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 Housebedroom.
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.
A man in a shirt with images of Donald Trump during the rally.
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.”