Trump’s Big Tent Revival
Walt Thompson’s voice breaks when he explains why he’s here.
We’re standing in a parking lot across from the Alumni Coliseum on the campus of Eastern Kentucky University in Richmond, Kentucky, on a gray Saturday last October. It’s midafternoon, and the campus is nearly empty for autumn break, except for the several thousand Trump supporters threaded in a line under an overcast sky; four hours later, President Donald J. Trump will appear at his 26th rally of the year.
Thompson has been awake nearly 36 hours, having driven alone from his home in Jackson, Tennessee, 350 miles west of where today’s rally is being held. He’s used to spending time alone behind the wheel. Every Sunday, he makes a 158-mile round trip to minister to three rural churches in Decatur County, Tennessee, where only 15 to 20 congregants attend his services. Thompson, 69, is filling a need, he explains, left by pastors “more concerned about the size of the church and how big the check they’re getting [is].”
Today’s Trump rally, Thompson’s first, is being held in Madison County, which gave Trump 62.8 percent of the vote in 2016 and is part of Kentucky’s sixth congressional district, where the incumbent Republican is fighting off a challenge from a female combat aviator and Democrat. Thompson explains that he was a late convert to Trump. As a minister, he didn’t care for the language Trump used at the start of his campaign or his bullying of people both more and less powerful than him. “I really didn’t like him that much,” he says. But what Thompson liked even less was the way the rest of the Republican presidential candidates ganged up on the reality-show star. Thompson voted for another candidate during the primary—he won’t say who—but once Trump secured the GOP nomination, the minister’s support grew.
Thompson also began to pick up on a rhetorical shift in Trump’s speech: the candidate, he explains, was saying “I” less and “we” more. It was a minor but significant change. “It makes the people feel like they’re included in what’s really happening,” Thompson says.
Soon, he began to connect with other supporters on Twitter. He felt that the president spoke from his heart, while liberals ridiculed the values most Americans hold dear. When the campaign announced Trump’s Kentucky rally in October, some of his friends from Twitter reached out and asked, “Why don’t you go to a rally?”
It didn’t seem plausible. But one of Thompson’s friends persisted. “If you meet Trump, what would you want to do?”
“Shake his hand,” Thompson replied.
Thompson grows emotional. In 1980, he says, he met Ronald Reagan while enrolled at Greenville University, a Christian liberal arts school in Illinois—a human contact that secured his allegiance to the Republican Party. “I’m 69 years old. I’m never going to meet another president in my life,” he says.
The line shuffles forward a few steps, inching closer to the stadium where the Secret Service is conducting its final sweeps.
Between May and November 2018, in the run-up to the midterm elections, President Trump conducted a series of more than 40 rallies nationwide. Under any other presidential administration, these sorts of events would serve a distinctly political function: to mobilize the vote for candidates within the president’s political party. But for President Trump, and his supporters, the appeal and purpose of rallies go well beyond securing future votes: they are meant to provide both the audience and Trump with a kind of communion. You can see the desire for that emotional connection in folks like Thompson, but the feelings emanate from both sides of the stage. After all, Trump held his first post-election rally three weeks after the 2016 election. The only campaign occurring at that moment seemed to be personal: Trump’s bid for reaffirmation from his supporters.
Style-wise, Trump rallies have always broken from conventional politicking. Even as the president observes some stations of the political cross, like inviting the local candidate stumping for votes onstage, Trump reverses the roles of protagonist and secondary character. He is not there to cede the spotlight or offer anyone else a political leg up; other politicians, in fact, appear to cosign on his political promise. All that he asks for in return, from his rank-and-file supporters and political allies alike, is that defiant belief—in the face of decency, in the face of the consequences of hate, in the face of the truth—that he alone can fix America’s problems.
Many Trump fans, of course, need him to stoke (and legitimize) their resentments as much as he needs their adulation. This is the unique nature of Trump’s rallies within American politics: they’re an almost ritualistic act of defiance that forms the basis of the political beliefs and resentment that carried the president to power once—and may do so again. “If I’m voting and I’m participating in these rallies, it really can’t be because I think that my participation will affect the outcome and that the outcome will, in turn, benefit me,” says Jason Brennan, a political scientist at Georgetown and the author of Against Democracy. “There’s a quasi-religious aspect to it … the kind of mechanisms that make mass religion work are also the things that make politics work.”
