ECONOMY

Trump 2024 (Vegas) vs. Trump 2016 (Bangor): Rhetoric and Cognition


By Lambert Strether of Corrente.

Readers, this will be a short and, perhaps to some, overly sweet post. Over the course of campaign 2024, we’ve had a flood of digital evidence (some genuine) that many speculate can be used to diagnose cognitive issues that President Biden (81) may have. We have also had a smaller counterflood of digital evidence making the same claim about former President Trump (78). In this post, I will not sort out these claims and counter-claims[1].

I can, however, make one limited contribution to this debate: I saw then-candidate Trump on October 15, 2016, and posted on it (“Fear and Loathing at the Cross Arena in Bangor, Maine: Donald Trump Makes Headlines“) In this post, I will compare Trump then, at the Cross Arena, to Trump now, in Las Vegas on June 9, 2024. By comparing the two speeches, I will make a purely subjective judgment on whether Trump’s mental capacity has diminished, and then compare, at an overly highl level, the appeal that Trump is making to voters as a politician. I will then zero in on a few concrete policy proposals that Trump makes in Vegas.

A note on method: Readers know I much prefer to work from transcripts over videos. For Vegas, I have a transcript (hat tip, alert reader marym for putting me onto it). For Bangor, the only possible transcript is from the miserably inadequate, then and now, closed captions of a YouTube live stream. So what I will do is set the Vegas transcript against my analysis of how Trump organized his Bangor speech, and my summaries of what he said.

Bangor v. Vegas: Trump’s Mental Acuity

Trump as a speaker is improvisational, unlike every other politician in America (so no wonder the political class has consistently failed to understand him, and resorted to mockery). In Bangor:

There was, in fact, a “policy” aspect to Trump’s speech (the trade deals), and Trump made seven points on trade; at least I think it was seven. (The crowd booed TPP vigorously; they did not need to have the acronym expanded for them.) For the purposes of this post, I want to focus on how he made the points: He didn’t just emit them in bulleted-list form. Rather, he treated them as waypoints. He’d state the point, clearly and loudly, and then begin to move away from it in ever-widening circles, riffing jazzily on anecdotes, making jokes, introducing other talking points (“We’re gonna build the wall”), introducing additional anecdotes, until finally popping the topical stack and circling back to the next waypoint, which he would then state, clearly and loudly; rinse, repeat. The political class considers or at least claims Trump’s speeches are random and disorganized, but they aren’t; any speech and debate person who’s done improvisation knows what’s going on.

Improvising like this is not at all easy. You have to be able to circle back to your starting point, otherwise you’ll simply seem to be wandering around, lost. The two key points are “riffing jazzily” and “circling back to the next waypoint.” Here is an example from Vegas, on Biden’s border policy (and you have to imagine Trump speaking, and not read this as if it were written). The waypoint is the border, which makes sense in Nevada:

[TRUMP:] What he signed means nothing. In fact, it makes it easier. In my opinion, it opens the border still further. We have people coming into our country. We’re going to end up making, and I say this and I say it all the time, November 5th will be the most important day in the history of our country. If Joe Biden truly wanted to sign an executive order to stop the invasion, right now, all he needs to do is say, I hereby immediately reinstate every single border policy of a gentleman named Donald J. Trump. He doesn’t need anything. He could have done this. He’s a little late, by the way. Number one, he’s late. Number two, it’s meaningless what he signed. It’s just a PR ploy. As usual, it’s disinformation, misinformation talk. They talk, talk, talk as our country goes down the tubes. Less than four years ago, I handed Crooked Joe the strongest, most secure border in the history of our country. We never had a border like that. We built 571 miles of border wall. It was unbelievable. We ended all catch and release. We had the remaining Mexico, safe, third country, and then we had also Title 42. You remember, everything was so good. If this guy just, you know he goes to the beach all the time.

Now comes the riffing, where Trump manages to insult Biden for the famous incident of the beach chair and insulate himself against charges of being too old:

[TRUMP:] Somebody thinks he looks good in a bathing suit; I don’t think so. And he has that little chair that weighs about seven ounces. It’s meant so children can lift it and very old people can lift it. And you know what? He’s not old. He’s incompetent. He’s not old. He’s not old. I know people that are 88, 89, 92. A man named Bernie Marcus, founder of Home Depot. Bernie Marcus is 95, I think. And he is 100, you talk to him, he’s 100% sharp. This guy, there’s just something missing. And there always has been, by the way. He always had the worst and dumbest foreign policy. There always has been. Under the Trump administration, if you cross our border illegally, we caught you and we brought you back. We took you back from where you came. It was very simple.

