On Saturday, June 20th, Trump had his first rally in months. It was a bit of a mess from the word go. The rally was held in Tulsa, Oklahoma and was originally scheduled on June 19th. This caused a great deal of controversy because Tulsa is the site of the worst incident of racial violence in American history.
June 19th is also known as Juneteenth and is the commemoration of the end of slavery. Perhaps in normal times and for a normal presidency this wouldn’t be seen as hugely problematic. The President could take the opportunity to do an epideictic (which means ceremonial) address commemorating the events in a respectful and somber way. But these are not normal times, and this is not a normal presidency.
At first, the word was that the President was going to do a speech on race. People were really apprehensive about this because this President does not have a good record when it comes to race. This is why people were so upset about it being on Juneteenth in Tulsa. Nobody trusted this President to handle that with dignity or respect. His history with racial issues is so fraught and problematic that when he announced his intentions the uproar was instantaneous. Nobody believed his goal was to commemorate Black struggle OR achievement. The assumption was this was an attempt to thumb his nose at Black pain.
The reputation of this administration is that it is racist. So the uproar about a rally on Juneteenth in Tulsa was instantaneous.
In a move that I found surprising, Trump responded to this by moving his rally by one day. Usually his response to criticism is to double down, but this time he seemed to take some criticism seriously – I don’t know if it is the environment in which he finds himself, but he actually took public outcry into consideration for once. And instead of doing a speech about race it would be just a normal campaign rally.
Then there was the issue with dealing with COVID. There was a lot of controversy leading up to the rally because Oklahoma was seeing rising numbers of COVID cases every day leading up to the rally. But the rally was not going to require masks or social distancing inside the arena. They said they would encourage everyone to take healthy precautions. But nothing would be required. And everyone anticipated this rally would be big.
This leads us to perhaps the biggest snafu of the entire event – the numbers. The Trump campaign claimed that over a million people had requested tickets to the event. They anticipated huge numbers (around 100,000) at this rally. They set up big overflow spaces where Mike Pence would talk to those who were waiting outside and wanted to get in but couldn’t because of space (the arena only holds 20,000).
This is really important to Trump – he is notoriously obsessed with crowd sizes and numbers, and this was supposed to be his grand re-entry into the public. But it soon became clear that the crowd wasn’t coming. Just before the rally started, they contacted supporters to say there was still plenty of room if they wanted to come. They began to dismantle the overflow area because there wasn’t anyone in the overflow area. The arena of 20,000 wasn’t filled – in fact it was sparse. The final count of people was less than 6,200.
The word is that some of this is because of the work of a new generation of anti-Trump activists. The inflated numbers the Trump team expected may have been due to Tik Tok teens and K-pop stans who, in an organized and concerted effort, requested thousands of tickets to the rally, so the administration had no idea how many supporters to actually expect. While these teens are not really responsible for the low turnout, they did inflate the expectations, making the low turnout look even worse for Trump.
Trump tried to blame the low turnout on protesters outside the arena, but the number of protesters there was negligible and could not have kept tens of thousands of Trump supporters away from the rally. The Trump team had expected 100,000 supporters that evening, and the small number of protesters could hardly have managed to keep that many at bay.
So ultimately the rally was a disaster for Trump from the moment it was announced. If you watched the rally it seemed like a normal rally – there was a boisterous crowd that hung on Trump’s every word and cheered and clapped and yelled enthusiastically. But when the camera moved out you saw a lot of empty space.
Here’s the thing, though – I DID watch the rally and there are a few things I want to talk about with Trump’s speech. Because it was weird. Real weird.
First let me give you an incomplete, but lengthy outline:
- He claimed the silent majority is stronger than ever before (See my earlier podcast)
- Then that the GOP is party of Abe Lincoln AND Law & order (See my earlier podcast)
- He talked about 300 federal judges appointed and approved in his time.
- He claimed he cleaned up the VA (the problems were the fault of unions and civil servants)
- He took credit for getting things back on track after oil crisis
- He took credit for ending chaos on Minneapolis with national guard in one hour
- There was a lot about how the radical left is causing damage everywhere and attacking the police and perpetrating violence and the media is calling it beautiful and the nobody is telling them to wear masks
- He argued that Covid 19 should be called the Chinese virus. Which he has done a phenomenal job with. He has saved hundreds of thousands of lives.
- When you test more you find more. Slow the testing down! The kids will recover.
- Open the schools. Kids have great immune systems.
- The “unhinged left-wing mob” is erasing history. They are oppressing anybody who does not conform to them.
