“It’s so great that we are all together in one place,” a middle-aged white woman gushed, almost directly in my ear. “Trump was sent by God!” I had other theories, but she was right about one thing. Donald Trump’s “Great American Comeback Tour” had brought me and roughly a thousand other souls together, far too closely for comfort, in Mosinee, Wisconsin – Trump country – as part of the President’s strategy to rally the hard-core of his electoral base leading up to the November election. From the standpoint of American political orthodoxy it’s a curious strategy, especially as Joe Biden is effectively running as a Republican. But Trump didn’t get here by following political orthodoxy. The President is nothing if not a showman, and here, in his natural habitat, he knows better than to not give the people what they want.
The first stop on the tour had been “a total disaster,” as Trump would say. The tens of thousands of adoring fans Trump had expected to fill the BOK Center in Tulsa, Oklahoma had not materialized, leaving a famously Teflon entertainer noticeably stung from the worst sight in show business: empty seats. This time around, the venue was far more modest, with the staging designed to jam-pack a few thousand people together tightly to avoid embarrassing photos of empty space, Covid be damned. In order to even attend the rally I was forced to sign a waiver absolving the President of any liability should I contract the virus – a telling contrast with his campaign’s consistent downplaying of Covid’s seriousness since it first arose. And the virus would hang over the event as an unspoken presence, akin to Edgar Allen Poe’s “Masque of the Red Death” with Trump in the role of the dauntless Prince Prospero, central Wisconsin furnishing his “thousand hale and lighthearted friends,” and their fervid assembly, like Prospero’s great ball, concocted to disavow the misery unfolding outside. Except here, there were far fewer masks.
The opening acts were again, in Trump’s parlance, a couple of “lightweights.” Wisconsin Senator and staunch Trump ally Ron Johnson was conspicuously absent, amid fears he’d been exposed to Covid. Despite the President’s routine denial of the virus’s danger, and disparagement of precautions to stem its spread, this disqualified Johnson from sharing space with Trump, who is allegedly terrified of contracting it. Instead the warm-up act consisted of recently-elected and largely-forgettable representative Tom Tiffany, followed by his predecessor Sean Duffy, who like Trump, got his start on reality TV and remains famous for being famous. As Duffy rehashed AM talk radio bits about an impending “commie” takeover and Nancy Pelosi’s famous hair appointment, his modest star power quickly lost its grip the crowd, his thunder stolen by every passing aircraft, no matter how distant, raising exclamations: “There he is!” “Why is he so high!” “He’ll probably fly a few loops around!” At last, with a hint of bitterness, Duffy informed the crowd that if they were looking for Air Force One, it was still an hour away.
As Trump’s admirers awaited his arrival, the staging meant to frame Air Force One as the mise-en-scène of the President’s speech accentuated the empty sky with great dramatic flair. Daylight gave way to a chilly evening as the crowd cheered for one approaching aircraft after another that disappointed them by not containing Trump. When one section clapped for a white light in the distance, a skeptic countered: “It doesn’t look big enough!” The energy was closer to a rock concert than a political rally, and the only thing missing was a beach ball. Politics (and ethics, and aesthetics, but perhaps not poetics) aside, Donald Trump is a really big star. His arrival on the runway was akin to Beatlemania for the baby boomers who thought their older sister had been brainwashed by a band of atheistic communists. And when Trump finally appeared on stage – from where I was standing, a mere orange blur atop a podium, with famously undersized hands gesticulating madly on either side – everyone around me jockeyed restlessly to catch a good look at him through a sea of phone screens and rally signs bearing messages like “Cops for Trump” and “Peaceful Protester.” (The designation of Trump events as “peaceful protests” has recently become a clever means of sidestepping Covid regulations.)
And why not admit it: I was excited to see him too! He’s probably the most famous person I’ve ever seen in real life. At this point, he might be the most famous person in the world, and if the difference between fame and infamy matters in some metaphysical cosmic register, it sure as hell doesn’t to American television viewers, chief among them Donald J. Trump. Like many Americans of my generation, I grew up with his image as the embodiment of luxury and power fixed on the plane somewhere between fantasy and reality where he has built his image, the Monopoly man made flesh. What’s more, after five years of watching these rallies on prime time television, it felt a bit like I had the chance to kick back and crack some jokes with the Seinfeld gang at Monk’s Diner.
