The president in Trump’s impression was an authority figure experienced at Olympian, inhuman remove. All of us in the hangar, Trump included, were accustomed to the presence of this person: to admiring or lampooning him, loving or hating him, but always having him there.
Except now, he wasn’t. Watching Trump step into the archetype momentarily and then just as quickly step out, it hit me: Even in Trump’s mind, that president was someone else, somewhere else. It was as if I were sitting on a commercial flight, at cruising altitude, when the pilot suddenly plopped down in the next seat, commiserated about the tarmac delays and poor in-flight service, then popped an Ambien and went to sleep.
There is a widely held theory that Donald Trump did not, and maybe still does not, really want to be president. Whether or not this is true, what can be ventured with greater certainty is that no candidate has ever delighted as visibly as Trump did in campaigning to be president, and that his having been elected was the period at the end of a sentence that he would happily have let run on forever. For Trump, the campaign trail was a place of self-actualization. On the stage was where he seemed most himself — so much so that, not even a full day after his election, the president-elect mused to his staff about the possibility of another series of rallies.
A weekend tour, he was thinking then: an encore. The more pressing realities of the presidential transition quickly asserted themselves, but a week later, George Gigicos, the advance-team director for Trump’s campaign, told a reporter at Trump Tower that plans were indeed in motion for a “victory tour,” as he described it. “It will happen in the next couple of weeks,” Gigicos said; Trump would go “obviously to the states that we won and the swing states we flipped over.”
By the time the first dates of the tour were announced, on Nov. 29, it had been tactfully rechristened a “thank-you tour”: nine rallies in nine states throughout December. “I was with the advance team yesterday, and they’re showing me all the different places he’s going in the next two weeks,” Anthony Scaramucci, at the time a member of the executive committee of Trump’s transition team, told the Fox Business Network’s Maria Bartiromo. “This is a guy who doesn’t give up.”
He didn’t: After taking a few weeks in January and February to be inaugurated and acquaint himself with the business of running the country, Trump held another rally. He has been holding them regularly ever since, sometimes as often as twice a month. His itinerary has not once diverged from the states on his electoral map; he had been to the exact same hangar in Moon two days before winning Pennsylvania in 2016. There have been 20 rallies in all, give or take a couple that might be construed as more conventional presidential appearances — though it is hard for even these to not take on the character of a Trump rally when he takes the stage. They amount to one of the few sustained, continuous projects of his presidency, and represent a genuinely novel contribution to the theater of American politics: a “Basement Tapes” of the Trump years, a never-ending tour with stakes perpetually hazy and unclear.
From the beginning, I thought it would be important to witness these rallies, and I went as often as I could. Whenever I did, I was confronted with the question of what it was, precisely, that I expected to witness. Was it the people who turned out to see him? I was curious, at first, who they would be — who would show up for what were, in effect, campaign rallies for a campaign that ended months ago. I interviewed them, diligently filling notebooks:
I walked in here, somebody told me to [expletive] off. I’m a Nazi ’cause I’m going in here. This guy outside, he says, ‘Nazis should die!’ O.K., I’m with you! I’m on the same side! I’m not a [expletive] Nazi!
I think he almost destroyed the country, Obama did. He bragged when he got out of office that he turned this country a little more brown. Was that his job? Turning the country brown? I heard it on TV. But according to the left, anybody that wants Trump is a racist.
I liked everybody but Trump and Ted Cruz. But because he was our nominee, I voted for him. I’ve warmed up to him. I just wish he would, uh, calm it down a little bit? With the tweeting?
But you’ve read all this before, haven’t you? The spectrum of people at these rallies was not appreciably different from the spectrum at Trump’s actual campaign rallies, which was itself fairly representative of the broader rallygoing Republican electorate in 2016 — and interviewing people at campaign events, as every reporter believes secretly but is not allowed to admit, is almost always a waste of time for everyone involved in the exchange, like asking Mets fans at a Mets game why they like the Mets.
These rallies rarely produced news, and what news they produced was usually limited to something Trump said, which meant you could just as easily cover it from the comfort of your own couch, thanks to the handful of live-broadcasting TV crews that was always packed onto a riser in the back of the venue. These people served double duty as a hate totem for the events, the most reliable targets for ritual humiliation from the stage. Huddled around their tripods, buffeted by thousands of boos and obscenities, they called to mind weathercasters lashed to telephone poles, early-Dan Rather-style, in a hurricane. Their footage, chopped up and YouTubed and GIFed and John Olivered, would be injected into the infinitely subdividing capillaries of social-media outrage in near real time. Sometimes at the rallies, I would look at these camera crews and then open Twitter on my phone, watch it welling up with cascades of disbelief at whichever deliberately disbelief-inducing thing Trump had just said, and wonder what the point of any of us being there was.