- The he talked about saluting the West Point cadets 600 times.
- He was wearing leather bottomed shoes which are good for flat surfaces but not good for ramp and he had just saluted 600 times and he was super-hot and tired and there was no railing. The general said grab me. He told him I might because I can’t fall with the fake news watching. THIS PART IS REALLY LONG.
- Then on to the water. He said he had just saluted so he couldn’t lift his hands/arms. And he didn’t want to get water on his tie. HE IS STILL GOING.
- ALL THAT IS TO SAY the media are the worst people in the world.
- Then he said we need legislation that if you burn the flag you go to jail for one year.
- Then he claimed that if Joe Biden is elected, he will surrender the country to these mobsters. Money will be worthless.
- Then look at the stock market!
- Then he said Our people are not nearly as violent but if they WERE it would be a terrible day for the other side.
- Then he went into this story about Air Force One. He got a good deal on Air Force One planes. This is a really long story and it gave him an excuse to call Boeing leaders a dumb son-of-a-bitch.
- On to foreign aid. We are owed money from Germany.
- The choice in 2020 is between bowing to the left-wing mob or standing tall as a proud American.
- He’s upset with the NFL for its comments on kneeling.
- Joe Biden and the Dems want to prosecute people for attending church but not for burning a church.
- They want to abolish bail and ICE (we’re doing great on the border, nobody’s coming over right now)
- The chaos you see in Dem cities is what you will see everywhere if I lose.
- At his direction, the military took down the top terrorists in the world.
- Then there was some foreign policy discussion, but it was just lists of things.
- The left calls you a racist for using perfectly fine terms.
- The left wants to subsidize late term abortions and after birth executions.
- The left wants to restrict your religious liberty
- The left wants to ban fracking after we’ve become the greatest energy power in the world
- The left wants to obliterate your Constitutional rights. Biden will stack the Court.
- They are not the elite. YOU’RE the elite.
- Then he said I’m more handsome. I have better things. I ran for office once and became president. They are not the elite.
- People don’t understand that his administration really won on DACA the other day. They’re going to re-do it and it will work out. It is basically like they just have to re-do the paperwork.
- Biden is a Trojan Horse for socialism.
- Biden has eulogized segregationists and members of the KKK but smears people like you as racists.
- Obama and Biden built the cages.
- They sent young boys to fight in Iraq while inner cities crumbled.
- Biden has supported every policy that has hurt Black America for the last 40 years. Racial justice begins with Biden’s retirement from public life.
- We built the best economy in the history of the world, then the plague came
- It’s going to be the single greatest economic year we’ve ever had
- It’s been the strongest 50 days in the history of the stock market
- List of accomplishments for Black communities.
- School choice.
- Murder, crime, and poverty rates in Dem cities
- He will always support law enforcement
- We will protect Medicare, SS, and pre-existing conditions
- We’ll build the wall
- And a bunch of things we’re going to do
- And now a bunch of conservative platitudes (appeals to tradition, but no good appeals to pathos)
OMG that is so long and is so much. And it is nowhere near the whole thing. But I hope that makes a few things clear to you about this speech (and Trump’s speaking style in general).
Trump makes lists of claims. He speaks for hours on ends at these rallies without developing points. It’s just claim upon claim upon claim. There is no evidence or reasoning. Trump is not interested in making arguments. What that tells us is that Trump is not trying to convince anyone. These rallies are not meant to sway anyone to his way of thinking. They are strictly to do what they say – “rally” the base. At a rally you don’t need to clarify your reasoning or provide evidence. You just state your claim in the confidence that your base will agree with you and you wait for the applause and move on. What you get, then, is some pretty bad speeches unless you are already in lockstep with the speaker. There are no appeals to logos – reasoning isn’t necessary to convince people to accept these claims. There are few appeals to ethos – the audience doesn’t need to be convinced of the speaker’s character – they are already enamored. And there actually are not that many appeals to pathos. The audience is already worked up. The speaker doesn’t have to work to appeal to the audience’s emotions. There may be some emotive language and the occasional appeals to fear or authority, but you don’t get that many narratives or metaphors because the emotion is already running pretty high. It’s an emotional speech, to be sure, but not really because of that many actual appeals to pathos in the strictest sense. It’s just that the list of claims that he makes connect to his audience on an emotional level.
But it’s this narrative idea that I want us to delve into a bit further. There were two extended stories that Trump told. Usually when a politician shares a story it is to pack an emotional punch, but Trump seemed to have different goals in mind with his narratives. Instead of appeals to pathos, he was focusing on appeals to ethos. But they were odd narratives in the grand scheme of things. He spent an INORDINATE amount of time talking about the day he was at West Point and his negotiations with Boeing.
