I listened to noise metal on the way to the Trump rally, smashing my fist against the roof of the car and air-noodling to guitar solos. When I crossed the border I made sure to wave "bye bye!" to my home state of Massachusetts, a state I once heard referred to as a "liberal sump of PC propaganda." The man who said that was from New Hampshire, a cab driver out of Portsmouth who spoke nostalgically about how his beloved state once stood for freedom and liberty, and how it had since been overrun by "libtards" from Boston. That was seven years ago. It's easy to imagine the same man standing in a cramped gymnasium with retractable bleachers, brandishing camo pants and a "Make America Great Again" hat, maybe a pin that reads: "Bomb the hell out of ISIS!"
Those are Trump's people: the disaffected, middle-class baby boomers who believe they've been robbed of something -- their country, their social mobility, their perceived status. It doesn't really matter; what matters is the feeling. They feel like they've been cheated. And who am I to say they haven't been? I'm just another Massachusetts "libtard," there to intrude upon the "Live free or die" state with the insidious agenda of a press member. I might as well own up to it, right?
I parked the car in an overflow lot and walked toward the gymnasium. Trump was speaking at a community college in Portsmouth, and the converging crowd looked thoroughly working class -- lots of Carhartt jackets and F-150's. One SUV cut off another car and dashed into an open spot, then got out and shouted, "I'm not sorry!"
Once in line I heard someone say, "Come to my construction site and I'll show you gender neutral." A small crew of orthodox jews were waving anti-Zionist signage, shouting down the state of Israel to a more-or-less indifferent audience. Campaign volunteers were peddling heaps of merchandise: "Bomb the hell out of ISIS!" "Make America great again!" "Trump 2016" "Veterans for Trump." Between the flashy merch and the dated 80s haircuts (all feathered and permed atop some leather hockey jacket), the whole scene looked like the will call line at a Whitesnake concert.
The gymnasium itself was only partially crowded -- only a few hundred people standing between the stage and the press section. Everyone was white (I seriously endeavored to find a single person of color), but, to be fair, New Hampshire itself is 94 percent white. There were lots of families -- families with small children running around being annoying. I'm not great with kids. I admit my first instinct was to stick my foot out and trip them, but then I felt something close to despair to realize that we live in a culture where the fragile, impressionable minds of children could be exposed to something as toxic as a presidential campaign rally -- no matter who the candidate is. Shouldn't they be free from this unavoidable nonsense, at least until they're old enough to think for themselves?
Or maybe that's just the Massachusetts "libtard" speaking.
A man my age was talking to a reporter about why he's voting for Trump. When asked about whether he supports building a wall along the Mexican border, he said, "Sure! I got walls around my yard. Vermin get in from time to time, but it helps keep most of 'em out."
At some point the pledge of allegiance was given, and several audience members were quite literally screaming the lines. I was distracted by a man who had a fairly obvious lump of skin cancer on his cheekbone. After the pledge, a severely overweight family arrived and spread their possessions across the gym floor like a picnic. A teenager was wearing a denim jacket emblazoned with an eagle that had an American flag for one wing and a confederate flag for the other. It read: "American by birth. Rebel by choice." A few speakers, mostly local congressmen and campaign representatives, talked about how America is no longer the greatest country on Earth. A man behind me said, "I thought this would be bigger."
Eventually, after what sounded like a legally mandated plea to not hurt any protesters should they start heckling Mr. Trump, he arrived: the man we all came to see. He entered to the unmistakable sounds of the Italian opera singer Luciano Pavarotti, allowing the crowd to bask in his tousled orange light. The first thing he talked about was, of course, illegal immigration. He referred to a "phenomenal female" named "Kate" in California who was "raped, sodomized, killed" by an undocumented immigrant. (Trump appears to be conflating two separate incidents.) Then he credited himself with talking about problems that, apparently, no one else wants to talk about.
A lot of people came up to me and said, 'You're so right.' I brought up a problem: Radical. Islamic. Terrorism. I brought it up. People went crazy, they said, 'How could you say...' We have a problem! This is a worldwide problem. And when I brought it up people said, 'It's not politically correct! Don't do it!' Advisors -- people back there -- said don't do it. But you know what? People respect that I did it, and friends of mine who are muslim called me up and said, 'Donald, thank you. It's a problem. It's got to be discussed.' We have a president that won't discuss the problem. He won't talk about it. And you're not gonna solve the problem if you don't wanna admit what the problem is.
