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If Donald Trump has benefited from one underappreciated advantage this campaign season, it might be that no one seems to be listening to him very closely anymore.
This is a strange development for a man whose signature political talent is attracting and holding attention. Consider Trump’s rise to power in 2016—how all-consuming his campaign was that year, how one @realDonaldTrump tweet could dominate news coverage for days, how watching his televised stump speeches in a suspended state of fascination or horror or delight became a kind of perverse national pastime.
Now consider the fact that it’s been 14 months since Trump announced his entry into the 2024 presidential race. Can you quote a single thing he’s said on the campaign trail? How much of his policy agenda could you describe? Be honest: When was the last time you watched him speaking live, not just in a short, edited clip?
It’s not that Trump has been forgotten. He remains an omnipresent fact of American life, like capitalism or COVID-19. Everyone is aware of him; everyone has an opinion. Most people would just rather not devote too much mental energy to the subject. This dynamic has shaped Trump’s third bid for the presidency. As Katherine Miller recently observed in The New York Times, “The path toward his likely renomination feels relatively muted, as if the country were wandering through a mist, only to find ourselves back where we started, except older and wearier, and the candidates the same.”
Perhaps we overlearned the lessons of that first Trump campaign. After he won, a consensus formed among his detractors that the news media had given him too much airtime, allowing him to set the terms of the debate and helping to “normalize” his rhetoric and behavior.
But if the glut of attention in 2016 desensitized the nation to Trump, the relative dearth in the past year has turned him into an abstraction. The major cable-news networks don’t take his speeches live like they used to, afraid that they’ll be accused of amplifying his lies. He’s skipped every one of the GOP primary debates. And since Twitter banned him in January 2021, his daily fulminations have remained siloed in his own obscure social-media network, Truth Social. These days, Trump exists in many Americans’ minds as a hazy silhouette—formed by preconceived notions and outdated impressions—rather than as an actual person who’s telling the country every day who he is and what he plans to do with a second term.
To rectify this problem, I propose a 2024 resolution for politically engaged Americans: Go to a Trump rally. Not as a supporter or as a protester, necessarily, but as an observer. Take in the scene. Talk to his fans. Listen to every word of the Republican front-runner’s speech. This might sound unpleasant to some; consider it an act of civic hygiene.
Yes, there are other ways to familiarize yourself with the candidate and the stakes of this election. (And, of course, some people might not feel safe at a Trump event.) But nothing quite captures the Trump ethos like his campaign rallies. This has been true ever since he held his first one at Trump Tower, in June 2015. Back then, he had to stack the crowd with paid actors, prompting many in the press (myself included) to dismiss the whole thing as an astroturf marketing stunt. But the rallies, like the campaign itself, soon took on a life of their own, with thousands of people flocking to Phoenix or Toledo or Daytona Beach to witness the once-in-a-generation spectacle firsthand. What would he do? What would he say? I still remember the night of the 2016 Nevada caucuses, standing in line for Trump’s victory rally at the Treasure Island Hotel and Casino and overhearing one gawker enthuse to another, “This is a cultural phenomenon. We have to see it.”
Regardless of your personal orientation toward Trump, attending one of his rallies will be a clarifying experience. You’ll get a tactile sense of the man who’s dominated American politics for nearly a decade, and of the movement he commands. People who comment on politics for a living—journalists, academics—might find certain premises challenged, or at least complicated. Opponents and activists might come away with new urgency (and maybe a dash of empathy for the people Trump has under his sway). The experience could be especially educational to Republican voters who are not Trump devotees but who see the other GOP candidates as lost causes and plan to vote for Trump over Joe Biden. Surely, they should see, before they cast their vote, what exactly they’re voting for.
I recently undertook this challenge myself. As a reporter, I’ve covered about 100 Trump rallies in my life. For a stretch in the fall of 2016, I spent more time in MAGAfied arenas and airplane hangars than I did sleeping in my own bed. What I remember most from that year is the unsettling, anything-might-happen quality of the events. The chaos. The violence. The glee of the candidate presiding over it all.
But with the commencement of a new election year, it occurred to me that I hadn’t been to a rally since 2019. The pandemic, followed by a book project and a series of story assignments unrelated to Trump, had kept me largely off the campaign trail. I was curious what it would be like to go back. Had anything changed? Was my impression of Trump still up-to-date? So, one night earlier this month, I parked my rental car on a scrap of frozen grass near the North Iowa Events Center in Mason City and made my way inside.
A line had formed hours before Trump was scheduled to speak, but the people trickling in from the cold through metal detectors were in good spirits. They chatted amiably about their holiday travel and arranged themselves in groups for selfies. An upbeat soundtrack played over the speakers—Michael Jackson, Adele, Panic! at the Disco—and people excitedly pointed out recognizable faces in the media section. “You’re that guy from CBS!” one attendee exclaimed to a TV-news correspondent.
