I went to the Donald Trump rally last night to see what I could see.
I saw a sea of cheaply produced red caps. I saw a man in a horse suit. I saw a presidential candidate tell thousands of Arkansans — seemingly out of nowhere — that Alabama “has a hell of a football team,” yet still solidly win the crowd over in the end. Maybe he really is just good at winning?
In retrospect, Barton Coliseum was a perfect venue for the narrative of blight and pathos that Trump peddles, of a limping, faded America become the butt of the world’s jokes. Milling about for hours with a restive crowd on a vast concrete floor lent a vague sense of being lost in a refugee crisis ourselves, although one with good signage and access to concessions. When the Pledge of Allegiance began, the location of the American flag wasn’t immediately obvious, and everyone’s gaze wandered around the arena for just a split second before we collectively discovered it hanging from the shadowed ceiling girders next to a scoreboard dingily blaring a Walgreens logo.
I spoke to Bob Gardner, a doctor for the VA in Little Rock who’s been in the National Guard for 35 years. He likes Trump rivals Marco Rubio and Ted Cruz, he said, but like many people I spoke to, the specter of terrorism has fueled his interest in Trump. “I think ISIS is one of the main threats we have against this country right now. They’re not going to go away,” he said. “I’ve studied the whole philosophy of radical Islam for several years now, and it’s not an ideology that wants to be tolerant of us.”
Does that mean he supports a ban on Muslims entering the U.S., as Trump has proposed? “Well — nothing against Muslims, but if someone can tell me a Muslim who’s a terrorist from a Muslim who’s not, then I’ll agree to let any Muslim into the country, because I have nothing against the religion of Islam. But, when it comes to protecting my family and my country, then I have to put that as a priority first.” He used a dubious analogy that’s circulated in recent months: Not all snakes are poisonous, but if we can’t tell the poisonous ones from the harmless ones, we’d better play it safe and keep them all out. “Until you can identify which ones are poisonous and which ones are not, we don’t have a choice.”
Unlike some Trump supporters, Gardner isn’t a fan of his candidate’s eagerness to say outrageous things and lob insults. “I think that’s probably his weakest suit. … But I think he will be very good at picking out people who will be his chief officials. The president’s not an entity unto himself. He has to surround himself with really good people — Secretary of Defense, Secretary of the Treasury, whatever. … He’ll probably have to be a little bit more diplomatic. But everyone’s got strong and weak suits.”
For a woman named Vicki, a North Little Rock mother of two grown children in the military, the main appeal is economic. She’s always voted Democratic, she told me, but now she’s sold on Donald Trump’s insistence he’ll do things different and better, even if the details can be generously described as sketchy.
“We’re tired of the politicians telling us the same story. … Especially for the poor people — we’re gonna get you out of this, get you out of that. And we believe in them, you know? … I just think maybe we need some change — maybe we need somebody who ain’t so political. Somebody who does know business and how to run things and get us out of what we’re in, because we’re all in it together, and we’re all struggling. … I’m on disability and I see it every day.
“I just think somebody really needs to listen to what we’re saying out here,” she said. Is a billionaire really the person to do that? “I think they’re all rich,” she replied. “I know, he was born with a silver spoon in his mouth, and I wasn’t even born with a plastic spoon in my mouth, you know what I’m saying? But I just hope he might look down upon us little people, poor people — and I’m speaking for myself, being poor — and I just hope he listens to us, and we will stand behind him. I will.”
Why her conversion to the GOP? “Obama. He was supposed to be for all of us poor people, he really was. Both times [in 2008 and 2012] I was right for him, yes sir. … And I still like him. I mean, he’s my president. But I just don’t like the way he turned out and did us all.” But she was unclear about what exactly fueled her disillusionment with the president. “Well, number one, all the Obamacare. … I don’t know, I just don’t think he did us right. … I think he’s biased about a lot of things. I’m ready for a change.”
