“It wasn’t even going to be like we had an election,” Trump said on a rain-drenched tarmac in Lansing, Michigan, on Tuesday, lamenting that the coronavirus had imperiled his political prospects and, in his telling, forced him to return to the cold grind and meteorological mishaps of the campaign trail.
“I probably wouldn’t be standing out here in the freezing rain with you,” he told a crowd of hearty souls who had been standing for hours in persistent drizzle to hear him speak. “I’d be home in the White House, doing whatever the hell I was doing. I wouldn’t be out here.”
As he barnstorms the country in seek of electoral votes, Trump is hoping to out-hustle his rival in the places he claims have been long ignored by the political class. But he has also been explicit that he would likely be ignoring them, too, unless they provided him political fuel.
He hasn’t shied away from telling his supporters he would never find himself in their states unless he needed their votes.
“We win Wisconsin, we win the whole ballgame,” he said last week on yet another frigid airport tarmac, this time in Janesville. “What the hell do you think I’m doing here on a freezing night with 45-degree winds?”
“Do you think I’m doing this for my health?” he continued as the temperature dropped and some of the crowd began trickling out. “I’m not doing this for my health.”
A week earlier at the Des Moines airport, he warned a crowd of adoring fans huddled outside a plane hangar he’d never return unless they reward him with Iowa’s six electoral votes.
“I may never have to come back here again if I don’t get Iowa,” he said. “I’ll never be back.”
While Trump proclaims to his sizable crowds he has restored their way of life over the past four years, he doesn’t paper over the fact it’s not really a life for him. It’s Trump’s established brand: I’m not like you, but you could be like me.
Speaking in Pennsylvania’s Lehigh Valley on Monday, Trump became briefly waylaid after thinking of the freedom a 18-wheeler might provide. But the aside was less about the appeal of truck stops and the open road than the potential for escaping the life he is currently leading.
“By the way, nice trucks,” he said to no one in particular on yet another airport tarmac. “You think I could hop into one of them and drive it away?”
“I’d love to just drive the hell out of here. Just get the hell out of this,” he went on. “I had such a good life. My life was great.”
In the campaign’s final stretch, Trump is tailoring his appeals to suburban women, senior citizens, non-college educated Whites and whatever overlap those groups contain. He has narrowed his sights outside major urban centers, looking to rural regions or smaller cities for votes. Along the way, Trump has only rarely made an attempt to place himself within that milieu.
Trump’s rallies almost never take him further than the airport, where he lands, taxis into place next to a well-lit and crowded hangar, walks from the plane, speaks, dances to YMCA and returns up the steps an hour later.
He did make a brief foray from the tarmac in Wisconsin on Tuesday, driving 15 minutes to a nearby motorsports track in West Salem past retail strips and a Sam’s Club. He took a lap around the track in his presidential limousine on his way in, but as soon as he wrapped up he quickly got in his car and sped away.
Trump made clear it wasn’t his first choice.
‘We were going to be out at the airport but the governor made it very difficult so I said, ‘That’s all right, get a location,’ ” he said. “Friendly people.”
Unlike his Democratic rival Joe Biden, whose working-class biography is the basis of his entire political persona, Trump does not ask voters to identify with the life he has led or the struggles he has encountered.
Stumping in Pennsylvania, Trump often claims to understand the commonwealth better than his rival — who was born in Scranton — because he went to college there. Trump graduated from the Wharton School of Business at the University of Pennsylvania in Philadelphia, hardly a part of the state he is hoping to win. He transferred there after two years at Fordham, in the Bronx.
Attacking Democratic Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez for her stance on renewable energy, Trump has taken to asking his crowds incredulously whether she even attended college (she did, at Boston University) — hardly a nod to the non-college educated voters who form his base.
His explicit overtures to, as he calls it, “the suburban woman” have taken an increasingly archaic tone as the election nears, including in Lansing on Tuesday when he claimed to be “getting your husbands back to work” — a line that seemed to discount the lopsided effect the pandemic-related economic slowdown has had on women.
In Florida, Trump has taken to labeling himself a senior citizen as he speaks to crowds of elderly backers, hoping the self-identification might make him seem more like them. But his account, repeated at every rally, of receiving an experimental antibody treatment unavailable to nearly anyone else hardly places him in the category of Americans worried about their health care or the coronavirus pandemic.
Highly specific grievances
When he does seek to convey shared plight with his supporters, it is often through the highly specific grievances of his presidency, like the Russia investigation or aggressive media coverage, hoping they will enrage his backers in the same way they have animated him.
Trump’s rally crowds typically go along, though the more he delves into the highly coded and sometimes arcane miscellany of his presidency the more the response dims.
On Tuesday, when he brought up the “lid” (a function of press coverage that tells reporters when no further events are expected for a candidate or president), his rallies in Michigan, Wisconsin and Nebraska did not swell. Mentions of Section 230, which shields some major tech companies from liability, garnered only some scattered hoots and hollers. At last week’s debate, Trump offered asides about the “big guy” and the “laptop from hell” without ever really expanding.
Trump never quite explains what those things mean, assuming his supporters are as well-versed in the lingo and minutiae of various conservative scandals as he is. Trump’s political advisers have said they wish the President stuck closer to issues like the economy.
Of late, Trump has been aided in his message by video montages pieced together by his campaign depicting Biden’s positions on energy, policing and trade. The spots are aired on large screens which Trump notes to his crowds he “spent a lot of money on.”
“One thing nice is when you put this thing up here, saves you a lot of words, right? It saves you a lot of words,” he told the crowd in Wisconsin on Tuesday.
The economy of words has made for slightly shorter rallies; his events on Tuesday diminished in length as he headed west. When Trump left Omaha on Tuesday after a 45-minute speech, thousands watched and cheered in the frigid air as Air Force One took off into the night sky.
But for the next several hours, hundreds and hundreds of people who attended the rally were stranded as a chaotic scene unfolded on dark roads on a remote stretch near the Omaha airport. They waited for buses that didn’t arrive, unable to reach the site because of a clogged two-lane road.
Many people started walking to their cars, parked three or four miles away, which blocked the roads even further. Several medics were seen by CNN giving attention to people in the bone-chilling evening air. The temperature was right at freezing, but wind chills were far lower.
Trump acknowledged the cold weather to the crowd from the podium earlier in the evening, where he stood in an overcoat and gloves.
“I mean, I’m standing here freezing,” he said. “I ask you one little favor: Get the hell out and vote.”
CNN’s Jeff Zeleny contributed to this report.
CORRECTION: This story has been corrected to accurately reflect where Fordham University is located. It is in the Bronx, New York.