LAS VEGAS — Monday was a day of rage for Donald Trump.
He woke up at his Las Vegas hotel, a gold brick of glass on the edge of the Strip next to an abandoned lot, and was already in a foul mood. The previous day he had seen a TV ad that accused him of belittling American soldiers. “Losers. Suckers. Dopes. Babies,” the ad said. “That’s how Donald Trump describes our men and women in uniform.” He had railed about it at a rally in Carson City — “a horrible, vicious ad!” — and it was still infuriating him later that morning. After seeing the ad, he screamed, “I blew my stack!”
Normally, Trump would be thrilled to wake up in a suite in a tower with his name on it. But on this day it seemed to do little to improve his mood. Just being in Nevada was a reminder of his troubles. He had lost the state in 2016 and the polls weren’t very encouraging this time around, either. The newest outrage was a New York Times story about low morale in his campaign. He phoned into a conference call for the press with his campaign manager Bill Stepien and spoke in a stream of consciousness for nearly half an hour.
Most of the time, when a candidate gathers staff to buck them up after some bad news, they inspire their supporters, praising them for all of their hard work and thanking them for their sacrifice. Trump handled the assignment differently.
Speaking slowly with his raspy morning voice, Trump stared with his anger at the story in the paper. “You know they’re sick, actually, they’re deranged people,” he said. “Let me give you the real truth. They know this, too, by the way. We’re going to win!” But he soon meandered his way through more than a dozen other topics on his mind.
There were a lot of wild moments. He called Anthony Fauci an “idiot.” (Afterwards he added in a tweet, “Tony threw out perhaps the worst first pitch in the history of Baseball!”) He said members of the press are “mentally ill.” He said Democrats have dominated early voting in Michigan “for years and centuries.”
He compared the reception he received during his drive to a California fundraiser to the Manhattan ticker tape parade thrown for Charles Lindbergh in 1927. He told a story of how in 2016 the Washington Post “amended” its poll to be more favorable to him after he threatened to sue. He added, almost as an aside, as if it wasn’t a breathtaking allegation for a president to be making about his opponent, that Joe Biden “should be in jail,” because “he’s a criminal.”
When he got off the call, he left his hotel and flew to Phoenix. After landing he immediately got into a series of testy exchanges with reporters. “Why is that so important to you?” he demanded when one asked about the date of his last negative Covid test before he tested positive. “You’re a criminal for not reporting it!” he yelled above the din of plane engines to a reporter who questioned why the president was using the term for Biden. He boarded Marine One and landed in Prescott for the first of two rallies that day.
Backstage, while the crowd waited in the 90-degree sun, the president tweeted. Gov. Andrew Cuomo has turned New York City into a “ghost town” and “Washington wants nothing to do with him.” And, by the way, the governor shouldn’t listen to his brother “Fredo.” Here’s a video from Herschel Walker. Here’s a video of the president throwing “a perfect strike for the American people” — unlike Fauci, in case you missed the point.
Then the president walked on stage to Lee Greenwood’s “God Bless the USA,” stood in front of Marine One, pumped his fists in the style of his recently viral YMCA dance and addressed the crowd.
Trump has an almost mystical belief in the power of his live events to affect the campaign. “I’m going to go out and win the state of Arizona today with two big rallies,” he said that morning in Las Vegas. Since bouncing back from Covid, he’s held 13 rallies in nine states, and that doesn’t include the one at the White House on Oct. 10 that kicked off Trump’s post-illness phase of the race.
I’ve watched all 13 of them closely — from the Sanford, Fla., event on Oct. 12 where Trump falsely claimed that 100 million vaccines that “will end the pandemic” are “waiting for final approval” and will be distributed before the end of the year, to the rally last night in Gastonia, N.C., where he said that the media cover the coronavirus, which has killed over 220,000 Americans this year, “because they want to scare the hell out of everyone.”
I attended one rally in Johnstown, Pa., where he famously pleaded, “Suburban women, will you please like me?” and one in Carson City, Nev., where he seemed most preoccupied with the low flow of water in modern sinks, showers and toilets, and coined the unlikely election year slogan, “Take the restrictors off!” I’ve reread many of the transcripts of these rallies and I also hit some Trump surrogate events: Rudy Giuliani in Philadelphia, Lara Trump in Scottsdale, Ariz.