I had to ask: If Vicki is looking for a change for the poor, what about Bernie Sanders? “He scares me. He wants to raise taxes 90 percent? People like me will die. I’ll just end up with nothing. … [and] I never hear Bernie talk about the vets. Donald Trump mentions them all the time. I don’t know; I just don’t like him.”
Trump’s plane was grounded in Nashville, and he ended up being about two and a half hours late. There was a warm-up performance by a truly awful local hype guy (Dave Ramsey accurately described him earlier as “the understudy for a boy band formed by a mega-church in Tulsa”), followed by a prayer and a very shaky rendition of the national anthem. We still had an interminable stretch of time to kill, but, unfortunately, the Trump team turned up the volume on their pre-performance playlist — “Tiny Dancer,” “Hey Jude,” the theme from “Skyfall” — which made it difficult to strike up any further conversations, so I wandered out into the concessions area.
I thought to myself, Damn, I sure wish you could get a beer here, followed immediately by No, actually, I’m very glad you can’t.
Standing in line for a snack, I spoke to Will, a 22-year-old from Forrest City. He told me he liked Trump because “he’d be a good, strong leader. I just feel like Obama is weak on all our foreign policy.” Also: “My family farms, so I’m really interested in his standpoint on agriculture.” (Trump’s most salient point on issues of interest to agriculture is probably his cartoonishly hardline stance on immigration, which would be catastrophic for guestworker-reliant American farms.)
Will conceded that Trump could be obnoxious. “I mean, he’s out there. That’s for sure. But he just says what he thinks. He doesn’t sound like a politician, who’s gonna say what you want to hear. I like that. … Even though he’s not necessarily saying the right things.”
I got a Coke and a six-dollar bowl of Frito pie and found a place at a standing table. (Tip: Do not ever, ever get the Frito pie at Barton Coliseum.) A middle aged man with weathered, worried features came up to my table, pulled out a slip of paper and a blue ballpoint pen, and began writing with great urgency. He ignored my presence, a couple feet away. He wrote his phone number, his name, and then, forming each word with intense concentration,”you should hang out with me sometime.” He glanced about, searching for a special someone, but clearly he’d lost track of his target. A pained look crossed his face and he strode away, head swiveling in all directions.
I went back into the arena. Arkansas State Fair general manager Ralph Shoptaw came on stage to declare that the crowd had just broken a record for the venue, supposedly set in 1974 by a ZZ Top concert. Over 11,500 people were there, Shoptaw said. This was demonstrably untrue, as David Koon wrote earlier today. Barton Coliseum’s official capacity is around 10,000, and pictures from the rally show entire sections of seating mostly empty. Either several thousand Trump supporters ambled off to explore the horse barn during his stump speech, or the claim was a lie. (If anyone was at Barton both for ZZ Top in 1974 and Trump in 2016 — and I know you’re out there somewhere — please get in touch.)
It’s very hard to tell how many folks at a Trump rally genuinely support Donald Trump. I’d estimate that anywhere between 5 – 10 percent of the crowd was there purely for laughs. A not uncommon sight: Clumps of multiracial young folks who looked to be high school or college students, watching the scene with an air of wary amusement and lightly snickering. I saw more diversity at the Trump rally than a lot of liberal/progressive events I’ve been to in Pulaski County. (I really mean this, depressingly enough.) Judging from my conversations, another 15 – 25 percent of the crowd weren’t necessarily contemptuous of the proceedings, but were drawn by a somewhat apolitical curiosity over Trump’s star appeal. Yes, I’m making those estimates up, but if Donald Trump can do it, so can I.
Finally, finally, at around 7:30, the man himself appeared. Cheers all around.
Trump started his speech by repeating the false statement that the crowd in front of him had broken an attendance record for the venue. He said he’d asked “the fire marshal” to come up and make the announcement earlier, because if it came from his own lips, we might not believe him. Then it was on to his trademark stream-of-consciousness oratory. Tonight’s sermon, fresh after Trump’s disappointing second-place finish in the Iowa caucus, centered on the venality of politicians.
