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Early evening, August, Cincinnati. The Queen City’s many bridges are sealed off, its sky is dirty with helicopters, and seemingly every cop for 100 miles is patrolling Pete Rose Way along the Ohio River. A crowd of 20,000 or more stands in punishing heat, waiting to enter U.S. Bank Arena. The evil rumor buzzing down the line of MAGA hats is that not everyone will get in to see Donald Trump.
“Can we just get in for a minute?” complains a boy of about 10 to his mother. There are a lot of kids here.
Donald Trump doesn’t visit Middle America. He descends upon it. His rallies are awesome spectacles. Gawkers come down from the hills. If NASA traveled the country holding showings of the first captured alien life-form, the turnout would be similar. The pope driving monster trucks might get this much attention.
Almost everyone in line is wearing 45 merch. Trump is the most T-shirtable president in history, and it’s not even close. Trumpinator tees are big (“2020: I’LL BE BACK”), but you’ll also see Trump as Rambo (complete with headband, ammo belt, and phallic rocket-launcher), Trump as the Punisher (a Trump pompadour atop the famous skull), even Trump as Superman (pulling his suit open to reveal a giant T).
Slogans include “Trump 2020: Grab ’em by the Pussy Again!” and the ubiquitous “Trump 2020: Fuck Your Feelings.”
One merch hawker — an African American man with a visor, wraparound sunglasses, and spiked, dyed-white hair — is snaking through the crowd, pushing a T-shirt: “Donald Fuckin’ Trump.” On the back, the shirt reads “Bitch I’m the President!” “Five bucks for hats, 10 for tees!” he yells. “ ‘Bitch, I’m the president!’ ‘Make America great again!’ ”
“Four more years!” someone in the crowd yells back, to cheers.
Two and a half years into his presidency, Trump has already staked a claim to a role in history usually reserved for hereditary monarchs at the end of a line of inbreeding. Historians will list him somewhere between Vlad the Impaler and France’s Charles VI, who thought his buttocks were made of glass.
Much of America loves its Mad King, whose works are regularly on display. Russians under Ivan the Terrible used to watch dogs being hurled over the Kremlin walls when the tsar’s mood was bad. Americans have grown used to late-night insults tweeted at nuclear powers from the White House bedroom.
Royal lunacy is traditionally a secret, but in Twitter-age America it’s a shared national experience. We are all somersaulting down and out the sanity chute. The astonishing thing about Trump is that he wasn’t foisted on us by a council of Bourbons, or by succession law. We elected the man, and are poised to do it again.
History will judge us harshly for this, and will look with particular venom at Trump’s political opponents in both parties, who over the years were unable to win popularity contests against a man most people would not leave alone with a decent wristwatch, let alone their children.
Trump’s original destiny was the destruction of the Republicans as a viable entity in modern American politics. Then he ran a general election like he was trying to lose, and won. Now his legacy is the spectacular end of America’s fragile racial consensus.
Ten years ago, an African American won the White House in a landslide; today, the president is somewhere between a Klansman and Jimmy the Greek. The media legend is that Trump succeeds because he’s a racist, but this undersells it. Trump is 50 years behind the worst elements of the Republican Party, which spent decades carefully stuffing race under bromides like “states’ rights” and “free stuff.” The GOP now is in an all-out bucket brigade to rescue the dog whistle.
The rescue is failing. We’ve gone from Trump being skeptical of Obama’s citizenship to musing about “very fine” neo-Nazis to a Twitter version of “Go back to Africa.” In Cincinnati, even his most hardcore supporters talk about wanting him to shut up. “I wish,” says one fan, “he would edit himself a little bit.”
For all this, every time Trump seems headed for the dustbin of history, he bounces up again off the messageless paralysis of his Democratic opposition. When Trump vanquished a giant primary field of Republicans in 2016, Democrats cheered. When they lost the general election, they acted like it was an unrelated surprise event, an outrage to decency itself. They remain ineffective as anything but a punchline to the Trump story.
This cycle has led to more alienation and made the 2020 election a gruesome, exhausting black comedy. This is our penance for turning the presidential campaign into a bread-and-circus entertainment. Middle Americans got so used to getting nothing out of elections, they started treating national politics for what it had become to them, a distant, pretentious sitcom.
