On Friday, electronic highway signs in New Hampshire began flashing that a WINTER STORM was arriving early the next morning. Would they cancel the Trump rally scheduled for 11:30 in Portsmouth? Watching politicians, as I’ve been doing the past few days, makes you think they must yearn for a snow day. Just as I have a fanboy “These guys are good” reaction when I see professional athletes close up, I admire the sheer stamina and skill of good politicians. At this level, they all impress. Marco Rubio, eight hours after finishing a debate in South Carolina, on the stump in a bingo parlor in southern New Hampshire, bright-eyed, well-honed boyish eloquence in full display. How could his advance team possibly know they could gather 200 people at 8:30 in the morning? Kasich, in a library basement in the mountains up near the Maine border, addressing a room half-filled with retirees with the energy as if he were on national TV. Jeb, before preppier crowd just west of Nashua, in a lodge hall whose wooden panels reminded me of the lodge scenes in “The Good Shepherd”—staying two hours to take question after question, trying to give detailed answers, always thoughtful, grammatical.
In the days ahead, I will delve into the content of what the latter three, and the others, are saying. But the electronic sign left me wondering how I was going to manage the drive from Manchester to Portsmouth in a possible blizzard, and I began to wish Trump would cancel. At age 69 he might welcome a half-day off, you would think.
The Saturday morning Trump rally was in Portsmouth, the New Hampshire seacoast’s largest town—in the huge Toyota dealership. Scott Brown, a former and perhaps future New England Republican star, introduced him. Trump had had an excellent week: pretty much everyone says he debated well in South Carolina. He was thrown a fat pitch when Ted Cruz began attacking his “New York values.” Trump responded with defiant defense of the city’s people; unlike, for instance Giuliani (or even Pataki), he could talk about 9/11 without trying to make it about his own stalwart leadership. He painted a heartfelt picture of New Yorkers responding well under the most intense duress, and no one could possibly disagree. It’s a lesson which could be filed for future use: Donald Trump not talking about himself does very well. His polls remained good, comfortably ahead in New Hampshire and catching up to Cruz in Iowa, though his “get the people to the caucus” organization remains extremely weak. There were hints in the prestige press that some Republican “money men” had resigned themselves to his possible victory and were sending out peace feelers.
But this kind of lead two weeks before any voting starts and more than three before the first primary puts Trump in the position of team leading by two touchdowns with several minutes remaining in the third quarter: things look pretty good, but there is a lot of time left. If he does poorly in Iowa—which seems plausible given the state of his field organization—he has to win New Hampshire; without that, all the six-month talk about his strength in the national polls would be revealed as interesting but not all that politically important. And so, no snow day in Portsmouth. Trump, who had spent the previous day in Iowa, where he not only spoke at a rally but uncharacteristically stayed to schmooze with Iowans at a pizza chain, arrived on time.
So did about 1,500 other people, some of whom, presumably more accustomed to New England driving than I, didn’t leave three hours for a 50-mile trip. The snow, which alternated with freezing rain, probably could have been worse. Those who got there early didn’t have spend too much time waiting outside, got themselves through metal detectors set up by the Secret Service (other candidates I’ve seen don’t have those), and found themselves listening to rock and roll in a toasty warm meeting hall attached to an auto showroom.
The people in Trump’s crowds are not like those of other Republican politicians. A fair number of them have come not to scrutinize a candidate but for an entertaining show, people from Maine and Massachusetts who won’t be voting for a while, high-school kids who are not registered, a fair number in unusual hats, flamboyant beards or mustaches, many men who look like they worked with their hands. Do these translate into primary voters? Surely in some cases they will, and it is obvious that no other candidate in the field could draw 1,500 people in the middle of a Saturday morning snow storm. But no actual voting has started yet.
If you’ve been following Trump, much of his standard speech is likely familiar. In segments, it’s become a call-and-response script for the Silent Majority. (Trump: “Who’s gonna pay for the wall? The crowd: Mexico!) I’ll comment principally on some digressions and new points.
So long as Ted Cruz remains his main short-term rival, Trump is not going to let people forget that Cruz took very large personal loans from Citibank and Goldman Sachs and failed to report them through the standard mechanisms. You sense that Trump, with his digression on how Cruz will be “controlled” by his Wall Street creditors, will be happy to pick away at this subject for a long time. (See video here.)
Secondly, Trump talks a very hawkish game on the Iran deal. But there is a sense among some (which I share) that his opposition is more rhetorical or political than genuine. He loves to talk about the stupidity of the deal, how dumb were our negotiators, how terrible it is that Iran is getting money up front. (He fails to mention that it is, actually, Iran’s own money.) But he knows of course that any Obama-inspired diplomacy is very unpopular with Republican primary voters. And (unlike some other candidates, like Rubio) he doesn’t vow to tear up the deal on Day One, or the equivalent.
On other foreign-policy questions Trump vacillates between tough talk—“seize the oil,” he would be the “most militaristic” president—and various pullbacks. He has begun regularly to emphasize his opposition to the Iraq War, and he stresses his own reluctance to go to war. I thought it was interesting on Saturday that he answered a question about how we should “bring stability” to the Middle East by stating that we’d been trying very hard to do that for 15 years without much success and that America’s roads and bridges were falling apart and in dire need or repair. Be assured that no other candidate in the GOP field answers a foreign-policy question like that. (See video here.)
Finally Trump clearly owns the immigration issue. When someone started off his question by quoting Ronald Reagan and saying “without borders, you don’t really have a country” Trump could reply, simply “I’m your guy.” (I think it was at that point that someone yelled out “Bigot” and the crowd wanted to shout him down. Scott Brown, on stage besides Trump as the moderator, said “Who cares?” and urged everyone to ignore the heckler, which seemed wise counsel. It does seem remarkable that a quote like Reagan’s can seem controversial, or “bigoted.”)
Trump will surely be up here many more times in the next three weeks, as will everyone else.
Scott McConnell is a founding editor of The American Conservative.