Artillery Row

The art of the comeback

What are Trump rallies for, now he is out of the White House?

Donald Trump’s rallies always felt like the centre of the political universe. In 2016, when almost everyone expected him to lose, they were nonetheless the defining events of the campaign. Over the next four years, they became a central feature of Trump’s presidency: raucous news-cycle-defining affairs where the power of his movement collided with the power of his office (as if to underscore the point, Trump liked to park Air Force One right next to the crowd). But what are Trump rallies for now that he has left the White House?

On Saturday evening in Wellington, Ohio, the forty-fifth President of the United States offered an answer to that question in his first speech in front of a large audience since January 6, when the “Stop the Steal” protest in Washington, DC, degenerated into an attack on the US Capitol.

Trump’s ostensive reason for visiting this small town in Lorain County, Ohio, was to endorse Max Miller, a former White House aide, in a primary challenge to Anthony Gonzalez, a Republican congressman who voted to impeach Trump in January. “This is the first rally of the 2022 election,” Trump told thousands of supporters on a warm summer evening, predicting landslide wins for “America First” candidates across the country next year.

But the broader purpose of the rally was a demonstration of power: Trump wanted to confirm not just his continuing relevance, but his absolute centrality to the Republican Party — and American politics more generally. In other words, Trump wanted to establish that nothing had changed.

The signs of a changed, marginalised and radicalised movement were all around

There was certainly plenty that felt familiar: the camp soundtrack, heavy on Elton John, Village People and Dolly Parton, bootleg Trump t-shirts and caps as far as the eye can see, jabs at “fake news” and the panto villainisation of the former president’s many enemies in Washington. At one point the crowd even started chanting “Lock her up!”

And yet the signs of a changed, marginalised — and radicalised — movement were all around. The guest list of GOP dignitaries was a little less glittering than it might have been a year ago. This time, the supporting stars included Marjorie Taylor Greene, a cartoonishly Trumpy QAnon-supporting Congresswoman from Georgia who delivered a pugnacious, insult-heavy assault on the “radical, socialist Democrats” in her speech, and Mike Lindell, a pillow magnate who has emerged as one of the most enthusiastic peddlers of the idea that Joe Biden stole last November’s presidential election and who received a standing ovation from the crowd when shouted out by Trump.

One of Trump’s warmup acts was a science teacher from Cincinnati called Douglas Frank.  Somewhat improbably, given the boisterous mood at such events, Dr Frank came armed with a Powerpoint presentation, a very un-Trumpy discussion of “sixth degree polynomials” and, apparently, “scientific proof” that “America was stolen by an Excel spreadsheet”.

The message of Dr Frank’s dubious presentation was delivered a little more emphatically on the t-shirts of countless rally attendees: “Trump won. Deal with it.”

If there was an overriding message on Saturday night, that was it.

In a speech that won’t have offered much succour to Republicans desperate to put 2020 behind them, Trump called the election a “disgrace” and said he had “a lot of friends” who say “Mr. President, don’t look back, look forward”. But the former president told the crowd: “You have to look back. We won the election in 2020. Who the hell knows what’s going to be in 2024. We won’t even have a country left… We’ll never stop fighting for the true results of this election.”

“Trump won. Trump won,” came the response from the crowd.

Trump did manage to work in some more conventional attack lines against Biden, telling the faithful: “He puts America last. We put America first. It’s very simple. Very, very simple.”

But the 2020 election overshadowed everything else. And the debunked idea that Biden’s win was fraudulent wasn’t just the main message from the stage, but an article of faith for all but one of the former president’s supporters that I spoke to.

In many cases, the stolen election was the tip of the conspiratorial iceberg. Two nurses from Indiana had driven for hours to see the man they thought was saving children from deep state sex trafficking. A retired teacher told me with absolute confidence that Trump would be back in the White House in a matter of weeks and wondered whether the Ohio rally might be where he announced exactly that.

Another attendee, Kelly, told me that Joe Biden was “only the president of the United States of America the corporation” while signing scare quotes around USA with her fingers. “But that went bankrupt in 2018, so it doesn’t even exist. Donald Trump is still our president, I believe.”

I did not go looking for this kind of crankery. In fact, before going to Ohio I had been sceptical of polls that found widespread support among Republicans for the idea that the election was stolen. Perhaps some said so as part of a trollish wind up, or meant stolen in the more general sense that they didn’t feel it was a fair fight. But straightforward, unambiguous support for conspiracy theories about November and much more was unmissable on Saturday night. The Trump movement has always had its wilder fringes. But if the Ohio crowd is anything to go by, far-out views are now closer to the MAGA mainstream than ever before.

I was there when Donald Trump last made a comeback. In October in Sanford, Florida, the then president pumped his fists and shimmied along to “Macho Man” in a feel-good return to the campaign trail after a severe bout of Covid-19. It was obvious then that the Trump show would go on, whatever the outcome of the election.

“Americans brought together by Trump will still be meeting after he has left office,” I wrote at the time, “seeking the same entertainment and excitement they got from the president”. All that energy had to go somewhere, whatever happened in November. Between that comeback and this one, it has gone somewhere dark, somewhere more paranoid.

There’s not much to be cheery about when you think an election has been stolen from you

In all of this, Trump is trapped. For all that the former president rode a wave of anger to the White House, his most comfortable register has always been more upbeat than most of his critics realise. The way in which he gives people permission to feel good — about themselves and their country — has always been an under-appreciated part of his appeal. (Last year’s waterborne Boaters for Trump events were a good expression of this feel-good streak in Trumpism).

But there’s not much to be cheery about when you think an election has been stolen from you. At one point on Friday night, Trump tried to gee up the crowd, whose enthusiasm drifted in parts of his 90-minute speech. “Are we having a good time or what,” he asked. “The subject matter is somewhat depressing in all fairness. What happened to us in November was a disgrace.” The next day, Trump referred to the same tension again in a statement thanking his supporters “for an unbelievable evening of very serious talk but also, fun. In many ways, with what was said, and the reaction to it, it was legendary.”

What will happen next? While Trump may be a diminished figure, he nonetheless looms far larger than most recently departed presidents and is still the most important person on the American right.

However, to persuade his party of his enduring importance, he must demonstrate that he is still a winner, and that his endorsement remains decisive in Republican primaries. And, ultimately, there is only one way to find himself back in the limelight he so clearly craves, an option he hinted at on Saturday: “We won the election twice and it’s possible we’ll have to win it a third time.”

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