I have never attended a Trump rally. I don’t believe that he has held any here in Brooklyn. If he held one, I’d go to see it first-hand. The following account is based on reports in print and electronic media.
Small groups of ticket holders line up early, often in miserable weather, joined just before show time by many thousands more. The hawkers of souvenirs and conspiracies line up on the side. For the most part, they have few buyers—people already have their hats and T-shirts. Eventually, the crowd is let into the arena to the sounds of loud music that appears to have no obvious connections to Trump’s distinctive messages (think early Elton John and The Rolling Stones). Some local speakers, joined on occasion by darlings of the right-wing media (including Diamond and Silk, two black women who have secured a place in that orbit), get on stage and tell admiring tales of the president.
The president arrives; the crowd erupts in applause and cell phone photos. He takes the stage and takes it all in. He begins. There is no subtlety in what he says, and few polite preliminaries. He gets to what the crowd wants to hear. The script has mostly stayed the same since he began his campaign in 2015 although it now includes numerous references to how great he has been doing. He always seems to find time to talk about how unfairly he’s being treated. This is drama, not great drama—but recognizable drama.
The crowd knows what it has come for—a chance to be with others who support the president and want to see his show in person (there are more than a few who travel from rally to rally). He tries not to disappoint and mixes up old standards (“Crooked Hilary,” “Fake News,” “I’ll never let you down”) with new material that he’s trying out (like his recent “blunder” that led to the now infamous “SEND THEM BACK!” chant in North Carolina) and the hilarious charge that the Democratic Party has been taken over by far-left socialists. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez may deserve some credit but she’s hardly on the far left. Rest assured, there’s not a Republican or Democratic Party member of Congress who has ever met a “far-left socialist.” Sad to say, almost no one else has either.
It’s a well-known call-and-response routine. But the crowd’s appetites for what he has to say are quickly satisfied and they begin drifting out while he’s still talking. For the most part, the crowd isn’t all that interested in what Trump thinks; they’re more interested in what he represents—a rejection of all the “norms” that the liberal media never tire of passionately embracing. He says things that you’re not supposed to say and they get to share in the excitement that goes along with getting away with something. Truth be known, many of the “norms” in place since the end of World War II (such as the repression of popular movements in foreign lands through CIA covert operations and more or less continual warfare all over the world) deserve to be rejected. But the Democratic Party has now become the party that openly supports everything done around the world to protect American interests. That’s why there are so many ex-spies and veterans in the new Congress.
But it’s not only the crowd who has come to see Trump; it’s Trump who has come to see the crowd. What he wants to see is not only their votes come Election Day but their full-throated approval at the rally itself, most evident in their three-word chants—“LOCK HER UP!” “BUILD THE WALL” and “DRAIN THE SWAMP.” And, of course, he also wants lots of coverage of the crowd and its excitement in the various news media.
For Trump, as for others in the American past, the electioneering, not the election, is the real story. There was a good deal of talk at the beginning of Trump’s presidency about him becoming more presidential. What that more or less meant is that he would learn how not to exaggerate every claim he made about his fortune, talent or popularity; that he would not lie about stupid things; that he would keep silent when that served the purposes of power; that he would postpone the most obvious profit-making opportunities that come with being president (like the book deals that Barack and Michelle Obama have scored) until after his term in office had expired, and so forth. But the transformation never happened! And no one who supported him seemed to care.
Trump is a performer, whose act has been shaped by Roy Cohn (arguably the most evil lawyer in American history), the comedian Andrew Dice Clay, radio shock-jocks like Howard Stern, and right-wing talkers like Rush Limbaugh. Dice Clay is especially interesting because he appeared on season one of Celebrity Apprentice. By that time, he had established himself as the most vulgar comedian in the country—for whom there were no boundaries to what he would say. He and Trump had a falling out—according to Dice Clay because Trump once claimed that he (Trump) was more popular. Clay’s response was to ask if Trump had ever sold out Madison Square Garden on two nights. Clay is still performing and, while he insists that he’s not into politics and doesn’t criticize Trump, he does complain that: “He stole my act.” Trump is a new incarnation of an old American personality, the con man—typified by the real P.T. Barnum (who, among other things, wrote a book titled The Art of Money-Getting) and Herman Melville’s fictional Confidence Man.
His performances also echo widespread forms of carnival-like behavior during elections in English and early US history. The historian, Edmund Morgan, tried to make sense of what it meant:
It [the election carnival] enabled like-minded persons of all ranks to oppose, denounce, and even attack persons of all ranks on the other side. And it exerted a temporary equalizing influence within the ranks of each side. It gave a boost to the ego, a possibility of hobnobbing with the great, that anyone might enjoy simply by espousing one side or the other.
An election was a time when ordinary men found themselves the center of attention. The frantic solicitation of their votes elevated them to a position of importance they could not dream of at other times and it broke up the patterns of social deference that normally bound them.
The people … knew that this fraternization with them was temporary. There was a make-believe quality to it, a temporary pretending that people were equal when everybody knew they were not.
To put this idea another way, one might say that the carnival provided society with a means of renewing consent to government, of annually legitimizing (in a loose sense of the word) the existing structure of power. …By not carrying the make-believe forward into rebellion, they demonstrated their consent. By defying the social order only ritually, they endorsed it.
Trump’s people come because, as one essayist observed, it makes them “a little less lonely.” I understand that an awful lot of what happens at the rallies is objectionable. But, when it comes to understanding it and trying to figure out what to do about it, I think there’s a misplaced emphasis on what’s in people’s heads rather than on what people’s heads are in. In this instance, people’s heads are in the crowd. The crowd is what allows them to violate rules, including rules that they otherwise routinely follow.
I end with the proposition that rally participants, and the much larger group of solid Trump supporters, will not be won to change their loyalties by arguments about how he’s tricking them or by how things could be better if, for example, we had “Medicare for All.” Instead, they need to be presented with the possibility to be part of a different kind of life and a different kind of social group—way beyond the crowd, the “base,” the two parties, and the United States as we know it. For starters, that might mean imagining what a community might be like if it was defined not by all those it wants to keep out but by a conviction that a unified humanity is our only way out of the desperate circumstances we find ourselves in.
At the end of the rallies, individuals go back to their lives as they have been living them—miserable jobs, deep uncertainties about their future, worries about kids and bitterness about the life they didn’t get to have. Trump’s biggest con has been to convince them that what they have is worth holding onto.
John Garvey is a member of the editorial board of Hard Crackers