IE 11 is not supported. For an optimal experience visit our site on another browser.

Livestreams and video playbacks: Democrats go all in on an unfiltered Trump

After the 2016 election, many Democrats pushed networks and social media companies to give Trump less airtime. Now they’re saying voters should get to hear from him more.
Photo collage of Trump and side profile of a person holding their ear
Leila Register / NBC News; Getty Images

There was a time when Democratic groups howled over Donald Trump getting too much airtime, with some even blaming the media for his 2016 victory.

Eight years later, with the White House hanging in the balance and Trump’s poll numbers holding strong, many Democrats have now done a full 180 and want more Trump in the media, not less.

Some are all for the former president’s return to posting all-caps rants on X. Others rapidly share clips of his speeches or interviews on social media. President Joe Biden’s campaign social media accounts have posted a series of reminders from Trump’s White House years.

And one group — American Bridge 21st Century, Democrats’ flagship opposition research super PAC — believes the best ammunition against Trump could be the candidate himself, raw and unfiltered. It’s encouraging all voters to tune in to livestreams of Trump’s rallies in their entirety.

“We want any and everybody to watch a Trump rally,” said Brandon Weathersby, a spokesperson for the group. “When you think about 2016, the conventional wisdom was, ‘Don’t give him airtime, don’t platform him, don’t give him breath.’ But this is 2024 and we want everyone to see the threat he poses.”

It is all a substantial shift from 2016, when Democrats and progressive influencers (and even some Republicans) frequently scolded news networks for the amount of airtime they gave Trump, in some cases to the point where networks aired video of empty lecterns with the chyron “awaiting Trump speech.”

After Trump left the White House and was banned from social media platforms around the time of the Jan. 6, 2021, attack on the Capitol, the volume dropped.

Now, some Democrats miss the reality that hits home when Trump has a constant presence in the nation’s news bloodstream.

Party operatives surmise that the chaos of the Trump White House years has faded in the minds of many Americans and was replaced by hazier nostalgic views of his presidency. Poll after poll has shown Trump leading Biden head to head and even overtaking him on favorability, something that never happened in the run-up to their 2020 matchup. And those supporters appear largely unfazed by the slew of criminal charges Trump is facing.

“I’ve always disagreed with the people who said not to ‘platform’ Trump. He’s been the likely GOP nominee for two years now. The American people should hear from him directly,” said longtime Democratic strategist Lis Smith, who is now working for the Democratic National Committee. “I suspect the more they do, the more they will be reminded of the utter chaos of his four years in office, and the less likely they will be to vote for him.”

That thinking is prevalent across the party.

They argue that short social media clips or news stories just can’t capture the rambling, partially improvised, over-the-top rhetoric of a full Trump rally. Trump’s speeches routinely last more than 90 minutes and can touch on an enormous range of topics that happen to be on Trump’s mind, from pop culture and sports controversies to life-or-death national security issues to the water pressure of toilets.

Showing him in all of his horror is probably important for people to see.

Matt Bennett, Third Way

Plus, Democrats argue that Trump’s rhetoric has grown only more extreme while, they claim, his mental faculties have declined, and they want all Americans to see that unfiltered. That reasoning comes after Republicans for years have cast Biden as a doddering, fragile old man.

“I think there are a lot of voters and honestly some reporters, because of his lack of interaction on TV and at rallies, there’s this idea that he is the same candidate that we saw in 2016 or 2020,” Weathersby said of Trump. “But when you watch a full rally, the decline is evident. ... You see someone who routinely gets confused about what he’s talking about, who he’s referencing, increasingly has difficulty pronouncing some words.”

Angelo Carusone, president of the left-leaning journalism watchdog group Media Matters for America, has watched, by his count, more than 600 Trump rallies since 2016, including around 30 since the 2024 race began. He said the Trump transformation since 2016 is undeniable. Trump is showing his age more than what’s reported, Carusone said, and his remarks have grown darker and less coherent.

“I do think what [groups like American Bridge] are saying is that something is out of whack here because people have forgotten either on purpose, or because so much time has gone by, just how dark and disorienting and destabilizing Trump is as a leader,” he said.

But Carusone’s prescription is not to go back to his first presidential run when he said there was lopsided, unending coverage of Trump. Instead, he said, more political reporters need to watch Trump rallies in their entirety, which he doesn’t think is happening, so coverage better reflects who Trump is today.

