A Donald Trump campaign rally is a cross between an evangelical tent meeting, a pilgrimage to Lourdes and a Tea Party convention. With lots of white, middle-class angst.
That was the mood of the crowd I saw Sunday afternoon at the Collier County Fairgrounds near Naples, a deep red patch in an otherwise purple state. Republicans outnumber Democrats 2 to 1 in Southwest Florida and most of them seemed to come out Sunday to see and cheer their hero. It was adulation of a kind I’ve rarely seen in politics.
“He speaks for anyone who doesn’t like .politicians,” said Rick Campbell, a stocky, middle-aged white guy from Fort Myers. “He speaks to the common man.”
Of course, he’s anything but. Take Trump’s grand and somewhat gaudy entrance. He arrived on his private helicopter — the one with the large “TRUMP” logo — swooping in from the east and doing a long, low circle around the crowd before gracefully setttling down near the stage. It was all accompanied by blood-stirring,patriotic-sounding music played very loud. I almost expected to hear “Ride of Valkyries” and for Trump to get out and say, “I love the smell of napalm in the evening.” It was an an “Apocalypse Now” moment, politically speaking.
Trump promptly called the polls “phony,” said his Florida campaign is “phenomenal” and predicted that he’ll win the Sunshine State and the White House. And all the polls that show him losing support among women after the reports of unwanted sexual advances? Wrong! Lies! Lawsuits will be filed.
“They say he’s only got white men behind him,” Jason Salmons of Marco Island told me. “But look at all the women here.” Indeed, there were many women at the rally, but I pointed out to him there weren’t any African-Americans. He was momentarily stumped: There will be,” he said. “Give it time.”
Covering a Trump rally has its challenges. The first is finding a consistent thread in what Trump says. He doesn’t so much deliver a speech as do a kind of political standup, a meandering monologue that jumps from one topic to another without much rhyme or reason. He often sounds like he’s got ADD. At the same time, it’s immensely entertaining. The best parts are often his off-the-cuff remarks, e.g., “Such a nasty woman.”
Besides denouncing “crooked Hillary Clinton” and the “rigged, corrupt” system, his favorite target for scorn is the media, who are also “broken, corrupt liars.” His supporters love it, often turning toward the media riser and chanting, “Lock them up, lock them up.” Trump rally-goers can be individually gracious talking to a reporter, but collectively they despise the media.
“Just tell the truth,” one middle-aged man I’ve never met admonished me as I was returning to the media bull pen. “Just tell the truth.” I’ve also been told by Trump supporters to be more “fair and balanced,” a la Fox News. This is real fear and loathing. Where is Hunter S. Thompson when we need him?
“Crooked Hillary,” Trump shouted Sunday, “if it weren’t for the media she doesn’t have a chance.” He pointed accusingly at the media cluster —J’accuse! — and the crowd again broke into a variation of their standard anti-Clinton chant: “Lock them up, lock them up!”
When I came back from covering a Donald Trump rally in West Palm Beach recently a friend who’d watched it on TV asked me, quite seriously, “Were you scared?” The answer was No, but I find it troubling that a thoughtful, reasonable person (not in the news business) would be afraid for the safety of a reporter doing his or her job at a Trump rally.
Trump gave his boiler plate stump speech Sunday with a few additions tailored for the time and place. He promised to restore the Everglades, clean up the Florida aquifer, repair the Herbert Hoover dike on the south end of Lake O and “drain the swamp of corruption in Washington.” So many promises, so little time. A dizzying list of promises, capped by the fundament of his campaign: “We’re going to Make American Great Again.”
The several thousand people at the Naples rally responded to it all like Pavlov ringing the bell. They were overwhelmingly white and middle-aged to older and willing to dismiss any accusations against their candidate.
“I just don’t think any of those women are credible,” one middle-aged woman told me about the 11 women who’ve come forward with tales of Trump’s unwanted sexual advances. A woman who gave a warm-up speech at the rally dismissed Trump’s lewd comments on the bus as just a boys-will-be-boys moment. At the time, however, Trump was 59.
Trump left as dramatically as he had arrived. The patriotic music blared, Trump waved bye-bye, mounted his chopper and, after another low buzz of the field, flew off into the sunset. Picture perfect.
Give him this: The guy knows how to create some indelible and memorable moments. But what you remember later is the flash, the stagecraft, the gloss. Not the substance.