Two days before President Donald Trump was set to formally kick off his 2020 campaign in Orlando, Florida on Tuesday night, the crowds began to gather. By the morning of the big day, thousands of people were milling around – in swampy, high 80s heat with rain in the forecast– with nine hours remaining until the President actually took the stage at the Amway Center.
“The Fake News doesn’t report it, but Republican enthusiasm is at an all time high,” tweeted Trump on Tuesday morning. “Look what is going on in Orlando, Florida, right now! People have never seen anything like it (unless you play a guitar). Going to be wild - See you later!” It was his third tweet in 24 hours touting the crowds gathering to witness the campaign kickoff. “Big Rally tomorrow night in Orlando, Florida, looks to be setting records,” Trump tweeted on Monday. “We are building large movie screens outside to take care of everybody. Over 100,000 requests.”
It’s easy to roll your eyes at this now-familiar Trump self-puffery. Biggest crowds in history! More than 100,000 requests for an arena that only seats 20,000! Enthusiasm beyond belief! The fake news won’t report on it!
But here’s the thing: The spectacle happening in Orlando in advance of tonight’s big speech is yet more clear evidence that Trump is more than a politician or even a President – he is a pop-culture phenomenon the likes of which none of the 23 Democratic candidates running can match.
Trump is viewed – by his most loyal supporters and even by those who may not support him but don’t loathe him – as a sort of rock star. (The President’s reference to his Orlando crowd as never before seen outside of rock concerts was almost assuredly accidental – but telling nonetheless.) The ardor and commitment of those who stand beside Trump is the envy of any politician looking to keep his base behind him. And the reverence they express for Trump – buying his MAGA hats, making homemade T-shirts with his face plastered on them, the guy with the “wall” suit – is the sort of stuff that get-out-the-vote experts salivate over.
That anecdotal energy is reflected in polling, too. Trump’s job approval rating among Republicans in the latest Gallup monthly tracking poll was 89% – and it hasn’t been lower than 80% since December 2017. While Trump’s overall job approval number was just 43% in the latest CNN poll this month, when you included only those registered voters who described themselves as “very enthusiastic” about the coming election, 48% approved of the job the incumbent was doing while 50% disapproved – a far closer split.
It’s important to remember that prior to being President – or even running for president – Trump had woven himself into the cultural fabric. Whether through cameos in movies (“Little Rascals,” “Home Alone 2”), his reality TV shows or a steady stream of personal life rumors in gossip rags, Trump was someone known across the country – and really, across the world. And for a not-small subset of people Trump represented aspirational wealth – a man who had succeeded so much that he could do and say whatever he wanted, all while living in the lap of luxury.
At the start of his presidential bid, many of the people who turned out were there to see a celebrity, not a politician. They figured that Trump probably had no chance but still wanted to see if he would sign their dog-eared copy of the “The Art of the Deal.” Trump won many of them over with his performative nature and his passel of promises about how he could fix everything.
While many of those promises haven’t yet come true – the wall along the southern border is not completed, for example – lots of Americans who still support Trump don’t really care because they voted for a celebrity and that’s exactly what they got. They don’t hold him to the same standards they hold other politicians because they don’t see him as a politician; they see him as a rock star.
A majority of the country does not hold that view. Trump’s job approval rating has never been above 50% since his presidency began – the only chief executive in modern political history to claim that ignominious mantle. And no matter how Trump is viewed by his supporters, it doesn’t change the fact that he is viewed with equal but opposite dislike by much of the Democratic base.
In fact, that reality may be Democrats’ best turnout tool come 2020. They may not have a candidate who can match Trump’s celebrity, but Trump’s celebrity could be the thing that drives Democratic voters to the polls – to cast a ballot against him and all they believe he represents.