But there was something about these rallies that you couldn’t see from your couch. I have never interviewed Trump, but people I know who have often remark on an uncanny element of the experience: the absence of any indication of an off-limits private self distinct from his public image. The phenomenon feels radically postmodern: a complete communion of the thing with its representation, officiated by an audience of millions over the course of nearly four decades. The tens of thousands of people who came to see him speak at campaign events might have numbered well below the millions who had watched him on TV, but the sheer physical fact of them — he would talk endlessly at his rallies about the lines trying to get inside the building, the poor put-upon fire marshals who had to deliver the bad news — seemed to entrance him. During the general election, Trump once called a reporter I know excitedly from the air as he descended to an event, and told him to turn on cable news; he was looking down at the rally and marveling at the size of the crowd. “Celebrity is a mask that eats into the face,” John Updike once wrote — but with Trump, it was hard to imagine the face ever having been there at all.
Only a man like this could conceive of a permanent campaign, extending infinitely after Election Day, as something desirable. From the first, the postelection rallies were bemoaned as, at best, a waste of presidential time, but this missed their peculiar intimacy. To feel as if you were witnessing something essential and true about Barack Obama, you would have had to see him alone in his study late at night. To witness the same of Trump, you have to stand among thousands gathered to see him — and see him seeing you seeing him.
“You!” Trump said, pointing to a man in the crowd. “I just saw him on television — he said: ‘I love Trump! Let Trump do what he has to do!’ ”
This was in Melbourne, Fla., last February — Trump’s first rally after taking office. He was in Mar-a-Lago mode, open-collared and visibly at ease, more so than he had been at any point since Inauguration Day. Five days earlier, Michael Flynn, his national security adviser, had resigned over Flynn’s contacts with Russian officials, and Trump had asked the F.B.I. director, James Comey, to stop investigating him. One of the largest single-day demonstrations in American history had been staged in protest of Trump — less as a president than as a human being — dwarfing his own inauguration’s attendance. His travel ban was gummed up in federal court. But this wasn’t Washington, or the Fourth Circuit; it was Florida, “my second home,” as Trump had described it. “Come here — let him up, I’m not worried about him,” he said as the man made his way to the stage. “Hop over the fence! He can do it — look, this guy’s in great shape. This guy is great — don’t worry about him.”
The man’s name, it would later be ascertained, was Gene Huber. He was a car salesman from Boynton Beach, very tan, with a close-cropped corona of graying hair, in good shape just as the president said, wearing a commemorative T-shirt from Trump’s inauguration featuring the same presidential seal as the lectern behind which he now embraced Trump in a bear hug. “This guy! He’s been all over television, saying the best things,” Trump said. “Say a couple words.”
“Mr. President, thank you, sir!” Huber said, slightly wild-eyed with adrenaline, looking not at Trump but at the cameras. “We the people, our movement, is the reason why our president of the United States is standing in front of us today. When President Trump, during the election, promised all these things he was going to do for us, I knew he was going to do this for us.”
Huber yielded the microphone and exited the stage. “A star is born, a star is born,” Trump said. “I wouldn’t say that Secret Service was thrilled with that, but we know our people, right? We know our people. A great guy — and so many others, I see some others, they’re being interviewed. The media will give them no credit.” He shook his head at the treatment of this man, who had been rendered real to Trump by his appearance on television, whom the media would diligently and regularly interview henceforth, when they recognized him at the subsequent rallies that Huber religiously attended after quitting his car business post-Melbourne to dedicate himself full time to supporting the president, a cardboard cutout of whom, Huber told CNN, he kept at home and saluted every day. Like Trump himself, Huber was now famous for being famous, and in June reporters found him camped out in line the night before Trump’s rally in Cedar Rapids, Iowa, wearing a T-shirt printed with a photograph of himself hugging Trump on the stage in Melbourne, beneath the words WE THE PEOPLE.
“It is great to be back in the incredible, beautiful, great state of Iowa!” Trump said, as he took the stage in Cedar Rapids the following evening. “Home of the greatest wrestlers in the world, including our friend Dan Gable — some of the great, great wrestlers of the world, right? We love those wrestlers.”
