Trump rallies his base — and his base rallies for him

Donald Trump
President Trump at a rally in Wilkes-Barre, Pa., Aug. 2, 2018. (Photo: Victor J. Blue/Bloomberg}

In yet another turbulent week for the White House, the president twice took comfort in his safest of safe spaces: the Trump rally.

On Tuesday in Tampa, Fla., and Thursday in Wilkes-Barre, Pa., Trump basked in the applause, the encouraging chants of “CNN Sucks!,” and the sight of ubiquitous red hats and no longer cryptic “Q” signs and t-shirts that dotted his crowds.

The ostensible reason for the rallies was to campaign for two Republican candidates Trump hopes will save him the humiliation of heavy GOP losses in the forthcoming midterm elections. In Florida, the president threw his support behind Ron DeSantis, a frontrunner in the Aug. 28 Republican primary for governor whose fawning, pro-Trump campaign ad set a new high-water mark for partisan flattery.

While DeSantis’s Democratic opponent has yet to be decided, Trump began testing out the lines he’ll be using over and over until November to keep his party in power.

“In the November general election, don’t forget, you have somebody, one of the group is going to be running on open borders, anti-ICE, anti-law enforcement,” Trump said as his audience obliged him with loud booing.

In Pennsylvania, after another detailed recounting of his 2016 election night victory, Trump sought to boost the U.S. Senate candidacy of Lou Barletta, bashing his opponent with attacks that echoed those used in Florida.

The crowd revs up before a Trump rally
The crowd revs up before a Trump rally in Tampa, Fla., in July. (Photo: Joe Raedle/Getty Images)

“Bob Casey wants open borders, which means crime. It means crime. You see this. He wants people to pour in, and if they pour in by the millions, that’s, I guess, OK.”

As they have since he started his campaign, Trump’s most fervent supporters reveled at every freewheeling, rhetorical turn, engaging in a kind of call-and-response shorthand between audience and speaker. At the mention of Hillary Clinton, the crowd in Pennsylvania seized on the name and started up a “Lock Her Up!” chant, which gave the president another opportunity to ad lib on a subject never far from his tweeting fingers.

“No, no, no, no. They only want to hurt Republicans,” Trump said, apparently referring to the Department of Justice, which is run by his appointee Jeff Sessions. “They don’t want to do anything. But you know what, it’s all changing, folks, it’s all changing.”

With strong second-quarter GDP numbers in his back pocket, Trump might simply content himself on the stump to arguing that his economic policies are working, but that would mean passing up an opportunity to have some fun at his enemies’ expense. In Tampa, Trump found a way brag about stock market and 401K gains during his tenure while simultaneously attacking the organizations that report on them daily.

“Of course, if the fake news did a poll, they’re called ‘suppression polls,’ you know polls are fake just like everything else,” Trump said as his fans started booing in support. “If the fake news did a poll, it would show that I’m only getting 25 percent with the 401K, even though they’re up 44 percent. No, we’re doing well.”

Trump supporter David Reinert
Trump fan David Reinert at a recent rally in Wilkes Barre, Pa. “Q” is a conspiracy theory group that has made its presence known at recent rallies. (Photo: Rick Loomis/Getty Images)

In the very next sentence, however, polling rebounded sharply in the president’s estimation.

“They just came out with a poll, did you hear? The most popular person in the history of the Republican Party is Trump, can you believe it? So I said, Does that include, does that include Honest Abe Lincoln? You know he was pretty good, right? Remember I said, I’d be a little bit wild, and we’d have a lot of fun. They said, ‘He’s not acting presidential,’ and I said, ‘Well, it’s a lot easier to act presidential than to do what I do.’ Anybody can act presidential,” Trump said, making his posture robot-rigid and motoring back and forth on the stage to the delight of his crowd before mimicking a humdrum politician. “Ladies and gentlemen of the state of Florida, thank you very much for being here. You are tremendous people and I will leave now because I am boring you to death, thank you.”

Though Trump failed to mention that the Republican party is shrinking, the robot routine was an undeniably entertaining performance, the likes of which have never been given behind a presidential seal. That’s what Trump’s supporters so admire about him.

“Part of how Trump ended up being elected was that voters didn’t care if he had experience. They wanted him to blow up the system. In a sense they said, If the government is punished by us electing Trump, so be it,” Republican strategist Rick Tyler, who served as Sen. Ted Cruz’s communications director in the 2016 presidential campaign, told Yahoo News. “There’s an element of ‘I don’t really care what he does as long as he’s mad about it.’”

A Trump rally in Tampa, Fla.
Photo: Chris Urso/Tampa Bay Times via Zuma Wire

Inside Trump’s rallies this week, it was easy for the president and his admirers to, at least for a little while, forget about the headlines that did not adhere to the White House script. Trump’s former campaign manager’s trail had began Monday in Alexandria, Va. Rudy Giuliani, the president’s lawyer, continued to move the goalposts Monday on whether Trump may have colluded with the Russians in the 2016 election. Trump found himself at war with Republican megadonors Charles and David Koch over whether the president’s trade war with China would result in financial calamity for the U.S. On Wednesday, Trump himself, in an act that legal scholars said could amount to obstruction of justice, called on his attorney general to shut down special counsel Robert Mueller’s probe into the Trump campaign’s possible collusion with Russia in 2016. A day later, his own intelligence chiefs gave a White House briefing that made clear that Russian interference was not fake news, and posed a significant threat to the midterms.

No wonder Trump has pledged to campaign six or seven days a week up through the midterms. As he explained at a rally last week, when he’s the one doing all the talking, it keeps his critics from getting a word in edgewise.

“But one of the advantages, I can say it, it’s covered live, much of it, and when I say it they can’t do anything about it. ’Cause I say it,” Trump explained in a speech at a U.S. Steel facility in Granite City, Ill. “So at least they hear our point of view, and it’s really our point of view, it’s not my point of view, it’s our point of view.

So talk he did this week, it’s the part of the job he seems to enjoy most. But while that may thrill those like DeSantis and Barletta who can find no fault with Trump, it may not translate into the kinds of election night victories the president loves to recount to his adoring crowds.

“See, I’m acting presidential now,” Trump told his admirers in Pennsylvania when bragging how he had torpedoed the Affordable Care Act’s individual mandate, which obliged citizens to purchase health insurance so as to make the system less expensive for the average consumer. But those pesky fake polls show that health care, and Trump’s sabotage of his predecessor’s signature legislation, could present a problem for Republicans in the midterms.

Maybe that’s something more Trump rallies will solve.


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