Medical school starts with the dissection of a human body, a grisly task that tests whether you’re for real. If you think politics matter, Trump is that cadaver. There’s a desire to dismiss him as a racist carnival barker and ignore what his campaign can teach us, but that’s like turning away at the first incision. Politics has always been a dirty business, and while it’s ok to look away, it’s also important to roll up our sleeves and dive in. It might get dark and weird.
New Orleans is the best place to spend New Years Eve in the country. You don’t need fancy plans, just slalom through the French Quarter. I was down there with my wife and friends, and on January 2nd, I planned to bring them to Biloxi, Mississippi, where I spent the most fulfilling year of my life working on Hurricane Katrina relief. To my surprise, someone else was planning on visiting Biloxi that very evening: Donald Trump.
After a day of good food and exploring the old corners of the East Biloxi, we settled down at The Pub, one of the great dive bars of all time. Beers there still go for $2.25, though like anywhere, I miss the old juke box. Some of my favorite bartenders were there hanging out. We were just a mile from the Gulf Coast Coliseum, where Trump would be speaking. I downed a few beers. Even though we all had downloaded free tickets for the event, everyone else was far more interested in playing pool, and I’d be going alone.
I’d only been to the Gulf Coast Coliseum once before, a few months after Hurricane Katrina. FEMA used it as their base of operations and went all John Randel, Jr. on it. Cubicles were located at gridded intersections that required maps to find. Things weren’t much clearer now as I scoured for the right line and right entrance. It was here that I got my first glimpse into the Trump voter psyche. In the confusion, many people were just giving up, resigned to their fate. Upon learning he didn’t have the credentials to get in a door others entered, one man sighed loudly, “I guess that’s why they make the big bucks…” When I found the end of the line, the fella ahead of me lamented to his wife, “This must be the line for people like us.” Such victimhood for a free event! I jogged around ’til I found a short line and acquired a button.
Someone asked if he could get a button for free, and the vendor responded, “What do you think this is, a Bernie Sanders rally?” The vendor was a black guy who followed Trump around the country selling unauthorized merchandise. A few white bros started looking at his gear, one of them loudly referring to his friend as “my n*gga” and asking the vendor things like, “You representin’? You getting sh*t done?” Very uncomfortable. I bypassed security, which consisted of waving my phone at an ancient ticket person and cruising through a Secret Service metal detector, admiring the confiscated knives.
The Donald emerged at 7pm sharp to Twisted Sister’s “We’re Not Gonna Take It.” As the pandemonium died down, Trump launched into a rapid-fire, egomaniacal, beatific stream of consciousness. And no notes! ‘No notes’ is something Trump brags about at length despite it being utterly ordinary for campaign trail speeches.
Here’s Trump’s opening salvo:
“So great to be here, we’ve set the record for largest crowd ever in this arena, plus thousands in the overflow room, plus thousands who will go home upset because they couldn’t get into either…but nice to set the record for this arena, which has been around for a while, I mean… it looks pretty worn, honestly…the Washington Post today, they had an article that called me plainspoken – what does that mean? I went to Wharton, which, you should know, is practically impossible to get into. My father went to MIT. But I’m plainspoken, I guess, the truth is that we have the smartest team, the smartest supporters, and we want to make American great again!”*
*(All quotes are approximate because like Trump, I don’t use notes.)
Complimenting his supporters as smart was smart (“people are so tired of stupidity”) but he wasn’t done complimenting himself. Trump explained how good he was at giving speeches by recounting a wealthy, successful friend of his who asked him for notes, which of course he doesn’t have, because he doesn’t use notes. He clearly did have papers at the podium, but we soon learned what they were for:
READING POLLS. Trump loves reading polls, especially polls with him in first place. “This one’s from CNN. Trump 38%, Cruz 21%…here’s Jeb all the way down at 3%. It’s just sad.” Trump loves making fun of Jeb Bush, and the crowd eats it up. I love it because I can laugh and cheer along without faking it.
