BILOXI, MISS. — Donald Trump’s big Saturday night appearance at the Mississippi Coast Coliseum wasn’t really a speech. Speeches have scripts, and Trump opened up by proudly dismissing the notion that he’d have any organized, carefully considered thoughts to share.
The declaration doubled as his first swipe of the night, so for anyone who predicted President Barack Obama would be Trump’s first target, well, congratulations.
“No teleprompters, right? We’ve had enough of the teleprompter guy,” Trump said.
What followed was nearly an hour of the free-form bluster and free-floating vitriol, name-calling and shameless preening that has come to define this strangest of presidential campaigns.
“Hillary Clinton created ISIS with Obama,” he said at one point. Obama, who is getting ready to issue an executive order to narrow a loophole that allows some purchases at gun shows without background checks, will “knock the hell out of the Second Amendment,” he said. Secretary of State John Kerry negotiated a controversial deal with Iran that left Trump insisting “we are weak and we are soft and we’re pathetic.”
As for Trump’s fellow Republican candidates, well, Jeb Bush is going nowhere, and Marco Rubio’s a “nice guy. Sweats a lot.”
Then there was the one unfortunate television cameraman who Trump repeatedly singled out for keeping his lens trained on the podium rather than panning the capacity crowd, which responded to the candidate’s incitement with loud, increasingly belligerent boos. After acknowledging that the guy was just doing his job, Trump added that “I’d fire his ass.” Imagine some 15,000 people showing up to your workplace and jeering, and you get the full, ugly picture.
That this prolonged riff emerged as the centerpiece of the event tells much of the story. The Trump show leans heavily on grievance — his supporters’ and, no small measure, his own. When the press doesn’t give him credit, he insisted, they’re really trying to marginalize everyone else in the room. And so when he found a topic that hit a nerve, he grabbed it and refused to let go.
That would explain Trump’s naked flattery of audience members. “You are so smart because you people get it” — just like him, with his “vision” and the Ivy League education he brought up over and over again (never mind that teleprompter guy, not to mention Clinton and Kerry, are stupid despite their own Ivy League pedigrees).
So smart, so competent, is Trump, he told the crowd, that he’ll just demand respect from the world, make “great deals for our country,” build a wall that’s “gonna make the Great Wall of China look not so good,” take care of veterans, replace the Affordable Care Act with “something so good and so great,” and “be the greatest jobs president that God ever sent to this planet.” Just like that, apparently.
It all comes off as comical, until you think about the fact that so much of the Republican Party’s base is drawn to someone who claims to have easy fixes to complicated, often intractable problems. Not to mention someone who channels their frustrations, both imagined and legitimate, by picking on whole categories of people — Muslims, Mexicans and women at various points in the campaign, or in this case, journalists. Whatever gets a rise, and earns him headlines from a media establishment that he insists won’t give him a break.
It’s easy to see how all this works for Trump, who is clearly using this whole campaign to try to fill up some black hole of need.
As for the people who filled the Mississippi Coast Coliseum on Saturday night? The scary thing is that, at some level, it all seems to work for them, too.
Stephanie Grace can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow her on Twitter, @stephgracenola.