MINNEAPOLIS—As he neared the end of his 100-minute speech last night, President Donald Trump proclaimed that he’s the lone candidate putting forward a “positive vision for America.”
Anyone listening to the first hour and a half of his rally would have been hard-pressed to find it. Minutes after taking the stage inside the Target Center arena, Trump ditched the teleprompter and reenacted what he imagined was the romantic cooing between two former FBI officials, Peter Strzok and Lisa Page, who had criticized him in text messages that were made public. Displaying his dramatic range, Trump played both parts: Peter, I love you so much! I love you Peter … I love you too, Lisa. Lisa, I love you. Lisa! Lisa! Oh God, I love you, Lisa! … And if [Hillary Clinton] doesn’t win, Lisa, we got an insurance policy, Lisa. We’ll get that son of a bitch out. The crowd laughed. All that was missing was a curtain drop.
From there, the president’s speech devolved into a torrent of grievances. The Democratic presidential candidate Joe Biden, Trump said, was “only considered a good vice president because he understood how to kiss Barack Obama’s ass.” Trump deemed Biden’s son Hunter “a loser.” Representative Ilhan Omar, the Minnesota Democrat, was labeled an “American-hating socialist.” Trump’s phone call pressuring the Ukrainian president to dig up dirt on the Bidens, which is now the focus of a House impeachment inquiry? It was a “beautiful, accurate” conversation, Trump declared. “These people are sick. I’m telling you, they’re sick,” he said of congressional Democrats.
Trump accused House Intelligence Committee Chairman Adam Schiff of misleading people about the Ukraine call by giving an impressionistic summary during a meeting. Seconds later, Trump followed suit. After House Speaker Nancy Pelosi saw the rough transcript of the conversation with his Ukrainian counterpart, Trump told the crowd, she responded: What the hell? Nobody ever told me this was the call. This morning, I asked a Pelosi spokesman if she had actually said that. “No, not true,” he said definitively.
If any sort of uplifting message was coming from the president, it was cast toward Fox News. Trump rattled off the names of various network hosts as if the audience were intimately familiar with each one, and revealed that in the personal rating scale he uses to judge Fox’s talent, Brian Kilmeade had climbed from a seven to “10 territory.” (Something must have happened to rehabilitate Fox in Trump’s mind; just 12 hours earlier, he had tweeted that Fox “doesn’t deliver for US anymore.”)
Trump’s campaign relies on these rallies to both fortify and expand his base of support. Whoever wrote Trump’s speech last night included the obligatory notes that might appeal to the sliver of swing voters whose opinion of Trump may not yet have hardened. In the prepared remarks, Trump vowed to protect people with preexisting health conditions and to safeguard Medicare. He read those parts without any particular vocal affect, perhaps because he doesn’t truly believe they’re the way to win. One Republican operative close to the White House, speaking anonymously to discuss campaign strategy, told me that Trump is convinced of the old political adage “The race will hinge on turnout.” If he can mobilize and excite his base voters, they’ll show up in force, much as they did in 2016, impeachment be damned.
“I think we’re going to have a turnout the likes of which we’ve never seen in the history of our country,” Trump said last night. For that to happen, he needs to paint the political system as a Manichaean struggle between his coalition of “real Americans” and elite forces determined to bring him down. Nuanced plans for revamping health care won’t cut it; he needs to maintain his supersize persona. Rallies figure into this calculus. Trump makes sure they’re a spectacle—a piece of theater for everyone to talk about the next morning.
“His message is so edgy, and his core support is so intense and enthusiastic, and the rallies are so unlike anything we’ve seen in the modern era,” the strategist told me. “Arithmetically speaking, this election is about jacking up turnout of your own supporters on the theory that no one on their side of the ball excites them the way Trump excites us,” he said, referring to the Democrats.
The 20,000-seat arena was largely filled last night. Hours before Trump appeared, the crowd spotted a celebrity walking across the floor and exploded in cheers. “Mike! Mike! Mike!” they chanted deliriously. Was it Vice President Mike Pence? I wondered, moving toward the entourage. No, bigger even than Pence. It was Mike Lindell, the chief executive officer of My Pillow and a Minnesota favorite son. Knowing nothing about the man behind the pillow, I tapped out a quick Google search and took my place in line to speak with him.
“Everyone loves our president,” Lindell told me. “Some just don’t know yet it.” The 2020 election, he assured me, would be “the biggest landslide victory since Ronald Reagan.”
Warming up the crowd before Trump took the stage, Lindell talked about beating his cocaine addiction and balked at any speculation that going “all in” for Trump had left the pillow market deflated. “The best day for My Pillow is right now. Today!” Lindell proclaimed.
Reprising Trump’s narrow victory in 2016 won’t be easy. The president’s approval ratings have never cracked 50 percent. After beating back one investigation into whether he had colluded with a foreign power to win the election, he immediately triggered another. A new poll from Trump’s preferred media outlet, Fox News, even shows that 51 percent of voters want him impeached and removed from office.
Still, he’ll enter the general election with hundreds of millions of dollars to spend—enough to put a few chips down on states Clinton won last time around, such as Minnesota. Last night marked his fourth visit to the state as president, according to Mark Knoller, a CBS News correspondent. Trump lost the state to Clinton by only 1.5 percentage points in 2016 and aides see it as ripe for a pickup, even though no Republican has won Minnesota since Richard Nixon in 1972. In recent weeks, Trump’s campaign has accelerated its Facebook ad spending here—more than $73,000 in the past two weeks, compared with about $18,000 in the preceding month, according to Bully Pulpit Interactive, a Democratic communications firm.
“I think it’s a place we can win,” Brad Parscale, Trump’s campaign manager, told me before the rally. “We only had one staffer here [in 2016] and he left for Colorado.” Today the campaign has more than 20 paid staffers working in Minnesota, campaign officials told me.
Supporters at the rally seemed unfazed by the impeachment drama. I spoke with Dennis Olson, 73, a retiree from Ramsey, Minnesota, as he waited on the arena floor for Trump to take the stage. Olson wore a T-shirt emblazoned with Trump’s face and an artificial shock of orange hair sprouting from the head. Trump was within his rights to invite foreign assistance, Olson told me. “These people need to be investigated,” he said. “He asked for a little bit of help. There’s nothing wrong with that. All presidents can ask for help from other countries.”
Was it also fine for Trump to stand outside the White House and ask China to investigate the Bidens? I asked. “He’s got to relax somehow, and maybe that’s one way he does it,” Olson said. “Let all the tension off. A ‘Don’t give a damn; say what you want’ attitude.”
To win Minnesota, Trump needs a lot more Dennis Olsons. It’s not at all clear that the swing voters needed to carry the state will be so forgiving.