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Made for Vegas: Trump’s rallies now a ‘nostalgia act’

Donald Trump should leave Mar-a-Lago.

He needs to take up long-term residency in a town that really understands what he has to offer: Las Vegas.

The former president has been back on the road, with two packed rallies in Ohio and Florida. But both performances revealed a new side of Trump’s relationship with his hardcore base: In many ways, he’s become what the entertainment industry calls a “nostalgia act.”

He and his audience seemed most excited living off past glories and grievances: Hillary Clinton, the Mueller report, the election. They were happier looking back than looking forward. This impulse to marinate in the glow of times gone by is just the kind of powerful desire that paves the streets of Las Vegas with gold. 

For performers such as Elton John (age 74), Cher (75) and Rod Stewart (76), Vegas residencies have kept them working well past their glory years. But their success comes because each understands the world of nostalgia entertainment brings one unshakable demand: Nothing about you can change. Ever.

That’s why “classic” acts strain to look exactly as they did at the height of their fame. They step on stage in the same hair and clothing styles they’ve worn for more than 30 years. And each night, they play their biggest hits note for note, just the way fans remember them from that special beach summer they’ll never forget.

That approach works, time after time, because for many fans, these nostalgia performances are deep down about melancholy and a sense of loss. People return each year and pay top dollar so veteran entertainers can take them back to a time when life felt filled with possibilities and the world was theirs to own.

Trump (age 75) has begun to cross over into that world.

At Trump’s rallies, his hair and clothes — red tie, white shirt, blue suit — were as iconic as Elton John’s bedazzled eyeglasses. Trump ticket holders now arrive with old campaign banners and wear favorite T-shirts from previous events. They loved it when the former president asked, “Are we having a good time?” and then tossed red MAGA hats out into the first few rows — standard crowd-pleasers that every seasoned headliner lives by.

But just like fans at the MGM hotel singing along with vintage hits from Aerosmith (lead singer Steven Tyler, age 73), Trump’s people didn’t show up to hear the “new stuff.” Laugh lines about woke generals and New York prosecutors missed their mark even as they made headlines the next day.

For Trump, the best model to follow is the king of all “oldies’ performers,” Elvis Presley. The rock ‘n’ roll idol essentially invented the Las Vegas residency, setting in stone the way it should be done. Even in 1976, a year before he died, with the music world changing all around him, Presley’s set list of songs for his Las Vegas Hilton show was jammed with hits from the 1950s — the sweet spot for his fan base.

Over those Vegas years, Elvis’s connection to his audience became ironclad. Elvis sightings continued years after his death; fans just could not let go of a man who represented so much that was golden about their lives. Eventually — once his death was reluctantly accepted — true believers moved on to the next best thing: Elvis impersonators, a Las Vegas industry that continues to thrive 44 years after the King’s final days.

Trump’s connection to his base has the same appeal as Presley’s — a deliberate throwback to a less complicated post-war era, seen through the rose-colored glasses of nostalgia. Some reports have noted an increasingly dark and angry side to his fan base, but Trump’s appearances can also be seen as a safety valve — a way to let off steam as the audience is taken back to a better time.

He’s even spawned his own Elvis-like cadre of would-be impersonators (Ted Cruz, Josh Hawley), waiting for him to surrender the stage.

Understandably, the former president may be reluctant to make the move to Vegas. Financially, he’s done well fundraising from his headquarters in Florida. But in Sin City, money flows even faster. Consider this: Rod Stewart is a year older than Trump and last had a No. 1 hit in 1979 with “Do Ya Think I’m Sexy?” Stewart’s reported Caesar’s Palace salary: $2,700,000 for each performance.

Even a billionaire must find that kind of coin hard to ignore.

Apparently, for many high-profile performers Trump’s age, nostalgia is a lot better than it used to be. He should try it. Las Vegas is waiting.

Joe Ferullo is an award-winning media executive, producer and journalist and former executive vice president of programming for CBS Television Distribution. He was a news executive for NBC, a writer-producer for “Dateline NBC” and worked for ABC News. Follow him on Twitter @ironworker1.

Tags Cher Donald Trump Elton John Elvis Presley Fundraising Hillary Clinton Josh Hawley Las Vegas Las Vegas entertainer Republican Party Rod Stewart Ted Cruz Trump rally Trump voters trumpism

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