Trump circles back to the border waypoint.

An unexpected aspect in Bangor was Trump the comedian:

TRUMP (paraphrasing): We won more votes in the primaries than any Republican! More than Romney, Bush, Dole, Nixon, Eisenhower — though in all fairness, Eisenhower won World War II.

There was humor in Trump’s Vegas speech also. Beginning once again with the border:

[TRUMP:] We had the greatest… Think of it, all he had to do was leave my people in place, leave everybody in place, and he wouldn’t be going through this right now. I think it’s one of his many big problems. I think the Afghan situation was the most embarrassing day in the history of our country, actually.

The riffing begins:

He has a lot of bad days. I could name them. But we don’t have enough time. We only have a few hours. We don’t have enough time. And now, by the way, it’s 110, but it doesn’t feel it to me, right? So we’ll stay out here for a little while. If anybody gets tired, you’ll let me know. And if anybody goes down, if you start going down, we have people, they’ll pick you up right away. They’ll throw water. They were so worried. Everybody was so worried yesterday about you, and they never mentioned me.

Rodney Dangerfield: “I don’t get no respect!”

[TRUMP:] I’m up here sweating like a dog. The Secret Service said, “We have to make sure everyone’s safe.” I said, What about me? “Oh, we never thought of that.” They don’t think about me. I’m working my ass off. I’m working hard. This is hard work. Front-row Joe, front-row Joe.

Not possible that Trump could be alluding to Arnade’s “front row kids,” so a transcription error. And:

Under Biden, the invasion is a, just a disaster what’s happened.

Back to the waypoint.

My extremely subjective view, then, is that from Trump’s language, his mental acuity in 2024 is the same as it was in 2016: His techniques are the same; his humor is the same; the texture of his language is the same. You don’t have to respect Trump’s language, or even like it, but it has not changed. (It’s also very, very hard to imagine Biden improvising in front of a crowd for over an hour. Trump makes a lot of jokes about teleprompters, underlining this difference.)

Bangor v. Vegas: Trump’s Appeal as a Politician

I thought I would make word clouds of Bangor and Vegas, but unfortunately the software that did this, Wordle, seems no longer to be online. (Here is an example of a Wordle word cloud from 2016 for Clinton; beautiful!) However, after running through a bunch of sites that were impossible to use, or would process only 50 words, I was able to use an online, free substitute called WordCloud+ that would take the full speeches. Here are two.

First, using the text of the YouTube closed caption transcript, Trump in Bangor, 2016:

Second, using the text of the @Rev transript quoted above:

You can immediately see the similarities, helpfully annotated with red boxes: “People” and “Country,” from which I conclude that Trump is indeed a populist, though perhaps not quite as Thomas Frank conceives of the term. In Bangor, the subsidiary themes were jobs and trade, which played very well in a state like Maine where the mills kept closing (the crowd did not have to have what the acronym “TPP” meant explained to them). In Vegas, the subsidiary themes were the border, which played well in Nevada, with a marked disinction between “we” and “they.” As fascist legal theorist Carl Schmitt wrote in The Concept of the Political:

“The political is the most intense and extreme antagonism, and every concrete antagonism becomes that much more political the closer it approaches the most extreme point, that of the friend-enemy grouping.”

Of course, fascism is a richly furnished smorgasbord, and Trump is not the only one partaking of its delicacies.

Bangor v. Vegas: Policy

Stoller has a terrific post in his newsletter, “Why Has Trump Stopped Attacking Big Business?”

Trump’s 2024 economic frame is about nostalgia for the time he was in office, when he ran “the greatest economy in history” with cheap gas, high wages, low immigration, and cheap money. By contrast, the Democrats, he said, are “a party of misinformation, disinformation, cheating on elections, open borders, high interest rates, and high taxes.” Rents are up and incomes are down, he told voters, because of the open border policy and the illegal immigrants brought here by “Crooked Joe.”