It would be obvious enough to comment that the vast majority of attendees did not wear any kind of personal protective equipment (PPE), even as the rate of Covid infection in Wisconsin continues to set new records. But the more interesting story was the smattering of people who did wear masks. What did they make of their immersion in a sea of maskless revelers? Johnson’s absence, which hung over the evening’s festivities, must have been widely known, but what did it mean? Unfortunately, this will have to remain a mystery, as this was not my shining moment in investigative journalism. I for one was wearing two masks, and surrounded by more maskless people than I’ve seen in person since February – chanting for me and all my friends to be sent to jail, to boot – I didn’t feel much like playing man on the street. That is, assuming the world needs another exclusive interview with a “silent majority” that never seems to shut up. And on a personal note, I’m sick of extending sociological generosity to unriddle the supposed enigma of the “white working class” Trump voter’s “economic insecurity.” The loudest applause all night came for denying healthcare to the undocumented. Fuck these people.
“Why the hell is Trump going to Mosinee?” a friend from Wisconsin had asked me before I left. It was a good question. Trump had visited the same spot in 2018, after he had quickly tired of the stale civic ceremonies of presidential life and longed for a return to the clamor of the campaign rally. Predictably enough, a Guardian reporter in attendance seized on the shopworn cliché that Trump’s visit to the remote town evinced his concern for the “forgotten American,” and accordingly had little trouble finding a Trump supporter willing to give it to him: “He’s paying attention to small towns instead of just big cities,” a bartender from Mosinee’s “main street” told him. “He’s paying attention to people like us.” Of course Trump, famously enough, doesn’t pay attention to much of anything besides his own reflection, though in fairness, somewhere around the one-hour mark, he paid respects to the “good people right here in… Give me the proper pronunciation. That’s right, thank you, that’s what I said.”
A better answer to my friend’s question was right in front of our faces. In addition to being far enough from a major city to avoid protesters, Mosinee is home to a small airport all too happy to accommodate the President of the United States. The rally was held in the space outside an aircraft hangar, and the crowd literally spilled onto the runway. Trump, therefore, could pull Air Force One right up to the hustings like a drive-up window, mount the rostrum without getting near anyone, rant and rave until he’d had his fill of the applause, and be back in the air within two hours, having taken roughly 100 steps on Wisconsin soil. One can almost hear the president saying: “I want to spend as little time in the shithole as humanly possible” – and the way things have been going lately, soon enough we might have an audiotape. “I don’t know why the hell I like Wisconsin,” he told the crowd at one point, “but for some reason…” At that, he left the subject mid-sentence, and moved on to recounting his underdog victory over “Crooked Hillary” four years ago.
Trump’s marathon rambling put a fresh spin on the old game Two Truths and a Lie, except his version involves nine outrageous lies – e.g. “I saved the suburbs,” “you wouldn’t have a Second Amendment if I wasn’t elected,” the three best economic years in Wisconsin history have been the last three, “Joe Biden is against God,” and so forth – occasionally punctuated with the most outrageous admission of truth, such that many who don’t realize the President is a lifelong teetotaler are forgiven for assuming he’s half in the wrapper. “The people I like the best,” he told us in a meandering boast about all his powerful friends, “are the people that are less successful because it makes you feel so powerful! I always say: never go out with a successful person.” This same garden path veered into the lurid exploits of unchecked male power for which he is perhaps more famous than for his spurious “deals.” “You don’t wanna know what we talked about,” he remarked in a tangent about dinner with his powerful friends, “because it’s none of your business.” At this, the clear implication that Trump was on the verge of telling us which famous women he did what with seemed to electrify a crowd that cheered just as loud for his exclamations of religious piety. The more outrageous, and nonsensical, Trump got, the more the crowd was on board.
“The tastes of the duke were peculiar,” writes Poe, of his Prince Prospero. “He had a fine eye for colors and effects. He disregarded the decora of mere fashion. His plans were bold and fiery, and his conceptions glowed with barbaric luster. There are some who would have thought him mad. His followers felt that he was not. It was necessary to hear and see and touch him to be sure that he was not.”
While it is easy enough to laugh off the excesses of Trump’s deranged rants, which defy parody, and are lampooned most effectively by simply transcribing the President’s remarks as he has delivered them, it is worth remarking that he held the attention of over 1,000 people for ninety-five minutes, longer than the average romantic comedy. The rally followed a familiar routine, captured deftly by John Garvey in these pages last year: “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.” The excitement works both ways. “But it’s not only the crowd who has come to see Trump;” Garvey adds, “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.”
