Donald Trump loves to contrast himself with the politicians in the 2016 race, touting his business acumen, his self-funded campaign and, most of all, his refusal to follow anyone's script. In one sneering insult to Hillary Clinton at a January rally in Massachusetts, Trump said, “"She has the biggest Teleprompters I've ever seen."
But there is also a clear method to his rambling events, which sometimes stretch over an hour with only the barest of notes to guide him. It is is a framework built around the same anchors that have long guided other candidates, who do dozens of events a week: Repetition, rehearsal and message discipline.
For Trump, the lack of a script has not prevented a clearly recognizable stump speech from emerging. He may not be as polished in style as the some of the other candidates who have prepared speeches, but Trump has settled into a particular rhythm of anecdotes, themes and phrases.
The ingredients are usually the same, and the results sometimes different. And none of it would be possible without the Trumpian mix of self-aggrandizement, insults, and red meat for his crowds. Here are the five essential parts of any Donald Trump event:
Trump usually begins by talking about how great he is. This requires a lot of discussion about polling numbers, never mind if they are scientific polls or low-budget online surveys that do not involve meaningful sample. This establishes the core of Trump’s belief system, and a central tenet of his message to his supporters: He is a winner, and everyone else is a loser. Trump supporters, therefore, are winners too. And America needs winners.
2. The Key Issues
Two of the most central policy issues in Trump’s speeches are immigration and the Iran nuclear deal, and his pitches for both flow naturally from his discussion of polls and greatness.
On immigration, Trump often credits himself with starting the debate over the border with Mexico, saying that the other candidates only talk about the issue now because of him. It was in his official campaign launch back in June that he struck out his tough stance on illegal immigration from Mexico (“They're bringing drugs, they're bringing crime. They're rapists.”) His call to build a wall along the border at Mexico’s expense has become a rallying cry of the campaign, and at a recent event in New Hampshire he even did a call-and-response with the audience – “Who’s going to pay for the wall?” “Mexico!” “Who?” “Mexico!”
On the Iran nuclear deal, Trump says it’s one of the worst deals he’s ever seen. This once again allows him to pitch his own brand (See #1). He will often mention his first bestseller, The Art of the Deal, which he argues makes him a much better negotiator than President Obama. He often makes promises about how the Iranian negotiations would have played out, had he been at the table. Along the same vein, he will also mention the “dirty rotten traitor” Bowe Bergdahl, who was traded with the Taliban in another deal Trump views as a failure. Finally, he will mention foreign countries, like China, who are “killing us on trade," he says, because of their superior negotiating ability.
With the spate of mass shootings in the United States and President Obama’s recent executive action on gun control, cheering the second amendment is a sure-fire way to get a Republican base crowd on your side. Trump uses this to great advantage to boost his conservative cred and tilt away from some of his more liberal comments during his pre-political life. (In his 2000 book “The America We Deserve,” Trump said he supported a ban on assault weapons and a longer waiting period to purchase guns.) Now, Trump tells crowds he wishes there were more guns on the streets and would end gun-free zones, so victims like those in San Bernardino could have protected themselves against their attackers.
3. The bad guys
In the Trump view of winners and losers, there are good people and bad people. (He is partial to gendered language that is less politically correct, so he might say good guys and bad guys). He promises to be ruthless towards the Islamic State, saying that he'll "bomb the s**t" out of them and sometimes that he would "take out their families."
Another Republican rally staple: bashing the “liberal” media. But this one Trump takes a step farther than his counterparts. Trump often encourages his crowds to boo the journalists set up in the press area, calling them “scum,” “dishonest” and “unfair,” among other names. At a Mississippi rally in January, Trump berated one individual cameraman, having the whole crowd boo him and saying, “I'd fire his ass right now if I could.” Pumping up the vitriol against journalists is just one more way Trump creates his us versus them mentality: the media elite want to bring us down, they aren’t on our side, and we are proving them wrong.
4. Insult comedy
There is a clear, and often brutal, Borscht Belt shtick at the heart of his performance, which if nothing else, makes his long speeches less tedious. Part of the entertainment and shock value of Trump’s rallies comes from the schoolyard insults he throws around, at everyone from the media, to the president, to foreign leaders and to his opponents. Hillary Clinton “got schlonged” in 2008. Jeb Bush is “low energy.” Marco Rubio is a “lightweight.” This list goes on. These insults are a key part of Trump’s mojo, essential to the construction of the winners versus losers mentality, and also part of his appeal: supporters often say they like that he is plainspoken, and he will say what no one else will in the face of political correctness movement. At a South Carolina rally in December, Trump touted his Ivy League education and said, “I know words, I have the best words. I have the best, but there is no better word than stupid.”
It seems clear that Donald Trump doesn't much like the protesters who regularly disrupt his events, but he has found a way to work them into his act. Sometimes Trump is good-natured about the interruption, saying things like “Isn’t this more fun?” and urging crowds not to hurt the protesters. But just as likely, Trump will rile the crowd up even more, yelling at security to “get them the hell out” and saying once of a black protester who got attacked at an Alabama rally, “Maybe he should have been roughed up.”
If there is one thing Donald Trump has learned since he began his campaign, it's that the more outrageous and bombastic he gets, the more his crowds love him. People predicted his candidacy would end in its infancy after his Mexican rapists comment; he surged to the top of the polls. People thought his decline would begin in December when he called for a ban on all Muslims entering the U.S.; he remained the frontrunner.
As the clock ticks down towards the first votes being cast, there's just one thing that's certain at this point: Donald Trump won't tone it down. In fact, he'll probably keep ramping it up. He hasn't found his breaking point yet.