Trump has largely accomplished what he set out to do in 2015. After he won the presidency, CBS’ Lesley Stahl asked Trump why he attacks the press. Stahl recalled during a talk in 2018 that Trump responded, “You know why I do it? I do it to discredit you all and demean you all so when you write negative stories about me, no one will believe you.” Trump set about creating a closed information ecosystem where he defines for his supporters what is true and what isn’t. It seemed ludicrous to me at the time that this was possible. And frankly, sometimes the incessant fact-checking of Trump seems pedantic.
Trump is occasionally lanced by outsiders who don’t realize the context of a long-running gag. In Prescott, Ariz., he told a story about calling the head of Exxon and asking for $25 million in exchange for policy favors. The bit, a regular feature of his rallies, is about how Trump could do that if he wanted but he doesn’t. A video of the fake Exxon call went viral, politicians like Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-N.Y.) demanded an explanation, and Exxon put out a statement explaining that the call never happened. (That is correct; the innocent explanation here was that Trump regularly brags about how he doesn’t solicit bribes, and the reporter who tweeted the comments didn’t understand the peculiar context.)
The rallies are crucial to Trump, not just because they feed his famously insatiable ego, but because they are the main vehicle by which he “informs” his supporters what he thinks they should know that professional reporters aren’t telling them. At a Trump rally, the pandemic is almost over, a vaccine is imminent, Biden is an obvious criminal (and also mentally “gonzo”), Trump saved millions of people from Covid, he is ahead in the polls in most swing states, “the Christmas season will be canceled” by Democrats, and there is widespread fraud with mail-in balloting .
Also, there are sometimes 40,000 people waiting to get inside the rally and lines of cars are stretched out for 15 miles. The Regeneron treatment he received is now available free to anyone who wants it. Hillary Clinton covered up crimes by personally shattering multiple incriminating cell phones with a hammer. (Trump loves pantomiming the hammer during this riff.)
And the president is a big fan of most demographic groups.
“I love the Italians,” Trump said in Johnstown. (Italians are not really an important voting bloc but it allowed Trump to discuss the toppling of statues of historical figures such as Christopher Columbus.)
“I like the Hispanics,” he said in Carson City.
“I like women,” he said in Prescott.
As the likelihood of Trump losing the election has grown, the quantity of misinformation has increased exponentially. Trump’s greatest frustration is that this sealed info bubble that he has created is no longer amplified by traditional media. Just in the last few days Trump has described the press as “dumb bastards,” “sleaze,” “crooked,” and “real garbage.” But at a Trump rally, the most privileged spot is reserved for national TV networks, which are afforded a riser in front of what the campaign seems to regard as the second-class media outlets that cover local news. Fox has started carrying the events live again, but other networks rarely do, which enrages Trump, who, even before his fundraising troubles, has needed the larger audience that cable TV brings him.
To help compensate, the Trump campaign has flooded the swing states with surrogates — mostly his children and their significant others, but also MAGA celebrities like Giuliani and Richard Grenell. Trump’s style and content has filtered down to these family members and campaign operatives as well, suggesting that whatever the outcome of this election, the Trump Effect will be a feature of our politics for a long time to come.
In Scottsdale on Tuesday, Lara Trump, the president’s daughter-in-law, spoke to a hotel ballroom packed with maskless supporters who hollered and cheered.
“The president is rubbing off on me,” she joked about a recent tweet she was particularly proud of. But he’s influenced her in other ways, too. Her explanation of the race was that the Democrats are saddled with an awful candidate who “doesn’t know where he is half the time” and an unpopular “socialist” agenda. So they’re in a jam.
“What do you do?” she asked. “You try to rig the system. You try to change an election system 90 days out. That’s exactly what the Democrats did: universal vote-by-mail.” She did not tell the crowd that there is no such universal system in America and that only a few states have adopted one. But like her father-in-law, she did make false claims about widespread election fraud, including that “cats that have been dead for 12 years — true story — are getting ballots in the mail.”