Every Donald Trump rally is the same. There may be a little news—at his rally in Robstown this weekend, Trump hinted a bit more strongly about an upcoming presidential campaign—but only a little. The main man, the headlining act, speaks in run-on sentences, with a light comic patter, and the subjects have changed very little since he first began running for president in 2015. To the extent the rallies are distinct, it’s that each has a slightly different flavor, a slightly different purpose, a different aesthetic.
Any reading closer than that falls into the same category as the examinations of Kremlin military parades or the Chinese Communist Party’s congresses. You look at the speaking order, the seating chart, which political leaders show up and how. You count which words are said how many times, and you compare it to the past. You can even look at the variations in the music playlist that precedes Trump, which provides material to writers straining for metaphors. (Rallies before the 2016 election often featured the Rolling Stones warning voters that “you can’t always get what you want.” Another more recent rally in Dallas, where speakers reaffirmed the centrality of Christ to their politics, featured an extended Boomer danceathon to the Village People’s “Y.M.C.A,” an anthem to gay cruising.)
The last time Trump held a rally in Texas before the Robstown event, he came to Conroe, north of Houston, a few weeks before early voting started in the Republican primary (in May, he also came to Austin for a paid engagement). The aesthetic was one of menace, and the message, to RINOs and liberals alike, was “I’m still here, and I’m still in charge.” The small field on which the rally was held was lit like a football stadium, and the backdrop was a dense and impenetrably dark East Texas pine curtain, the kind that, no matter where it is in the world, promises that Hansel and Gretel are somewhere inside getting lost. Attendees flocked to the light to hear the Word, and Donald Trump emerged from the darkness to give it. The strained music metaphor of the day came from Elvis Presley’s “Suspicious Minds,” with the refrain that goes “We’re caught in a trap / I can’t walk out / Because I love you too much, baby,” which seemed to sum up, just about, the potentially lucrative and potentially dangerous relationship the GOP has had with Trump since 2020.
By contrast, the vibe this weekend in Robstown, just west of Corpus Christi, was more celebratory: Elvis didn’t play, but the King was in the building nonetheless. Trump’s hold on the party was even less debatable than it had been in the winter. His endorsements proved crucial to his select GOP primary candidates, and he currently laps the party’s field in prospective polls for 2024. And as the weather gets colder, Trump’s ambitions are once again heating up. His people know that his attempted return to the throne is near.
Saturday was warm in Robstown, the perfect conditions for a beach day, but a few thousand folks still gave up more than eight hours of their Saturday to hear a speech they’d doubtless heard a dozen times before. The wind whipped the rally’s many flags taut, providing a tailwind, perhaps, to the star of the event: a newly refurbished and flight-ready Trump Force One, a private 757, which flew over the crowd to raucous cheers while loudspeakers played the theme to the Harrison Ford movie Air Force One.
As for the Kremlinology, the most notable fact of the Robstown rally was that Greg Abbott wasn’t there. In Conroe, before the primaries, the governor made sure to attend—and was booed. Seemingly with the foreknowledge that he was going to be heckled, he loaded his speech with as many repetitions of the words “Donald Trump” as possible, in the hope, perhaps, that he would short-circuit the crowd’s “cheer” and “boo” instincts. Ahead of Robstown, however, Abbott announced he had a prescheduled fund-raising event in Florida—God only knows why Abbott needs more money—but that isn’t the end of the story. Every elected official there had plans: it was the Saturday before early voting starts. Most chose to be there, and Abbott, who is said to have worryingly soft numbers in the suburbs, chose not to. It is perhaps an indication that while Trump still has complete dominion over the party, he can make incumbents nervous to associate with him, even in red Texas.
Lieutenant Governor Dan Patrick and Attorney General Ken Paxton made a different call. Their opponents have low name recognition, so their path to victory is driving Republican turnout. Both were featured prominently at the rally, speaking in the late afternoon, as folks waited for Trump, and briefly again during the former president’s prime-time address.
Paxton, performing the ritual humiliation that all friends of the former president must bear, got a backhanded endorsement—and then was called upon to deliver lavish, effusive praise of the president. Trump urged the crowd to vote for their “controversial” attorney general, referencing Paxton’s many legal problems. “He’ll probably say, ‘Oh, I wish you didn’t say it.’ They know it already, Ken. Ken, they know it! And you know what, being controversial is okay.” Trump drew parallels between his own supposed persecution by Democrats and Paxton’s.
When Trump invited the compromised but “tough” Paxton on stage, the attorney general brushed off the slight and wondered, “How does this president draw a crowd year after year?” At first, he mused, it might be because “he’s a great speaker,” and he turned to look Trump in the eye. “Well, Mr. President, that’s true, you are a great speaker.” But that wasn’t it. “Is it because he’s a great businessman? He clearly is a great businessman.” But that wasn’t it either. “Maybe it’s because [he’s] a great golfer.” No, it was because “he’s done more for the American people than any president in our lifetime.” The crowd cheered. Paxton then noted that “it sounds like there might be a possibility that he’s running for president again,” causing even bigger cheers and a big, brief Trump smile.
Other Republican candidates tried to make the most of their brief time in the spotlight. In an earlier speech, Wesley Hunt, running to represent a district anchored in Harris County in the U.S. House, got briefly geographically confused and told the crowd they were in “Houston, the energy capital of the world.”
As far as changes to the Trump rally routine, there weren’t many to speak of. Since he was here last, Trump has added an extended reverie to his speech about how Chinese president Xi Jinping cured China of its drug problem by perfunctory trials and mass executions. In another new (to me) bit, he explained that his plan to deal with government leakers was to lock up the reporters they leaked to and let them imagine future prison rape until they ratted on their sources: the reporter will squeal “when this person realizes that he is going to be the bride of another prisoner very shortly,” Trump said.
Changes to the playlist were likewise limited. I didn’t hear “Suspicious Minds,” but there was one song I hadn’t heard before, a gothic, spooky synthesizer-and-gong medley later identified as pro wrestler the Undertaker’s theme song. My addled brain could find no metaphor.
Of course, there was a little news to come out of Robstown. Things in America had gotten so bad since the former president Maked America Great Again that Trump said, “I will probably have to do it again.” But you knew that, didn’t you?
Trump’s hints that he’ll run again have the tendency to make some Democrats gloat. They see that his favorability ratings are still in the tank and say he’s doomed—and that he’ll bring Republicans down with him. But the Trump phenomenon is still going. He has been holding rallies for so long now that it’s easy to forget how impressive Trump’s crowds are almost two years after he left office. (George W. Bush, whom this state once loved, probably couldn’t have filled a chamber of commerce hall in 2010.) Many of the things Trump says and does may be unpopular, but it feels like we’ve already forgotten what Trump did to American politics when he was able, with every outrageous thing he said, to control not only how debates were happening but what people had to debate, by nature of the fact that he was so unbelievable.
Americans have had a bit of a reprieve from that lately: to stretch out one of those painful metaphors again, we’ve been at the beach. Trump, meanwhile, has gotten the saddle back on the 757. He’s tanned, rested, and ready, and his people are waiting for him. And when he hits that campaign trail again, for real, well: buckle your seatbelts.