First, let’s talk about West Point.
Trump spends a LOT of time talking about how many times he saluted the cadets at West Point. He wants to make sure we know it was 600 times. This is apparently so he can explain why he drank with two hands that day. He then shows us he is capable of drinking with one hand and throws the glass away, which I guess is supposed to be a display of his masculinity, and the crowd goes wild.
He also spends a lot of time talking about how he had leather soled shoes, and this was inappropriate for the kind of ramp he was walking on. He tells us how hot it was. He tells us over and over again how he walked and ran down the ramp, but the fake news media didn’t cover it correctly
I did not time this portion of the speech because when it started, I did not realize how long it was going to be and I didn’t think I would need to. I had no idea how important this was going to be to this speech. But my guess is he talks about Joe Biden for longer than he does about being at West Point. But he talks about being at West Point longer AT ONE TIME than he does about anything else. This is really an anecdote that he stretches out to a speech within a speech. It is long and it is rambling. It is truly a significant part of the speech.
The second narrative I want to focus on (that he focuses on quite a bit) is his negotiation with Boeing. Trump spends a LOT of time making sure you know he negotiated the price of the Air Force One planes with Boeing. This isn’t a particularly riveting narrative – he basically just outlines a back and forth of numbers, and he even leaves out the end where he gets the price down to the 3-billion-dollar range from the 6-billion-dollar range. And that’s it. That’s the story. But he spends SO LONG on it. And he comes back to it once or twice throughout the speech. This is obviously really important to him. He NEEDS you to know that he negotiated this deal with Boeing. It is an important accomplishment for him.
The intense and extended focus on these two seemingly small narratives tell us a few things about Trump.
One, they tell us about what he values and how he sees himself.
First, the West Point anecdote – I really hesitate to even call it a narrative – it’s long and drawn out, but there really isn’t a beginning, middle, or end; it’s just a description of a thing that happened (there’s a great podcast on this from RhetoricLee, if you’re interested) – is clearly a defense. He was made fun of for some stupid things by a hyper critical public, specifically the way he walked and the way he drank a glass of water, but he can’t let it go.
Look, the criticism to begin with was pretty dumb. Some people tried to make it out as concerns about his health, but what it comes down it is that for some people EVERYTHING Trump does is worthy of critique. But Trump is notoriously thin-skinned. He has an incredibly fragile ego, and this is the kind of thing that really gets to him. What should have been a non-issue turned into a huge portion of his speech. Trump spent an entire portion of his speech defending his masculinity, which he felt had been impugned. It was a litany of excuses as to why his behavior was the way it was, followed by a “macho” display of throwing a glass of water. So much of Trump’s appeal is vested in hyper-masculinity that he can’t let it go when a criticism is made that makes him seem “weak.”
Secondly, the negotiation story serves the same purpose. It portrays him in some kind of masterful position It’s an entire story designed to show that he is “in charge.” An entire corporation, Boeing, bent to his will. And he didn’t have to do anything but just tell them what to do. This is a story about how he is powerful and can command people and groups to do his bidding. It’s a really boring story, but in this speech, it is a story about his masculinity and his power.
The second thing these stories tells us is what the Trump presidency is about and what it is accomplishing right now. You will notice that Trump does not spend the same amount of time talking about his accomplishments dealing with COVID. He mentions it – but there is not an extended narrative. The only other thing the President gives an extended amount of time to like this is his list of claims about what he has achieved for the Black community, and it is not a narrative it is just a list of claims.
These narratives tell us about what Trump can effectively describe at this point in his Presidency. This is a speech of drawn out anecdotes with no substance. He has nothing he can base his campaign on right now so he is talking small things he can anchor his campaign in to avoid the bigger things. His accomplishments are owning the media by showing how they were wrong to attack him and negotiating with Boeing – so he spends time on that. Everything else is just a sentence or two and then he moves on. What he wants to describe and spend time on are the things that show him to be a real man, but those things are small and trivial. He doesn’t have major accomplishments to brag about.
So these anecdotes tell us something about the upcoming campaign – Trump is still anchoring his campaign in claims of masculinity, but his proofs of masculinity are much smaller in scale than they once were. This may be less convincing for those outside his loyal base.
Music in this episode is “Fearless First” by Kevin MacLeod at https://incompetech.filmmusic.io/song/3742-fearless-first licensed under CC-BY. Music modified by cutting and fading where appropriate.