I found the wholesome, church-barbecue vibe a little jarring. For months, my impression of the 2024 Trump campaign had been shaped by the apocalyptic rhetoric of the candidate himself—the stuff about Marxist “vermin” destroying America, and immigrants “poisoning the blood of our country.” The people here didn’t look like they were bracing for an existential catastrophe. Had I overestimated the radicalizing effect of Trump’s rhetoric?
Only once I started talking to attendees did I detect the darker undercurrent I remembered from past rallies.
I met Kris, a 71-year-old retired nurse in orthopedic sneakers, standing near the press risers. (She declined to share her last name.) She was smiley and spoke in a sweet, grandmotherly voice as she told me how she’d watched dozens of Trump rallies, streaming them on Rumble or FrankSpeech, a platform launched by the right-wing MyPillow founder Mike Lindell. (She waited until Lindell, who happened to be loitering near us, was out of earshot to confide that she preferred Rumble.) The conversation was friendly and unremarkable—until it turned to the 2020 election, which Kris told me she believes was “most definitely” stolen.
“You think Trump should still be president?” I asked.
“By all means,” she said. “And I think behind the scenes he maybe is doing a little more than what we know about.”
“What do you mean?”
“Military-wise,” she said. “The military is supposed to be for the people, against tyrannical governments,” she went on to explain. “I hope he’s guiding the military to be able to step in and do what they need to do. Because right now, I’d say government’s very tyrannical.” If the Democrats try to steal the election again in 2024, she told me, the Trump-sympathetic elements of the military might need to seize control.
Around 8 p.m., Trump took the stage and launched into his remarks, toggling back and forth between what he called “teleprompter stuff” (his prepared stump speech) and the unscripted riffs that he’s famous for. Seeing him speak in this setting after so many years was strange—both instantly familiar and still somehow shocking, like rewatching an old movie you saw a hundred times as a kid but whose most offensive jokes you’d forgotten.
When he talked about members of the Biden administration, he referred to them as “idiots” and “lunatics” and “bad people.” When he talked about the “invasion” of undocumented immigrants at the southern border, he punctuated the riff with ominous warnings for his mostly white audience: “They’re occupying schools …They’re sitting with your children.” When he mentioned Barack Obama, he made a point of using the former president’s middle name—“Barack Hussein Obama”—and then veered off into an appreciation of Rush Limbaugh, the late conservative talk-radio host who taught him this trick. “We miss Rush,” Trump said to enthusiastic cheers. “We need you, Rush!”
I’d forgotten how casually he swears from the podium—deriding, at one point, his Republican rival Nikki Haley’s recent statement on the Civil War as “three paragraphs of bullshit”—and how casually people in the crowd swear back. Throughout the speech, two young men near the front repeatedly screamed “Fuck Biden!” prompting a wave of naughty giggles from others in the crowd.
If one thing has noticeably changed since 2016, it’s how the audience reacts to Trump. During his first campaign, the improvised material was what everyone looked forward to, while the written sections felt largely like box-checking. But in Mason City, the off-script riffs—many of which revolved around the 2020 election being stolen from him, and his personal sense of martyrdom—often turned rambly, and the crowd seemed to lose interest. At one point, a woman in front of me rolled her eyes and muttered, “He’s just babbling now.” She left a few minutes later, joining a steady stream of early exiters, and I wondered then whether even the most loyal Trump supporters might be surprised if they were to see their leader speak in person.
My own takeaway from the event was that there’s a reason Trump is no longer the cultural phenomenon he was in 2016. Yes, the novelty has worn off. But he also seems to have lost the instinct for entertainment that once made him so interesting to audiences. He relies on a shorthand legible only to his most dedicated followers, and his tendency to get lost in rhetorical cul-de-sacs of self-pity and anger wears thin. This doesn’t necessarily make him less dangerous. There is a rote quality now to his darkest rhetoric that I found more unnerving than when it used to command wall-to-wall news coverage.
These were my own impressions of the rally I attended; yours may very well be different. The only way to know is to see for yourself. Every four years, pundits try to identify the medium that will shape the presidential race—the “Twitter election,” the “cable-news election.” In 2024, with both parties warning of existential stakes for America, perhaps the best approach is to simply show up in real life.
Shortly before Trump began speaking, I met a friendly young dad in glasses who’d brought his 6-year-old son to the event. He’d never attended a Trump rally before and was excited to be there. When I asked if I could chat with him after Trump’s speech to see what he thought of the event, he happily agreed.
As Trump spoke, I glanced over at the man a few times from the press section. His expression was muted; he barely reacted to the lines that drove the crowd wild. The longer Trump spoke, I noticed, the further the man drifted backward toward the exits. Of course, I don’t know what was going through his head. Maybe he was just a stoic type. Or maybe his enthusiasm was tempered by the distraction of tending to a 6-year-old. All I know is that, halfway through the speech, he was gone.