Minnesota’s lonely island of electoral blue in the midst of Donald Trump’s upper Midwest Republican bloodbath was on the minds of nearly everyone inside Duluth’s Amsoil Arena Wednesday night. Every speaker, including President Trump, referred to it, though perhaps no one quite as dramatically as state GOP chairwoman Jennifer Carnahan, who warned the thousands in attendance about a “red tsunami rolling across Lake Superior.” (Just add it to the list of greasy Wisconsin imports, I guess.)
Trump does not tend to visit states he cannot in some way claim as his – blue states that fail to jibe with his hoary recitation of Election Night. If you’re wondering why the president came to Minnesota anyway, that’s because Trump did come within just a couple percentage points of taking the state. (He told the crowd this, of course.) If you’re wondering why Trump came to Duluth, that’s because Duluth is a reverse oasis in a place known for its natural beauty, good health outcomes, relatively low crime and high standard of living. Like the more prosperous areas of Minnesota, Duluth is strikingly white. Look deeper than skin and you’ll find Duluth is a struggling post-manufacturing cipher with the highest drug overdose rate in the state. U.S. Steel closed its gigantic Morgan Park plant in 1981, causing a slow cascade of desolation that stilled the concrete and hardboard plants and emptied out the grain elevators. Today, the small city of 80,000 scrapes by on tourism and as a port. There’s a paper plant that has been on the verge of closing for 10 years. Duluth has a poverty rate (21 percent) that would rank it among the most desperate counties in West Virginia and per capita income just below that of Wheeling. Lake Superior’s merciless beauty crashes up against a town whose shoreside skyline is dominated by stolid, brutalist mid-century relics and precarious-seeming industrial shipping contraptions, rusty and mostly silent. Downtown, every surface is covered with a thin layer of grime. It is, in other words, potential Trump Country.
“I can’t believe he’s here in DULUTH,” one woman at the rally told me. When I asked another if she’d been to any other rallies, she thought for a moment and said, “Reagan. When I was little.” Another gentleman told me he’d seen Bush.
Unlike other parts of official Trump Country, Duluth hasn’t received the disproportionate attention that comes with strategic electoral or even symbolic import. There haven’t been any deep dives into the local psyche by national reporters and it is far afield of any normal campaign trail. The fans gathered to see Trump Wednesday night did not inspect him with the knowledgeable eyes of early-voting Iowans or give off the jaded air of the much-pandered-to Rust Belter. They weren’t even especially practiced Trump fans. They fidgeted through the four hours between doors opening and Trump appearing on stage like teeny-boppers waiting for a boy band, trading theories on what he’d say. “I think he’ll explain the whole border thing,” one guy told me with infinite optimism.
That was the only time someone brought up, without prompting, the fact that American law enforcement was keeping children in cages (“the whole border thing”) while we shifted around in place to the soundtrack of someone’s wedding reception playlist (“Don’t Stop Believing,” “Say You, Say Me,” “Rolling in the Deep”). When I pressed the optimist on what he expected to hear, he backpedaled to an even broader statement: “Well, we have to do something.” Why? “We can’t just keep letting people in,” he said. That would be like having a “big fancy Thanksgiving dinner planned” and then the whole neighborhood deciding they could come over, just barge in and sit at the table. There wouldn’t be enough food, and they might trash your place and “use your toilet—you’d have to hope they flushed!” He went on in that vein for a while while I stayed hung up on how smoothly he’d perverted Thanksgiving into a parable about NOT sharing. Later, Trump would conclude his speech by embroidering on the myth of brave Minnesota settlers, enduring harsh winters and relying only each other – almost as if no one was here before them, either.
Trump did not spend too much time on “the whole border thing,” much less explain it. What he did say may wind up being one of the most accidentally honest statements of the night: “We’re going to keep families together, but the border is going to be as tough as it’s ever been.” Put another way: However they change the treatment of families, the level of cruelty will be continuous.
I’ve been to Trump rallies before that felt dark with rage; what was disconcerting about the one in Duluth was its giddy weightlessness. Even Trump seemed unburdened, his stream-of-consciousness not eddying too much in dangerous petty grievances (like the Mueller investigation), but rather swirling in more grand existential loops, like his riff about “elites”: “You ever notice they always call the other side ‘the elite’? The elite! Why are they elite? I have a much better apartment than they do. I’m smarter than they are. I’m richer than they are. I became president and they didn’t.”
The crowd whooped in shared glee, if not shared fortune.
They knew their lines: “Lock her up!” and “Build the wall!”and “CNN sucks!” all rang out at the appropriate cues. When Trump indicated a pause for laughter – it’s hard to describe anything he says as a “joke” – they delivered the syllables with disciplined crispness, like we were on the set of a studio in Burbank and not in a musty arena named for a small-time lubricant manufacturer. Then again, there’s the Amsoil slogan: “First in synthetics.”
By the time Trump reached the end of his speech, it felt familiar even if you hadn’t heard it before. The phrases had the too-neat, predictable parallelism of a jingle: “We will never give in, we will never give up … we will never stop fighting for our flag, or our freedom. We are one people, and one family, and one nation under God.” The last lines were chanted out in half-unison, half-hum, the way you might mumble-vamp through the verse of “Sweet Caroline” only to land with ecstasy at the chorus: “We will make America safe AGAIN! We will make America strong AGAIN! We will make America GREAT AGAIN!”
That’s the way the end of democracy sounds, I think: People so eager to join a chant they do it before they know all the words.
There is a domestic violence center in the shadow of the Amsoil arena. When I stopped in on the afternoon of the rally, a mildly harried woman manning the desk behind the bulletproof glass did not need to tell me they were busy. A string of women were buzzed in and out the security doors in the 15 minutes I visited. Someone was picking up a set of dishes. Another wanted to know about the free dental clinic. Someone asked if her advocate was in – she needed to know if the restraining order had come through. The woman who worked there told me the beds at the center were always full and they get 12-to-14 referrals a night.
This seemed impossibly high for such a town not much bigger than the Twin Cities suburb of Bloomington, but I checked the city’s crime statistics – an imperfect measure, since referrals don’t necessarily come from the police or involve an arrest. But still: In 2016 in Duluth, there were over 900 arrests for what Minnesota terms “violence against families/children.” There were 84 such arrests in Bloomington.
I asked the woman at the center what she thought of the scene at the border. Did she think it was fair to be paying so much attention to that, given what she was dealing with? Did she think what Trump was doing to those families was abuse?
She looked at me gravely: “Trauma is trauma.”
This post has been updated.