If the end goal of a Trump rally is not (or is not purely) political victory, how can we understand its purpose? A clue lies in the repetition of certain elements—an important component to any ritual, which is how many attendees think of these events. (One attendee in Kentucky, Arvil Runyon, 63, of Barney, West Virginia, who as of October had attended six rallies, said, “We’re trying to find out where the next one is.”) First, there’s location. Trump usually appears in a small stadium, in a small town or city somewhere on the American political map where the president is considered welcome, such as West Allis, Wisconsin, or Huntsville, Alabama. The size of the venue is critical, both to the audience and to the main attraction. Capacity crowds are a precondition for Trump rallies; they give an appearance of enthusiasm and reinforce the demand market for his persona.
This emphasis on form over function at a Trump rally is evident long before the president ever takes the stage. The scene-setting begins outside the venue, as it does in Richmond: the sober parking lot is bathed under the LED glow of looped campaign propaganda—voiced by Trump’s daughter-in-law Lara Trump—playing on a standalone, towering screen, extolling the American entrepreneurial spirit and roasting the president’s media enemies. QAnon folks, the political dispensationalists who believe in an epochal showdown between Trump and the Deep State, advertise their allegiance on T-shirts, while a few anti-Hillary holdovers don the 2016 Trump campaign’s “lock her up” swag. Families, some three generations deep, wrapped in blankets and drinking hot cocoa, wait for the line to inch forward.
Capacity crowds are a precondition for Trump rallies; they give an appearance of enthusiasm and reinforce the demand market for his persona.
Inside the venue, the scene comes into sharper focus. The aesthetics, as is the case this October night in Kentucky, are both highly considered (the stage floats within reach of the audience) and accidental (the spartan production design transforms the crowd into the scenery). The stage is draped with American flags and slogans like “Promises Made” and “Promises Kept,” but little else. (The space holds 6,100 spectators, but the setup cuts that number to 5,700.) As design flourishes, these elements help distract from the fact that the event is being held on a basketball court. In an essay that appeared in the 1972 book Life as Theater: A Dramaturgical Sourcebook, James M. Mayo Jr., a University of Kansas architecture professor who studied Third Reich rallies and propaganda, explained that banners and other hangings at political events serve more than simply an ornamental purpose — they are used “temporarily to resymbolize a politically neutral architectural arena and ‘sanctify’ the rally space.”
Trump’s rallies, of course, evoke other elements of Nazi Germany: the bombast, the sentimentality, the aggrieved view of history—symbols and messages that provide oxygen to many who previously felt isolated from political campaigning, especially those harboring racial resentments. (While there’s no available data detailing the racial makeup of Trump rallies, a look around the crowd reveals a sea of almost entirely white faces.) Ultimately, however, Trump’s rallies might best be placed in the context of another, much more American tradition, one more recent, and familiar, to his voting base: the public spectacle of the evangelical Christian revival movement.
That movement had its roots in the Great Awakenings of the Protestant faith in the 18th and 19th centuries. But it became politicized in the 1970s when “the trappings of revival were conscripted in the direct service of political rallies,” as Daniel Hummel, a religious historian, wrote in a 2016 essay. This shift in the evangelical community, instigated first by the American evangelist Bill Bright and, later, by Jerry Falwell, provided the foundation for the signature 20th-century innovation of the religious right, the binding of political righteousness to the narrative of personal salvation.
The revival movement also set the stage for a political leader willing to assume the mantle of a cultural savior. President Ronald Reagan first engaged the idea of national renewal of spiritual belief as a political objective while serving as governor of California between the late 1960s and mid-1970s. He carried that religious theme into his first presidential campaign and, eventually, into the White House. Reagan’s outspoken appeal to belief, and the fervency of his followers, was not matched by any Republican for two generations. Until Donald Trump came along.