Trump, who came of age in the pages of New York City tabloids, has been the quintessential social media user since long before the advent of Twitter. As he rants and raves about everything and nothing, his id is directly wired to a public address system that measures the appetites and aversions of his audience, and who, in a perennial feedback loop, he serves back what they like the most. From abortive issues like a boycott of Starbucks over “holiday” themed cups, to his old mainstay about Colin Kaepernick refusing to stand for the national anthem, Trump is constantly trying out new material and bringing back biggest applause lines when all else fails. Sometimes this occurs in mid-sentence. “I took over a military that was totally depleted,” he told Mosinee, and likely detecting he had ventured too close to disparaging the military, a sensitive subject as of late, he continued, “like Hillary Clinton deleted, as opposed to depleted… she deleted 33,000 emails.”
Reading Garvey’s anatomy of the original Trump rallies, it’s remarkable how little has changed, because outside the Trump rally, what hasn’t? Recalling the rise of Trump’s political star in 2015 and 2016, which were at the time the darkest day many Americans could recall, now seems like escapism from a period of generalized crisis and global despair. In more practical terms, with a majority in the Senate, a milquetoast opposition in the House, and four years to execute his campaign promises, Trump now is the entrenched Washington DC power he once gleefully tilted against as the insurgent outsider. Mike Pence perhaps accidentally wandered into this uncomfortable contradiction at the Republican Convention in August, when he proclaimed that he and Trump would “Make American great again, again!” Pence’s deadpan delivery faintly suggested someone trying to get out of their job, but either way it raised the question: how is America doing?
As Joe Biden would say, “you know the thing.” Covid-19 has brought the putative superpower to its knees, as profit-driven fantasies of going back to “normal,” which Trump has cheered on since the virus first appeared, hobble our ability to limit its spread. The misery and carnage visited on the most powerless people in our society by the virus and the organized abandonment it has accentuated and occasioned will take years to even comprehend. Simultaneously, the George Floyd Rebellion represents the most sustained and militant resistance movement in at least fifty years, raising prospects at once hopeful and endlessly dark of social conflict even moderate commentators liken to civil war. “You know how long it would take us to fix up Portland in terms of ending it all?” Trump asked Mosinee, seeming to forget that his personal army had already been deployed to Portland, where they had escalated the rebellion significantly, and been more or less run out of town. “I’d say far less than an hour, I’d say a half hour.” Remarks like this, and the cheers they solicited, reminded me that I had entered a carefully-curated, hermetically sealed fantasy world where Black Lives Matter and antifa are terrorist organizations poised to destroy civilization itself, the economy is on the verge of a major comeback, the President – our greatest since George Washington – is the nation’s foremost truth-teller, and everything that contradicts him, including Fox News, is just fake news.
That is, except for one topic. When Trump spoke of Covid, an uneasy silence fell upon the crowd. But we can’t blame them for their failure to play along. It would be impossible to toe Trump’s line on the virus, because he doesn’t have one. One minute it’s a big hoax, the next minute it’s an awful virus from China, and Trump saved “millions and millions of lives” by limiting travel from that country in its early days. Recordings recently released by Bob Woodward provide Trump, in his own words, expressing full knowledge of the gravity of the virus at a time when he was still comparing it to the common flu, and unlike his tax returns or words he allegedly spoke to an anonymous source, this proved harder for the White House to label fake news. By all appearances, Trump’s advisors have cautioned him to avoid the topic altogether, and stay focused on anarchy in Democrat-run cities, Sleepy Joe’s lack of mojo, and the unfinished business of draining the swamp. But by naming Covid out loud, Trump had quite literally summoned the Red Death to his gay gala.
There was of course no such dramatic conclusion as one finds in Poe. After all, this was something even scarier: real life, where Covid is not going anywhere soon, the manufacturing jobs Trump promised are not coming back, his former associates are lining up to denounce him, and even his personal finances seem to teeter on the edge of a cliff, alongside the rest of American society. Confronted with the bleak reality of life in his United States, our Prince Prospero can offer nothing but deranged spectacle. For Trump and those willing to go down partying by his side, the show must go on.
“So we’ll defeat the virus,” Trump remarked, in passing, “and next year will be truly, I think, from an economic standpoint and from other standpoints, maybe the best year of all.”
Jarrod Shanahan is an editor of Hard Crackers.