Now they’re writing their own script. They can’t arrange for Jake Tapper to be fed to a shark, so they’ll settle for rolling Donald Trump into Washington. It’s hard to see right now, it being the end of our society and all, but the situation is not without humor, in a “What does this button marked ‘Detonate’ do?” sort of way. Can America shoot itself in the head a second time? It sounds, appropriately enough, like the premise of a Trump TV show.
Here’s how degraded the political landscape has become: Mike Pence looks like a vice president now. In 2016, especially after the “grab ’em by the pussy” episode, the genuflecting Indianan often came across like a man appointed public defender to a ring of child cannibals. Now, onstage in Cincinnati, he looks stoked to be introducing His Trumpness.
“And now, it’s my high honor and distinct privilege to introduce you to my friend” — Pence sells it hard — “and the 45th president of the United States of America, President Donald Trump!”
The crowd bursts into roars, hoots, cheers. Trump pops out onstage. Lee Greenwood’s “God Bless the USA” booms over the stadium.
Trump takes his sweet time to get to the podium. He gives photogs every pose: the clap, the wave, the arms akimbo, the blown kiss. It’s “I’m Too Sexy” brought to politics. A lot of candidates scan crowds like they’re looking for the sniper, but Trump acts like he’s ready for a mass frottage session.
“There’s that, too,” agrees a young Trump supporter named Andrew Walls later. “He l-o-o-o-ves what he does.”
Trump gives a double-fist pump in the direction of a man in a red headband and a green Army vest. When Trump looks in his direction, the man spasms like a dog blowing a load. Others are waving their arms like Pentecostals or doing V-for-victory signs. It’s pandemonium.
Trump takes the lectern. His hair has visibly yellowed since 2016. It’s an amazing, unnatural color, like he was electrocuted in French’s mustard. His neckless physique is likewise a wonder. He looks like he ate Nancy Pelosi.
“You know,” Trump says, referencing the Democrats’ debate in Detroit, “I was watching the so-called debates last night. . . .”
“. . . That was long, long television.”
That part is true enough. One wonders if Trump scheduled a rally the day after the debates on purpose, to steal the end of the flailing Democrats’ news cycle. He goes on:
“The Democrats spent more time attacking Barack Obama than they did attacking me, practically,” he says, to cheers. “And this morning that’s all the fake news was talking about.”
Nobody draws bigger catcalls than the “fake” news media. Trump knows this and pauses to let the bile rise. He expresses pleasure at being back in “the American heart land,” which he pronounces as if he’s just learned the term.
He then reflects on his 2016 run, when hordes of people turned out to send him to D.C., from places he, Trump, would never have visited, except maybe by plane crash.
“You came from the mountains and the valleys and the rivers, and, uh, you came for —” He seems to not know what comes after rivers. “I mean, look, you came from wherever you came from, and there were a lot of you.”
He ends up telling a story about early voting in Tennessee in 2016, and a congressman who told him if the whole country was voting like this, he was going to win by a lot. “And we won,” he says. “And we won by a lot.”
Press accounts will call this a lie, and of course it is, and even the crowd knows it. But they cheer anyway. In response, Trump stops and does his trademark stump flourish, turning sideways to flash his iguanoid profile before stalking around the lectern in resplendent, obese glory, inviting all to Get a load of me!
It’s indulgent, absurd, narcissistic, and appalling, unless you’re a Trump fan, in which case it’s hilarious, a continuation of the belly laughs that began in many parts of America with Hillary Clinton’s concession speech.
Trump crowds have changed. At the beginning of 2016, trying to pull quotes out of Trump rallies was like stopping a bunch of straight men who’d just whacked each other off behind a trailer. They didn’t want to talk about it.
As time progressed, the crowd’s profile widened. You met union members, veterans, and where it got weird was the stream of people who appeared to be neither traditional Republicans nor, seemingly, interested in politics at all. Among both young and old, people turned out who had no conception of Trump as anything but a TV star. This second group’s numbers seemed to have swelled.
“I watched the Celebrity Apprentice, and I loved that,” says Jackie Hoffman, a 60-year-old grandmother who gushes “we never had” someone like Trump run for president before. “Ronald Reagan was a celebrity, but he wasn’t, like, a big celebrity,” she says.
