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How does Trump do it? Understanding the psychology of a demagogue’s rally

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The thing that is hard to appreciate about Donald Trump before you personally enter a room with him – in this case, the hangar deck of a wartime aircraft carrier – is that his first weapon is humor. Long before he fires up his loyal supporters, before he hits them with outrageous comments that send shockwaves around the world, he makes them laugh.

He looks like the man he is: a real estate developer with dodgy hair. But don’t underestimate the guy – he has the intuition and timing of a stand-up comedian.

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Holding his hands out wide like a preacher, the second finger of his right hand pointed to the heavens for added purpose, he reduces his audience within minutes to fits of laughter. It could be any comedy store on a Monday night, except you then realize that there’s something odd about what he’s inviting the crowd to find so funny.

Most stand-up comics mine gags out of their own weaknesses and inadequacies. Trump produces belly-laughs out of the vulnerabilities of others, in a relentless stream of mockery and disparagement.

One of the largest giggles of the night comes when he lays into the “mainstream media” – that’s us – encouraging the entire crowd to turn around to where we are standing at the back of the hall and boo at us. It’s not a comfortable feeling.

Then he name-checks one particular NBC reporter who he claims misrepresented him in a previous campaign stop. “She’s here tonight,” he says.

Boos and laughs, in equal measure.

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“Little Katie. She’s back there. She’s back there.”

More boos and laughs.

“Third-rate reporter. Third-rate. Remember that.”

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But members of the MSM should feel lucky compared with his hapless rivals for the Republican presidential nomination. Take Lindsey Graham, the US senator for the state in which we are standing, South Carolina.

“I mean, Lindsey Graham, he’s at zero,” Trump says, inspiring a healthy laugh from the crowd. “He’s at zero. Zero! Let me ask you a question: I don’t get this Lindsey Graham. He’s literally at zero. He’s on television all the time and he doesn’t go up, his ideas are so bad.”

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Next for the chopping block Jeb Bush, the former governor of Florida. “He’s on three percent! He says he’s upset with me because the tone, the tone of Donald Trump is not nice. We have people whose heads are being chopped off in the Middle East because they are Christian. And we talk about my tone.”

As that comment suggests, the technique is pretty simple. Earn the love of the assembled throng through laughter, then draw them into your world.

And what a world it is. The world of Donald Trump is a dangerous place where there are threats around every corner, where the country is going to the dogs at high speed, and where only one man has the strength to avoid disaster.

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“Trump! Trump! Trump! Trump!” he has the crowd baying by this point.

And they are not any old threats. They are the worst, most lurid, most bloody, most terrifying threats imaginable to any American. Should Donald Trump have the misfortune not to make it all the way to the White House, he could start a new career as director of Saw VIII.

Mexicans don’t just enter the country illegally, they rape and murder. Isis doesn’t just kill, they behead. Christians aren’t killed in the Middle East, they are “dumped in the ground in steel cages”.

The chaos that is the world outside the US is coming home, folks, brought into the country via the uncontrolled immigration of thousands of unknown Muslims who nobody dares to stop and question because of fears about political correctness and racial profiling. In the wake of Paris and San Bernardino, nobody is to be trusted.

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“We had a situation in California very recently where somebody was making bombs. The mother saw. The mother didn’t think there was anything wrong. I watched her being interviewed and believe me in my opinion she was lying like crazy. ‘Oh I didn’t know, I didn’t know…’”

So how did we get to this fearsome and fearful place? By now the crowd is much quieter, contemplative. There is energy in the room, lots of it, but it’s curled up like a tiger.

We got to this terrible place because people are stupid. Everybody is stupid who isn’t inside this aircraft carrier, right here, right this moment, listening to the one person who above all isn’t stupid.

“This is a stupid country in so many ways,” said the Republican frontrunner who is vying to become the successor to Ronald Reagan and his city upon a hill. “Can you imagine what our great leaders of the past would be thinking?” he asked, taking the words right out of my mouth.

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The country is stupid. Obama, of course, is more than stupid (“I don’t even know if he knows what the hell is going on”). Even the military generals are stupid. Instead of getting their heads around how to eviscerate Isis in Syria, they spend their time being interviewed by TV stations. Can you believe it? Television!

“Do you think general George Patton would be interviewed? He would be interviewed after total and complete victory. They shoot first and talk later.”

Which brings us seamlessly, and inevitably, to that place where Donald Trump really wants to draw us. The place of final realization where it all clicks together, it all makes sense in a senseless world.

Outside this room lurks beheadings and sharia law, a president who is clueless and weak generals blathering away on TV screens. Inside this room there is a solution that can Make America Great Again.

“We need someone who is strong. Someone with incredible intelligence. That’s it.”

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What is that solution? Where is that strength and intelligence?

Donald Trump knows. Does America?

guardian.co.uk © Guardian News and Media 2015


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