It was five months into his presidency by then, and five rallies. In Nashville in March, Trump railed against the judge in Hawaii who issued an injunction against his revised travel ban — “This ruling makes us look weak!” — and against his own staff, which had advised him to revise it in the first place. Five days later, the same day James Comey was testifying before the House Intelligence Committee about Russian interference in the 2016 election, Trump was at another rally, this time in Louisville, Ky., talking about Colin Kaepernick: “There was an article today that reported that N.F.L. owners don’t want to pick him up because they don’t want to get a nasty tweet from Donald Trump!”
The rallies had ceased to be the curiosity they were at first. Out of basic psychological necessity, if nothing else, the country was learning to metabolize the Trump presidency’s daily news barrage, of which the rallies were but one minor component, another assaultive stream of words and images entering the public consciousness in a disembodied, decontextualized way: Here was Trump, shouting somewhere. At the events, you would be reminded, with some surprise, that these moments occurred at fixed coordinates in space and time, as opposed to simply materializing in the news cycle in which the country was now trapped, 24 hours a day, by virtue of Trump’s own unwavering attention to it.
By the time Trump got to Cedar Rapids, the rallies had acquired an informal template. There was an often agreeably random opening (wrestlers?), some pleasantries (in Iowa, shout-outs to Karen Handel, who had just beaten Jon Ossoff in a special congressional election in Georgia, and Steve Scalise, who had just been shot at a softball game), a brief tour through the headlines (North Korea). Then Trump would begin reciting what sounded like a conventional prepared speech, only to immediately digress from it: “Here are just some of the historic accomplishments we have achieved in just a very short period of time — and I have to just preface it by saying — thank you, darling — I have to preface it by saying, you know, I’ve been watching, they’re saying” — his voice deepening into an impression of an anchorman’s scold — “ ‘President Trump has not produced health care.’ You know,” he said, leaning in with a conspiratorial, can-you-believe-these-guys? look, “I’ve been there for five months! If you remember, during the Clinton period, they worked for years and years and years and never got health care. Obama” — here there were boos, and Trump paused briefly to enjoy them — “though after listening to that testimony, I fully understand. But President Obama, his whole administration, pushing, pushing for Obamacare, which has now failed. In fact, I was just told by your great governor, and ex-governor, that your insurance companies have all fled the state of Iowa.”
The texture of this was familiar to anyone who watched Trump during the campaign. The conventional speech was there, nominally, a formal structure around which Trump improvised, embroidering it with anecdotes that may or may not have happened, turning over parts of the speech in the light and opening up the back end of it to show the audience, to let them in on the secrets, to convey a sense that he was leveling with the people who had the good sense to be there at that moment, offering a sensation of truth if not always the complete thing (Iowa’s state health-insurance exchange had lost most of its providers, but not all of them). It was fun to listen to, because Trump — and this is still perhaps the most incredible thing about his candidacy, in retrospect — was somehow the first politician in however many decades of modern American political oratory to capitalize on the fact that nobody likes listening to modern American political oratory.
There was also a dissonance to these speeches, however, now that Trump had settled into his presidency. Before the election, his subversion of the forms of American politics served to underscore the basic argument of his campaign, which was that America’s problems could be solved easily if you overthrew the country’s governing class, with all their idiocies of convention. But Trump and his voters had done exactly that, and America’s problems had not instantly disappeared. One of Trump’s more reliable impulses is evading responsibility, and he spent much of these speeches herding together the scapegoats — the media, the recalcitrant Democrats, the F.B.I., the system — who might account for his situation, without appearing to realize that he was drawing the self-portrait of a man who had wanted power but gotten authority instead.
On Aug. 12, white supremacists marched and then rioted in Charlottesville, Va., one of them running over a woman with his car and killing her. Asked about the episode in a news conference at Trump Tower, Trump insisted that “I think there’s blame on both sides” and described some of the white supremacists as “very fine people,” and amid the backlash that inevitably ensued, Donald J. Trump for President Inc. awakened, as it seems to do in times of trouble, to announce that on Aug. 22, there would be another rally, this one in Phoenix.
The afternoon before the rally, I was settling into my seat in an American Airlines Airbus on the runway in Charlotte, N.C., when the pilot got on the intercom: “If everyone could take their seats quickly, please,” he said, a note of apologetic bewilderment in his voice, “we’re trying to beat Air Force One into Phoenix today.” Trump, he explained, was due into Phoenix around the same time we were. “If we don’t get in ahead of them, we’re going to be put in a holding pattern.”
A groan went up from the passengers. “I got held up in Florida by Air Force One for four hours,” a woman sitting behind me grumbled.
Across the aisle, an older man was saying something about Joe Biden and his Secret Service entourage taking up whole cars on Amtrak between Washington and Wilmington. “I’m just saying,” he protested, “both sides do this!” And so we hurtled west in our climate-controlled specimen vial of the national argument, trying desperately to outrun the man at the center of it.
