- The Washington Times - Sunday, October 18, 2015

GOP presidential front-runner Donald Trump’s stump speech, no matter where he is in the country, begins in much the same way: Commenting on the size of the crowd, marveling at it, and then asking the live television cameras to pan across it, saying the “dishonest” press will ultimately try to slight him.

The speech then moves on to his poll numbers — “We’re way ahead it’s confusing the pundits” — and to how he is beating a former governor and a sitting senator in their home state of Florida and is leading surveys in every state.

Next comes the Washington insider attack: Politicians are “all talk, no action,” “incompetent” and “stupid, stupid people who don’t know what they’re doing,” punctuated with references to the Iran nuclear deal, the exchange of five Taliban commanders for Sgt. Bowe Bergdahl and trade deficits, which he blames on “loser” leaders.

Then comes the promises of victory: “You’re hard-working people that just want to see this country be great again. I will make this country greater than it ever has been before,” Mr. Trump said in conclusion at a rally in Boone, Iowa, on Sept. 30.

For all his claims of being the ultimate unscripted politician, the billionaire businessman has developed a go-to stump speech that is carrying him through his public appearances, giving him space to digress about whatever is on his mind at the moment but enough structure to make sure he covers the basics.

“That’s the formula,” said Scott Huffmon, a political science professor at Winthrop University who has been covering the Trump candidacy. “In a way it’s like watching a jazz musician playing a standard tune: He does go off on riffs within certain parts of it.”

It’s those riffs that usually produce the best sound bites for reporters’ stories, because he appears at his most candid in those moments.

On Wednesday, the night after the Democratic presidential candidates’ first debate, Mr. Trump said Democrats were trying to protect their front-runner, Hillary Rodham Clinton, by not probing more forcefully her unique email arrangement during her time as secretary of state.

Not all of his riffs are so serious.

Mr. Huffmon noted that during a stump speech in Greenville, South Carolina, Mr. Trump introduced a ditty about his hair being real. He also has drifted into crowd-pleasing anecdotes about how his red hat has become as “hot as a pistol” and how “gutless” Macy’s was for dropping his merchandise brand.

Then there’s the jabs at his GOP presidential rivals: Florida Sen. Marco Rubio skipping votes in the Senate, not being able to pay his bills and his “phony” friendship with former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush; and Mr. Bush’s low level of energy, support for Common Core and saying he wouldn’t fund women health’s issues.

All of it feeds the Trump campaign narrative that the real estate magnate is the politically incorrect outsider who, unlike politicians in Washington, can make a deal and get a result — and with whom Americans will win so much they will get tired of winning.

He also has become adept at shoutouts and celebrity guests, including having “Duck Dynasty” star Willie Robertson, country musician Larry Gatlin and Alabama Sen. Jeff Sessions appear on stage with him at some rallies.

“We live in an era of celebrity and spectacle, and Trump’s all of that wrapped into one,” said Gregory Payne, a political communications professor at Emerson College in Boston, noting that Mr. Trump, himself a former reality TV star, capitalizes on both of these elements during his speeches and rallies.

Master of modern media

He’s drawing big crowds — though he regularly tussles with those who question whether his audiences are as big as he claims.

In September he feuded with The New York Times, which reported on his campaign appearance at a convention center ballroom “in which about a third of the seats were unfilled.” Mr. Trump labeled that report “dishonest.”

On Wednesday he said he drew 7,200 people to an event in Richmond — and lamented that a small group of protesters would end up getting the most attention from the press.

Analysts say Mr. Trump’s speech gives voice to the frustrations of those who feel the political system is rigged in favor of lobbyists and insiders, particularly when he points out he is funding his own campaign. He also gives them hope that because of his past success — “I’m really rich,” he assures crowds — he can deliver that as well.

“I do know what I’m doing. And I’m not saying that in a braggadocio way, you people are looking for someone who knows what they’re doing,” he said at one stop.

Yet Mr. Trump’s jabs are not new. Late South Carolina Sen. Strom Thurmond was said to give such an aggressive stump speech — many times outright slandering his opponents — that competitors wanted to punch him in the face after he finished, Mr. Huffmon said. But for Thurmond — and other past politicians such as Thomas Jefferson and John Adams — it wasn’t personal, it was just politics, he said.

“Trump’s nonpolicy rhetoric isn’t new, but his ability as a showman is unparalleled in this era of media saturation,” said Mr. Huffmon. “We have not had somebody who seems to have a mastery over all forms of visual media. He’s a master at Twitter. He always has a good sound bite. He’s a master showman. Add all those things together in modern media, and that’s something new.”

For political observers, the best politicians are the ones who stick to their message, deliver it fresh each time and deliver it forcefully — in a way that draws in the audience and ultimately motivates them to vote.

And, in this regard, Mr. Trump’s unpolitical political message is — for now — winning.

“The idea that some are saying Donald Trump’s days are numbered reminds me of Mark Twain — that ‘the news of my death is greatly exaggerated,’” said Mr. Payne. “His campaign has been largely transformational. He’s brought people into politics who otherwise may not have engaged. He’s doing the unpolitical approach, and it’s catching on because people are so tired of the same old stuff.”

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