“Actually, I think I came in first,” he said of the Iowa contest, explaining his theory of how Texas Senator Ted Cruz had stolen the election by circulating rumors on caucus night of faded evangelical favorite Ben Carson dropping out of the race. Cruz operatives did indeed pull this dirty trick — though it’s not clear the order came from the top of the campaign, and it’s certainly not why Trump lost the state. He lost because Cruz outperformed him.
Of course this would be Trump’s go-to strategy when faced with defeat: Cry foul and declare victory in the face of reality.
“That voter fraud. These politicians are brutal … They are a bunch of dishonest cookies, I want to tell you,” he said. “This political stuff is dangerous —” a man nearby began wildly clapping “—and these political people are really dishonest.”
Soon thereafter, the first round of protesters was tossed out of the stands, directly behind the candidate — a collection of young folks, many of them people of color. “Traitor!” someone near me yelled. Another: “Get ’em outta here!”
Trump turned to wave bye-bye as several gave him the finger. “I didn’t think we’d see that in Little Rock,” Trump said sadly. “They’re not from here!” shouted a young man in front of me, eager to defend our collective honor.
Trump then launched into perhaps the flimsiest paean to Arkansas that I’ve ever heard, telling a confusing story about a friend (or was it two friends?) who were dying of cancer. “Goners,” Trump said. But they came to Arkansas and were cured by Dr. Bart Barlogie, formerly of UAMS. “They came to Arkansas; they’re fine today. Amazing!” He seemed to credit the state, collectively, for performing this miracle cure. “So — congratulations, folks. That’s pretty good.”
“The Natural State!” someone yelled. “It was really pretty amazing,” Trump said.
Then he turned back towards the subject of Ted Cruz, complaining that Cruz lately has accused him of supporting Obamacare. That’s a lie, said Trump. “Everybody in this room knows I’ve been opposed to it so strongly.” The truth, he said, is that Ted Cruz pushed for the nomination of Chief Justice John Roberts to the U.S. Supreme Court, and Roberts later upheld the core provisions of the Affordable Care Act on two separate occasions. Therefore: “Ted Cruz gave us Obamacare.” (This was a bit too much for one man next to me, who shook his head and grumbled, “no he didn’t.”)
I’ve gotta say, I guffawed with glee when I heard that line against Cruz, whose sanctimonious national political identity was defined by his crassly self-serving filibuster stunt against the ACA in 2013. Personally, I think the smug liberal narrative of “Donald Trump is the monster the Republican Party created” is a little too pat, but there’s truth to it, and this is a good example. By so thoroughly disconnecting Obamacare from reality, by making it merely shorthand for “every bad experience you’ve ever had with health care” — see the response from Vicki above — the GOP has facilitated this latest absurdist inversion of Trump’s.
Like any bully worth his salt, Trump has a fine instinct for identifying the pressure points of his adversaries: Jeb Bush is weak and impotent, etc. The charge of weakness won’t stick as readily to Cruz, who’s as eager to carpet bomb Middle Eastern cities as anyone. But of dishonesty, of unctuousness? That might work. Better yet, just tell the most outrageous lie imaginable about Cruz and laugh when he denies it. (Interestingly, Trump refrained from saying much last night that seemed directly aimed at Rubio, his other principal rival for the nomination.)
Somewhere in here, Trump referenced a recent stopover in Mobile, Alabama, which he then used to gently (and inexplicably) mock the crowd. “You do like Alabama right? Right?” he asked. He grinned. “You have to say, they have a hell of a football team, right?” There were some laughs, but no one seemed quite sure what to do. A wave of boos began; Trump was unshaken, or maybe he didn’t notice. He definitely didn’t care. (He doesn’t sound like a politician, who’s gonna say what you want to hear. I like that. … Even though he’s not necessarily saying the right things.)
A solo protester near me seized upon the moment. “Call the Hogs!” he began shrieking. “Call the Hogs!” Finally, he got Trump’s attention. “Whoops, do I hear somebody shouting? Is he a friend or foe?” Trump said, peering in our direction. “Friend or foe?” In the tiny increment of silence that followed, the man yelled out, “RAZORBACKS!” Trump heard, and smiled amiably. “He’s a Razorback!” he announced. “He’s a Razorback.” The crowd reflexively cheered and cheered. Trump was placated, but a few minutes later the same guy began screaming “SANDERS! BERNIE SANDERS!” and he was quickly hustled outside by security.
