The Trump show will go on
Whatever happens in the election, the groups of Americans brought together by the president will continue to revere him
This article is taken from the November issue of The Critic. To get the full magazine why not subscribe? Right now we’re offering three issue for just £5.
The first thing you notice at a Donald Trump rally are the T-shirts. The president’s red caps established his reputation for political merchandising early on, but these days it’s the bootleg apparel that catches your eye.
“Yes, I’m a Trump girl. Get over it.”; “LGBT: Liberty, Guns, Beer, Trump”; “Trump is bae [a slang term of endearment for one’s partner]”; “Trump Dynasty: 2016 -> ?”; “Finally, someone with balls!”; beneath a picture of Joe Biden: “Dementia. You know. The Thing”; beneath a picture of Trump on the front of a steam train: “Trump Train 2020”; Trump as an astronaut; Trump as a George Washington crossing the Delaware river; Trump leggings; Trump suits; Trump stilettos. Trump everywhere you look.
Those sporting this gear— the Trump base — are arguably the most discussed segment of American society: for four years, they have been the subject of never-ending debate, the target, variously, of contempt, ridicule, explication and lionisation. And regardless of the outcome of the election, Trump’s rallies — the real-world interface between the president and his supporters — will have been this era’s defining political spectacle.
In 2016, they were the stage from which he shocked the world. In office, they have been a source of energy for a president in need of constant affirmation. In 2020, even in the midst of a pandemic, they remain the centrepiece of his re-election bid.
On a humid mid-October evening in Sanford, Florida, several thousand Americans gathered in a tightly-packed crowd on hot airport tarmac. It was like every other rally Trump held that week, except that it was the first public event since the president’s recovery from Covid-19, a distinguishing feature that added drama to proceedings.
“No bug, no virus, no lies will keep our president down,” said Webster Barnaby, a candidate for Florida’s House of Representatives and one of Trump’s warm-up acts. “I thank God that Donald Trump has been raised again, and been given an extension of life … Tonight you will see evidence of a man that is fit and recovered, Jesus.”
Depending on the result of the election, it could be one of the president’s last rallies. We could be witnessing the farewell tour. Not that any of the voters I spoke to were willing to contemplate that possibility. “There’s no way. There’s just no way the Democrats can claim they’ve won,” said Jim, a pot-bellied, moustachioed Floridian in a Navy veteran baseball cap chomping on a cheeseburger as he talked to me. “Look at all the people here. Look who shows up to the Biden rallies. No one. I wave flags along the roads. I count the people and I just don’t see it happening.”
It suits neither his supporters nor his critics to admit it, but a Trump rally is really very camp
Kim and Tom, a retired couple who moved to Florida from Michigan a few years ago, are just as sure of victory. “Look at all the rallies he has. Look at the boat parades. Look at the flags. Look at the signs,” says Kim as Tom nods along. No one here believes the polls. “They lied last time so I’m assuming they’ll lie this time. I’m feeling confident,” Kim continues, echoing what dozens of others at the rally told me.
The Trump campaign organises the president’s supporters into politically useful coalitions: Evangelicals for Trump, Latinos for Trump, Women for Trump, Cops for Trump and so on. But that taxonomy does not do justice to the pick’n’mix of supporters that gathered in Sanford. Some possible extra categories: bikers for Trump, veterans for Trump, sorority sisters for Trump, pastors for Trump, wholesome-looking-middle-class-families for Trump, donors-on-their-way-to-the-VIP-section for Trump, basement-dwelling-conspiracy-theorists for Trump, retirees-with-nothing-better-to-do for Trump.
MAGA-world internet celebrities deliver overexcited reports to their iPhones, a moderately convincing George W. Bush impersonator poses for photographs, hulking private security in tight T-shirts buzz about, suit-and-sunglasses FBI agents stand guard. The mood is festive and feelgood.
These days, the most exciting part of a Trump rally is the entrance. A combination of coronavirus and convenience means the rallies are now always at airports. It allows the president to whizz in and out, and a large crowd to gather outside. It also means the commander-in chief-can show off his favourite toy.
A voice interrupts the music.
Sanford tower, this is Air Force One. Requesting permission to land.
Air Force one, you are clear to land.
Everyone points their phones skywards. When Air Force One comes into view, they lose their minds. As the baby-blue jet lands and taxis to the rally in the pink evening sun, the speakers blast Elton John’s “Candle in the Wind”, Celine Dion and Andrea Bocelli’s “The Prayer” and Barbara Streisand’s “Memory”.
At this point, it’s worth pointing out an underappreciated aspect of a Trump rally: its intense campness. It suits neither Trump’s supporters nor his critics to admit it, but a Trump rally is really very camp. This is true in a narrow sense: a man in make-up strutting his stuff on stage to Village People, a playlist that includes show tunes, corny pop opera and at least six Elton John songs in the four hours I am at the rally.
In the broader sense, it goes part of the way to capturing the alchemy of a Trump rally, which lies in the president’s ability to mix an uncomplicated, unapologetic and earnest brand of American patriotism with irony, humour, pantomime and melodrama.
The full-bore patriotism of country rocker Lee Greenwood’s “Proud to be an American” — the president’s trademark entrance music — blasts as Trump appears at the door of the plane, waves and descends the steps towards the stage, tossing “MAGA” masks into the (mostly maskless) crowd.
These conflicting moods are held together by a showman who knows that the thing that unites his crowds more than anything else is their contempt for political correctness. The content of Trump rallies ultimately boil down to that: saying what you’re not supposed to say and mocking those who try and stop you.
That’s not to say traditional political issues don’t matter to Trump’s fans. The president elicits loud cheers from his audience when he talks about bringing the troops home, his economic track record and the conservative judges he has picked for the Supreme Court, most recently Amy Coney Barrett. But substantive politics are secondary to the less tangible non-judgmental feelgood factor Trump knows how to deliver to his supporters.
In his remarks in Sanford, Trump plays it straighter than on other nights. The riff that grabs the headlines is on his recovery from Covid-19: “Now they say I’m immune. I feel so powerful. I will walk into that audience. I’ll walk in there, I’ll kiss everyone in that audience. I’ll kiss the guys and the beautiful women, and everybody. I’ll just give you a big, fat kiss.”
The uglier moments of Trump rallies, such as when he told non-white congresswomen to go “back where they came from” last summer, or when he mocked a disabled reporter in 2015, or when he has indicated his reluctance to accept the result of the election, are central to the case that these events are proof of the president’s fascistic streak. But overheated comparisons to 1930s Germany and Italy, or to 1984’s “two minutes hate”, are at odds with the silliness of what Trump offers his supporters.
Trump ends his speech with the contrasting promises to both Make America Great Again and Keep America Great — an incongruous message that encapsulates the difficulty the president has had campaigning for re-election as a populist in office, and “YMCA” starts up. The crowd dances and, for a split second, so does Trump. (Did they do “YMCA” at Nuremberg?)
If the polls are correct, and Trump is a one-term president, where will all this energy go? The answer, I realise after his plane has taken off and is on its way back to Washington, is that it won’t just fizzle out. Its relevance may fade, but the Trump show will, in some form, go on. Maybe the frontman will change, maybe everyone else will stop paying attention but the groups of Americans brought together by Trump will still be meeting after he has left office, seeking the same entertainment and excitement they got from the president, and swapping stories about the time when Trump rallies were the most important political events in the world.
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