters to hear Trump disparage the people they hate and then to turn and reflect that disparagement back at the purported representatives of those people.
In that room, the media and the elites and immigrants and terrorists and liberals are all just categories. Trump supporters are generally happy to talk to members of the media individually, even those joining in the “CNN sucks” chants. In their view, opposing illegal immigration isn’t a function of race; it’s just finally pushing back against a group that has been presented as problematic for years. That differentiation between opinions about a group and opinions about a person is central, even if it’s a distinction that collapses in an ugly way in practical terms.
There’s been a lot of conversation about how and whether Democrats can win over Trump voters in 2020. Some of them, sure. But the most hardcore supporters, like most of those at a Trump rally? Nope. How does former vice president Joe Biden persuade a voter who loves Trump because he stands against the Washington machine suddenly decide to vote for a 50-year veteran of that machine? It’s not politics. It’s emotion.
That’s the power of the “Paradise City”/“Thunderstruck” opening. Just pure energy, pure aggression, pure, literal feeling coursing through a room of people who have felt the same frustrations. A big arena full of rock music, shared sympathies and frustrations and a president whose primary value proposition is fighting the people you dislike.
So what if the flow of the energy was awkward. So what if Trump didn’t read his prepared remarks. That’s not what it’s about. At all.