Part presidential ego boost, part political organizing tool and part WrestleMania, “Make America Great Again” rallies are the defining event of the Trump era: Over 500 have taken place since 2015, and over 30 have been held since President Trump was elected.
Halfway through the tumultuous reality show that is “The White House: Season Two,” the rallies are starting to feel like the only scripted plot point. No matter where they are held, no matter how raucous they might become, the rallies follow a formula: Just add MAGA.
What follows is a script of how each usually plays out, based on the real events of a rally on Sept. 21.
A prototypical rally location. This time, it’s JQH Arena, rented out by the Trump campaign, in Springfield, Mo. It’s a conservative college town far from liberal strongholds where anti-Trump hostility is high.
PRESIDENT TRUMP, 72, the grand marshal of the “Make America Great Again” movement, posts a celebratory message from the presidential iPhone hours before his rally in Missouri begins.
As he types, a graphic appears on a screen upstage.
AMERICA IS WINNING AGAIN! pic.twitter.com/6HcBjLAAQB
— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) September 21, 2018
Like the political version of the Deadheads who follow the Grateful Dead, a small cluster of fans travels from rally to rally, arriving late the night before to stake out a place in line. By morning, the group has grown to a crowd of thousands. Music from the Village People and Journey plays in the background.
The crowd also buys merchandise. About $15,000 worth will be sold at the Springfield rally, one $25 MAGA hat at a time. That is money pumped back into the Trump campaign’s sizable coffers.
TRISHA HOPE, 54, a Texas real estate agent selling a book of the president’s tweets — called “Just the Tweets” — for $35 each, is attending her fifth rally (so far).
The people are cool. You’re with people who love the country and love each other.
RANDAL THOM, 58, is an Alaskan malamute breeder from Lakefield, Minn. His prized stud’s name? Donald J. Trump. This is Mr. Thom’s 40th rally. (Costume note: Mr. Thom is wearing a crying “liberal baby” mask.)
It’s a love fest!(Gestures to a stranger.) I might not know this guy’s name, but I know three things about him: He loves the country, he loves the president and he bleeds the color red.
If you feel the country is divided, come to one of these rallies. There’s a lot of unity here.
Several feet away, people selected to sit behind the president at the rally standing in the V.I.P. line are distracted by the sight of protesters.
There’s our opposition!
“U.S.A.! U.S.A.! U.S.A.!” cheer rises from the crowd.
Protesters wave handmade signs and orange balloons that depict the president as a diapered baby.
KATELYN BETZ, 20, a graphic design student who brought along an illustration of the president as Satan, holds two signs.
We’re all pretty young and diverse. You look on that side and see one type of person. I mostly see older white people that are mostly men. We’re the future.
GENE LIDDELL, 20, is one of a group of black students kneeling and raising a fist in front a Trump supporter holding a megaphone.
This is exactly what I expected. There’s a leader in office who believes in racism and fighting minorities, and now they have somebody who views everything that they view.
Nearby, dozens of Republican volunteers wearing lime green “VOTER ASSISTANCE” T-shirts are walking the crowd, signing attendees up to volunteer. Most gathered at the Greene County Republican Party headquarters the night before to rehearse their pitches.
ERIKA KNOWLES, 23, says she voted for Hillary Clinton before deciding to volunteer for the Trump re-election campaign.
I’m not a Trump supporter out of anger or hate. His rhetoric is a little bit fiery. He’s a really good performer, and he directs that excitement to policies that are really good for us.
The president’s 2020 campaign manager, BRAD PARSCALE, 42, takes center stage to read a statement about the president that he plans to email to a reporter.
He loves going to rallies to connect with Americans directly and show them he’s kept his promises. Nothing can stop him from doing rallies. He’d rather work on the plane on the way to the rally than let his schedule interfere.
Presidents have hosted political rallies for years, but this is a new phenomenon. That President Trump draws crowds with the size, passion and reflection of Americana he does to this day is unprecedented.
(He hits send and quickly darts into the background.)
They trickle into the arena, buying slices of pizza, taking selfies with Trump-era celebrities and dancing along to the same playlist at every rally: songs by Rihanna, Tina Turner and Journey — So. Much. Journey. — played at earsplitting decibels.
Seats fill up quickly. Many of the president’s supporters are carrying the free tickets they printed out online, but not everyone will get in: Rallies are often advertised and then overbooked by the campaign to ensure that no seat goes unfilled — and that the president can marvel at the overflow crowd outside.
JOY VILLA, a pop singer whose parents were Argentine and African-American, once made headlines for wearing a “Make America Great Again” dress.
For a supposed bunch of white supremacists, they embrace me and like me a lot.
(Approached by several fans.)
I thank God for you every day!
I’m a bona fide celebrity now!
As the main event draws near, local Republicans, including REPRESENTATIVE BILLY LONG, 63, take the main stage to warm up — and warn — the crowd.
If you don’t send the Republicans back to the House and back to the Senate, it’ll be tough on the president’s soul.
Anticipation builds as the big moment draws nearer. And then the guitar solo of Guns N’ Roses’ “November Rain” comes to a close and the music fades.
