What is President-elect Donald Trump looking for when he talks to crowds these days? On Wednesday morning, at a fund-raiser at Cipriani on Forty-second Street, he was collecting money for his inauguration, and telling jokes about all the Republican establishment donors who were, at last, eagerly gathering around, writing checks to make the swearing-in flashy. (Cipriani’s Wall Street branch was the site of the fund-raiser where Hillary Clinton, inopportunely, referred to a “basket of deplorables”; something in the setting does not seem to summon up populism.) There will be more such gatherings; the inauguration has already raised more than fifty million dollars. But, the day before, the President-elect had also tried to restage a part of the rapidly receding past: the classic Trump rally, raising the question of what, under President Trump, it might look like to run a permanent campaign.
The venue was an arena in Fayetteville, North Carolina. Trump said that he was there to thank the people of the state “for being so incredible”—that is, for voting for Trump, after coming close to swinging the other way. And he said that although “they” had tried to tell him not to come, because the weather would make it hard for his plane to land, he had driven for hours from a distant airport, past who knows what obstacles, to stand in front of that crowd. “Nobody” had ever seen a movement like his—not in America, not anywhere. The crowd seemed to like that, but the enthusiasm didn’t quite answer the question: Was the President-elect there to deliver some news or ask for something? He already had the state’s electoral votes. Before the election, there could be something compelling in these rallies—in watching Trump pinch his way to an electoral victory. Now he didn’t seem to have any questions, except about whether people understood how much they loved him and the things that he loved, too.
“We love our flag, right?” Trump asked, early in the speech. “We love our flag, and we don’t like it when we see people ripping up our flag and burning it.” He added, “We’ll see what we’re going to do about that.” This was a reference to his tweet, late last month, about how flag burning should have legal consequences, including possibly a loss of citizenship, and a sharp shrug of an answer to all those who, in response, wondered if Trump didn’t know that the Supreme Court had, more than twenty years ago, ruled that burning the flag was a protected form of speech. Here was the answer: he certainly knows now, but doesn’t seem to care that much. The problem of Trump was not going to be solved just by directing him to SCOTUSblog.
There was more love to come: “Our veterans, do we love our veterans? We love our veterans.” When it came to how they were treated, “You’re going to see such a change, like you’ve never seen before. . . . Stay tuned, folks!” Trump threw out some slogans to explain what it all might mean: “From now on, it’s going to be America first”; “Peace through strength”; and, perhaps most jarring, “Stability! Stability all over. And strength in our land.” It can be hard to reconcile Trump’s calls for disengagement—that we shouldn’t be trying to topple “foreign regimes that we know nothing about, that we shouldn’t be involved with”—and his hunger to project American military power. “We’ve got to start spending on ourselves. But we’ve got to be so strong militarily,” as if that resolved it all. It may be that, in Trump’s vision of national security, and perhaps life, buying beautiful things leads to happiness. The military would not be “depleted” any more. “We’re going to have the finest equipment in the world. It’s going to be new, it’s going to be modern, it’s going to be clean”—suggesting that the dustiness of bases might be giving aid and comfort to the enemy—“it’s going to be the best.” If nothing else, there will likely be a great deal of money on the table. Evan Osnos has pointed out that one element to look for in Trump’s decision-making is exploitation—how he is influenced by those around him who want things like taxpayer money, or contracts, or time with the President, for themselves or their clients.
All of this love seems, for Trump, to demand enemies. He told the crowd that he was not against all immigrants, but “they are going to come in legally!”—he swizzled the air with his fingers, perhaps indicating the filling out of paperwork—and some people would not be welcome. “We have no idea who they are, where they come from, do they love us?” Trump said. “In a lot of cases, nooooo, they don’t love us.” This is the rhetoric that he has used in the past to argue for bans on Muslims or on people from certain parts of the world. It would be a mistake to believe that he has put aside those goals.
That warning applies to the hopes attached to the rally’s special, unsurprising surprise guest. During the campaign, this role was filled by eager warmup speakers, such as Rudy Giuliani (who is in reward-waiting limbo), or by regional celebrities or sports figures, like Bobby Knight. Now it’s cabinet appointees: in Fayetteville, it was retired Marine General James Mattis, Trump’s nominee for Secretary of Defense. “Mad Dog plays no games!” Trump told the crowd, using the nickname for Mattis that he appears to regard as a credential—more so, perhaps, than Mattis’s reputation as a thoughtful scholar of military history. And Mattis didn’t play games with the people in the crowd. He walked out, with a smile, and thanked them and Trump “for the confidence you have shown in me.” Then he said, “I look forward to being the civilian leader, so long as Congress gives me the waiver and the Senate votes to consent.” He was referring to the need to work around a law that normally keeps generals from leading the Department of Defense until they have been retired for seven years. (Mattis has been out for three.) Then Mattis left the stage, as Trump returned, nodding approvingly. “Oh, if he didn’t get that waiver there’d be a lot of angry people,” he said. “Such a popular choice.”
Trump did not explore one of the reasons that the choice has been popular: the idea that Mattis will be someone he will listen to, and will guard him from the recklessness that others around him, such as retired Lieutenant General Michael Flynn, Trump’s designee for national-security adviser and an in-Tower conspiracy theorist, might encourage. But it’s early to get too hopeful. After Trump gave an interview to the Times last month, there was much excitement about his comments regarding Mattis’s view of waterboarding. “He said—I was surprised—he said, ‘I’ve never found it to be useful,’ “ Trump told the paper. “He said, ‘I’ve always found, give me a pack of cigarettes and a couple of beers and I do better with that than I do with torture.’ And I was very impressed by that answer.” This was widely misreported as Mattis having persuaded Trump to discard his support for torture. In fact, Trump said, “I’m not saying it changed my mind.” If he was impressed, he suggested, it was with Mattis’ cigarette-pack-wielding toughness, rather than with the case against torture. Trump went on to say that torture might not yield the information people expected, but, “if it’s so important to the American people, I would go for it. I would be guided by that.” This was a remarkable admission: that torture might be something worth doing just for the emotionally satisfying spectacle of it.
And that is why the rallies are likely to endure: to serve as calibrators of or infomercials for what Trump believes that “the public” wants. One can waste a lot of time delving into the question of Trump’s psychological need for affirmation. What is politically more important is how he might use the set piece of a cheering crowd to brush aside other considerations, particularly those involving the checks on the Presidency, and the willingness of those in other areas of the government, or in the White House itself, to exercise them. Should courts worry about “a lot of angry people”? One important point not to let go of is that a crowd that the President assembles and the broader public are two very different things, no matter how big the arena, or how filled it is with love. A better opportunity to hear that public voice will come in two years, at the midterm elections. Maybe those will surprise Trump.