It was 107 degrees in Phoenix, and outside the downtown convention center paramedics with IV bags balanced on their shoulders were tending to rallygoers who had succumbed to the heat; an elderly woman in a Hawaiian shirt had toppled out of the V.I.P. line and was vomiting on the pavement. Inside, I passed a man wearing pleated khaki slacks and a sweat-drenched sleeveless undershirt with an American flag draped over his shoulders, serape-style, as if he were on his way to see Mad Max’s keynote address at CPAC. It was possible that the events in Charlottesville had depressed turnout, but it seemed just as possible that it was the heat, and the prospect of waiting outside for hours in it to file into a convention center that, when I got inside, was full, but not packed as other rallies had been.
Trump recited from all of his post-Charlottesville news releases; he had them printed out. “I said, ‘Racism is evil.’ Now they only choose, you know, like a half a sentence here or there, and then they just go on this long rampage, or they put on these real lightweights all around a table that nobody ever heard of, and they all say what a bad guy I am. But I mean, do you ever see anything — and then you wonder why CNN is doing relatively poorly in the ratings. Because they’re putting like seven people all negative on Trump! And they fired Jeffrey Lord — poor Jeffrey. Jeffrey Lord.”
Watching a public eruption of self-pity is an awkward experience, particularly when it is the president of the United States doing it. Even the crowd in Phoenix seemed a little unsure what to do with it, and they were the most sympathetic audience Trump could possibly have mustered. “Now, you know, I was a good student,” he went on. “I always hear about the elite. You know, the elite. They’re elite? I went to better schools than they did! I was a better student than they were! I live in a bigger, more beautiful apartment, and I live in the White House too, which is really great. I think — you know what? I think we’re the elites. They’re not the elites.”
The crowd cheered for its newfound elitism, but the energy in the room was sagging palpably. It had been a long, hot day. They were still heckling the TV people in the media pen, but it felt unfocused, pro forma. “So the point is — and I didn’t want to bore you, because you understand where I’m coming from. You people understand. But the point is, that those were three different — there were two statements and one news conference. The words were perfect. They only take out anything they can think of, and for the most part, all they do is complain. But they don’t put on those words. And they don’t put on me saying those words.”
The adjective I instinctively reached for, watching it, was “Nixonian,” but even Nixon generally confined this kind of thing to the White House tapes. Trump’s very public spleen-venting more closely resembled that of Andrew Johnson, Abraham Lincoln’s vice president and the reluctant and disastrous steward of Reconstruction after his death. In February 1866, after Congress tried and failed to override Johnson’s veto of a law providing federal protections for freed slaves, he gave an impromptu speech to his supporters in which he compared his Senate antagonists to Confederate generals, fulminated about supposed assassination plots against him, and in the space of barely an hour, used his own name more than 200 times. Congress impeached him two years later.
“This was a Castro speech in length,” Rick Wilson, the Republican strategist, was saying on the CNN-equipped flat screens at the Phoenix airport as I waited for my flight home. “It was an astounding chain of lies tied together by a man who obviously is mentally unstable.” David Jolly, the former Republican congressman from Florida, told MSNBC’s Chris Hayes the next day: “Listen, there is no moral equivalency between this president and some of the dictators we’ve seen in the Dark Ages of the Middle East and other places around the globe. But the politics of some of those dark dictators was to always have an enemy. And that is what this president has modernized.”
It is true that it is hard to get through a Trump rally now without thinking of the Philippines’ Rodrigo Duterte, Turkey’s Recep Tayyip Erdogan or the other authoritarians for whom Trump has openly expressed his admiration. And yet, watching Trump onstage in Phoenix, the instincts he was following seemed to be much more those of an entertainer than those of a demagogue. It had the feel of being in the studio audience for an unusually angry late-night host’s opening monologue. He was a guy on a stage, improvising, trying to hold the crowd, toggling between the riskier material and the easy applause lines, trying to figure out what they liked and how to give them more of it. The applause for clean coal was tepid, so he moved on to Joe Arpaio. He talked about Jonathan Gruber, the economist who helped design the Affordable Care Act, but no one seemed to know who that was, so he reached into the tangle of Fox News chyrons balled up in the back of his head and came up with something about all the people who wanted to tear down George Washington statues, and the crowd roared its indignation at this movement that did not, in any meaningful sense, exist.
