“We’ve got to get back to the rallies,” Trump said this week.
The President misses the sea of red caps dotted with painted faces, patriotic suits and wide open mouths, provoked into either boiling anger or a rapturous joy, and he misses them for a reason. In 2015-16, he held 323 rallies across America as he sought the Presidency. Attended by over 1.4 million people in total, all packed into frenzied stadiums, they formed a key and passionate role in his success.
The controversial talking points, the energised support behind him and the protests against him, meant rallies played a part in earning him $5 billion worth of free media coverage from the local and national press during that campaign.
Four years on, and performative rallies with thousands of attending supporters are currently off the cards due to coronavirus, so the Trump campaign has had to find new ways of drumming up attention. But how?
Conventionally, the emergency coronavirus press briefings would have been used in this time of national crisis, to console the afflicted and alleviate fear with calm, informed detail on governmental strategy. Trump takes a different route and one more akin to the performances his supporters are used to seeing at his rallies.
The New York Times analysed over 260,000 of Trump’s words at briefings from the start of March through to mid-April. They found that self-congratulations were by far the most common utterances, followed by praising his team, and his attempts “to display empathy or appeal to national unity amount to only a quarter of the number of times he complimented himself,” or his staff.
Over three weeks in April, the Washington Post also measured 13 hours of Trump at the podium of these briefings, including a total of two hours attacking others, 45 minutes praising himself and his administration, and just 4½ minutes expressing condolences for coronavirus victims.
Major television networks have been carrying the press conferences live and unfiltered, and in March, some of his briefings were viewed by over 12 million people on the main cable news channels alone, not accounting for the millions of others who watched repeats or clips on social media, and live streams.
Being the sole focus of these briefings allows him to take control of the narrative, and divert them from information-driven dialogue into rally-like political lectures delivered in digital form.
There’s an App for that
While his message is being delivered, it isn’t received positively by everyone, with mainstream press and social media reactions often openly ridiculing some of his most bizarre comments and denouncing others. So, Trump’s campaign has created an app to fix that.
The Trump app was originally created to centre around his rallies, signing thousands up at these events for them to expand the network of Trump evangelists and organisers, motivated by the apps digital points system. Sharing Trump posts or introducing the app to friends would award points that they could then cash in for prizes like a meeting with Trump himself.
Thanks to coronavirus and the temporary end of the rallies, Trump’s digital team have pivoted the app to focus on virtual events and videos, gamifying support for his campaign to enliven his passionate supporters into action, while at the same time, keeping them in the bubble of Trump-filtered positive propaganda. Stefan Smith, former online engagement director of Pete Buttigeg’s campaign, described it as “Candy Crush, but for politics“.
The app allows you to watch live Trump shows hosted by senior campaign aides and surrogates, receive endless push notifications for “Trump news”, and earn points for using the app or getting others to use it. As CNN explains:
“Share a Trump tweet, win a point. Share the campaign app with a friend, win 100 points. Earn 5,000 points and you can redeem a campaign store discount. Earn 100,000 points, and you can get a picture with President Donald Trump.”
But going even further than this, is the long-term goal of the app: turning it into a standalone social media network.
Campaign manager Brad Parscale has said that in the future they want to turn it into a channel of direct communication between Trump and his supporters. A self-contained news and social media platform where Trump’s team has complete control over the news, the information and the reality as a whole, without any reliance on external sources. He said:
“This allows every person who wants to support President Trump to directly download the app, get information, communicate with us without the need of a third party company that might or might not be biased against us.”
“If anything happened, this feed is directly controlled and owned by us through our app with no third party intermediary. I wanted an app that we directly owned that if we need to engage them directly, we can.”
Creating a gated community in which supporters can communicate with each other, consume Trump’s narrative directly, feel galvanised by Trump and each other with their passionate support is the digital equivalent of a Trump rally.
It’s also perfect for a campaign that will no doubt continue to be constantly hit with further scandal that would in any normal circumstance end a Presidency. By creating a digital rally – a close-off space in which the only communication is from Trump to his supporters – means that this scandal and campaign hiccups will simply be glossed over and ignored.
The outside world, mainstream media and social media would be irrelevant to Trump’s app users. Solidifying the base was exactly what his rallies in 2016 were successful in doing. Now he has that base, making sure they are well informed with the news his campaign wants them to hear and nothing else is the ideal scenario for his digital alternative.