Is this the most dangerous campaign in history, or a surreal comedy act, playing to a crowd laughing too hard to listen? The US writer spends a day at a presidential rally
I spent five hours at the Donald Trump rally in Sacramento, California, on 1 June. I spoke to and overheard dozens of the rallys attendees, not as a journalist but as one ticketholder to another I was dressed in jeans, workboots and wore a Nascar hat and found every last one of the attendees to be genial, polite and, with a few notable exceptions, their opinions to be within the realm of reasonable. The rally was as peaceful and patriotic as a Fourth of July picnic.
And yet I came away with a host of new questions and concerns. Among them: why is it that the song Trumps campaign uses to mark his arrival and departure is Elton Johns Tiny Dancer? Is it more troubling, or less troubling, knowing that no one in the audience really cares what he says? And could it be that because Trumps supporters are not all drawn from the lunatic fringe, but in fact represent a broad cross-section of regular people, and far more women than would seem possible or rational, that he could actually win?
It was a sweltering 95 degrees, the sky blue and sun punishing, when I pulled off the highway and, guided by a well-planned and orderly array of cops and cones and sirens, made my way to a peripheral part of the Sacramento airport, where the Trump rally would be held, in an empty hangar.
It was just before four oclock in the afternoon, and the rally wouldnt start until seven, but already the lot was crowded with cars and trucks not all of them American-made. When I parked, I glanced at the car next to me, and found that a young couple in casual business attire was engaged in casual amorous activity. Seeing my car arrive, the woman straightened her skirt and the man removed his hand from under her bra, but otherwise they continued undeterred.
It was the first, but not the last time, that it was clear that a good portion of the audience saw the rally as not purely a political event, but as something else, too an entertainment, a curiosity, an opportunity to sell merchandise and refreshments, a chance to do some late-afternoon groping in the parking lot.
For a year now, Ive been watching the Trump candidacy the same way the rest of the world and at least half of the American population has first as a harmless sideshow, then as a worrisome sideshow, then as an increasingly surreal and dangerous sideshow, and finally as a terrifying looming nightmare with echoes of Mussolini, Joseph McCarthy, Kristallnacht and Hitler. News reports and isolated video clips have made Trumps rallies seem like bacchanalian proto-fascist white power orgies, fuelled by bald racism, pseudo-Nazi salutes and the imminent threat of violence toward any detractors. For months now Ive believed that Trumps candidacy was the most dangerous presidential campaign in modern American history. But the reality of a Trump rally, or at least this Trump rally, was about as threatening as a Garth Brooks concert.
Tickets to all Trump rallies are free and are available to anyone; you simply print one from Trumps website and bring it with you. I chose not to go to the rally as a card-carrying member of the media, given at this point and this truth was borne out repeatedly over the course of the day Trump supporters, like Trump himself, are exceedingly distrustful of the media. If I had a notebook or microphone out, asking questions, the answers would be guarded or rehearsed, if anyone spoke to me at all. Instead, I decided Id stand in line with everyone else, knowing that the six or seven people around me would be my window into at least a small portion of the Trump supporters mentality. I took my place at the back of the orderly line.
See that? the man in front of me said. He was pointing to a jets white trail in the sky above us. Thats the air force. Theyre spraying shit in the sky.
Ill call this man Jim. He was about 6ft tall, beer-bellied, and wearing shorts and a yellow T-shirt with the words Dont Tread on Me printed above a rattlesnake. His hair and moustache were rust-coloured, his eyes small and wary.
Over the next 90 minutes, as we stood and occasionally shuffled toward the hangar together, Jim offered his theories on a variety of government and corporate conspiracies. This first one involved the air force releasing a toxic mixture of chemicals into the atmosphere, which he claimed they had been doing for 30 years. Theyre manipulating the weather with technology, he said, and they call it climate change. But really theyre changing the climate with technology. He pointed to a wash of cirrus clouds high in the western sky. See those fake-ass clouds? They use them to block out the sun. Thats why we dont have springtime any more.