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

Former President Donald Trump speaks during a rally on May 1, 2024 at Avflight Saginaw in Freeland, Michigan.
Nic Antaya
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Getty Images
Former President Donald Trump speaks during a rally on May 1, 2024 at Avflight Saginaw in Freeland, Michigan.

In 2024, a Donald Trump campaign speech is many things: a forum to air grievances against his opponents and ongoing criminal proceedings, a safe space to test his popularity among supporters and a lengthy stream of consciousness responding to political news of the day.

A Trump speech also gives insight on how he would govern in a second term if he wins the election this November.

The former president's campaign events are surreal to experience: all-day affairs that are equal parts religious revival and massive pep rallies, powered by an infamous musical playlist that runs for hours before he speaks.

It's an eclectic mix of songs that reflects Trump's personal tastes, ranging from Elton John's "Tiny Dancer" to music from Phantom of the Opera to Village People's "Y.M.C.A.," culminating with Lee Greenwood's country classic "God Bless The U.S.A." as he walks on stage to thunderous applause.

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.

Familiar refrains and one-hit wonders

Plenty of Trump's speech is tied to where he is, who he's talking to and how it fits in the political moment.

Picture this: it's the night before the first presidential primary contest, so Trump's remarks in Indianola, Iowa, feature diss tracks against top rivals Nikki Haley and Ron DeSantis, plus crowd pleasing mentions of tariffs and increased access to ethanol, both topics important to Iowa's farmers.

But there's also plenty of typical Trumpian fare that could've been delivered anywhere:

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.

Donald Trump's campaign speeches feature familiar attacks against opponents like Joe Biden, plus one off riffs on his policy proposals.
Scott Olson / Getty Images
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Getty Images
Donald Trump's campaign speeches feature familiar attacks against opponents like Joe Biden, plus one off riffs on his policy proposals.

Still, there are common threads, including attacks against the array of criminal charges against him, as prosecutors allege 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 outpace the reputation of a notorious gangster: Al Capone — or, as Trump affectionately refers to him, "Alphonse."

"This was the roughest, meanest gangster in history," Trump said at the Black Conservative Federation's gala in Columbia, S.C., earlier this year. "I've been indicted more than Alphonse Capone, Scarface. If he had dinner with you, and if he didn't like the tone of your voice, he would kill you that night. You would never see your family again. You were dead."

At that February event, Trump also mused that his indictments help him appeal to Black voters.

Remixing his favorite tunes

The tone and tenor of Trump's campaign speeches have taken a darker turn in 2024, like in Dayton, Ohio where he warned of a "bloodbath" for the auto industry if he loses the election.
Scott Olson / Getty Images
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Getty Images
The tone and tenor of Trump's campaign speeches have taken a darker turn in 2024, like in Dayton, Ohio, where he warned of a "bloodbath" for the auto industry if he loses the election.

Trump's 2024 campaign speeches have many commonalities — like verses that mock President Joe Biden's age, appearance, activities and actions as president.

"I mean the guy can't put two sentences together, he can't find the stairs to a platform," Trump said in Richmond, Va.

There's also unique riffs 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.

"If we don't pay and we're attacked by Russia, will you protect us?" Trump said another NATO leader asked him one time. "'No, I would not protect you. In fact, I would encourage them to do whatever the hell they want.'"

Then, in Dayton, Ohio, Trump warned his defeat could be terrible for the automotive industry.

"If I don't get elected, it's going to be a bloodbath for the whole ... that's going to be the least of it," Trump said. "It's going to be a bloodbath for the country. That'll be the least of it."

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 the "Make America Great Again" vision.

In North Carolina and Virginia, Pennsylvania and Nevada to hear Trump tell it, there will be no America unless he is in charge and Biden is vanquished.

"He's a demented tyrant who is trying to destroy our democracy," Trump said of the president in Schnecksville, Pa.

In Las Vegas, Trump told a roaring crowd to think of the 10 worst presidents in American history.

"They would not have done near the destruction to our country as Crooked Joe Biden and the Biden administration have done," he said.

"He's destroying our country," Trump said, echoing his remarks in Pennsylvania.

The hostile phrasing around the promise to implement hardline 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.

It's a message that says the stakes are too high to ignore.

"We will fight for America like no one has ever fought before," he intoned in Greensboro, N.C., as an instrumental with ties to the QAnon movement played underneath. "2024 is our final battle."

While no two rallies are exactly 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, ending with his signature promise to "Make America great again."

Former President Donald Trump and attorney Susan Necheles attend his trial at the Manhattan Criminal court, Tuesday. Less than a week after a pair of campaign rallies, Trump is mandated to be back in court almost everyday, making the Manhattan courtroom his campaign trail stop of necessity.
Win MacNamee / AP
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AP
Former President Donald Trump and attorney Susan Necheles attend his trial at the Manhattan Criminal court, Tuesday. Less than a week after a pair of campaign rallies, Trump is mandated to be back in court almost everyday, making the Manhattan courtroom his campaign trail stop of necessity.

Trump's last two rallies last week were held on the only day of the week his New York trial was not in session. But, in his first stop, 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 telling a protester to "Go home to mom!"

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.

"Under no circumstances shall we bring thousands of refugees from Hamas-controlled terrorist epicenters like Gaza to America," he said.

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 Oct. 7 attack in Israel.

"We do not need a jihad in the United States of America," he added to cheers from the crowd.

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

"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 corrupt and conflicted judge enduring a Biden sideshow trial," he said.

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

"Has anyone ever heard of Al Capone? Scarface!" he quipped.

Until the New York hush money trial has wrapped, Trump's main act will be headlining the inside (and outside) of a Manhattan courtroom.

He'll take his show on the road again Saturday in New Jersey, where you can expect familiar tunes, both verbal and musical, like the Sam and Dave song "Hold On, I'm Comin'" that typically ends his rallies.

Copyright 2024 NPR

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.