Donald Trump's speech in Cincinnati Wednesday night astonished even those in the press corps and political world who have spent a long time watching Donald Trump speeches. As Trump talked and talked — the speech lasted 68 minutes — some took to Twitter to express amazement, and in some cases, outrage.
"Can anyone think of a speech by a major-party candidate to compare to Trump's raving performance tonight in Cincy?" wrote Politico's Glenn Thrush.
"This is the craziest speech I've ever heard since last night which was the craziest speech I'd ever heard," wrote Commentary's John Podhoretz, who had also watched Trump's Tuesday speech in North Carolina.
"We shouldn't be talking about anything but Clinton's flagrant abuse of classified info but Trump wants to exercise his right to word vomit," wrote Republican strategist and former Eric Cantor aide Rory Cooper.
Any hostility to Trump aside, there appears to be a serious disconnect, a communications gap, between those who cover and comment on Trump and those who support him and come to his rallies. Trump is simply so far outside the conventions of political oratory that his style is sometimes hard for political professionals to grasp.
The first thing to remember is that Trump does not give a speech in the sense that veteran political strategists or reporters recognize and understand a speech. From the very beginning of his campaign, Trump has expressed contempt for the entire genre of political speechmaking.
Speaking at a giant rally in Dallas last September, Trump started off by noting that he wasn't using a teleprompter. "That would be so much easier," he said. "We read a speech for 45 minutes. Everybody falls asleep, listening to the same old stuff, the same old lies. So much easier."
On many other occasions — at rallies, debates, other appearances — Trump has expressed a fear of boring his audience, of putting everyone to sleep. He is determined not to do that.
Instead of a prepared stump speech that he gives over and over again — the standard diet for political reporters covering the presidential race — Trump instead has chosen to deliver a stream of consciousness performance designed to capitalize on his celebrity, to entertain, to attack opponents, and to address the actual issues in the race. And most of all, to keep his audience awake and paying attention.
Trump wanders all over the lot. In any given speech, he will talk about his businesses, his golf courses, his friends, his TV ratings, his children, all the Republicans he has defeated in primaries, the club championships he has won, and much, much more. (Trump used to talk incessantly about polls when he was leading the GOP race; now, not so much.) He will talk about anything that comes to mind. This goes on for 10, 20, 30, 45 minutes, and often more than an hour.
There's a lot of bragging in Trump's speeches. He can seem strangely needy, repeatedly asking the audience to affirm that he did a good job with this or that. But mostly he's telling voters how great he is, how everything he does and everything he possesses is the best, and how he will be a great, great president.
It's all part of the show. As Rush Limbaugh, who probably understands Trump as well as anybody, has pointed out (in what Limbaugh called a "Trump Shtick Explainer") Trump "knows he's putting everybody on, and the trick is that he knows his audience knows." It's all part of the performance, and amid all the bombast, Trump makes it a practice on two or three occasions, in Limbaugh's words, "to go all humble, go total humility." He tells people he's honored to be in their presence even as he dwells at great length on his own wonderfulness. People aren't offended by the bragging because they sense it's part of the act, and they appreciate the occasional touch of humility.
Trump almost never expresses a complete thought without going down some side road. Take this example from Cincinnati, in which Trump started on trade and somehow ended up on golf great Jack Nicklaus:
We have trade deficits that are so massive, not only with China. Not only with Mexico which is massive. I take my hats off to the leadership of Mexico for the job they've done on us. They treat us like we're babies. They beat us at the border and with trade. Have you ever seen the companies that are moving to Mexico?
I think I won Indiana largely because Carrier air-conditioning company — I love Indiana. Well, I also won because of the great Bobby Knight, right? Bobby Knight! I told you the story where Bobby called up and said, sir, you're going to run for president. That was a year before I did it. You've got to run for president. I said is this Bobby Knight? I didn't know Bobby Knight. And then when I ran and when I got to Indiana, somebody said, do you think you could ever get Bobby Knight?
I said I think so, and I pulled up a stack, and I had his paper and I had his number and he picks up the phone and he goes, I've been waiting for you to call. He's a cool dude. He won 900 games. He won three championships for Indiana. He won the Olympics. He won the Pan Am Games. And he had the last undefeated season in college basketball. He's a winner.
Jack Nicklaus, total winner and Jack, you know, in Ohio, I mean, to me having his endorsement is so great, but Jack and Bobby, we have so many unbelievable champs endorsing. So many unbelievable champs.
So, here's the story, folks. We're going to turn it around...
Trump devotes an enormous amount of time in each speech to bashing the media. They're liars, dishonest, the worst sort of people. In Cincinnati, he spent about four and a half minutes defending himself on his infamous Star of David tweet, but the defense was almost an entirely an attack on the journalists who were making a big deal of it.
Trump also spent a lot of time in Cincinnati re-telling the story of his recent trip to Turnberry, his golf course in Scotland, and all the media flak he took for it. He went on and on complaining about his treatment, arguing that he only took the trip to show support for his son Eric, who had restored the famous golf resort.
