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Trump's speeches follow a familiar playlist, featuring greatest hits among new tunes

SCOTT SIMON, HOST:

A Donald Trump 2024 campaign speech can be many things - a forum to air grievances, a place to brag, a place for lengthy stream-of-consciousness responses to the news of the day. And Donald Trump's speeches provide some insight into how the former president would govern if he wins in November. NPR's Stephen Fowler listened to 15 campaign speeches from this year and notes the themes and promises that make up a Trump rally set list.

STEPHEN FOWLER, BYLINE: If you've ever listened to a Trump rally, you know about its infamous playlist that runs for hours before he speaks, an eclectic mix of songs that ranges from Elton John's "Tiny Dancer" to "Phantom Of The Opera" and culminates with Lee Greenwood's country classic.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "GOD BLESS THE USA")

LEE GREENWOOD: (Singing) God bless the USA.

FOWLER: But it's also helpful to think of what Trump says at these events as its own curated playlist - never the same topics in the same order, heavy on the greatest hits but with plenty of space left for new tracks that riff on what's popular. Plenty of his speech is tied to where he is, who he's talking to, and how it fits in the political moment. Take this throwback rally all the way back in January in Indianola, Iowa.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

DONALD TRUMP: Hello, Iowa. One day from now, we're going to win Iowa's first-in-the-nation caucuses.

FOWLER: It's the night before the first presidential primary contest. So Trump's remarks feature diss tracks against top rivals Nikki Haley and Ron DeSantis, plus crowd-pleasing mentions of tariffs that affect Iowa farmers and increased access to ethanol. But there's also plenty of typical Trumpian fare that could have been delivered anywhere.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

TRUMP: But these caucuses are your personal chance to score the ultimate victory over all of the liars, cheaters, thugs, perverts, frauds, crooks, freaks, creeps, and other quite nice people.

FOWLER: It can be hard for even seasoned observers to track what's new or notable in his speeches. The run time is often more than an hour and can switch tone and topics at random. A common thread is attacks against an array of criminal charges against him with prosecutors alleging everything from election interference to business fraud to mishandling classified documents. For example, in 15 major speeches reviewed by NPR from this year, Trump says his indictments far outpaced the reputation of a notorious gangster.

(SOUNDBITE OF MONTAGE)

TRUMP: Remember, I've been indicted more than Al Capone, the great gangster.

And Alphonse Capone... So you know who Alphonse Capone is? Alphonse Capone - Scarface.

FOWLER: There's also the familiar verses that mock President Joe Biden's age, appearance, activities and actions as president.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

TRUMP: Biden and his accomplices - and that's what it is. It's really more of the accomplices. I mean, the guy can't put two sentences together. He can't find the stairs to a platform.

FOWLER: And one-hit wonders that raise eyebrows and make headlines, like the time in Conway, S.C., where Trump said he wouldn't defend some NATO allies against Russia.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

TRUMP: No, I would not protect you. In fact, I would encourage them to do whatever the hell they want. You got to pay. You got to pay your bills.

FOWLER: Or in Dayton, Ohio, where Trump warned his defeat could be terrible for the automotive industry.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

TRUMP: Now, if I don't get elected, it's going to be a bloodbath for the whole - that's gonna be the least of it.

FOWLER: As the year has progressed, Trump's rallies have taken a darker, more defiant tone, and his greatest hits are increasingly hitting back at groups that he feels have wronged him or aren't on board with his Make America Great Again tour. In North Carolina and Virginia, Pennsylvania and Nevada, to hear Trump tell, there will be no America unless he is in charge, and Joe Biden is vanquished.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

TRUMP: He's a demented tyrant who is trying to destroy our democracy.

FOWLER: The hostile phrasing around the promise to implement hard-line policies like mass deportations and expanding the powers of the presidency to punish opponents is a feature, not a bug of Trump's campaign message, a message that says, the stakes are too high to ignore.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

TRUMP: We will fight for America like no one has ever fought before. 2024 is our final battle.

(CHEERING)

FOWLER: While no two rallies are the same, the final notes of a Trump speech are like a catchy political earworm, as he vows to make America powerful, wealthy, strong, proud and safe once more.

(SOUNDBITE OF MONTAGE)

TRUMP: And we will make America...

...Make America......Make America great again. Thank you very much. Thank you, North Carolina. Go out and vote...

FOWLER: Trump's last two rallies were held on the only day of the week his New York trial was not in session. But he largely avoided talking about that trial that has kept him off the campaign trail. In front of his biggest fans, once again, Trump's verbal playlist in Waukesha, Wis., featured comedic asides like this response to a protester.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

TRUMP: Go home to your mom.

FOWLER: Between his usual comments about closing the southern border, deporting migrants and claiming global conflict would cease if he was in charge, Trump made inflammatory remarks about Palestinian refugees that garnered little media attention.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

TRUMP: Under no circumstances should we bring thousands of refugees from Hamas-controlled terrorist epicenters like Gaza to America. We just can't do it.

FOWLER: Trump reiterated support for a travel ban from Muslim-majority countries and implied an influx of migrants to the U.S. would lead to a terrorist attack similar to the October 7 attack in Israel.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

TRUMP: We do not need a jihad in the United States of America.

FOWLER: A few hours later, Trump curated a different vibe in Freeland, Mich., making no mention of Gaza. He did, however, give significant air time to his criminal proceedings and how much they cramped his campaign style.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

TRUMP: As you know, I have come here today from New York City, where I'm being forced to sit for days on end in a kangaroo courtroom with a...

FOWLER: And because it's the Trump show, that applause line was followed by a familiar refrain.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

TRUMP: Alphonse Capone - has anyone ever heard of Al Capone? Scarface.

FOWLER: Until the New York hush money trial has wrapped, Trump's main act will be headlining the inside and outside of a Manhattan courtroom. Stephen Fowler, NPR News, Atlanta. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

Stephen Fowler
Stephen Fowler is a political reporter with NPR's Washington Desk and will be covering the 2024 election based in the South. Before joining NPR, he spent more than seven years at Georgia Public Broadcasting as its political reporter and host of the Battleground: Ballot Box podcast, which covered voting rights and legal fallout from the 2020 presidential election, the evolution of the Republican Party and other changes driving Georgia's growing prominence in American politics. His reporting has appeared everywhere from the Center for Public Integrity and the Columbia Journalism Review to the PBS NewsHour and ProPublica.