Bad Investment

President Trump August 31st, 2016 from Phoenix, Arizona. Photo by Gage Skidmore.

President Trump is going to hold rallies as often as possible until the November election. The events, designed to be as densely packed as his staffers can manage, are going to result in the wide transmission of COVID-19 and will likely cost him a few votes because the attendees will be dead by the time the polls open.

This seems like a good time to revisit the mechanics at play in the rallies, and to examine why they’re not likely to help much.

Political events are not designed to impart information to the attendee. This is where many of those who have been criticizing Trump have failed. The events are about developing senses of association and community, and that is all. When someone goes to a rally (or, for lesser candidates, whistlestop events) they are developing a connection with the candidate (“I saw him/her personally”) and they are meeting with people who range from curious to fervent about the candidate. The person comes away with a tendency to view the candidate more favorably. This effect is fairly constant, with no regard to education level or experience.

Under normal circumstances, a candidate needs to earn the interest of potential attendees through their positions and their speaking ability. Trump was able to bypass that in 2016 by being a minor celebrity, and is now able to bypass it because he is President.

This is why focusing on the many lies and misstatements of Trump is moot. The people there don’t care about what he’s saying, they care about the presence… both Trump’s and the group’s. Trump could be on stage reciting the alphabet – incorrectly – and they would still cheer him, because the President has graced them with his presence and because most of the other people around are cheering.

All the sniping, fact checking and corrections which are done will do nothing but entrench his supporters more. This is not unique to Trump – the same effect will be seen for Joe Biden, Jo Jorgensen, and hundreds of non-Presidential candidates up and down the ticket. The effect is more pronounced with Trump because it comprises the sum of his draw. There is no combination of policy agreement and star power, there is only star power and the hope that he will voice agreement with a generally held belief of the attendees.

In a significant way, the rallies are going to be more effective than they usually are because of COVID-19. This is a time when people are uncertain and many are looking for reassurance. Trump’s presence will provide that. Those who attend his rallies now, even if they are hesitant about going and have severe reservations about Trump’s competency, will likely be broken glass voters who are signing up for QAnon newsletters by late October. By attending a rally they have become invested, and once invested they are going to work to excuse any of Trump’s failings.

The one certain way of determining whether a person is going to fall for a cult of personality is to watch for excuses. When the response to a criticism is that the failure doesn’t matter, or that another person’s failing is worse, or that it’s all being taken out of context, it is a sign of incipient cultism. Again, this is independent of education and experience, and happens regularly even among those who have avoided falling into the trap in the past. Because Trump’s failings are so obvious and common, his supporters are expected to defend him often. This pushes them rapidly into the mentality where they reflexively defend and promote him. Not only are they now invested in Trump’s success, they are invested in being advocates for him.

This is why the rallies are effective. It’s not any racist comments or simplistic policy or even simple hatred of opponents. Is that he’s there, and afterward the attendees feel obligated to defend their presence. That combination ensures enthusiastic voters.

The other side of the COVID-19 coin is where Trump is going to fail. Rallies provide a similar sort of “star power” boost when televised and there are large groups. Humans are social creatures, and almost everyone likes to belong. Barrages of images showing huge crowds sends a simple message: he’s popular, and therefore you should join him. That is the same idea behind yard signs and bumper stickers, and it works. Unfortunately for the President, he is not getting the wall-to-wall coverage of his rallies that he previously did from various cable networks. This reduces the rally imagery to advertisements (from a campaign that’s showing signs of being low on cash) and places like tweets and memes. Most of the positive memes, however, focus directly on Trump and do not show large rally sizes; they are worthless at garnering new support. Many of the negative memes show images of half-empty halls, and undermine the notion of Trump’s popularity.

Then, too, there are the concerns about transmission. Under normal circumstances, Trump would gain support by attending a rally in an area, attending another one a few weeks later, and attending yet another a few weeks following that. This mechanism would encourage people who had attended the first to bring friends for the second, and then both of them to bring friends for the third. The Trump base would be expanding, and with avid supporters. Instead, those who are not inclined to vote for Trump are unlikely to attend out of fears of the novel coronavirus. Trump’s fan base is showing up for the events, but it is not expanding.

Without voter bloc expansion in person or via television, Trump’s rallies are fundamentally just a way to keep his rabid base energized. They represent a massive drain of time and resources which are not going to reap any significant gain. They demonstrate that Trump’s followers aren’t the only ones who can invest poorly, and they are likely to contribute to his loss in November.

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About AlienMotives 1991 Articles
Ex-Navy Reactor Operator turned bookseller. Father of an amazing girl and husband to an amazing wife. Tired of willful political blindness, but never tired of politics. Hopeful for the future.