I was at yesterday’s rally for Donald Trump in Portsmouth, New Hampshire, and I will offer a handful of observations about what I saw. I was hoping to be able to write some great Trump campaign disaster pornography, a genre that is becoming popular. Maybe I’d get a great interview with a truly and obviously deplorable human being.
What I found was even stranger. Perhaps Trump supporters in New Hampshire are different from Trump supporters elsewhere, but the people I met at the rally seemed extremely nice. They were nice after I identified myself as a member of the press, and they were nice even after I told people that I intended to cast my own ballot for Hillary Clinton.
The people I met are, however, extremely skeptical of the mainstream media, mainstream politicians, and mainstream sources of data. CNN is held in particular contempt. They also seem genuinely convinced that Hillary Clinton poses an existential threat to our nation, and that members of the media are working with her to help rig the election in order to defeat Donald Trump.
But aside from sharing a worldview characterized by extreme and selective skepticism, I didn’t run into anybody who would stand out as being particularly or unusually deplorable. And once voters, even well-intentioned voters, develop this kind of extreme and selective skepticism, I think that all bets are off when it comes to their political behavior. Trump’s remaining voters seem to rationalize accusations against him and his apparently observable behavior as evidence that he poses a threat to a system they see as corrupt.
The craziest thing about the rally to me was how normal it seemed to appear to the people who were there. If you think, as I do, that Hillary Clinton is a normal politician, then seeing a crowd chant “Lock her up! Lock her up!” is an unsettling thing – it seems like a threat to our democracy. But the event certainly looked like it was a happy and cathartic experience for the crowd. The overall vibe of the event might be compared to a rock concert or a sporting event. I always imagined that fascism would be uniformly grey and unhappy, but perhaps I was wrong.
The Toyota of Portsmouth dealership hosted the rally, which was held on a small concrete back lot behind the dealership’s service area. For most of the event, including Trump’s speech, I sat in the press area. The members of the media covering the event were kept in a “cage”, perhaps 15 feet by 60 feet, with three rows of tables for laptops and other equipment. A four-foot metal fence surrounded the media cage, and photographers were stationed on an elevated platform within the fenced area.
I escaped the cage for as long as I could, and here are some observations. First of all, the rally was largely but not exclusively white. There were smatterings of people from every race, and I didn’t see any hint of the race-based violence that has occurred at Trump rallies in other places, particularly in the South. This is not to question the distressing things that we have witnessed elsewhere. All I can do is report what I saw with my own eyes at this event. I saw an older Black man wearing a “Trump 2016” t-shirt, and he seemed popular. I saw a number of Asian-Americans wearing “Make America Great Again” hats. I saw one protester, a skinny white kid wearing a “Love Trumps Hate” t-shirt, and nobody seemed to be bothering him.
My educated guess about the social class of the crowd would be that it was a typical New England cross section. There were roughly equal numbers of men and women. I talked to a police officer, to business owners, to a young man who works at Logan Airport in Boston, and to people who seemed somewhat reluctant to say where they worked. I did not see anybody with the look of down-and-out poverty.
I only found one person who would admit to being a Republican. Two people admitted to having voted for Barack Obama in 2008 and 2012. One woman admitted that she had voted for Hillary Clinton in the 2008 primary, but said that she now regretted that vote. The people with whom I spoke appear to truly despise Hillary Clinton; this “we hate Hillary” business is not a joke. I think that a large part of Trump’s appeal, at least for this crowd, comes from the notion that he might actually put her into a real-life jail.
Again, aside from deep and selective skepticism and hatred of Hillary Clinton, I didn’t run into anyone who seemed particularly deranged or individually dangerous. Everyone seemed nice and genuinely concerned about our country’s direction. Maybe they are watching too much Fox News, but they weren’t otherwise fiendish or outlandishly terrible people.
In person, Trump is a charismatic and energetic speaker. He is willing to say, with confidence and conviction, things that are precisely the opposite of truth. I watched as the crowd cheered Trump’s false statements – statements that would be trivial to fact check for anyone with an internet connection. For example, at one point during his talk, Trump drifted into a discussion of crime. He claimed that crime in America was now “the highest it had been in forty years.” This statement is not even close to being true. But once you start questioning the integrity of the crime statistics produced by the Department of Justice, then all bets are off.
Trump has been playing racism at full blast during his campaign, but for this New England audience he went back to the dog whistle. He went on a tangent about the opiate crisis in New England, but began this tangent with a sub-tangent about “pretty streams and trees.” He said – no joke – that it made him feel sad to see drug addiction in a place that also has nice trees. I believe that he was trying to dog-whistle the fact that it makes him sad to see white people get addicted to drugs. The crowd responded to his message with grateful applause. The drug addiction tangent fit well with his campaign’s larger anti-Mexico narrative; Trump said that a big wall on the border will stop drugs from coming in to our country.
One huge surprise for me was the consistency of the “this election is rigged” message. Rudy Giuliani, Senator Jeff Sessions, and Trump himself all claimed that the election was going to be rigged. The people I talked to all seemed nice – nobody gave me that “home-grown terrorist” vibe. But I think that there will be some people who respond in terrible ways to this avalanche of rhetoric about the election somehow being stolen from them.
I watched the media and I watched the crowd watch the media. I think a perceptive rally attendee watching the media would have noticed some of the media’s disdain for Trump. Most of the members of the media did not actually appear to be listening as Trump spoke; they looked like a bunch of 20-somethings buried in their iPhones and laptops. At some point, right in the middle of Trump’s talk, a man came over to us and gave a hand signal. At that signal, half of the people in the media cage packed up their equipment and left, I believe to go to the next rally. This premature media exit looked terrible to the crowd around the media cage. Why in the world would the media leave before Trump was done speaking, unless the media had already made up its minds about the man? This may have reinforced the idea that the media is somehow being unfair to Trump.
People have used Hitler, Mussolini, and Argentina’s Peron family as reference points for Trump’s appeal. Watching him speak in New Hampshire, and talking to his supporters, I think that another point of reference for him and his supporters should be Dallas businessman H. Ross Perot. The unreliable Perot ran for president in 1992 and 1996 on an anti-trade and somewhat anti-Mexico platform. Perot seemed vaguely authoritarian to me at the time – he ran for president on the claim that our problems were simple and that he had some special secret ability to fix them, if we could just get rid of the whole messy “politics as usual” thing. Trump now appears to have massively dialed up the intensity of Perot’s pitch.
But in the end, comparisons between historical figures are always imperfect. Trump is just Trump; he is not Hitler, Putin, Mussolini, Peron, Chavez, or Perot. He is working on carving his own place in the Mount Rushmore of tyrants. In the short run, I think that Trump’s significant negatives will keep him from winning the 2016 election. But I don’t think that he or his remaining supporters will be going anywhere soon.
Below is a picture I took at the Trump rally after most of the media left.