On August 21, 2015, Trump stepped onto a podium in front of nearly 30,000 supporters at Ladd-Peebles Stadium in Mobile, Alabama. Until that moment, The Apprentice star’s campaign had been struggling to be taken seriously. Critics on the left dismissed Trump’s candidacy as a political sideshow—“It’s entertainment,” said Hillary Clinton on August 10, almost two weeks before the rally. Earlier that summer, journalist and former speechwriter James Fallows declared in The Atlantic that “the chance of his winning nomination and election is exactly zero.” On the right, Trump was considered to be an amateur interfering with the serious business of a Republican primary after seven years of an Obama presidency. “Ignore him,” Karl Rove advised on Fox News that June.
Mobile, population 190,000, was a turning point for the campaign and Trump’s political future, noted Corey Lewandowski, his first campaign manager. His team had booked its rally in a small, local civic center that held 10,000 people, only to be forced to relocate to a football stadium with a 40,000-person capacity the day before the event—they had to accommodate surprising demand from an audience that had primarily existed only online. (The man responsible for the event, George Gigicos, Trump’s director of advance, was both a Mobile native and an experienced campaign hand for George W. Bush who would go on to lead the Trump campaign through more than 300 rallies preceding the general election.)
“So beautiful,” Trump opened his speech by saying. “Now I know how the great Billy Graham felt.”
Trump’s allusion to Graham was crude and self-serving—he shares little in common with the most beloved American preacher of the 20th century, who died in 2018 at the age of 99. In fact, before entering politics, the president had never made faith a feature of his public persona. His books scarcely mention the topic, the lone exception being Crippled America (2015), in which Trump (or his ghostwriter) spends five paragraphs discussing his religious feelings and cites Reverend Norman Vincent Peale—the author of 1952’s The Power of Positive Thinking and the officiant of Trump’s first marriage—as an influence.
But Trump, like Graham was, is popular among white evangelicals—a critical demographic for a Republican candidate—who were pulled in by Trump’s pro-life, anti-gay-marriage message and who looked past his many marriages, his self-professed womanizing, and his past support of abortion rights to find common ground. More fundamentally, perhaps, Trump came in a familiar package. Like many religious leaders in the biblical Christian community, Trump had a TV show and had authored best-selling books. And though he didn’t have an actual church or a day of worship, the rallies accompanying his presidential campaign (and its aftermath) were becoming public professions of faith for those who believed in his message, safe spaces for transgressive political acts, and celebrations of Trump’s signature idea to “Build the Wall” in order to save the America many felt slipping through their fingers.
“So beautiful. Now I know how the great Billy Graham felt.”
On October 20, one week after the Richmond, Kentucky, rally, the president opens his speech to a different audience, in Elko, Nevada. He takes the stage exactly as he did in Richmond, to the tuneless chorus of Lee Greenwood’s “Proud to Be an American.” The song lingers on for two and a half minutes, giving Trump little option other than to take a few wordless laps around the stage, clapping—at what, it is not clear—before the music ends and he can begin to speak. “I’m thrilled to be right here in Elko with you—thousands and thousands of proud, hard-working American patriots,” he says to the crowd of just under 9,000 people, about half the population of the gold-mining and ranching town of 20,000. It is the 29th rally in what will be a total of 44 held before November 6.
There are two teleprompters in front of the podium, but the president barely glances at them. As disjointed as Trump often appears, he is far from unscripted. (Though senior adviser Stephen Miller is often credited as the president’s speechwriter, the White House website lists six other aides with that role.) It’s a style that developed over the course of his presidential campaign, as Roger Stone wrote in his 2017 book The Making of the President 2016. In that book, Stone, a longtime political operative who was charged with lying to Congress about his contacts with WikiLeaks, describes Trump’s approach as combining the “‘let Trump be Trump’ encouragement of Corey Lewandowski with the ‘stay on message’ discipline of [former campaign chair Paul] Manafort,” with a dose of campaign chief executive Steve Bannon’s “genius ability to get messages packed into the powerful mantras the thousands attending rallies planned on chanting.”