“I just want to get a feel for the spectacle,” says Walls. As we talk, he’s gazing at a stand full of Trump merch. He likes the Punisher motif, but also the Terminator tee. “If I had money,” he says, “I’d probably buy that.”
Walls and his friend James Monroe drove in from Kentucky. Walls is an enthusiastic Trump supporter, Monroe not — he’s here for the show. Though they disagree about Trump’s politics, they express surprise he won the last time.
This is a common theme, when you ask people what impresses them most about Trump, i.e., that he won despite the press. The news media rate somewhere between herpes and ISIS in much of the country. “A lot of the media are very liberal,” says Monroe. “I don’t know how he won.”
Skylar Easter, 23, and Sahara Hollingshead, 19, are a young couple who came down from Circleville, Ohio. Skylar’s got long blond hair, a beard, and a tie-dye shirt, and looks vaguely like the True Romance version of Brad Pitt. Sahara’s got purple glasses and says, “There are more minorities and women employed right now than there’s been in almost 30 years. That’s great.” Both recently landed jobs at a company called TriMold, making parts for Hondas. “We stand in one place and operate a machine,” says Skylar. Sahara likes Trump’s attitude, because he’s “not scared to go for it.”
The most common remark you hear from Trump voters is that he’s “relatable” and isn’t “phony.” Blue-state audiences tempted to howl at this should try to understand this phenomenon, because it speaks to a legitimate problem Democrats have.
The average American likes meat, sports, money, porn, cars, cartoons, and shopping. Less popular: socialism, privilege-checking, and the world ending in 10 years. Ironically, perhaps because of Trump, Democratic Party rhetoric in 2020 is relentlessly negative about the American experience. Every speech is a horror story about synagogue massacres or people dying without insulin or atrocities at the border. Republicans who used to complain about liberals “apologizing for America” were being silly, but 2020 Democrats sound like escapees from the Killing Fields.
Ronald Reagan once took working-class voters away from Democrats by offering permission to be proud of the flag. Trump offers permission to occupy the statistical American mean: out of shape, suffering from gas, poorly read, anti-intellectual, treasuring things above meaning, and hiding an awful credit history.
Trump in this way is more all-American than Mark Spitz, Liberace, Oprah, Audie Murphy, and Marilyn Monroe. He’s a monument to the consumption economy. He represents fake boobs, the short con, the tall tale, gas guzzlers, and a hundred other American traditions.
This is why the endless chronicling of Trump’s lies does little to dent his popularity. Trump’s voters don’t need to read PolitiFact to see what Trump’s about. They see it in his waistline. Few politicians in history have revealed what they are to voters more than Trump. Christ, we even know what the man’s penis looks like.
“The cool thing about Trump,” says 38-year-old Cincinnati native Jeremy Holtkamp, “is that it’s just about being an American.”
Trump’s political strategy is primitive but effective. He picks something that polls badly, and kicks it in the crotch. Then he backs off and lets three eternal truths do the rest of the work.
One: A news media that pretends moral outrage will greedily cover his every move (cable-news profits have soared 36 percent since Trump began his run four years ago).
Two: In a fractured political landscape, the so-called “legitimate” politicians who are his main competition will spend more time fighting one another than him. This is because intellectuals can’t bring themselves to take Trump’s dumbed-down version of politics seriously.
Third: America’s upper classes and their proxies in government and media have no capacity for self-reflection, and will make asses of themselves in a fight. This is where Trump makes his living, getting people who should know better to rise to his bait. It’s a simple formula: Incite brawls that seem like clear political losers, only to eventually maneuver controversies to his advantage.
Trump launched his 2020 re-election campaign on June 18th in Orlando. Within a month, he was picking his first major campaign fight. The backdrop was Trump’s decision to increase the number of criminal prosecutions for illegal border entry. His innovation was making systematic the separation of families in custody, a move that seemed to have no practical purpose except as a deterrent of the Game of Thrones heads-on-spikes variety.