So, there's a problem, and that's one of them. Another problem, according to Mr. Trump, is corporate inversions. He spent roughly ten minutes condemning politicians for not knowing what corporate inversions are, then complained that the U.S. is the highest taxed country in the world, which is false by every conceivable metric.
There was a lot of familiar rhetoric, too. He performed the fan favorite about building a wall and making Mexico pay for it. He subtly insulted the audience by suggesting that, if the unemployment rate were really at 5.2 percent then this "stadium wouldn't be packed!" It wasn't packed, and it wasn't a stadium. He also played a more obscure hit, one of my favorites, this one about China's own experience building walls:
2,000 years ago, Chyina built the Great Wall of Chyina. It's 18,000 miles long! They did it before Caterpillar Tractor were -- now of course, China would never use Caterpillar tractors. Why would they use them -- unless they built the plants, by the way, on Chinese soil.
By now, the audience was beginning to lose interest, so Trump segued into a segment about how we need to make better deals, and how good deal-making could prevent a lot of things -- like U.S. corporations shipping jobs overseas, Iran getting nuclear weapons, and the Taliban getting its fighters back. He excoriated the Obama administration for not bombing Isis's oil fields out of fear for the environment. That's false. The Defense Department reported 196 airstrikes against Islamic State-controlled oil infrastructure a year into the air campaign, but it also reported that the attacks were ineffective. Still, Trump used this opportunity to manufacture the hypocrisy that Obama would refuse to bomb the oil fields while also traveling by jet to Hawaii to play golf for three weeks, and then fly back to have a "news conference on global warming."
"And I love golf," Trump said. "But if I were in the White House I don't think I'd ever see Doral again -- I own Doral in Miami -- I don't think I'd ever get to see any of the places I have. I'd just want to stay in the White House and work my ass off!"
This brought even more cheers, and I found myself wishing I had a drink.
"I'm getting to Pennsylvania Avenue one way or another!" he shouted. The reference here is that Trump recently purchased a building right down the road from the White House, which bled into a ten-minute PR stint for his newest hotel:
The old post office is incredible. It's a whole block on Pennsylvania Avenue -- best location--right between the Capital Building and the White House. Everybody wanted it: Hyatt -- very close contributors to Obama -- everyone, everyone, Sheraton, Hilton, everybody wanted it... We came up with a great plan for a fantastic hotel. It'd be one of the great hotels of the world -- and by the way I have to tell you this, it's two years ahead of schedule!
"And listen to this: It will open in September of this year!"
Even more cheering.
He ended the sales pitch with a boast about his negotiating tactics, claiming the recent Iran nuclear deal was tantamount to giving the country $150 billion in exchange for "nothing." (The $150 billion Trump is referring to are Iranian assets that had been frozen as a result of sanctions, so that money isn't being "given" so much as "returned.")
He went on to explain exactly how negotiations with Iran would have proceeded under a Trump administration, and this, I think, gets to the heart of what I find most alarming about Trump -- or, more accurately, his popularity.
"I would have said, I want the prisoners back -- and your hostages -- before we even start."
Trump seems to be referring to four Americans who had been imprisoned in Iran but were released in January. They were freed as a result of talks that were completely separate from last year's nuclear deal.
"And they would have said no, and I would have said, very simply, 'Guess what? Bye bye!' We leave the room, we double up the sanctions, and within 48 hours they call us, they say you've got your prisoners."
Okay, I need to invoke Godwin's Law, so prepare yourself...
It's hard not to view Trump's baseless, wishful thinking as a present-day form of "national will"--the nebulous sense of determination that Hitler expressed in his constant refusal to retreat or surrender. It was an idea evangelized in the Nazi propaganda film Triumph of the Will, and it's essentially a big f*ck you to objective reality. It says: Facts be damned; will-power and self-determination alone will suffice. It looks disdainfully on bureaucratic procedure and democratic inefficiencies -- and really all forms of legislative complexity -- in favor of a collective will power. It promotes social wellbeing and a homogeneous body politic, the kind of single-party system that singles out dissent as a sign of weakness to be expelled -- not unlike the various "others" Trump has expelled from his rallies, callously calling upon his followers to steal protesters' coats and throw them "out into the cold," or belittling them for "wearing one of those hats" (a turban), mocking them for being overweight, or just threatening to punch them.