These moments have political consequences, but when you are watching them in person, the imperatives at play seem mostly emotional; the needs on display are raw and visible, and curiously small. But then you see the same speech on a screen, outside the reality-impeding Faraday cage of the rally venue, and you are reminded that this is the president: that he commands a nuclear arsenal and a legal system that can put people in jail or throw them out of the country and a surveillance apparatus of godlike omniscience and an unshakably loyal third, at least, of the American population. The man is trying for “The Tonight Show” and it comes out as Hugo Chavez’s “Aló Presidente.”
Sometimes, watching Trump at the rallies, I would wonder idly what quotations from these events would look like etched into granite on some plaque or building like other presidents’ speeches. (YOU ARE THE MOVEMENT. I AM THE MESSENGER. I AM JUST REALLY THE MESSENGER — ALTHOUGH I’VE BEEN A VERY GOOD MESSENGER, LET’S FACE IT, RIGHT? I’VE BEEN A PRETTY GOOD MESSENGER.) We’re used to presidents delivering speeches in front of an audience, but rarely really to it. It is the speech, not the speaking of it, that is the point; its true audience is not the people in the room, but the country, or the world, or history. These speeches operate in the shadow of proper nouns: the Military-Industrial Complex Speech, the Berlin Speech, the Malaise Speech. Do you remember that Ronald Reagan delivered his Evil Empire Speech to a convention of evangelicals at the Sheraton Twin Towers Hotel in Orlando, Fla.? Of course not. He wasn’t speaking to them; he was speaking to history.
Trump does not speak to history except in extremely rare cases, like his Inaugural Address or his State of the Union address, in which circumstances absolutely, nonnegotiably force him to do so. Otherwise he is always speaking to a proximate audience; unlike other presidents, the speaking, not the speech, is the point. The words would make little sense without their immediate social context. To be a member of his audience is to feel valued, part of an intimate and privileged “you” defined in relation to some broader population: Gene Huber’s “we the people” rather than the Constitution’s.
You feel flattered, in spite of yourself. Trump is so at ease on the stage that you momentarily forget what a hermetic figure he is, how odd his few direct interactions with his constituents, as president, have been: his incongruous congratulations to rescue workers after Hurricane Harvey (“We love you. You are special. What a crowd. What a turnout”), his calls to wounded survivors of the Parkland school shooting in their hospital beds. (“He said he heard that I was a big fan of his, and then he said, ‘I’m a big fan of yours, too,’ ” one student, Samantha Fuentes, told The Times. “I’m pretty sure he made that up.”) Trump’s most impressive accomplishment, probably, is managing to live almost all of his adult life on stages of his own construction. But in the rare gaps between stages, the occasions that do not exist for the express purpose of his celebration, you see the consequences of having lived such a life.
“Do you like me?” he asked us in the airplane hangar in Moon. He looked like he was feeling good — certainly better than in Phoenix. There was talk of his finally escaping the padded cell of convention and expertise that had half-contained his presidency. Gary Cohn, his chief economic adviser, and Hope Hicks, his communications director and human security blanket, had recently tendered their resignations. In three days he would fire — or rather, order fired — his secretary of state, Rex Tillerson, and not long after that, his acting F.B.I. director, Andrew McCabe, and his national security adviser, H.R. McMaster. The White House lawyer who had been advising him on the Russia investigation, John Dowd, would quit. We — he and we, together — were forging deeper into the unknown, and it seemed to exhilarate him.
The crowd did like him, and cheered. “I like you, too,” he said. “I love you! I love you! So — is there any more fun than at a Trump rally? You know, a lot of times, I have to do, like, readings — we’ll pass an environmental bill, they’ll want me to go to a — I’m very spoiled, if I go to a small place, and they have 2,000 people, it’s like, why don’t we open a stadium or something? We’re spoiled. Other guys, they go out, they get 50 people, they’re satisfied. We. Need. Crowds. Like. This. In fact, the fire marshal was fantastic. You know, they had a lot of people out — and he’s a great guy, I don’t want to get him in trouble, but he opened up those doors, and he let most of the people that were sent away, he got ’em — look at those corners! Those cameras are never going to cover those corners. They’re never going to cover the corners. They’re never going to cover — they never show the crowds. They never like to show the crowds, ever! The only thing is the noise. You can’t imitate — it sounds like a Penn State football game. It sounds like an Ohio State football game! I’ll say to friends, ‘Did you see my speech last night?’ ‘Yes.’ I have to say it: ‘How good was I? How good?’ And they say, ‘Good.’ I say, ‘Did they show the crowd?’ ‘No they didn’t. But you know what, I could tell by the noise, that crowd was really big.’ You can’t hide that. You can’t hide that.”
I was there, and I can report that yes, the crowd was really big. You couldn’t hide that.