“To make America great again, what’s the first thing that comes to mind?”
A person from the back of the hall—no doubt a college student—shouts “Biscuits!”
That was the kind of irreverent fun I was looking for at a Trump rally, and in fact was the high point of the event, taking place long before the candidate himself appeared on stage. (The correct answer was “Immigration.”)
Having declared myself for Bernie Sanders on Facebook, I still wanted to see what a Trump campaign event was like. So the day before Super Tuesday, I traveled from my home in Northern Virginia to Radford, into a part of the state where in some counties Trump polled well over 50 percent of Republican primary voters. There I met some of the people who would help deliver Virginia to Trump the next day.
Matt Taibbi’s article in Rolling Stone had enticed me to make the four-hour trek south. Forget his careful dissection of Trumpism (he seems to have finally realized that profanity does little to strengthen his arguments), the photo of Trump supporters that accompanies his article, caught at the instant of recognition of a joke (clearer in the print than the on-line edition) shows the smug-faced candidate in front of a crowd roaring at the joke, one guy doubled over with laughter.
Could Donald Trump be a fascist Mussolini, or a goose-stepping brown shirt? I don’t recall Adolf Hitler ever being the master of stand up.
And frankly, I was looking for a little entertainment. I read that Trump plays Twisted Sister (“We’re Not Going to Take It”), Beatles (“Revolution”), and Adele at his events. So maybe beneath the swagger and policy-free content of the debates was a much more principled human than was being reported, a fun rich guy sticking it, in his own way, to the man. I half expected a Woodstock-type crowd playing along with the joke, with hints of reefer and patchouli. After all, his core demographic are white people in their 60s, from the 60s, so why not?
My most hopeful expectations seemed confirmed when I arrived at 8:30 a.m. The event had a very rock-concert like atmosphere. Hawkers were out in force. If Donald gets a cut on Trump swag, his campaign could easily be self-supporting. A fat minstrel with a guitar belted out a song he had fashioned from the words “Make America Great Again.” A Trump impersonator was wandering through the crowd, getting his picture taken with gleeful Trump supporters. And what a crowd! By 10 a.m., when the doors opened, the line had snaked out of sight.
Sure, the comments that I overheard were definitely right-wing fare: “He is the closest thing I’ve seen to Reagan in my lifetime.” “Tomorrow [Super Tuesday] is the day that is going to weed out all the bullshit.” A woman I talked with while standing in line had been to a Rubio event the day before, which had been disrupted by pro-choice protesters. She told me, “I’m against abortion. If you don’t want an abortion, just don’t get pregnant.”
Is it really that simple? For some people, it apparently is.
In the bizarro world of Donald Trump supporters, the sticker “Guns Save Lives” was a pretty convincing argument. A guy was handing them out, and just about everyone at the top of the line—including me (the better to blend into the crowd)—wore one. Nevertheless, I was heartened by the sight of a college student who put the sticker over his crotch.
And speaking of youth, there was a much larger proportion of young people than I expected. My impressionistic reading of the crowd was that it was primarily divided into two demographics: half the crowd was white people over 55 years old or so, of which some 80 percent were true believers, and white kids younger than 25 years of age, of which maybe a third were true believers. Well, no surprise. The event took place at a university in southwest Virginia, and it was a work day.
I estimated that about one percent of the crowd at the front of the line was black, and could identify no one distinctively Latino. The only Asians I saw (save maybe one or two) were press photographers. After the auditorium had filled with about 3,000 people, which was only about 75 percent capacity—for some reason, they did not want a full house—stranding some 8,000 persons outside according to Trump (one of his few claims that might be valid), I raised the estimate of African Americans to 4 percent. But it didn’t escape my notice that except for one black guy who was successfully starting chants of “USA! USA!” and “Trump! Trump!”, I saw exactly 0 percent of African Americans wearing Donald Trump paraphernalia.
The security presence was pretty heavy. Besides the metal detector, I was wanded three times, gently frisked once, and my camera was turned on and off to check it. The stone-faced police, including one holding the leash of a large German shepherd, were standing side by side other grim protectors with black kevlar vests emblazoned with the words SECRET SERVICE.
A woman next to me remarked “Not so secret, are they?”
