In which the author spends an afternoon he will never get back at a Trump rally in Sacramento, and files the following intriguing report for the Guardian. Among other points, he explains the baseball hat as a shield for Trump’s baldness and solution to the problem of his weave blowing in the wind at airports. Perhaps this has long been obvious to others, but it was an explicatory revelation for me.
And then it came together. I’d been watching Trump’s speech, hearing the crowd laugh and cheer and have a good time in the early evening sun, and all along I’d been trying to put my finger on what the rally reminded me of. And now, my head back in the 1980s, it hit me: Andrew Dice Clay. He might not be familiar to audiences outside the US, but in the 80s, for a few years, he was the most popular comedian in America. He would come out looking like the Fonz – in jeans, a leather jacket and a white T-shirt – and he’d tell jokes that were politically incorrect but often very funny. His posture was that of a braggy thug from Brooklyn, saying crude things on the street corner. At the height of his fame, he could sell out stadiums.
It was just an act, of course. But like a lot of comedy, the appeal is in the forbidden delight in hearing highly inappropriate things spoken into a microphone. We can’t believe someone said that, on stage, or behind a podium, to so many.
For a year now, pollsters, the media and the world at large have been baffled by the fact that no incendiary or asinine thing Trump says or tweets seems to make any dent in his appeal. He has broadcast countless statements that would sink any other candidate. (In his Sacramento speech, he repeatedly called the US a “third world country”, which would be the end of any other campaign in American history.) And for a year we’ve all assumed that when Trump said something xenophobic or sexist or offensive to the world’s billion Muslims, or the world’s billion Catholics (remember when he took on the pope?), or to the world’s 3.5 billion women, it must mean that his supporters agree with his newest outrageous statement.
But this is not true. Something very different is happening. His supporters are not really listening to anything he says. They cheer when he says he’ll help the veterans, they cheer when he says he’ll build a wall, but ultimately they do not care what he says. They don’t care if he actually will build a wall. If Trump decided, tomorrow, to reverse himself on the idea of building a wall, his supporters would shrug and their support would not waver. He has been for gun control and against gun control. He has stated his support for Planned Parenthood and for the idea of criminal punishment for women who seek abortions. He has called the Iraq war, and most of our adventures in the Middle East, mistakes, but has said he would carpet bomb Isis. He has reversed himself on nearly every major issue, often in the same week, and has offered scant specifics on anything in particular – though in Sacramento, about infrastructure, he did say, “We’re gonna have new roads, bridges, all that stuff”.
In line with this theory, the crowd vanishes before the end of the routine:
Believing that Trump’s supporters are all fascists or racists is a grave mistake. This day in Sacramento presented a different picture, of a thousand or so regular people who thought it was pretty cool how Trump showed up in a plane with his name on it. How naughty it was when he called the president “stupid”. How funny it was when he said the word “huge” the peculiar way he does, without the “h” (the audience yelled back “uuuuge!”, laughing half with him, half at him). In the same way we rooted for Clay a few years ago when he showed up as an actual actor in a Woody Allen movie, the audience at a Trump rally is thinking, How funny would it be if this guy were across the table from Angela Merkel? That would be classic.
Americans who have voted for Trump in the primaries have done so not because they agree with all, or any, of his statements or promises, but because he is an entertainment. He is a loud, captivating distraction and a very good comedian. His appeal is aided by these rallies, and by media coverage, and both are fuelled not by substance but by his willingness to say crazy shit. Corey Lewandowski, Trump’s campaign manager, has insisted that they “let Trump be Trump” and the wisdom of the strategy is undeniable. As long as he continues to say crazy shit, he will continue to dominate the news and will continue to attract crowds. The moment he ceases to entertain – to say crazy shit – he will evaporate.
Or even before that, people could just get bored. This happened in Sacramento. Just over halfway through his speech, people started leaving. Twenty-five minutes in, he had begun to repeat himself, and he’d started looking down at the podium, reading dubious statistics about Sacramento’s economic situation. People didn’t care. At one point he read from an article he said he’d clipped from a newspaper. He was getting too specific, and the entertainment value was sinking.
People from the front of the crowd started making their way back, and out. It started with the elderly woman in the Veterans of Foreign Wars hat. She, and the two people helping her, squeezed their way through the throng and into the darkness of the hangar. This began a steady flow of the departing. These people had arrived at 4pm, had waited three hours and now, at 7.30pm, they were leaving. Trump was still talking, but they were not worried about missing anything he would say, because they did not care. They had seen him, heard the zingers, taken a picture or two, and now they were heading to the parking lot, to get a head start on the traffic.
By the time Trump finished, there was no one behind me. Most of the hangar was empty. The only people left were the few hundred outside, pressed against the barricades, waiting for him to sign their posters and hats. As he moved down the line, as the sun finally set and the night finally cooled, the song playing, just as poignantly as it had when he arrived, was “Tiny Dancer”.