What’s fascinating is that he does not criticize big business, and doesn’t much talk about jobs going to China or Mexico, though he does talk about tariffs. Instead, Trump has a couple of new themes. First, he argues that the war in Ukraine wouldn’t have happened if he had been in office, and more broadly global leaders like Xi Jinping respected him in a way they don’t respect Biden. (“So, Russia going into Ukraine would’ve never happened. None of this stuff that you see would’ve happened.”) Second, he complains nonstop about electric cars. Third, he is now making arguments about gender questions like trans people playing in sports. Finally, he often talks about drilling for more fossil fuels, tax cuts, and deregulation.

In other words, Trump sounds like he is the coalition leader of the Republican establishment. He’s still funny, and he’s still weird, and still iconoclastic in terms of his personality. But in terms of what he promises, he’s mostly stopped challenging big corporations, except in cultural terms acceptable to Wall Street.

All this is true (hat tip, Susie Wiles?). It also seems to be working at the polls (“That makes me smart”). Nevertheless, Trump did make a few concrete policy proposals in Vegas — and not in Bangor — that Stoller, from his 30,000 foot view — might not have seen:

[TRUMP:] So this is the first time I’ve said this, and for those hotel workers and people that get , you’re going to be very happy because when I get to office, we are going to not charge taxes on tips, people making tips. We are not going to do it, and we’re going to do that right away, first thing in office because it’s been a point of contention for years and years and years. And you do a great job of service. You take care of people, and I think it’s going to be something that really is deserved.

(Trump did, in fact, deliver on TPP to his Bangor audience, withdrawing from it in his first week.) Not taxing tips should play well among the Vegas casino workers. And:

They’re killing because the unions are not able to survive. They’re not able to survive this onslaught. It’s making them impossible. They’ve worked hard. They’ve worked long to get their salaries up a little bit. They’re not able to do it. Virtually 100% of the new jobs under Biden have also gone to illegal aliens. Did you know that? 100%. And these people, are so bad they will correct me when I say 100%. 100% of the new jobs have gone to illegal aliens. Can you believe it? And that’s where we are.

Trump is wrong on the 100%, of course. What’s interesting is that Trump frames this in terms of hurting unions, and Vegas is a union town.

And a fine example of jazzy riffing ending at the border waypoint:

Meanwhile, of African-Americans and the workers from all over the world that came here legally, they’re down 6% under Crooked Joe. And I had an idea because it’s not as bad as I thought. I thought I’d be wilting up here. The only thing that pisses me off are the teleprompters. It’s so much easier. The only one that can’t read a teleprompter is Joe Biden. It doesn’t help him. But I thought what I’d do is I’d read if you want, should I do it? Because it’s about the border.

(I can’t run down the 6% figure, but see Ferguson and Storm here.) Again, interesting that Trump frames this in terms of real wages.

Regardless of whether the border is the driver — I don’t believe it is — the audience will hear that Trump won’t tax tips, wants real wages to rise, and supports unions. By definition, all that is attacking big business.

Conclusion

Trump gave a long speech, and I’m skipping over a lot (including his criticism of electric cars, which was trenchant and IMNSHO at least partially correct[2]). However, I think we can conclude that Trump’s mental acuity is undiminished, that his populism could be seen to have veered off in a Schmittian “friend and enemy” direction, but that his populism can also be said to include on “kitchen table” issues, like tips, real wages, and unions, the first two certainly distinguishing him from Biden. (At this point we remember that under the CARES ACT, poverty actually diminished.) Trump, for good or ill, remains unique…

NOTES

[1] For the record: I am a lonely voice in this regard, but because I’ve been blogging since the days of Terry Schiavo’s brain damage, when M.D.s speaking in Congress diagnosed Schiavo’s ability to regain consciousness by watching videos, I strongly oppose diagnosis via digital evidence in a politicized context. However, one can conclude that a candidate is too frail to be President without the diversionary and time-wasting specificity of a diagnosis, exactly in the same way that one can decide that an elderly relative should no longer be given the keys to the car (or, for that matter, the launch codes).

[2] Trump says:

There’s another thing, the truck is so heavy because batteries are very heavy. The truck weighs more than twice as much as a diesel truck. So what happens is they have to fix every bridge all over the United States to handle the weight. Every bridge has to be rebuilt because the weight is double and triple that of a gasoline or diesel tank truck. And you say to yourself, “Who are these people that are destroying our country.

This is the detail Trump would see, much as he disliked the Iraq War because of all the buildngs that were destroyed.

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