I'm not comparing Trump to Hitler -- he's more of a Mussolini, anyway -- but this is a nascent form of fascism. It's belligerent, it's nationalistic, and it advocates a social wellbeing that the government -- yes, the government -- should provide. In Trump's case, that social wellbeing is the promise of jobs. It operates on an intentional disregard for political realities and instead relies on an innate belief in the greatness of a man and "his" people -- be it a nation or a movement, just so long as it "identifies." It's the assumption that leadership, strength and the vague impression of a glorious future are all that's needed to fulfill the dreams of a people who "identify" with their leader. As Mussolini once said, "We become strongest, I feel, when we have no friends upon whom to lean, or to look for moral guidance."
Of course, Mussolini would eventually lean upon his allies in Nazi Germany to bail him out of a disastrous bid to rebuild the Roman empire by conquering North Africa. Trump is no warmonger (he sort of opposed the Iraq War), and he is anything but a fiery orator. But his diplomatic "solutions" are rife with policies that necessarily depend on things like intimidation, arrogance, and even violence. Call it a campaign tactic. Call it a personality quirk. I call it an incurious failure to acknowledge the complexities of international relations, and a pompous assertion of nationalistic ego as the only true leverage in any set of negotiations.
Trump finished his five-minute speech in Portsmouth by touting a very simple message: victory, and nothing less.
We're gonna start winning again. We're gonna win on trade with these other countries that are ripping us off. We're gonna win on healthcare. We're gonna win with the military -- we're gonna knock the shit out of Isis! Gonna knock the shit out of 'em." (Pause for cheers) "We're gonna win on healthcare. We're gonna win on every aspect -- everything we do. We're gonna have so many victories. We just can't fail anymore. We don't have the option to fail anymore.
Now, Trump is no orator. He would never acknowledge any of these fascist comparisons I'm making, and I genuinely believe him when he says he wants to help people. The problem is that the toxic combination of pride, determination and business success has allowed the Donald and his followers to misconstrue a willful ignorance of politics, history and diplomacy as an inherent understanding of those very same fields, and that it is everyone else (the "others") who are incompetent. It's not just a personal lack of humility -- it's a nationalistic lack of humility. You know: jingoism.
By misunderstanding a democratic system cultivated at the height of the Enlightenment, one which has been refined through many wars both civil and cold, Trump invariably reverts to the tactics he understands best: the authoritarianism of commerce, the autocracy of business structuring, and the wholly undemocratic processes of private enterprise. There's nothing wrong with that. Businesses need hierarchies to function properly. But by eschewing -- and even mocking -- a democratic system designed to cast out those very same tyrants and demagogues, Trump inevitably becomes one: an accidental Mussolini.
I went to the Trump rally feeling excited and a little bit fascinated. I wanted to see what all the hype was about, to hear from the horse's mouth what these throngs of white, middle-aged, middle-class voters were on about. But I left just feeling sad -- sad for the stunning lack of intellect of Trump and most of his followers (at least the ones I met), and sad that this is what our national discourse has been reduced to: a fact-less string of improvised word salads masquerading as a courageous feat of populist truth-telling, there but to reinforce the biases of voters who are too old, too distracted, and too ignorant to think otherwise. And it's not just Trump. Every campaign event, every presidential debate, every discussion outside a select band of media and personal interactions is rife with this kind of bombast. It's a cynical dependency on the resilience of partisanship in a two-party system, and the hope that, over time, one side might simply overwhelm the other -- not with convincing discourse or soul-searching, not with will power or determination, but with numbers. Plain old yay votes and nay votes. Because until someone does away with democracy altogether, those numbers are the closest thing to a national will that a neo-fascist like Donald Trump can muster.
Then again, what do I know? I'm just a Massachusetts "libtard."
As the crowed petered out, I hung around to talk to a few supporters. Most of them gave familiar reasons for why they're voting for Trump: "He's the only one telling the truth." "He understand the problems we face." "He can get things done." But it was one comment I only overheard that caught my attention. It was an elderly man - -maybe old enough to remember the Great Depression -- speaking to his wife. They were walking slowly to their car, arms wrapped tenderly around each other, when he said: "That is one strong man!"