Donald Trump gave the appearance of statesmanship a shot during his trip to Mexico. But on Aug. 31, following a subdued policy speech that US reporters gullibly lauded as “presidential,” he returned to America and promptly reverted to his old demagogic form.
Surrounded by adoring fans, Trump gave one of the most inflammatory speeches of his campaign: a tirade against “illegal immigrants” including calls for “an impenetrable wall,” “extreme vetting,” and the persecution of millions of immigrants living in the US illegally. The speech would be shocking if it were not so familiar. Trump has given variations of this speech so many times that one can predict which phrases his fans will boo (“open borders”) and cheer (“Mexico will pay!”).
Trump’s restrained tone in Mexico, and his cold reception there, contrasts greatly with his frenzied rhetoric and warm welcome in Arizona. This disjunction sheds light on the nature of the relationship between Trump and his rally-goers. The word “demagogue” derives from the Greek, meaning “leader of people.” Without the cheering demos, the leader screams into a void. Like authoritarian dictators everywhere, Trump relies on the crowd while convincing the public that the crowd relies on him.
But Trump rallies, which attract fanatical followers, do not tell the whole story of Trump’s support. This raises an interesting question: What is a Trump rally like without Trump? What happens to the crowd when the demagogue is absent?
In an attempt to answer this question, I drove to the parking lot of a Harley Davidson outlet in Festus, Missouri, a small city outside of St. Louis. This was where the local branch of the Tea Party was holding its own Trump rally—without Trump in attendance. Speakers included local Tea Party leaders like Jim Hoft, a popular right-wing blogger better known as the Gateway Pundit, and Ed Martin, Jr., an associate of ultraconservative pundit Phyllis Schlafly, a St. Louis native herself. This was a St. Louis gathering. Both in tone and topic, it was far more in the spirit of St. Louis—white, bigoted St. Louis, that is—than in the spirit of Trump.
I knew this because, back in March, I attended a Trump rally in St. Louis—the first to be significantly disrupted by protesters, and one of the bloodiest rallies to date. As Trump spewed hateful epithets from the podium that were broadcast through speakers placed outside the building where the rally was held, Trump fans and opponents clashed both inside and on the streets, sometimes getting into physical altercations. Novel at the time, this has since become standard for Trump rallies.
In Festus, the atmosphere was quite different. A comparatively small audience of roughly 200 people were in attendance—still overwhelmingly white, and mostly middle-aged or older. There were Trump hats and Trump signs on display. But there were just as many for local politicians like Eric Greitens (the Missouri GOP candidate for governor best known for ads in which he is shown shooting an Gatling-style machine gun). The differences between a Trump rally and a Trump fan-only rally were so stark, both in topic and tenor, that it raised the question of how closely Trump and Tea Party interests are aligned, particularly in a region home to many evangelical conservatives.
Trump has been wildly inconsistent in his policies, but he is always consistent in his central theme: the glorification of Trump. His own rallies function as a call and response—he hammers the crowd with slogans, and they echo them eagerly. But at the Trump Tea Party rally in St. Louis, this crowd had already gathered on its own years ago, forming its own subculture, with its own priorities and ideas. The national Tea Party helped build the conspiratorial and bigoted political climate that allowed Trump to prosper. But if the event in Festus is any indication, Trump does not seem particularly interested in returning the favor.
During the GOP primary, Missouri split the vote 50/50 between Trump and Ted Cruz. The Festus festivities could have easily been a Cruz rally—and it seemed, at times, that the attendees wished it were. Tea Partiers sang “The Star Spangled Banner” and recited the pledge of allegiance while waving flags declaring “Don’t Tread on Me.” Then they quietly listened to a series of speakers. From neither the speakers nor the crowd came the profanity or blatant racism heard at Trump rallies, though dog whistles abounded.
Most notably, some attendees displayed an ambivalent attitude toward Trump himself. Speakers touched on many of the same themes as Trump—the threat of immigrants, “inner-city” criminals, and Muslims; an economy destroyed by Democratic elites; and, of course, hatred of Hilary Clinton. But they also touched on themes that Trump pointedly omits, including religion and abortion.
The rally opened with attendees bowing their heads in prayer in front of the Harley Davidson store, as a speaker praised Jesus and apologized for America turning its back on him. It continued with a heated speech condemning abortion, as another speaker—in a rare moment of screaming fury—swore that a Clinton win would ensure the deaths of millions of unborn babies. These are issues that Trump, a former pro-choice Democrat with no history of piety, avoids. They have long been important to the Missouri Tea Party, however.
Another speaker admitted that, while he was now firmly on the Trump train, he had struggled to get on board, citing the appeal of other candidates and the vulgar incoherency of Trump. As he spoke, members of the audience nodded along. Speakers also focused more on the achievements of the Tea Party—which has strong roots in St. Louis, hosting its first rally in February 2009 and launching the national careers of Hoft and pundit Dana Loesch—than on the achievements of Trump. They tried to distance themselves from Trump’s overt racism, although they did so in ham-handed ways. Martin, for example, claimed that discriminating against Muslims and Mexicans was not in fact “racist” because these are religious and ethnic groups, not races. Okay, then.
The event seemed to have little official connection to the Trump team. One organizer announced that the group was raising money for a door-to-door campaign to support Trump in swing states. If not enough money was raised, they claimed, their grasssroots efforts would be scrapped. In other words, Missourians—described by one speaker as folks resembling the inhabitants of District 12 in The Hunger Games—are struggling to scrape up cash to support a New York billionaire.
“When Donald Trump says he’s on our side, he means it,” Martin assured the crowd. But does he?
Ultimately, this rhetorical disconnect is probably a good thing. For all its bigoted rhetoric and paranoid ideas, the Tea Party rally lacked the seething hate and slavish self-adoration that presides when Trump is present—the demagogic rhetoric that transforms a restless crowd into a dangerous mob. Many Americans are worried about not just what happens if Trump wins, but what could happen if he loses. In this context, the relatively mild Tea Partiers seem preferable. That itself is an indication itself of how dramatically Trump’s campaign has changed Americans’ expectations.