The American political stump speech is a highly specific form. At its best, it is about twenty minutes long, and thematically taut. Candidates begin by describing a local endeavor that illustrates a broader national challenge. (“I’m here in Pittsburgh to talk about nanotechnology, and how we’re going to grow our economy!”) They emphasize the urgency of the challenge, telling the stories of ordinary people who are stymied or suffering. The argument is that bad policy has been responsible for this suffering, and that good policy can end it. The candidates describe their own history, or at least their party’s history, of solving this kind of problem. There is often some gesture toward enduring national values (“The trees in Michigan are exactly the right height!”), and then the candidates suggest that the solution will begin with the listeners themselves: with their decency, their hard work, and, above all, their votes.
This form has severe limitations, but one saving virtue is that a conventional candidate, placed before an audience, almost always has something to say. Trump, however, does not. He has no political record to describe and no inclination to describe his party’s record. He does not recount the suffering of ordinary individuals because he has not met many of them. He does not have a deep understanding of the Obama Administration’s policies, and he has few policies of his own to explain. After he disastrously attacked the family of Humayun Khan, who was killed in action, in Iraq, the Republican Senator Roy Blunt, of Missouri, released a statement with his “advice” for Trump: to continue to “focus on jobs and national security and stop responding to every criticism whether its from a grieving family or Hillary Clinton.” But Trump does this in almost every speech: he talks about China stealing American jobs, about the threat of ISIS, and about the wall he intends to build along the Mexican border. That still leaves many, many minutes to fill.
Trump’s most obvious problem is that he speaks for so long, usually about an hour. For months, he filled the time with boasts and grievances, the boasts having mostly to do with his success in the polls. But now there is less to boast about; the polls look uniformly bad for him. In Daytona Beach, Trump gave them about a minute and moved on. “Trump used to spend 50% of message on polls,” the Republican consultant Michael Shannon pointed out on Twitter. “Now he has to fill that space. And it’s with things like Khans, fire marshals and babies.”
Those aren’t his only subjects, of course. It was telling that the video he imagined originated in a Fox News report. Cable news is Trump’s content-generation system; its controversies fill his podium hours. But, when the running cable-news controversy is about Trump himself, it has a way of trapping the candidate. Of course he chose to argue with Khizr Khan. What else would he talk about? In a way, that is the question for the ninety-five days until the election. In the long arc of the campaign, that is not so many days. But it is an awful lot of minutes to fill."