On Tuesday night at Smith Reynolds Airport in Winston-Salem, North Carolina, supporters of Donald Trump mounted plastic chairs and whipped out their phones. They’d waited for hours, and now Air Force One emerged in the sky with hilarious drama, through clouds aglow from the setting sun, to a clashing soundtrack of ’80s hits: “In the Air Tonight” and “Eye of the Tiger.”
The crowd was dense, and as the president made his way to the barricades and then to the stage, it seemed to move as one, with every neck craning to observe him in his uniform of a dark-blue suit and bright-red tie.
“I don’t know how many people’er here, but there’s a lot!” he said. They cheered. “We said, ‘Let’s keep it down.’ They didn’t do too good a job, but that’s good, right?” The enthusiasm from the audience, he said, was “beyond” the enthusiasm he felt in 2016. “And that was a record enthusiasm,” he said. “But we are breaking that record by a lot.”
Beyond being an international public-health and economic crisis, the coronavirus pandemic has also been, for Donald Trump, a huge political inconvenience. As Election Day nears — with 55 days to go — it has emphasized his worst qualities and undermined his own case for why he deserves four more years in office. Almost 200,000 Americans are dead; “the greatest economy in the history of the world” is on life support; and the virus itself is still thriving, with reports of thousands of new infections each day. But on a smaller, more personal level, it’s also prevented the president from doing something he enjoys very much: hosting MAGA rallies.
In Tulsa, Oklahoma, in June, an attempt to start them up again ended in disaster. Few people attended that event, and many who did later tested positive for COVID-19, including Herman Cain, who died from the virus. Thus, the president may have violated the No. 1 rule of campaigning: Do not (potentially, accidentally) kill your own voters.
Last month, Trump spoke openly about the optics problem that social-distancing guidelines create for him. “You can’t have empty seats,” he said, during a Fox Sports Radio interview. He said he was told seven empty seats had to separate each filled seat in an arena. “Oh, that’ll look great,” he said. “You can’t do that.” In another interview, he said, “I’d love to do the rallies. We can’t because of the COVID. You know, you can’t have people sitting next to each other.”
On August 26, Politico announced, “Trump Says Goodbye to MAGA Rallies.” Yet without Tulsa-like hype or 2016-like attention, Trump rallies have resumed over the last few weeks. But there’s a marketing technicality: They’re not calling them Make America Great Again rallies. And there’s a staging specificity: They’re strictly produced outdoors, at airports, rather than inside arenas, and crowd size is controlled by invitation-only entry (though overflow areas remain).
But these non-MAGA-rally rallies appear to be growing more legitimately MAGA rally-like each day. If it’s possible for a sitting president as flamboyant as this one to do anything quietly, the scaling of these events has been so. Steadily, they’ve swelled in size and frequency. This week, there are several “President Donald J. Trump to deliver remarks live from [Someplace]” events on the schedule: in North Carolina, Michigan, and two in Nevada (Vegas and Reno).
Asked how these events differ from traditional MAGA rallies, apart from the advertising, Hogan Gidley, the national press secretary for the Trump campaign, sent New York a rather long-winded statement that didn’t answer the question at all: “It’s no secret that the enthusiasm is for Donald Trump and far exceeds that for Joe Biden, and these rallies, whatever form they take, are a way for supporters to show it. Whether a roundtable, an airport hangar or a private residence, we gather in a safe manner – providing masks, hand sanitizer and temperature checks for every attendee – which is far more than I can say for the nightly riots and looting taking place in our cities where the Democrats and the media employ selective outrage to condemn Trump supporters but will ignore, or worse, celebrate criminals.” (Just because he brought it up, I should note that when I observed looting in Washington, D.C., this summer, the looters always wore masks and did not stand very close together. I can’t speak to the hand sanitizer one way or the other.)
In Winston-Salem on Tuesday, many people positioned directly behind the president’s stage wore face masks. Throughout the rest of the crowd —unseen by the TV cameras — most did not. A woman pointed a thermometer at my forehead to take my temperature before I entered the venue and the tables in the press filing center were outfitted like Latte Larry’s, with miniature bottles of hand sanitizer. Otherwise, there were few signs that, outside the event space, normal life remains on hold due to a pandemic.
“Tiny Dancer” boomed over the speakers at least two times over the course of three hours. An older man, wearing an American flag print shirt, adjusted his headgear: a bright red TRUMP hat adorned with a pouf of artificial orange hair. People held up signs: MAKE AMERICA GREAT AGAIN; PRO LIFE VOICES FOR TRUMP; EVANGELICALS FOR TRUMP; WORKERS FOR TRUMP; THIS IS A PEACEFUL PROTEST. And they broke into chants: “Four! More! Years!” “USA! USA!” The president directed the crowd to turn around and observe the reporters confined to a pen in the center of the hangar. “This is the American dream, and the other — I don’t want to say it, because I’ll get myself in trouble with the fake news back there.” He extended his arm to point.
The rallies are a salve for the Tinkerbell syndrome that afflicts the president. He is first a showman, and his connection with an audience is life-sustaining — a source of dopamine and a form of catharsis more powerful than any grenade-throwing exercise of a tweet. And they provide him with a sort of spiritual poll: a sense of how things are going, based on his animalistic crowd-aura-reading abilities.
A senior Trump administration official recently told New York that, even after Tulsa, convincing the president that the rallies needed to be rethought required Jared Kushner explaining the issue like this: If there are no professional sporting events happening as normal right now, the campaign events shouldn’t happen as normal, either.
But they are also valuable to Trump as venues for working out, in real time, the story he’s selling people. Is it the fake news media or Crooked Hillary? Is it the triumph of his 2016 primary victory or his persecution by the deep state or the Democrats trying to impeach him or … you get the idea. He has no similar clarity about the current election. His one-liners about Joe Biden (“if Biden wins, China wins”) failed to yield laughter or applause from the crowd. And even his well-received lines, about rioting mobs or “radical” Kamala Harris, didn’t inspire “Build the Wall” or “Lock Her Up” levels of audience engagement.
Listening to him, it can sound like he’s been unable to make sense of what has happened in America under his watch.
“This is the most important election in the history of our country. I wouldn’t say that lightly,” he said. “And frankly, I thought the last one was, and I said it, but they’ve gone to a level that nobody even thought possible. These people have gotten stone-cold crazy.”