Journalists have trouble covering Trump because he’s so out there that you don’t know where to begin. Lines like “I’ll be the greatest jobs president God ever sent to this planet” and “I’m the most militaristic person you’ve ever met” are so nonsensical and such naked pandering that they can’t possibly be taken seriously, even by the person saying them or the crowd they’re being said to. This is the entertainment, the dirty word among the pundit class. But entertainment counts. Can you imagine listening to an 80-minute political speech that wasn’t funny? Perhaps Obama’s greatest masterpiece, his 2008 South Carolina primary victory speech, was only 17 minutes long. The only other person I’ve seen give an extemporaneous political speech of that length was Fidel Castro introducing Hugo Chavez, carried by a random TV channel in the Bahamas.
I was distracted live-tweeting on my phone for a while, and when I looked up, Trump was reading polls again. “Let’s look at this one. Who does best on economy? That’s easy. Trump, Trump,Trump…”
Friends thought I was going to witness some Baptist Tea Party Revival, but that wasn’t the scene at all. The crowd, while conservative, was mildly dressed, mild mannered, only slightly scowled. Sure it was mostly white, old, and overweight – this was a Republican rally, after all. But it wasn’t scary. Except for one moment that we’ll get to later.
“We are weak, we are soft, we are pathetic.” In Trump’s world, everyone is steamrolling us and making fools of us, taking our lunch money – the Russians, the Chinese, the Arab states, Mexico…and he’s probably right about some of that. Dictatorships do have certain foreign policy advantages, and the Obama Doctrine, to the extent there is one, hasn’t exactly been a roaring success. But to Make America Great Again one has to accept the premise that everything is rotted to hell currently. Again, not a challenging argument to make. Look at Bernie.
People who came for Muslim and Mexican bashing left mostly disappointed. These are Trump’s comments that get the most attention on television, probably because they range from reprehensible to utterly unconstitutional. But he’d honestly much rather talk about how badly Jeb Bush is doing. On Islam he mostly complained about rich Arab countries not taking in enough refugees and terrorist wives knowing about their husbands’ activities – this was an oddly large applause line.
I almost thought Mexico would go unmentioned, but there was an obligatory riff on the Wall. (And what is a Trump rally but a series of riffs?)
“I’m going to build a wall, and it’s going to be a real wall, not one of those little walls (his hand signals a four-foot wall, everyone nods along, what?) that cost so much money. I’m going to do it right, because I know how to build things. And everyone who keeps saying, Donald, you can’t build a wall. What about the Chinese? Two thousands years ago they built a wall thirteen thousand miles long! Two thousand years ago. And we only need to build a wall that’s 1/13th the length! We’re talking about 1,000 miles, maybe less when you factor in natural barriers…and let me tell you, I’m going to make that old wall look like the Not So Great Wall of China.”
Not So Great Wall of China? Good as gold.
Have you ever seen a tornado? The sky turns dark in a hurry. That’s what happened next. We were in the midst of a routine riff on the media, (“Most of them are so dishonest, it’s disgusting.”) when his eyes fixed on the camera crews straight across the arena. “Look at them,” he snarled. “Everywhere we go we get huge crowds like this, record-breaking crowds. But they’ll never show you.” The crowd seethed.
“They’ll only show pictures of my face. Now I think I have a pretty good looking face…” The crowd chuckled.
“But they’ll never show the people in the crowd. Not unless there’s a PROTESTER. Then, all of a sudden, you’ve got 12 different camera angles showing the PROTESTER.” The crowd murmured, and I felt some eyes settle on me for a minute. After all, I was a long-haired minority in purple blazer.
“Look at that camera man right there!” Trump raised his voice and pointed. “Why don’t you point your camera away from me and show these people?” The crowd was agitated, scattered yells of ‘turn the camera!’
