Home Opinion and Features Deconstructing the spectacle and stagecraft of a Donald Trump rally

Deconstructing the spectacle and stagecraft of a Donald Trump rally

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Campaign rallies are a defining feature of US Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump’s third run for the White House: all-day spectacles blending evangelical revivalist meeting and carnival, designed to deliver an emotional experience to his base.

Campaign rallies are a defining feature of Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump’s third run for the White House: Picture: Reuters, Brian Snyder

By Tim Reid and Nathan Layne

BY THE time Donald Trump took to the stage for his rally in Green Bay, Wisconsin, some of his most ardent supporters had spent the night in their cars amid frigid temperatures to see the man they hope to once again elect as president.

As Lee Greenwood’s “God Bless the USA” pumped from the speakers inside the convention center, the Republican former president-turned-candidate waved, swayed, clapped and blew kisses.

“Trump, Trump, Trump,” some in the crowd of 3,200 people chanted. A young couple held their baby aloft. A few people got teary.

Trump’s rallies are a defining feature of his presidential campaigns: all-day spectacles blending evangelical revivalist meeting and carnival, designed to deliver an emotional experience to his base and bring new backers into the fold, a campaign aide said.

A supporter of Republican presidential candidate and former US president Donald Trump holds up a child during the rally in Green Bay, Wisconsin, US, April 2, 2024. Picture: Reuters, Brian Snyder

In Trump’s third presidential campaign, a general election rematch against Democratic President Joe Biden on November 5, the meticulously planned marathons have re-emerged as a central part of Trump’s bid to re-enter the White House.

The former reality TV star is involved in the “look, feel and tone” of the rallies including the music, selected from the personal playlist that Trump listens to during down time at his Mar-a-Lago Florida estate, said Justin Caporale, deputy campaign manager for operations.

“We are essentially producing rock concerts inside of a week, and we’re doing it multiple times a month,” Caporale said.

The Green Bay event had been weeks in the making. Picture: Reuters, Brian Snyder

Trump has held 21 campaign rallies so far in 2024, including 11 in Iowa and New Hampshire during the Republican nominating race, according to Election Central, a non-partisan group that tracks public appearances by presidential candidates.

That compares to 13 by mid-April in 2020, when he was president, according to a Reuters analysis.

Biden’s re-election campaign has largely bypassed big rallies for smaller meetings with voters at venues such as churches and union halls.

Trump’s rally schedule this cycle has had to compete with his court appearances on criminal and civil charges. He spent this past week in a New York courtroom for the start of his hush money criminal trial, before heading to swing state North Carolina for a rally on Saturday.

Reuters attended Trump’s Green Bay rally on April 2 and interviewed four dozen attendees who collectively liked going to the rallies, they said, because it felt like a community and they didn’t have to worry about being politically correct. They said they came because they love Trump and his rallies are fun.

The news agency also spoke to two campaign officials, including Caporale, who described the strategy and stagecraft that go into creating an experience designed to excite the base and imbue a sense of belonging that bonds supporters to Trump and his populist message, with the aim of propelling him to a second term.

“These are people that are activists in our movement. They want the same thing we want – to get President Trump elected for the next four years,” said Brian Hughes, a senior campaign adviser.

Sharon Anderson logged more than 13 hours on the road and spent the night in her rental car to gain a front row position. It was her 51st Trump rally. Picture: Reuters, Brian Snyder

Spectators

Sharon Anderson, 68, drove five hours from her home in Tennessee to Indiana to meet up with fellow Trump supporter Mike Boatman before the two drove another eight hours to Wisconsin.

They slept in their rental car outside the convention centre to ensure they would be at the front of the line.

Anderson and Boatman are part of a group that calls itself the “Front Row Joes,” about 50 Trump supporters by their count, who they said take turns to be first in line for every Trump rally.

People stood in line for hours in high winds and cold rain. Picture: Reuters, Daniel Kramer

This was Boatman’s 85th rally and Anderson’s 51st. In North Carolina in March 2020, Trump’s son Eric pulled Anderson on stage so she could tell the crowd of 20,000 why she loved the then-president.

“This is like family,” Anderson, a retired high school attendance clerk, said before the Green Bay rally. “You make new friends from all over the country. At every Trump rally you leave with hope for our future.”

As supporters waited for the doors to open, Duane Schwingel, 65, a Trump superfan wearing Uncle Sam regalia and carrying a microphone and boom box, sang songs extolling Trump and decrying socialists.

Duane Schwingel, a Trump superfan who calls himself “Uncle Jam,” entertains rally goers. Picture: Reuters, Brian Snyder

Wisconsin resident Vicki Lou Hanegraaf, 62, who was attending her first rally, said she expected the emotions she felt watching Trump walk across the White House lawn as president to swell up again. “Trump is a truth slayer,” she said. “He’s anointed with absolute truth, like gravity.”