I entered the hall to the sounds of Elton John’s “Love Lies Bleeding,” followed by the Rolling Stones song “Let’s Spend the Night Together.” There was even some wolf whistles and excited hooting familiar to attendees of rock and roll concerts. Other than a small group of female students briefly dancing in a circle, however, no one was boogeying or even swaying to the music. The purpose here was much more serious: Making America Great Again. Weirdly, the next song played was a Pavarotti aria, but after that—before, during, and after the event—it rotated over the same 5 or 6 songs, including Elton John’s “Tiny Dancer,” and the Rolling Stones’ “You Can’t Always Get What You Want,” “Let’s Spend the Night Together,” “Time is on My Side,” and “Heart of Stone.”
White people’s music! A celebratory atmosphere! A guy loudly sneezing while making the sound “TRUMP!” I texted my wife: “Too much fun to tweet.” And it was fun, at the beginning. And then the event started.
There was the invocation, “in Jesus’ name.” Then the Pledge of Allegiance. Nathan Stanley, the “Prince of Bluegrass,” gave a very off-key a cappella performance of the “Star-Spangled Banner” that was saved by his female duet partner who thankfully took the “land of the free” line.
A folksy guy gave a testimonial about his dad who hit the jackpot at Trump’s Casino in Atlantic City. A female Buchanan county chair looked over the crowd and struck back at Trump naysayers by noting the “diversity” in the crowd, causing some derisive laughter by others and myself. Or was she being ironic? Who can say?; all the rules are gone in this campaign. Her big line was “I don’t need a politician to have perfect hair—I need him to have balls!” The balls theme was big—a t-shirt with “Finally someone with balls” on the back was a popular item.
A local Trump chair named—I swear, this is what I heard—“Virgil Goon,” entertained with pure corn pone. “When they tell politicians to jump, they say, ‘How High?’ Trump will tell them to ‘Take a Hike!’” The Virginia statewide Trump chair, Corey Stewart, says we “lost the virtue of candor,” and challenged the crowd with the question that began this piece. His big issue was to support elimination of handgun permit fees.
A black pastor named Mark Burns gave a brief, very hoarse sermon containing the line “We won’t let little Rubio get away with what he said about Donald Trump.” No turning the other cheek for these Christians!
Some of the slogans on signs waving in the crowd were “Deport and Export,” “Bring God Back,” and “Blue Lives Matter,” referring to police. A college student had a t-shirt emblazoned “RUMP,” the T having been blocked by a TRUMP button. Clueless or wise-ass?
At 12:20 p.m.—blissfully punctual for a politician—the great man arrived, sans introduction. The thousand or so folks clustered around the stage lifted their arms in unison, cell-phone cameras in hand, giving the impression of devotees of a Messiah.
With neither thanks nor acknowledgments, Donald Trump launched straight into his spiel. His first words were “We’re going have a lot of fun today.” The talk began by recounting his endorsements: New Jersey governor Chris Christie and Alabama senator Jeff Sessions. Then the polls. Then the insults began, directed primarily at “Little Rubio,” a phrase I must have heard 20 times from the podium: half by Trump and half by the warm-up acts. “We cannot have choke artists running our country.” Clearly, Trump is most concerned with Rubio, though I did hear the phrase “Lyin’ Ted” at least once.
Then the Donald Trump litany: “The press is amazingly dishonest—worse than the politicians,” though he did later qualify that to only 80 percent of the press. He seemed puzzlingly upset that former president Vicente Fox had used the “f-bomb.” A sensitive creature, this guy! “Stupid incompetent leadership.” A protestor starts to yell and is removed. Then chants of “build the wall.” “It will be the most beautiful wall. I want to call it the Trump wall.” “Bernie Sanders is over—unless she gets indicted.”
He asks for a show of hands about how many students have job prospects and how many lack them, and seems momentarily deflated when over half seem to have a bright future. Never mind: “You’re going to have such great jobs. We’re going to have Apple products made in America, not China.” Other than talking about “clean coal,” which made sense given his audience, there was really nothing that I hadn’t already heard.