Why does Trump think the audience wants to hear that stuff? In part, he is playing on the crowd's antipathy to the media, which is strong. But he's also playing to the public's appetite for celebrity gossip. When Trump talks about his plane and his golf courses and his oceanfront estate, there's a good chance the audience is interested for the same reason that it reads stories like "Matt Lauer buys Richard Gere's $36 million Hamptons compound" (to cite a recent headline from the New York Post). A lot of people like to hear about celebrities and their high-flying lifestyles.
Occasionally Trump's detours get him into trouble. Near the end of May, at a speech in San Diego, Trump went off on a ten-minute rant about the Trump University lawsuit. He discussed the plaintiffs by name. He offered his assessment of various law firms. He analyzed the question of summary judgment. And in the course of all that, he said, "So what happens is the judge, who happens to be, we believe, Mexican..." With that, Trump was off to the races for another controversy that consumed his campaign for many days.
Still, amid it all, Trump manages to cover some of the bases of a conventional political speech. In Cincinnati, he devoted the first part of the speech to attacking Hillary Clinton in light of the Obama Justice Department's decision not to charge her in the email affair.
"I just heard the news, because it just happened, with the Attorney General of the United States saying no problem, no problem," Trump began. "You know, I wrote out a couple of things about Hillary, Crooked Hillary, crooked, so crooked. She made so many false statements." Trump proceeded to go through Clinton's lies about why she had a secret email system, about the tens of thousands of emails she erased, about the emails she turned over to the State Department, about her handling of classified material, about the the security of her private server.
"Rigged system, folks," Trump concluded.
The Hillary section was the longest single part of Trump's speech, not counting the several times he returned to her later. And yet, even with that juicy material, Trump the showman was still worried about putting the audience to sleep. "There are many," he said of the particulars against Hillary Clinton, "I just don't want to bore you with too many of these things."
Describing an interview on "Meet the Press," Trump suggested the audience doesn't want to be overloaded with any one thing. "[Meet the Press] wanted me to talk about Hillary for hours," Trump explained. "Hours. Fifteen minutes — she's Crooked Hillary, that's all you have to know, she's crooked as hell."
Trump interspersed issues throughout the Cincinnati speech. As always, he never discussed specifics of how he would handle any given issue, choosing instead to talk in terms of goals. When he said, for example, that he would keep the air conditioner company Carrier from moving its operations to Mexico, or at least make Carrier pay a heavy price for leaving, he was doing what Limbaugh described when he said, "This is the way Trump telegraphs his preferences and his support for people." Anyone looking for details will be frustrated.
All the while, Trump told the audience he wants to talk more about issues, but the press is too focused on extraneous controversies to focus on what he discusses. Describing his speech the night before, Trump said, "We talked about terrorism. We talked about trade. We talked about terminating Obamacare and replacing it with something great, which we're going to do, too. We talked about getting rid of Common Core and bringing our education locally and taking it away from Washington. We talked about borders. We talked about building a wall, right? We talked about our depleted military, right?"
So what do the voters get from Trump's act? That depends on whether they are inside the room or out.
Trump still draws big crowds — bigger than any of his Republican rivals and now, bigger than Hillary Clinton. In Cincinnati, he drew a reported 7,000. (Trump is competitive in the key swing state of Ohio, trailing Clinton by 2.5 points in the RealClearPolitics average of polls, which is almost precisely the margin — 2.6 points — by which Mitt Romney trailed Barack Obama at the same time in 2012.)
But of course, while drawing 7,000 on a Wednesday night in Cincinnati is good, it's nothing compared to the 62 million Americans Trump will need to vote for him if he is to win the White House.
In the room, Trump has devoted followers who hang on every word, while others have come mostly to see what all the fuss is about. Of the latter group, it's not at all unusual to see people head for the exits when Trump hits the 30 or 40 minute mark. Ask them why they're leaving, and they usually say they have to be at work in the morning.
But here's the striking thing, whether the attendee is a loyal Trump fan or not: After all of Trump's rambling and meandering, after one discursive aside after another, many of those attending still manage to come away from Trump's speech with concise and focused takeaways. Asked what Trump is going to do, they'll say: He's going to build a wall, he's going to bring our jobs back, and he's going to knock the hell out of ISIS. Somehow, in long and winding performance, Trump got his message across.
He communicates in a way far different from what the political world is used to — but he communicates.
The (far) bigger question is those 62 million voters. What do they hear? Mostly they hear what journalists want them to hear, if they're even listening to that. And in Cincinnati, the media message was that Trump had given a speech about the Star of David tweet.
The New York Times' headline was, "In a Defiant, Angry Speech, Donald Trump Defends Image Seen as Anti-Semitic." The paper reported that "the bulk of Mr. Trump's energy was spent on the Twitter post." It might be hard for other observers to come away from the hour-plus performance convinced that the bulk of it was the four-and-a-half minutes spent on the tweet, but that is what the Times said.
The Washington Post's headline was, "Trump says campaign shouldn't have deleted image circulated by white supremacists."
Given reporting like that, multiplied many times by other news outlets, it's clear Trump faces an enormous, perhaps insurmountable obstacle in getting his message out. He clearly believes he is a great communicator, and he is in fact a very good one. But as a political speaker, Trump is so far outside the box that he has virtually overwhelmed the senses of those reporting and analyzing the news, making it difficult for some voters who haven't actually seen him to get a clear picture of his appeal to supporters.