Calmes: I watched a Trump rally so you don't have to. But you need to know what he's saying

Donald Trump famously benefited from billions in free media in his 2016 campaign — way too much, as some in the business later conceded. Back then he was a ratings monster; cable TV networks covered his rallies start to finish as millions of Americans tuned in out of horror or glee at his shameless shtick: What would he say next?

Eight years later, the networks have pulled back. Even Faux News no longer gives the former president as much attention. Their viewers have Trump fatigue, his opponents and supporters alike. Only obscure right-wing channels that cater to MAGA types carry the full rallies in real time; the rest provide video snippets, if that.

Yet voters shouldn’t ignore Trump on the stump, especially given that his and President Biden’s respective age and mental acuity are the overriding issue in their seemingly likely 2024 rematch. A majority, I think (hope?), would come away without a doubt about which of the two candidates is unhinged. Hint: It isn’t Biden.

For those not inclined to stream an entire, roughly 90-minute Trump show — even his fans often start walking out mid-rally — I watched so you don’t have to.

My selection was Saturday night’s performance in Waterford Township, Mich., a working-class area north of Detroit. Against the cold at the airport there, Trump was in a full-length black coat and black leather gloves, recalling his appearance at the Jan. 6, 2021, rally where he told the Capitol-bound crowd, “If you don’t fight like hell, you’re not going to have a country anymore.”

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Much of his rhetoric and style was familiar as well — often incoherent ramblings, falsehoods, indecent asides (he took a swipe at 99-year-old Jimmy Carter, who just marked a year in hospice) and sophomoric insults of his many “enemies” in both parties.

Some Trump critics say he’s gotten worse in his hate-mongering, like his recent rally talk of political foes being “vermin” and of immigrants “poisoning” the nation’s blood. He didn’t repeat those Hitlerian echoes in Michigan, though the sentiment was there. However much he ratchets up his rhetoric, it hasn’t really changed — the bigotry, lies and disrespect for democratic norms and rule of law are all still part of the playlist.

One thing there is more of than in the past, despite the kids in the audience: profanity. And more than ever, given the scores of criminal charges and mountain of legal penalties he’s facing, there are his grievances. These aren’t rallies anymore. They’re pity parties.

After the first half-hour or so, what struck me most was not what Trump said but how his audience responded. A Trump rally speech isn’t punctuated by applause like the thousands of aspirational addresses I’ve heard before from other politicians. Instead, Trump’s supporters emit constant catcalls, boos and their own favorite profanities, in approving response to his nonstop caterwauling.

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Just minutes in, for the first of many times, he assailed “Crooked Joe” and called Biden “the worst president we’ve ever had.” (Fact check: An updated ranking of U.S. presidents just that day, by leading scholars, had Trump repeating as the worst; Biden debuted at No. 14.) Trump polled the crowd on whether to call Biden “crooked” or “sleepy”; the former won.

He name-checked “Birdbrain” (Nikki Haley); two prosecutors, “Deranged Jack Smith” (“He’s an animal”) and “Fawwny” (Fulton County Dist. Atty. Fani Willis); Nancy Pelosi (he suggested her wealth is somehow suspect); and Barack Hussein Obama. He’s still purposely mocking the Germanic pronunciation of retired Chancellor Angela Merkel’s name; he did so during an anti-trade tirade about “stupid” Americans buying so many German BMWs, Volkswagens and Mercedes-Benzes — most of which would have been made in South Carolina, Alabama and Tennessee, respectively.

Trump seemed to sap the crowd’s initial energy by whining at length about the previous day’s news that New York Justice Arthur Engoron — “a crooked judge,” he claimed three times — ordered him to pay about $450 million in penalties and interest for financial fraud. It’s “the weaponization of this horrible legal system,” he said, adding, “This is the real threat to democracy.”

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It was all about him, just as his indictments and trials for fraud, sexual assault and defamation and election subversion are all his. Yet Trump wanted to have the adoring crowd believing his self-inflicted legal woes are theirs too.

“These are Democrats that definitely hate me,” he said of his antagonists, starting with Biden. “They hate you too, I have to tell you.” At another point: “We’re all in this together.” And an hour in: “Every time the radical-left Democrats, Marxists, Communists and fascists indict me, I consider it a great badge of honor. I am being indicted for you. Never forget.”

Trump’s continued denial of his 2020 defeat peppered his remarks throughout. “We won twice,” he blurted at one point. He blamed his failure to finish a border wall on the fact that “the election was rigged.” He repeated his lies about 2020 voting fraud in majority-Black Detroit, long-debunked by the state’s Republicans, Trump’s attorney general, courts and anyone who looked at the facts. (“We gotta watch Detroit. Boy, oh boy, oh boy.”)

“American carnage” was a big theme, just as in his 2017 inaugural address. “Every single one of our rotten cities are being run by Democrats,” Trump said, stoking the nation’s red rural-versus-blue urban divide. “We are worse than a Third World country. … Look at our airports,” said the man who repeatedly promised an infrastructure bill. (It was Biden who delivered; his bipartisan infrastructure law includes $25 billion to modernize U.S. airports.)

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Trump returned again and again to blaming Biden for the crush of migrants at the southern border. “Welcome to the Congo, people,” he said, claiming Africans were coming from prisons and asylums. He promised “the largest deportation in history,” which would be economically calamitous, and took credit for a new phrase, “Bigrant crime” — as in, Biden migrant crime. “Oh, that’s good, that’s smart,” he said, pointing to his brain.

Non sequiturs were constant. Trump went from grousing about his Georgia case straight into unrelated, and chilling, talk of indemnifying police charged with misconduct once he is president: “You can stop [crime] in one day, in one hour, if you got really nasty and really tough.” And there was this: “The great capital, Washington, D.C., is under siege. I will always defend Medicare and Social Security — unlike Birdbrain.”

I kid you not. That’s what he said. If you don’t believe me, watch for yourself.

Spoiler alert: The man is not fit to be president.


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This story originally appeared in Los Angeles Times.

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