When everyone from the American Academy of Pediatrics to his wife to Lindsey Graham expressed revulsion — dude, kids? — Trump finally signed an executive order reversing the policy. He then characteristically blamed the mess on Democrats. By then, the situation had become a fiasco and, like all things in the Trump era, a media goat rope of monstrous proportions.
In response, House Speaker Pelosi and her “mighty moderates” attempted to pass a bipartisan border bill backed by Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell. Progressives who have called for the entire border-enforcement machinery to be reformed freaked.
A representative from Wisconsin compared Democratic moderates to child abusers, and debonair Twitter subversive Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez cried, “Hell, no.” When Pelosi yawned back at Ocasio-Cortez and three other young female members for “their public whatever and their Twitter world,” the Bronx congresswoman called Pelosi out for the “singling out of newly elected women of color.”
In perhaps the most predictable moment of his presidency, a gleeful Trump jumped on this Democrat-on-Democrat racial food fight. Using the backdrop of Marine One, he said Ocasio-Cortez was being “very disrespectful,” adding, “I don’t think Nancy can let that go on.”
Nancy! The lascivious familiarity with which Trump dropped her name must have stuck like a tongue in Pelosi’s ear. The speaker, from that moment, was cornered. A step forward meant welcoming the boils-and-all embrace of Donald Trump. A step back meant bitter intramural surrender and a likely trip to intersectionality re-education camp.
A normal, self-aware politician, meaning one who is not Donald Trump, would have waited for Pelosi to step off this land mine. But Trump then issued his infamous tweet about “the squad” — Reps. Ocasio-Cortez, Ilhan Omar, Rashida Tliab, and Ayanna Pressley — needing to “go back and help fix the totally broken and crime infested places from which they came.”
For the 10 millionth time since he launched his presidential campaign, Trump seemed to make a fatal miscalculation, revealing himself to be a meandering, incoherent racist on a political suicide mission. But we should recognize by now, these outbursts by Trump are never fatal.
The practical impact of Trump’s summer freakouts was to make everyone on Earth forget the original controversy. Instead, the country ended up engaged in a full-scale melee over Pelosi’s racial attitudes, the relative dirtiness of Baltimore, whether or not Al Sharpton hates white people, and a dozen other questions.
Soon, the Democratic candidates were in such a fury about all things immigration that they ganged up on hapless Joe Biden for not stopping the “Deporter-in-Chief,” Obama.
This was classic Trump. He creates controversies so quickly that no one can keep track of them all. When the dust settles, everyone is covered with welts and King Donald is bragging about having done it all on purpose, which he may have. In the end, what everyone remembers is Trump antagonists tying themselves in knots over his whims.
America is messed up, sure, but are we this messed up? What if we didn’t have a perma-tweeting Archie Bunker president, or turned off our TVs? Trump’s 2016 victory only happened with a slew of unwitting accomplices. Republicans split the primary vote, Democrats nominated a high-negatives insider, and the media not only tossed to Trump billions of dollars in free coverage, but also constantly validated his mockery with snooty mis-predictions. A child knows not to fall for the pull-my-finger joke a second time. But the assembled brainpower of institutional America seems determined to clear a path for Trump by playing straight man again.
Back on Pete Rose Way, a meager crowd of 100 or so protesters remains gathered across the street. A few anguished-looking college-educated types hold a banner reading “Hate Has No Home Here.” Walking up and down their side is a young activist with a bullhorn.
“I hate to break the bad news to you,” he shouts across the asphalt divide. “Trump doesn’t give a shit about working people!”
“Fuck you!” one of a trio of young MAGA dudes shouts in reply.
His buddies are laughing and high-fiving. They’re having a blast. The anguish of the lefty protesters is the best part.
Throughout Trump’s speech, spectators came down to taunt the libs. It got tense enough that a row of helmeted cops showed up, stringing patrol bicycles end to end in the middle of the street to create an ad-hoc barricade.
“He’s a fucking con man,” the would-be Ortega on the other side is chanting now. “Don the con . . . All power to the working class!”
“We are the working class, buddy!” an older man shouts. More laughs.
“No more hate!” the protesters chant.
“Four more years, bitch!” comes the reply.
The road is only four lanes wide, but it might as well be a continent. Two groups of people, calling each other assholes across a barricade. Welcome to America in the Donald Trump era.