If the real estate mogul loses, he’s the only one who will emerge unscathed.
Upon learning that Donald Trump would hold a rally in Austin, the natural question was: Why is Trump coming here? This is a state he’ll probably win. There are only 76 days until the election, and he’s way behind in states far more important for his campaign at this point. Polls show him trailing in Georgia, for God’s sake.
But asking why Trump does something is like asking why a bird flies into a window or a frat bro shoots fireworks out of his ass. Coming to Austin, like just about everything he’s done, doesn’t make sense. His campaign is a joke. Clinton’s people have been building a field operation in Florida for a year and a half. Trump has had, until recently, a few guys in Sarasota. A 12-year-old is running his field office in the fourth most populous county in Colorado. He recently raised his own campaign’s rent for offices in Trump Tower, injecting donor money into his business. In that context, why not Austin?
On Tuesday, he taped a 2-hour town hall with Sean Hannity at the Moody Theater downtown, home of ACL Live, held a quick fundraiser at the Headliners Club, and hopped over to Luedecke Arena, where about 7,000 people gathered to watch Trump’s fifth Texas rally.
The tenor of Trump’s events, and his relationship to his audience, have changed significantly over the last year. A lot fewer people are coming; his first rally in Dallas last September attracted about 17,000, many of whom seemed to come for a good time. But there are more subtle differences. The crowd in Austin appeared more committed, passionate, ready to erupt in anger.
When a young Hispanic-looking woman offered a silent protest through a t-shirt reading “Jesus Wouldn’t Vote For Trump,” the crowd started chanting, “Build the wall!” A couple of Trump fans came to the fenced-in media pen just to scream at reporters. One woman yelled “boo media,” over and over until she got tuckered out. Trump is helping these people unleash frustration they’ve felt for years, and that’s likely to be his most lasting legacy.
The candidate himself has become a little more restrained. In Dallas last year, he free-associated, ping-ponging off topics that struck his fancy. In Austin on Tuesday, he shackled himself to a teleprompter, rarely deviating from prepared remarks. And he’s finally hitting the basics of a Republican stump speech. Trump told the Austin crowd he would “repeal and replace Obamacare,” fix VA hospitals, quash “job-killing regulations,” and “unleash American energy.” The point isn’t that Trump is getting smarter about policy, because he’s not. He’s just getting better at marketing himself to the legions of Republicans who think he’s too uncouth to wield power — which he needs to do if he’s going to escape a truly humiliating defeat.
In a lengthy section of his speech, he tried to address African-American voters — albeit, with an overwhelmingly white crowd: “I want to ensure every African-American child in this country is put on the ladder to success,” he said. “The number of blacks on food stamps has soared under Obama.” And went on: “I will fix the problem. I will be the greatest jobs president that God ever created.”
None of this is to say Trump has softened on core issues. The largest section of the speech was about immigration, and it’s the same stuff we’ve heard all year: “We are going to build the wall. We’re gonna bring our jobs back, you’re gonna be so happy, but Mexico is gonna pay for the wall.” He’d stop the flow of refugees, and, again, somebody else will bear the burden. “I want to create safe zones in the Middle East,” he said, to keep victims of civil wars from leaving, as we did in Srebrenica. “We’re gonna get the Gulf states to pay for it.”
What is Trump doing? Nobody knows what’s going on in his head, and it’s futile to wonder. The most pressing question is what happens to the anger Trump has generated if he loses.
But consider this: Trump has never been a professional politician. Even if he did want to be president, political ambition has never been at the core of his personality as it is for a figure like Ted Cruz. Trump’s political bent over the years has always been an extension of his brand and his desire to be accepted, taken seriously and admired.
Let’s say Trump knows he’s heading for defeat. What would he do to protect his brand? He’d try to make sure he loses by a respectable margin, which he seems to be attempting by professionalizing his campaign, at least on the surface. He’d drill into the heads of his fans that the election is rigged, which he’s doing. With the knowledge that he’ll never have to actually implement his insane policies, he also could go bigger and bolder.
A significant portion of his base truly believes he has the power to bring factories back from China, make coal mines roar back to life, and kick out the Mexicans. If he loses, they’ll see him as the last Great White Hope, the one chance America had to get back on track. He will have an army of people, devotees for life. Whatever he does next, his crowds will be an asset.
In fact, even in loss, he will have screwed everyone but himself. His fans, who have been misled for months, will face brutal disappointment on election day, and they’ll be forever politically jaded. The country will have to contend with the Trump fans who will believe President Hillary Clinton stole the election — thousands of angry people who have become much more vocal about their discontent, not to mention their paranoia and racism, over the past year.
Maybe Trump has been sending a subconscious message to his supporters. At every campaign rally I’ve seen since his race started, he’s played his favorite Rolling Stones song. In Austin on Tuesday, as the crowd streamed out of the arena, the London Bach Choir blasted it again: “You can’t always get what you want.”