The Waltham Review goes to a Trump rally

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.




  1. Money quote: “[Trump] is willing to say, with confidence and conviction, things that are precisely the opposite of truth.”

    I’m glad people seemed genuinely nice. However when one questions the fundamental workings of democracy and the ability to peacefully transition power, something is really wrong. This underlying current makes me nervous about what will happen post election. I think you were the first person I read that made that point.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Thanks! Your views jive exactly with what I have observed in the middle class town in which I grew up (Elyria, Ohio). I spent an evening with a number of my prior high school classmates and their spouses a few weeks ago, and although we didn’t spend much time talking about politics, I know from their Facebook pages and a few offhand comments that were made that evening that the majority of them are Trump supporters. These are fun people to be around, generally kind people (to their neighbors, friends, children, churches), a few with quite good jobs, maybe half of whom (but surely not all of whom) are doing better economically than their parents did. A number are college educated (not all). I had a great time…but the fact remains that most of these people are trying to put Trump in office.

    Here is how I see it. First, is that many of them are diehard Republicans and that alone is enough to make them support Trump. They are not stupid at all, but they are loyal, and their allegiance to the party is not up for renegotiation. Period. As a tangent, it reminds me a bit of a conversation I had with my obstetrician when I was pregnant with my daughter. She was extolling the virtues of early testing for various genetic defects (I had opted not to do the tests). She said, perhaps not in these exact words, but in a very offhand way: “If you get pregnant and the fetus has something wrong with it, you can just try again.” The implicit assumption that I would embrace this approach (maybe because I am a woman and live in the Northeast?) was eye-opening. I think that the people I went to high school with are exactly like this. They are so convinced of their own beliefs that they wouldn’t even consider that someone who is not a complete idiot would have a different view. It’s like, not even on their radar. So any conversation about the substance of Trump, or Hillary, or anything to do with the campaign, is not on the table. Combine this with the fact that they hate Hillary after years of Fox News watching, and the party allegiance becomes even stronger.

    Second, many of these people have not left the town/state in which they have grown up. Of course, that is an unfair generalization — at least two of the people that were there still live near home and are not supporting Trump. But it is probably true on average. I am quite sure that most of them have parents that support their views, and nearly all their friends support their views. So the echo chamber is strong, and if your main news source is telling you that all other news sources are biased, then you are likely to just go with that. I have found this to be particularly true among wives that seem to go along with their husbands’ views.

    Third, these people are white. (I went to Catholic school.) Elyria has plenty of non-white people, but they mostly live on the poor side of town. It’s hard not to be at least a little racist if the railroad tracks keep your town segregated. Some of these people would admit their racism. My friend growing up had a black dog named Nigger. This seemed pretty normal. Most would not, and do not believe that they are racist; in fact, they would be offended at this characterization. They might even have a story of how they personally helped a black person, or a poor person. But if you talk to them long enough, you will likely hear comments that show their deeply ingrained racism and/or fear of the unknown.

    Finally, I agree with the general idea that they wish it was still 1950. It is was much easier to live in Elyria when the world wasn’t changing so dramatically in terms gender rights and immigration, to name just a few. The parents of these prior classmates watched their jobs at the Ford plants and steel mills disappear. These were good jobs with good pay and pensions. Some of my classmates have similar jobs, but the pay and benefits don’t afford the lifestyles their parents had. This is frustrating to them, and it’s easy to believe the broad racist stereotypes about immigrants (and to hate globalization) when your personal experience consistent with a lower standard of living.

    I’m sorry this is so long!! But thank you for your post which made me think more deeply about my own experiences. As you say, it’s complicated. The media’s exaggerated and clownish view of Trump supporters is too simple. But it does remain true that many of his supporters are unwillingly to think very hard about the actual substance and character of Trump. This is at least as large a worry.

    Liked by 1 person

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