Trump’s epic disdain

Trump the innovator is back on the campaign trail, diagnosing and mocking his audiences. And they love it.

I can’t stop watching this video. It’s a random tiny clip from a much (much) longer one. One of Trump’s fund-raising dinners. People at tables in a school gym or a hotel ballroom in Greensboro, North Carolina.

He starts by setting up a culture wars segment with something that sounds like it’s from his regular script (the clip starts in the middle of a sentence):

…critical race theory, transgender insanity and other inappropriate racial, sexual or political content on our children…

Speech at North Carolina Republican Party Convention, 11 June 2023

He’s reading this part from what might be an autocue. But then he does an interesting thing, something he does all the time. He stops the speech to reflect on its reception:

It’s amazing how strongly people feel about that. You see I’m talking about cutting taxes, people go like that [mimes polite clapping], I’m talking about transgender, everybody goes crazy.

There’s something disarming about this. He’s stopped to share an insight he’s acquired while making these speeches – that the culture wars material does better than the tax cuts material. That’s interesting in its own right, of course, but there’s more to this. There’s something in his mode of address.

It’s remarkable, and it must tell us something about his charm for the MAGA crowds. I can’t think of another political speaker who can manage this kind of easy switching between levels of address. It may be unschooled – of course it’s unschooled – but it’s a profound skill. To be able to step in and out of role in this way, to turn on a dime, to offer a kind of simultaneous commentary on his own speech. It’s high rhetoric – and no wonder it’s hard to counter.

Still from a video of Donald Trump's speech at North Carolina Republican Party Convention, 11 June 2023. In the audience in the foreground there is cheering and waving and one person is waving a walking stick
Trump’s audience cheers – one person is apparently waving a walking stick

But there’s more to this. Something about Trump’s relationship to his audience revealed in his manner. He’s showing them a kind of disdain. He goes on to say, as they’re sitting down after the big ‘transgender insanity’ moment, “…five years ago you didn’t know what the hell it was” and it’s an observation on the speed of contemporary politics, on the rotation of issues in and out of salience, but it’s also a put-down. The audience responds. There’s a hesitation, a murmur of uncertainty in the crowd (watch it again, it’s amazing). They’re absorbing Trump’s verdict, as if he’d just said: “you guys, you’re so shallow, I understand you better than you understand yourselves.”

And it’s another fascinating, uniquely Trump moment. He offers the audience nothing. He’s literally mocking them. They take a second to absorb it and they come back for more. It’s gripping, but quite hard to watch. You feel for the audience, you wonder how they’ll adjust to this tough message about their own motivations. But of course we know how they adjust – they soak it up and they keep coming back for more. But to do this I feel sure they have to somehow swallow or suppress what must be an instinctive rejection. It seems almost like the dynamic of bullying – where the bullied has to shrug off the insult, to show no injury, to laugh and proceed as if unhurt. Does Trump bully his audiences?

As a lesson in political speech-making, in campaigning more generally, it’s bewildering, disorienting. It’s probably ungeneralisable, uniquely Trump. What could another politician learn from this? Could a Sunak or a Starmer try this? Can you imagine it? Sunak pausing one of those odd, sixth-form lectures he gives to reflect on the contingent passions of his audience? “You know, two years ago, you didn’t give a damn about the boats. Now you’re all over it.” You know the answer.

There may be other politicians who use this approach, this chaotic, provocative mode of address but I can’t think of any. It exists in sharp contrast to the obsequious mode available to other contemporary politicians when speaking even to the most supportive audiences. These conventional politicians – even the populists – try perfectly to reflect the room’s mood, to offer nothing that does not confirm or reinforce, to build approval. Persuasion for these more ordinary speakers proceeds via recognition, identification. The politician must visibly connect, understand, share the audience’s feelings. Politicians can be lofty, inspiring, even a bit cool but there can be no distance. And certainly no disdain.

Trump’s genius is to have somehow short-circuited this standard, careful way of speaking, the “I’m just one of you” mode. He seems to give so little – there’s no generosity, no concession of any kind in this speech. He’s connecting directly with some some other part of the brain, a rarely-spoken-to part of his audience’s psyche. I’m beyond diagnosing this. But I’m intrigued. It’s bleakly impressive – undimmed by nearly a decade of exposure and now we’ve got another opportunity to see it deployed, in earnest, in the 2024 Presidential campaign. Conventional politicians, weak rhetoricians, pay attention!

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