Trump moved on to nativist politics. “Recently, China did a very major number on this area,” he declared. “You know that.” (We didn’t, or at least I didn’t. I have no clue what Trump was talking about here. Does anyone know what number China did on us? Which area?) “China — it’s the biggest theft in the history of the world.”
By far his biggest applause line of the night, though, concerned ISIS: “We gotta knock the shit out of ’em and keep going! We gotta be done with it,” Trump boomed. People went absolutely wild, and I’m fairly sure they were cheering at least as much for a leading presidential candidate saying the word “shit” as they were for the sentiment itself.
(The following was added to the original post several hours after its first publication.)
There was a time when a candidate for the White House saying, on stage, that America should “knock the shit out of” an enemy would be considered insane — like, literally, a sign of mental illness. But the culture has become more profane, and saying “shit” on a nationally televised stage now comes across as telling it like it is. Being real. Being honest. This, to be fair, is not Donald Trump’s fault, nor is it anyone’s, really, if it’s even a bad thing.
Although I may have intense reservations about the strategic and human costs of knocking the shit out of ISIS as a matter of policy, do I blame the folks there on Wednesday for responding to profanity? I don’t know that I do. It’s exciting to hear a candidate shout the truths that everyone else seems too timid to voice. A great deal of people just want someone to channel their frustration — to cuss a little bit, to show some blood. As David Axelrod wrote recently for the New York Times, it only makes sense that after 8 years of rule by a constitutional law professor delivering coolly moralistic policy prescriptions, voters would seek the exact opposite:
Beyond specific issues, however, many Republicans view dimly the very qualities that played so well for Mr. Obama in 2008. Deliberation is seen as hesitancy; patience as weakness. His call for tolerance and passionate embrace of America’s growing diversity inflame many in the Republican base, who view with suspicion and anger the rapidly changing demographics of America. The president’s emphasis on diplomacy is viewed as appeasement.
So who among the Republicans is more the antithesis of Mr. Obama than the trash-talking, authoritarian, give-no-quarter Mr. Trump?
Trump outlined his plan for the nation’s schools. “I want education to be local. With love. That’s what it’s all about. No more Common Core.” We spend more per student than any country in the world, he said, yet our test scores lag internationally. “Wouldn’t it be nice if our country could spend the least and have the best?” (It doesn’t get any more American than that, folks.)
And then … Trump castigated elected officials for failing to negotiate prices with pharmaceutical companies, as do other developed countries. This is an issue on which he is entirely correct (and on which he’s aligned with Obama, Sanders and Hillary Clinton). It’s worth quoting Trump at length on this point, just because — well, this is a Republican talking. The Republican front runner.
These people are taking money from the special interests, and the lobbyists, and the drug companies are an example, and that’s why we don’t negotiate the cost of drugs…
I hear it’s around $350 billion you’d save on a yearly basis.
The drug companies have it so that you can’t negotiate. So they’re selling it pretty much at a retail price — can you believe it? So we’re the biggest user in the entire world, and we’re paying like you walk into a drugstore and buy something over the counter … all because the drug stores, and the drug companies, have such power over our politicians.
The explanation may not be great, but the message was comprehensible enough: Big drug manufacturers are making obscene profits off of necessary prescriptions, and the government rolls over and lets them do it. This is true. Or actually, the real message was even simpler: They, in some general frightening sense, are all in bed together and they’re screwing you over. This, possibly, is largely true as well.
To wrap up, he took some questions from the crowd. “Which I never do,” he claimed. “I want some vicious questions. Some horrible, disgusting, vicious, vicious questions.”
First up: Lynette “Doc” Bryant, the fringe candidate who formerly ran for the Democratic nomination for governor against Mike Ross.