“They’re not going to do it, they’ll never show these crowds! It’s disgusting!” A crescendo of boos was rising. Middle fingers waved. Pained shouts of “fuck you’ and ‘turn the camera.’
“I’ll wait. Turn the camera! Show the people!” The news stations weren’t moving, and the cheering and jeering got louder and louder. Trump fixed his gaze on the front camera man. “I’d fire his ass right now if I could.” The crowd erupted. We had finished our four minutes of hate. Trump shook his head. “It’s just a shame, they are trying to marginalize us.”
Trump is not tethered to Heritage Foundation talking points, and occasionally tosses out lines that are totally out of step with mainstream Republican dogma that still get applause. Sure, Trump wants to “rip the head off of ISIS.” Who doesn’t? But he brags about his opposition to the war in Iraq. He argued that South Korea, one of the richest countries on earth, should be defending its own border with North Korea – a fair point! He loves boasting about how strong he’s going to make the military, but tacks on that it will be so strong he’ll “never have to use it.” You can imagine that Trump utterly lacks the patience to execute a major land war, and is nothing if not self-aware.
When Trump talks about scaling back America’s military footprint and demanding more from our allies, he sounds decidedly multilateralist, more liberal than libertarian. But the Southern crowds eat it up. Standing up to the military industrial complex isn’t just good policy, it’s good politics, and liberals who got cowed by the Bush administration after 9/11 need to grow their spines back.
Likewise, his economic populism confounds normal politics. On television I saw him get an Alabama crowd on its feet when he proposed taxing the hell out of Ford for making its car parts in Mexico. He’s got that Ross Perot sucking sound down, and he won’t eat Oreos since Nabisco stopped making them in America.
Trump tells his supporters that they’re smart: “You get it…the people really get it. They know how crooked this system is.” Trump tells supporters he loves them: “I love everyone in this room. I really do.” All voters want to be told they are smart and loved, but most politicians are too self-absorbed to notice. Last year I chalked up Trump’s rise in part to his ability to tell jokes and make people feel comfortable, an art completely lost on most Democratic and Republican politicians.
And he hates special interests! Trump is forever reminding primary voters that unlike his Republican opponents, he is un-bought by billionaires. There is a misconception on the left that conservatives are ok with corporations and billionaires running politics. They aren’t. They just consider Democrats preaching that message while taking special interest money from unions and advocacy groups to be hypocritical. But honest Democrats should not abandon the message of corruption in front of any audience.
In a decidedly fiery night, one moment struck me as oddly subdued. Remember earlier, when Trump whipped the crowd up into a frenzy talking about protestors? There was only one noticeable act of protest, when a few people in the upper deck unfurled a banner that read Islamophobia ≠ You’re Fired. A few people hissed, but most people didn’t notice it. Whether or not Trump noticed it, he certainly didn’t acknowledge it. After a few minutes, the security guards took the sign away and rolled it up, but people didn’t hoot or holler. One guy next to me muttered, “Ah, let ‘em have their sign.” Maybe everyone wore themselves our berating hypothetical protesters.
Around minute 70, just as energy was sagging, Trump dropped one of the more creative arguments in support of his presidency: ”I’ve spent less money than any candidate with the best results. Don’t we need that for our country?” Touché.
Soon the rally was over, and I staggered out in a daze. The crowd around me swelled forward to catch Trump on the rope line, but my feet were tired and my friends were waiting. The PA rocked out where it has last left off, once again blasting “We’re Not Gonna Take It.” By the time I crossed the arena the song had ended, and I heard the unmistakable celestial choir sing, “I saw her today at the reception…” The DJ was closing the rally with the Rolling Stones classic, “You Can’t Always Get What You Want.” So strange. Why would you do that?
I stepped out into the cool Biloxi night. Things got pretty weird during that year after Katrina, but if you had ever told me that I would be back in town ten years later to watch presidential front-runner Donald Trump…I would have said probably better him than George W.