Trump campaign rallies feed the vitriol machine

Donald Trump offered the crowd at his recent rally at the BB&T Center in Sunrise a lot of angry rhetoric to feast on.
Donald Trump offered the crowd at his recent rally at the BB&T Center in Sunrise a lot of angry rhetoric to feast on. MIAMI HERALD

I was at the BB&T Center the other night to cover the big Donald Trump rally. Hillary organizes and advertises. Trump holds rallies and tweets. She spends, he talks. Boy, does he talk.

It was just Sunrise, but it felt like I was visiting another planet. In a way I was: Planet Trump. It’s a very strange, disconcerting and occasionally scary place.

He was, by turns, charismatic, bombastic, shrewd, magnetic, repellant, bigoted, petulant, arrogant, vulgar, funny and megalomaniacal. There hardly seem to be enough adjectives.

Trump’s remarks — it wasn’t a speech so much as a meandering monologue that skittered from one topic to another — was notable for being the first time he called President Obama “the founder” of the Islamic State. “He’s the founder, OK? He is the founder. He founded ISIS.”

Don’t you love that repetitive rhetorical thing Trump’s got going along with the interjected “OK’s” to keep the beat going. The crowd at the BB&T Center clearly loved it. There was nothing Trump could say, no phrase he could utter they disagreed with, even one as patently false as claiming that Obama, aided and abetted by Hillary Clinton, founded the Islamic State. Politifact rated it “Pants on Fire.” The audience at the BB&T gave him a standing ovation.

Trump repeated the phony charge nearly 20 times over the following two days until he finally had to walk it back as “sarcasm.” But then he even amended that by saying, “well, really not so much.”

I’ve seen politicians cast a spell over an audience before, but none like Donald Trump. The rally had a kind of religious fervor. But of a toxic variety. The arena — packed with perhaps 10,000 people — was ripe with vitriol. I’ve never seen so many angry, middle-aged-to-elderly white people at a political event.

There was a long procession of warm-up speakers including a lackluster and fawning Pam Bondi, but the crowd came alive only for Trump. He and they fed off each other’s energy and anger. It was reminiscent of an evangelical tent meeting I once attended in rural Missouri; the only thing missing was speaking in tongues.

There was also the call-and-response cadence you get at black churches. In this case the call was a denunciation of Hillary Clinton and the response came roaring back, “Lock her up, lock her up.” Whenever the momentum ebbed Trump would refer to “crooked Hillary” and the crowd would roar to life. At one point, Trump lumped his two betes noires together: “I would say the media are almost as crooked as crooked Hillary Clinton,” Trump shouted, pointing an accusing finger at the riser with all the media. The audience turned toward us, jeering and booing “Lock them up,” they chanted, “Lock them up.”

On the other hand, when I interviewed about a dozen people before and after the rally they were uniformly pleasant and polite. I wanted to know why they were there, what was it about Donald Trump they like so much? “He’s going to build a wall,” said Lilly Wagner of Miami, a middle-aged white woman, “And he’ll stop immigration.”

James from Weston, a 50ish white guy, said Trump will “make America great again” because we’re going downhill under Obama. A middle-aged woman named Genevieve said she’s “sick and tired of Washington.” An older gentleman named Kevin said Trump would “turn the country around.”

Everyone I spoke to said they felt ignored and betrayed by the political class. They don’t want someone who’ll just rock the boat, they want to sink the boat. “All those politicians in Washington are the same,” one older woman told me, “We get the same stuff over and over again.”

She has a point. Whether it’s Democrats or Republicans, Washington hasn’t worked very well in a long time. Perhaps not since the Bill Clinton era when Democrats and Republicans could still find a way to occasionally work out a compromise.

They passed welfare reform together (the late Republican Congressman E. Clay Shaw of Fort Lauderdale played a key role), kept Social Security solvent and agreed with Clinton’s plan to toughen criminal statutes exponentially. Now, one of the few bipartisan movements in Congress seeks to undo those Draconian sentencing laws. But Trump is having none of it. “Obama has commuted 562 sentences,” Trump said scathingly. “Unbelievable. These are really horrible people. Isn’t there something wrong with that?” No disagreement from the Sunrise audience, just applause and adulation.

Do they really hear what he’s saying? Their response was Pavlovian. I didn’t hear a ripple of dissent, even when he summed up the direction the country’s heading by saying: “We will end up a larger version of Venezuela.” The crowd booed loudly.

The United States becoming a failed, socialist Latin American-style state? Not remotely possible. Except on Planet Trump.