Ladies and gentlemen, please welcome the president of the United States: Donald J. Trump.
The crowd’s energy reaches a deafening roar.
TRUMP walks slowly into the arena with Lee Greenwood’s “God Bless the U.S.A.” playing at a deafening volume. For several minutes, he claps, waves and generally revels in the crowd’s energy.
U.S.A.! U.S.A.! U.S.A.!
TRUMP takes his time approaching the lectern and delivers his standard greeting.
Our country is respected again, remember that.(Grips the lectern.)We’re respected again. Hello, Missouri. I’m thrilled to be back in the American heartland — I love you people — with thousands of proud, hardworking patriots.
The crowd goes wild.
After an improvisational opening focusing on his 2016 election win, the stock market, his crowd numbers and the “fake” news media, the president briefly introduces the local Republican candidate.
Tonight, it’s JOSH HAWLEY, the Missouri attorney general, who is in a heated race against Senator Claire McCaskill, a Democrat.
We love Josh. We love Josh. He’s a star. And he just said it — I didn’t say it — he just said it. He said this place broke every record they’ve ever had — look at this place. Now the fake news will never say that.
They’ll never report that. They will never report it. But that’s O.K., because we all know it. And by the way, obviously look at what happened in 2016. Obviously.
(Before introducing HAWLEY, TRUMP goes on a tangent for several minutes about his election win and veers into his describing his dislike of the news media.)
And all those guys, they may not like us, but you know what? About six months before the election, not this one coming up — please go out and vote, please go out. But in 2020, about six months before the election, every single one of those haters is going to endorse us because without us, they have nobody watching television.
We’ll get The New York Times, we expect to get The Washington Post, we’ll get ABC, CBS, we’ll get NBC — that’s a hard one to get.
You’re right, you’re right.
(After some brief praise of local lawmakers, TRUMP welcomes HAWLEY to the stage.)
(Raises his fists and pumps them.)
Let me just ask you a question: How about the leadership of Donald J. Trump? You know, I’ve got to share something with the president because actually, I have to confess, I let him down a little bit. President Trump said, ‘I need you to get me the biggest stadium and we’ll fill it full.’ And Mr. President, I have to say, do you know we had to turn away about 20,000 people or something who could not get into the stadium to be here tonight to see this man? It’s unbelievable.
Director’s note: About 2,000 people were denied admittance after the crowd hit 12,000 capacity, according to a spokeswoman for Springfield.
As he does in every rally, the president brings up his favorite Democratic piñatas, adding a dash of midterm-specific programming by telling the crowd explicitly that a vote for Republicans is a vote for him.
A vote for Claire McCaskill is a vote for Nancy Pelosi …
… Chuck Schumer, and your new de facto leader of the Democrat Party: the legendary Maxine Waters.
The new platform of the Democrat Party is radical socialism and open borders.
Get out in 2018, because you’re voting for me in 2018. You’re voting for me. You’re voting for me. A vote for any Democrat this November is a vote for massive regulation, massive taxes and — I hate to say it — massive crime, because crime comes with it.
As his extemporaneous speech continues, Mr. Trump peppers the crowd with incomplete or inaccurate soliloquies about the cost of the American Embassy in Israel, an update on the border wall and repeated references to his 2016 election win.
Remember, remember, they were expected to win. And there was no way that Donald Trump can get to 270. You know, the Electoral College was set up so we can’t win, except we had one problem: We won a lot of states that haven’t been won for many years by Republicans. A lot of states. A lot of states.
We’re building one billion six, another one billion six, now it’s another billion, but a lot of people have promised us, right after the election, they’re going to approve the rest of the wall. Let’s see if they keep their promise. Let’s see. Let’s see. But, it’s getting built — it’s getting built anyways. It’s not easy — yep, we’re building it, not easy.
(TRUMP brings up a favorite story about tapping his business world contacts to save money on the new embassy in Israel.)
I said: “How much is that? I’m sorry, what’s this?” “Sir, that’s the embassy in Israel.” I said, “What is it?” “Sir, it’s going to cost approximately $1.1 billion.” I said, whoa, we know how to build — two friends of mine are builders right here. They hear — they haven’t spent that much in their whole life, and they built a hell of a lot of stuff.
Bit by bit, some attendees trickle out.
An hour into the event, the president ends with a goodbye tailored to the crowd.
Now and forever, we are one people, one family and one glorious nation under God. And together, we will make America wealthy again, we will make America strong again, we will make America safe again, and we will make America great again. Thank you, Missouri. Thank you. Go vote for Josh.
(TRUMP exits to “You Can’t Always Get What You Want” by the Rolling Stones as the crowd delivers thunderous applause.)
Inside the throng of supporters, RANDAL THOM and others who stayed up all night are leaning against crowd barriers and searching for a place to sit down.
I’m dehydrated. I’ve got beer out in the cooler.
(No longer wearing the crying “liberal baby” mask, he dabs his brow and shuffles toward exit.)
Produced by Mikayla Bouchard, Marisa Schwartz Taylor, Adriana Ramic and Noor Gill.