“Mr. Trump! I’m Doctor Lynette Bryant, and I ran for governor in 2014 on the Democratic ticket because they wanted to make every constitutional officer their pick. Well — I’m voting for you!” she declared.
“Oh! I love you!” he growled.
“And with that — when you come to Arkansas, we give you a warm welcome, so you have to help us CALL OUT THE PIGS! Woooooo—”
“OK. OK. Thank you very much, honey. Beautiful. I appreciate that. I’ll bet you’re a good doctor, too. Go ahead, who’s got a question over there? I give it to that gentleman with the red hat on. That beautiful red hat that says” — Trump’s index finger bobbed with each word, like that of a symphony conductor — “Make … America … Great … Again! Go ahead. Good looking guy. Let’s go.”
“How will you get rid of these gun free zones?” asked the man. “There was an active shooter at my university when I was taking a final and I had no way to protect myself, because my university is a gun free zone.”
“What is your university?” Trump inquired.
“Arkansas State University.”
“Ah,” Trump said, nodding knowingly. “That’s a good school.”
“Here’s the thing,” he continued. “Gun free zones are a disaster in our country. It’s like holding up candy to a baby. … In Paris, essentially, they had a gun free zone. … We’re getting rid of the gun free zones stuff, folks. We’re getting rid of them.” (I can only assume that Trump will begin this pledge by allowing weapons of all kinds to be carried into his future rallies. Also: Yes, that’s the one thing that would have improved the ASU situation, which was defused peacefully by police negotiators. If only we’d had college students popping off shots on the quad, things could have ended much better.)
Trump plowed on. “This nice man with that beautiful head of gray hair. Look at him! What a good head of hair he’s got.”
“President Trump. I’ve heard talk about Christian churches losing their tax exempt status. Under you, will we have more protections?”
“I love the question … you know, with the evangelicals, I do amazingly well. I’m leading with evangelicals,” Trump said, sounding for all the world like he was talking shop with a pollster instead of addressing a crowd of assuredly evangelical Christians in the heart of the Bible belt. “Christianity is under siege, folks. It’s under siege. If I said some of the things I said about Christianity that I have said about, uh, other things, I would have had not the same difficulty.” The political power of Christianity has been diluted, he explained, and also something about Lyndon Johnson.
Trump talks about Christians as if they’re a group to which he does not belong. That is clearly in fact the case. The fascinating thing is that such a large number of them don’t find this to be much of a problem.
In last week’s issue of the New Yorker, Ryan Lizza contrasted the philosophical and strategic differences between the Trump and Cruz insurgencies within the suffering GOP, and on Wednesday night, as I watched Trump wrap up his speech by disinterestedly tossing a bone to aggrieved evangelicals, I realized another crucial distinction. Yes, they’re both men thriving on the darker political emotions — fear, anger, grievance, despair, tribalism — but they’re fueled by different paranoid visions of ruin.
Though Trump paints a picture of a fallen America, it’s always framed in terms of a fall from strength — not a fall from grace. Morality is simply foreign to him. Trump’s America is an ominous place, but it’s far less explicitly apocalyptic than the baleful vision offered by the likes of Ted Cruz and the Tea Party. Cruz’s America is one where evil actively stalks the land, where abortionists murder babies by the millions and the government’s totalitarian ambitions unfold a little further every day. Trump doesn’t talk about the federal government as a tool of the Beast, or the Illuminati. He doesn’t even really talk about it as a force to be feared. He talks about it in terms of contempt, as a collection of stupid, spineless, venal losers.
Still — that doesn’t mean he won’t happily accept into his fold the 13 percent of the nation that thinks Obama is the Antichrist. If they’ll have him.
“Christianity is under siege,” he told the crowd. “Little things, but they’re big things to me. It’s Christmastime. You can’t say Merry Christmas anymore. If I win, folks, we’re all going to be saying ‘Merry Christmas.’ That I can tell you. … Folks, I love you, you’re special. SEC, get out and vote, we’re gonna change, this is change, we’re gonna Make America Great Again. Thank you, everybody.”