Trump Aces His Political Education
After a six-month hiatus from the campaign trail, listening to a Donald Trump speech, and the audience reactions to it, is a powerful experience. Although his message hasn't changed much, Trump's skill as a candidate and his ability to keep the audience engaged have significantly improved.
The address he delivered in Laconia, New Hampshire, on Sept. 15 was perhaps the 12th I have attended this year. Journalists who have been following him throughout the campaign have probably heard him hundreds of times, day after day. The long and continuous acquaintance makes it harder to notice any changes. I last heard Trump in March, at a golf club he owns in Florida, and the difference between now and then was striking.
"This was one of the worst political speeches I have heard," I wrote after one of his appearances in Iowa in January. "Trump rambled for more than an hour without completing a sentence. He went off on unexpected tangents." Members of the audience began milling about, talking to one another, leaving early. Trump's voice grated, changed pitch, went from a whine to a growl when there was no need for it.
One of the most memorable descriptions of a strong populist orator comes from Joseph Goebbels, who knew about these things:
The essential characteristics of his speeches to the people are: clear organization, irrefutable logical reasoning, simplicity and clarity of expression, razor-sharp dialectic, a developed and sure instinct for the masses and their feelings, an electrifying emotional appeal that is used sparingly, and the ability to reach out to the souls of the people in a way that never goes unanswered.
A successful demagogue cannot afford to be a bad speaker. For better or worse, Trump wasn't good at it: the Goebbels quote didn't apply to him. He muddled through with a technique that had more to do with stand-up comedy than rabble-rousing.
In Laconia, though, every one of Trump's sentences was complete and, well, laconic. I'd read some recent articles that discussed his style as if it hadn't changed, yet I was surprised by the new tone. His voice appeared to be rough from too much wear, but it didn't break into the uncomfortable falsetto of old. He hit his talking points and rounded them off with memorable, confidently spoken aphorisms.
"Used to be, they made cars in Flint, Michigan, and you couldn't drink the water in Mexico," he deadpanned. "Now, they make cars in Mexico and you can't drink the water in Flint." People in the audience mouthed the second part of the sentence.
"I'm not running for president of the world," he said at another point. "I'm running for president of the United States of America." He'd used the line before, but it was perfect for this particular crowd. "U.S.A., U.S.A.," his supporters chanted enthusiastically. Trump got applause every time he said he would worry about Americans and not the rest of the world.
As we waited for Trump to start speaking, two middle-aged men behind me were comparing their Trump baseball caps. "I bought this for $25 and look, it says Vietnam on the inside," one said. "I ordered two for $25, and they're made in the U.S.," the other answered. When Trump asked his audience if they remembered when things were made in the U.S.A., some men, including the two-for-$25 guy, waved their caps in the air.
Although some of the people I talked to had never seen Trump live before, they reacted instinctively to the parts of the speech that were intended to elicit a reaction. The chant of "Build That Wall" taken up by about 1,000 people was impressive, if a little chilling. The answers of his supporters to the question why they'd vote for him are now far clearer than they were during the primaries: Keeping out "crooked Hillary" and the drug cartels -- an especially popular theme in New Hampshire with its drug epidemic -- were recurring themes.
To be sure, he still arouses plenty of controversy. Last week, among other gasp-inducing remarks, he suggested that Hillary Clinton had originated the myth that Barack Obama wasn't born in the U.S. He also said he would like her bodyguards to disarm voluntarily so we could "see what happens." So it's possible that Trump's symbiosis with the crowd was in part the result of an asset he has been said to lack -- a ground game. A Republican operative close to the Trump campaign, who spoke on condition of anonymity, told me that though the candidate's team had just 49 staffers in 10 offices across New Hampshire, it had "knocked on 50 percent more doors" than the Mitt Romney campaign had by this time in 2012.
Patrick Hynes, a local political consultant who is not involved with the campaign, confirms the high level of enthusiasm of the Trump campaign workers. "The professionals in D.C. say Trump doesn't have a ground game because he doesn't invest in it the way candidates have always done," he says. "He's very well-organized here, with a lot of active volunteers. It's just not the kind of ground game the operatives recognize."
Trump may have looked goofy, inexperienced, unprofessional when he started out. He no longer does. He has learned fast and he is now a sleek politician. That, perhaps, is why some commentators talk of a softening of his public persona. I haven't noticed any: He delivered the same hard-line isolationist, nativist, anti-immigrant message as before, but without making any blunders that the media might seize on.
Paradoxically, the new-found sophistication may end up hurting him.
I saw dozens of people leaving before he finished the speech, which I also witnessed six months ago. "Too many promises," one of them said. "He says he can fix everything but he's not saying how."
As I walked to my car, I overheard a heated argument about Trump emanating from the porch of a nearby house. A woman, who had clearly had a few drinks, raised her voice: "But how can you work with anyone if you wall them off? He's a hypocrite, he lies, he's the devil's spawn!" A man attempted to quiet her down. The Trump supporters walked by quietly, heads bowed. Trump has gotten better, but that may not be enough to win New Hampshire, a state with just four electoral votes. where the Republican presidential candidate must hold events in school gyms and not major arenas just to remain a contender.
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