Another pro-Biden super PAC, Unite the Country, said the more voters are reminded of Trump, the more the election becomes a choice between Trump and Biden as individuals, and that gives Biden the advantage.

Steve Schale, a longtime Biden ally and Unite the Country’s CEO, cited a onetime Trump supporter in a 2020 focus group who said if Biden vowed to never post on X, he would win their vote. Others in the room nodded their heads in agreement.

Today, Schale said, people forget about the hurricane of emotions the Trump years conjured.

“People tend to remember what they want to remember positively about the Trump era. And they forget about the absolute insane chaos that also defined it even more than anything that Trump did as president from a policy perspective,” he said.

In Unite the Country’s more recent research on battleground voters who leaned Republican, many still supported Trump’s politics — but also said they were turned off by the Jan. 6 attack and tumultuous times in the White House.

“If for those voters it becomes a referendum on Trump versus Biden in personality and approach and all that, Biden will do just fine,” Schale said. “But if folks are trying to hide who Trump is, [those voters] are likely to go back to Trump pretty easily.”

Republicans say there’s rightfully nostalgia over the Trump years, when the United States wasn’t involved in multiple military conflicts, inflation was low and the border was more secure.

Trump spokesperson Steven Cheung said Democrats’ change in strategy and attempt to shift voters’ focus to Trump is a sign of Biden’s political weakness.

“The Biden campaign knows they have a flawed candidate in Crooked Joe so that’s why they want to drive attention away from his blunders, falls and overall cognitive decline,” Cheung said.

Trump was banned from major social media platforms including Facebook and Twitter after years of pressure, mainly from the left, because he violated their rules against spreading misinformation.

Deplatforming Trump was a double-edged sword; it hid his distortions from the public but also reduced the visibility of the threat Democrats say he poses.

“I was in the camp of people that thought that taking him off Twitter only helped him,” Schale said.

For one, it made it easier for Republican lawmakers to claim ignorance when asked by reporters to comment on the latest controversial Trump missive, since his posts are now reaching the much smaller audience of Truth Social, where he has about 6 million followers, compared to the almost 90 million followers he has on the platform formerly known as Twitter.

In 2022, after billionaire Elon Musk purchased the platform and renamed it X, he reinstated Trump’s account — though the former president has stuck to the less-traversed Truth Social. At the time of the reinstatement, some Democrats warned of the dangers they said Trump posed in the first place.

“Last time he was here this platform was used to incite an insurrection, multiple people died, the Vice President of the United States was nearly assassinated, and hundreds were injured but I guess that’s not enough for you,” Democratic New York Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez posted at the time.

Leah Greenberg, co-executive director of the Indivisible Project, a progressive grassroots group that formed in the wake of Trump’s election, said that this year, she believes it’s less about raw footage of rallies — which the average potential voter is unlikely to watch — and more about whether the media covers them with the appropriate gravity and context.

“What’s really important is the media not sanitizing these bizarre and cruel and vindictive statements or presenting them in euphemisms that detract from how extreme and out of touch and vindictive they are,” she said.

She said Indivisible’s mandate is to emphasize what’s at stake in the election, but she wasn’t so sure encouraging its members to watch full rallies would further that goal.

“It really is a little bit of an independent judgment call whether that kind of content is going to be galvanizing or whether that kind of content is just going to be depressing and demotivating,” Greenberg said.

Swing voters, she said, were more likely to consume news coverage of Trump, rather than tune in to the actual full rallies, since few voters naturally devote the time to politics required to consume them in full.

The media is still grappling with just how to cover Trump and his allies, noted Matt Bennett, vice president for public affairs for the moderate Democratic group Third Way. Bennett pointed to the recent controversy at NBC News involving the hiring of former Republican National Committee Chair Ronna McDaniel and decisions by the media to cut away from some of Trump’s live statements.

“Allowing him the unfettered ability to beam his lies directly into people’s consciousnesses is not great. … However, showing him in all of his horror is probably important for people to see,” Bennett said. “This is a real conundrum for Democrats and for the press.”

But, he said, for Democrats, the main objective should be “reminding people that if they’re thinking of the Trump years through the rose-colored glasses that they seem to be, they need to remember who this guy is.”