The stump speech that has emerged from the 2016 election is predictable in its unpredictability, formulaic and redundant with nearly verbatim bookends, filled in by the president’s own verbal meanderings. In nearly every one-hour speech, Trump opens with a news item, one that firmly anchors the audience in the stakes of the political moment—on this day it is the midterms, and how Republicans must vote to “protect your jobs, defend your borders.” (Elko is about 700 miles away from Mexico.) He attacks the media. He sets up straw men—such as an “imaginary” Veterans Affairs official—at whom to ritualistically yell, “You’re fired!” or “Get your ass out of here!” He fabricates the crowd size—to the crowd—and always leaves room to pander to the locals, whether they be coal miners in Kentucky (as was the case at the Richmond rally) or ranchers in Nevada (as in Elko). He also lies.
George Orwell, writing in Politics and the English Language in 1946, described political speech as "the defense of the indefensible,” a type of language consisting “largely of euphemism, question-begging and sheer cloudy vagueness.” When the president begins to speak, he reinforces what Orwell wrote more than 70 years ago. For Trump, deception and an avoidance of truths that may puncture the aura of shared belief are the rhetorical centerpieces of his rally experience: demonstrations of the maxim that the bigger the lie, the more readily it becomes recognized as truth.
In Richmond, Trump promises, “You’re making more money than you’ve ever made before”—a fact that can be debunked not only with Census data, but by people checking their paystubs. In Elko, Trump targets the Democrats with breathless fabrications: “If Nancy Pelosi, crying Chuck Schumer, and the radical Democrats take over Congress ... they will try to plunge our country into a nightmare of gridlock, poverty, and chaos ...” and “Democrats want to give illegal aliens free health care ... they want to give them cars, they want to give them drivers’ licenses … What kind of car will they supply them? Will it be a Rolls-Royce?”
The journalistic impulse when hearing a Trump speech live for the first time is to confront the lies and falsehoods. But to confront each one is impossible. The volume, velocity, and persistence of Trump’s messages quickly overwhelm as the president bounces from boast—the lowest unemployment in 50 years—to threat—Democrats will bring socialism and open borders—to fantasy—Space Force—speaking in a brand of incoherence that has now become familiar, but remains largely impervious to logic and truth. It is a rhetorical style that Robert E. Terrill, a professor of English writing and rhetoric at Indiana University Bloomington, describes as “paratactic,” where there are “few, if any, explicit connections between these references.” This recursive structure, Terrill explains, invites listeners to reinforce existing ideologies by making “the same connections over and over … [and to] dig ourselves in, and then to defend our positions so that our presumptions and prejudices are not questioned but calcified.”
Electoral politics are shoddy vessels for meaning—and it would be wrong to judge the effectiveness of Trump rallies through political popularity or legislative impact. (When the Trump 2020 campaign unveiled its new slogan at a rally in El Paso this past February, it inadvertently captured the broken promises and public failings of the Trump presidency in three short words: “Finish the Wall.”)
Yet faith in the absence of proof—indeed, in the face of evidence to the contrary—is the purest form of belief. For Trump rally attendees, the virtue to be celebrated is a pagan one—victory—and the underlying text to be followed isn’t so much Scripture or even the Constitution, but Trump himself, his narrative of political ascendancy and his heretical deification as a leader capable of defining the value that all of our freedom rests upon: truth.
The effect of all this can be revelatory, for those open to the experience. Mary Norris, a 73-year-old from Spring Creek, Nevada, a town “just over the summit” from Elko, tells me that this was her first time attending a Trump rally, though she’d watched other rallies on TV and come away with the perception that Trump had a “compassionate heart.”
“He’s energized all of us, silent Americans,” she tells me at the Nevada rally. “God’s back in the White House.” (The Republican candidates in Nevada for Senate, governor’s office, and state attorney general’s office each won Elko County, yet lost statewide.)
For Walt Thompson, the experience of his first Trump rally last October was both clarifying and energizing. Reflecting on the experience in the weeks after the rally, he wrote me: “I then realized how potent the size, noise, friendships, and awe of being in the presence of so many leaders of our nation [was].” He made no mention of fulfilling his goal of actually touching the hand of his president.