Strategy

The Trump campaign uses the rallies to collect and analyse attendee data, in the hope of turning it into votes. People register with the campaign, providing email, cell phone number, zip code and state, in return for a text message which serves as a ticket.

After the rally, attendees are flooded with text messages, including fund-raising appeals from Trump.

The rallies are also aimed at attracting free local and national media coverage, recruiting volunteers and getting local politicians and leaders to amplify Trump’s message, Hughes said.

As the campaign heats up, an increasing number of Trump’s rallies will be held in election battleground states like Wisconsin, Hughes said. Trump narrowly won Wisconsin in 2016, then narrowly lost it to Biden in 2020.

Several of the rally attendees Reuters interviewed said they went for the sense of community. Picture: Reuters, Brian Snyder

Stagecraft

The Green Bay event had been weeks in the making.

Trump’s advance team co-ordinated with the Secret Service and local law enforcement agencies to secure the convention centre.

They spent days working out parking for supporters, food trucks, access to restrooms, water, merchandise and entertainment.

Local contractors and volunteers helped decorate the stage with giant screens, red carpet and American flags.

As supporters streamed inside, campaign volunteers handed out “Make America Great Again” and “Fire Biden” signs.

Trump’s musical choices played over the loudspeakers: Elvis Presley’s “Suspicious Minds,” Jerry Lee Lewis’s “Great Balls of Fire,” The Who’s “Pinball Wizard,” along with some Johnny Cash and “The Music of the Night” from The Phantom of the Opera.

Caporale said the Trump campaign has worked hard to refine and improve “an incredible and unique guest experience.”

After each rally, Trump’s team holds a post-mortem to discuss what worked and what should be improved for the next event.

Some of the stunts this year have been audacious.

As Trump’s Boeing 757 private jet came in to land for a rally at the Dayton International Airport in Ohio on March 16, a voice announced: “Trump Force One, you are cleared for landing.”

The theme music from the “Top Gun” movies struck up. The crowd went wild.

While the stagecraft is designed to entertain the crowd, it also reinforces Trump’s message that the country has gone to “hell” and that he along with his supporters must fix it.

About two hours before Trump appeared on stage in Green Bay, speakers began whipping up the audience.

Mike Lindell, the MyPillow CEO, repeated the baseless conspiracy that the 2020 election was stolen from Trump.

MyPillow CEO Mike Lindell was one of the warm-up speakers at the rally. He repeated the false claim that the 2020 election was stolen from Trump. Picture: Reuters, Brian Snyder

Tom Tiffany, a Wisconsin congressman, said Biden had given the country a “VIP programme for illegal aliens, and you are the second-class citizens in America now, aren’t you?”

The event also struck a religious tone. During the invocation, Casey Carey, the pastor at CrossPoint Church in DePere, Wisconsin, said: “I ask you Father to bless President Donald Trump.”

The crowd yelled “Amen!”

Speech

Trump began the speech suggesting he, not Biden, won Wisconsin in 2020 and repeated in his address the false claim that the 2020 presidential election was stolen from him.

As the speech gathered in fury about the sorry state of America and the dark forces arrayed against Trump, it began to mimic a religious call-and-response session between a pastor and congregation.

He directed his harshest rhetoric towards immigrants in the country illegally from nations including Venezuela, the Congo, Somalia and Syria.

The crowd chanted: “Build the wall!”

He promised to carry out the “largest deportation in American history.”

The crowd roared.

Jennifer Mercieca, a Texas A&M University professor who has written a book on Trump’s rhetoric, said the exchanges represented mutual pledges of loyalty and protection: the crowd willing to suffer for Trump because they believe he suffers for them, and staying loyal to Trump because he is loyal to them.

“It’s a potent combination,” she said, in terms of reaffirming the connection.

The Green Bay speech ran just about an hour, shorter than usual because Trump needed to fly out before being snowed in.

Trump stayed away from some of the more incendiary language he’s used at previous rallies.

As the afternoon wore on, snow began falling on rally goers waiting to get into the convention centre. Picture: Reuters, Daniel Kramer

He was at times funny. But the bulk of his speech featured dystopian language, with Trump painting a picture of an America locked in a battle of good versus evil.

“2024 is our final battle,” Trump said as the speech was winding up. “With you at my side, we will demolish the deep state, we will expel the warmongers, we will drive out the globalists, we will cast out the communists, Marxists and fascists, we will throw off the sick political class that hates our country.”

Then he exited the stage to a Sam & Dave song – an R&B classic that is a new entrant to the Trump rally playlist.

The title: “Hold On, I’m Comin’.”

Scott Urban, a rally goer, outfitted in his Trump regalia. The events are part carnival, part religious revivalist meeting. Picture: Reuters, Brian Snyder

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