Opinion

Opinion | Diane Hessan

Trump and the rally culture

Supporters of President Donald Trump rally on the south end of the Seaside Heights boardwalk, Saturday, March 25, 2017, in Seaside Heights, N.J. (Doug Hood /The Asbury Park Press via AP)

Doug Hood /The Asbury Park Press via AP

Supporters of President Trump in Seaside Heights, N.J.

According to the April 8 poll from Gallup, 40 percent of Americans approve of the job President Trump is doing. What are those 40 percent thinking? Surely the contradictory messages emerging from the Trump administration, the health care bill’s failure, and courts striking down Trump’s executive orders should make them think twice. What exactly do they approve of?

Consider Trump’s continuing rallies, the ones that prompted Cathleen Decker of the Los Angeles Times to lament his difficulty “leaving behind the ego-stroking mechanics of a campaign for the nitty-gritty of governing.”

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My conversations with voters over the last 10 months — and specifically with Trump’s base — put Trump’s rallies in a different light. What if, for our president, campaign mode is governing? What if, as Trump insists, the task of “Making America Great Again” is an ongoing campaign?

That would certainly explain a lot.

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“My favorite part of Trump’s speech to Congress last month,’’ says Tim, 61, a Trump voter from Wisconsin, “was the part about his desire for a renewal of the American spirit.” Tim recalls President Johnson imploring citizens to “See America First’’ in the mid-’60s, prompting Tim’s family to pack up the station wagon and head out west. There was a sense of pride in America at the time, and Tim agrees with the president that we need that pride back.

Trump would agree. “Life is a campaign,’’ he told reporters on Air Force One. He didn’t seem to think that the rallies should stop once he was in office, and he often talks about the spirit in our country, and even the spirit among his team at the White House.

But what about the lies, say the Clinton voters? The content of a Trump rally is enough to make PolitiFact staffers work deep into the night, to make Washington Post reporters document long strings of Four-Pinocchio rulings, a departure from conventional truth that we’ve never before seen in a chief executive.

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But that analysis ignores what Josh Bernoff, author of “Writing Without Bulls***,’’ calls the rally culture.

Consider it from a fan’s viewpoint. At high school pep rallies, we often ignored the weaknesses of our team, as we screamed, “Who’s gonna win? WE are!” Excited about the promise of victory, we would not be happy with a girlfriend who leaned over and announced, “This is a lie, because our team is not that good.” Rather than calling her a truth-teller, we’d say she has no school spirit. It’s the same at Fenway Park as Red Sox fans sing “Sweet Caroline.” It feels good to be part of a rally, and the chants, cheers, and disdain for the other team is all part of the experience.

That’s what’s happening at a Trump rally. It’s people who know they are part of something bigger. Consider the Trump cheers.

“What are we gonna build? A wall!

“Who’s going to pay for it? Mexico!”

Or:

“What do we think of Obamacare? It’s a disaster!

“What do we need to do with it? Repeal and replace!”

Or:

“Who had the best victory in the history of the universe? Trump!”

Rational arguments and Pinocchios have no place here. If you point out that Mexico is not paying for that wall, you’re a buzzkill, and you’re going to have to leave, because you’re not on our team any more.

Sometimes it gets meaner.

“What do we think of Hillary Clinton? LOCK HER UP!

You might as well be saying “Yankees suck!” Because it doesn’t matter whether Hillary Clinton belongs in jail — what matters is that we show our opponents that we have power over them.

For these voters, many who have felt forgotten, Trump has given them a voice again. They rallied to Trump’s side. And it’s going to take a lot more than a few temporary setbacks to get them to leave.

You don’t quit on the team when they’re down a few runs. And you don’t quit on the president who made you feel part of something this powerful, even if the courts are blocking his immigration orders and Congress is failing to pass his favorite bills — because the rally culture is about loyalty and emotion, and not disputed facts or momentary failures.

Trump’s combative actions — from lambasting the press as “the enemy” to firing missiles at the airfields of baby-killing Syrian dictators — fit the rally culture perfectly. To keep the rally going, you need enemies, you need emotion, and you need victories. Trump intuitively knows how to supply the drama and the triumphs and to demonize whoever gets in his way. His supporters rally around those feelings, even if, on the face of it, they may seem to be going against their own interests.

Logic and facts make little difference in the face of the rally culture. As long as Trump keeps feeding his fan base, they’ll be there for him. It’s less about governing, and more about the inspiration. And until Democrats tap into inspiration of their own, Trump’s supporters are going to keep cheering.

Diane Hessan is an entrepreneur, investor, and chairman of C Space.
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