And maybe that was true for the audience too. About 1/2 hour in, a trickle of students makes for the exits. It started to be a bit of a letdown, and there was a deflated feeling. But as if on cue, the protests begin. On one side, a yelling voice, and he is removed. A little later another, and she is removed. Someone tore a sign to bits, and amidst the falling debris starts chanting. Trump gives him a stare-down and asks him “Are you from Mexico?” Some angry shouts from the crowd, which now gets a bit surly. A group of black protestors calls out “Black Lives Matter,” to which the crowd responds with “All Lives Matter.” A scuffle takes place as the black protestors are removed, which I later learn is a a Secret Service agent body slamming a press photographer who had left his holding pen.
The celebrity mood surrounding the event evaporates, and I feel an undercurrent of menace. A police officer glares at the crowd—and myself as I take his picture—with a surly attitude that says “Just try it.” I put the camera away (though I got the picture). There was a brief moment where I thought that it would go out of control, but the Donald strikes back: “Is it fun to come to a Trump rally?” “Are we having a good time?” Suddenly, the answer to that is no. Then he adopts a conciliatory attitude: “We’re all looking for the same thing.”
He tells his story of the air conditioner business sent off to Mexico, which is interrupted by another protestor, “Right smack in the middle of my punch line,” he complains, which is apparently that by the time Trump is finished with this company, it will beg to come back to the US.
Another protestor starts yelling, and is led away while the crowd chants “na na na hey hey hey good bye.” He repeats the repulsive story of General Pershing and pig’s blood, interrupted by someone screaming in the back. The crowd grows raucous, and it seems in danger of going out of control. “We lose at everything. I’m not asking for your money, just your vote. Get out there on Tuesday.”
And, after an hour and 10 minutes, it’s over. For the next 15 minutes (and possibly longer, because at that point I left), Donald Trump is surrounded by adoring throngs who want his scribble—which it was, as I saw—on their Donald Trump posters. I leave courteously, and how not? The police officer restraining the German shepherd gives me a dark stare as I pass.
We seem to be in a very ugly place. Sure, you need police to protect a presidential candidate and would-be president. But is violence against the press what we’ve come to? (In the event that he is elected, Trump promises to change the libel laws to make it easier to sue the press.) The protestors were indeed rude—though hardly ruder than the candidate himself, and nothing compared to the violent act by the SS (a suitable acronym) agent on a press guy.
The act of voting requires a moral compromise. No one can fully match your hopes, and if they can, you’re beyond hope. One litmus test after another has fallen in this campaign. Once I would unequivocally reject a candidate for being pro-torture. But President Obama has never called to account Americans engaged in torture, and for all we know, it continues at the CIA. Once I would unequivocally reject a candidate who supports late-term abortion. (Why stop there, and not give the parents a 2-week time limit?) Well, abortion is law of the land and effectively a settled issue, so you might as well bay at the winds.
Now it seems that the only meaningful question is who is least likely to get us into thermonuclear war. The surprisingly agreeable heterodox opinions uttered by Donald Trump regarding Iraq and Russia still gives me a glimmer of hope. Sure, the Republican elites want to paint Trump as a liberal Democrat on this issue, but he seems to be espousing old-school non-interventionist Republican values that were the party mainstream before it was taken over by neoconservative ideologues. And the poor judgment of Hillary Clinton on foreign policy regarding Libya, Syria, and Ukraine, never mind Iraq, erases any points that she main earn for experience.
Finally we have the answer to the question “What’s the matter with Kansas?” They were just waiting for a person who could carry their message. One of the messages is that this is not a left/right election, it is an insider/outsider election, and the base finally discovered that it has been played. It is hardly surprising the stories being told that the second choice of many Bernie Sanders voters is Donald Trump (though I doubt that the reverse is true), something that might have applied to me before seeing Mr. Trump in action.
Maybe none of this is surprising. As I said to some Swedish press person who mistook me for a hard-core Donald Trump supporter, the Republican National Committee will do everything in their power to stop Donald Trump—except modify their policies that have been shafting the base. I went into the rally looking for entertaining politics, and maybe even mollifying my opinion of Donald Trump if he had given some policy content to his stream-of-consciousness oratory. I left with the sinking sensation that this will not end well.
Charles Dermer writes from Alexandria, Virginia.