I spent way too much time with Trump related media this weekend for anyone’s mental health. As I write this, my head is in a very jangled space. The ugliness of President Donald Trump’s words does that to me.
I watched all of his rally in Green Bay Saturday night on Fox News. That was after streaming warm-up acts at the Wisconsin event like Diamond and Silk.
Then, Sunday morning I joined host Brian Stelter and a panel of journalists and political analysts on CNN’s “Reliable Sources” to talk about the president. The focus was the way he has amped up his belligerence in the wake of the Mueller report even as he has retreated to safe media harbors like Sean Hannity’s show on Fox where he did a 45 minute call on Thursday night with him and the host sharing conspiracy talk and agreeing that he had survived nothing less than a coup on his presidency. Stelter called him the “say anything president” in one segment Sunday.
But as agitated as I was watching Trump’s rally, I came to understand something about them that I should have appreciated long before this time: Not only are they a form of media, they are as profound and possibly as brilliant as his use of cable TV and Twitter was in the 2016 race. In fact, rallies might be his smartest use of media. They are at least the third pillar of his media power — and surely the least understood and appreciated.
Maybe it struck me so clearly Saturday night because I grew up in Wisconsin, and I know how bleak Saturday nights can feel in places like Green Bay. I grew up just outside of Milwaukee in a factory town, and New York, Los Angles and Washington felt like another planet — faraway places where celebrities in tuxedos and gowns danced under bright lights on stages and in ballrooms that people like me could only see on television or at the movies.
For all the new digital media that are supposed to so fabulously connect us, I understood in my bones Saturday night that it probably still feels that way for many people in places like Green Bay or Amarillo or Tulsa. And when Trump brings his road show to town, it’s more than an event, It offers a kind of transcendence allowing people to stand in the same space and breathe the same air with the people they see on Fox News and the other cable channels every day. It’s a moment when they are part of that world of bright lights and powerful and well-dressed women and men acting like they are in the know and the world belongs to them.
A Trump rally is more than a political or entertainment event. It’s an evening in which people who feel left out are being made to feel as if they are being welcomed into the glorious tent of celebrity and power. Someone is telling them face to face that they are important.
America has a long history of such roadshows bringing a bit of the big world to small towns. Maybe the most apt comparison for a Trump rally is found in those revivalist, religious tent shows of Depression era America. The irony of such a clearly non-religious man exploiting that format for political gain some 80 or 90 years later is not lost on me. But many of those preachers, after all, were con men and flim-flam artists, too.
As a teenager, I felt what some of those folks in Green Bay experienced Saturday when I got to see the Motown Revue onstage and in person with all the stars I had been listening to since I was 12 years old on 45s and LPs. I felt it, too, the night the great blues artist Muddy Waters brought his band to a little two-year college I attended in Waukesha, Wis. Standing only feet away from Waters when he was onstage, I was no longer in a little, out-of-the way school. I was at the center of the universe in my mind.
Muddy Waters and Donald Trump could hardly be more different — in terms of authenticity for one thing. But that’s the kind of energy Trump’s visit — with an entourage that included Donald Trump Jr., former Fox host Kimberly Guilfoyle, press secretary Sarah Sanders and the team of Diamond and Silk — seemed to generate in Green Bay Saturday night.
More’s the pity, that a worthy and righteous candidate for president didn’t figure out what her or his presence could mean to people across this land if they staged their appearances correctly and found a way to connect with the audience at this basic level instead of high-priced, clicked-out campaign videos and ads.
Heck, one of them in 2016 couldn’t be bothered to make a final day stop in Wisconsin that might have saved the election for her. It wasn’t just Hillary Clinton’s failure to make that stop in Wisconsin that cost her the election, it was not understanding the psychological and cultural importance of such stops in the first place.
Don’t get me wrong, I despise what Trump is doing to the country. You can see me in a clip here from “Reliable Sources” saying that we have always been a violent nation, but since the horrible assassinations of the 1960s and the attempt in 1981 on Ronald Reagan’s life, that violence has been somewhat tamped down.
But Trump has embraced the evil underbelly and, with his reckless rhetoric, has called forth some of the worst impulses in American life. I used the expression “opened the gates of hell” Sunday to suggest the way his refusal to condemn the white supremacists in Charlottesville has helped create a climate conducive to unstable people committing acts of violence against those they deem to be their enemies.
Trump’s false description of late term abortions at the rally was inflammatory and reprehensible. And instead of Sanders suffering any kind of reprimand after acknowledging in the Mueller report that she lied and slandered former FBI Director James Comey, she was celebrated by the president and rallygoers Saturday.
But even though I had seen more than 100 hours of Trump rallies in the last three years, I walked away Saturday night with a new and deeply troubling appreciation for the power of these events and the way they will surely be used to drive the 2020 re-election effort.