Thoughts from a Trump rally in New Hampshire

Attending a Donald Trump rally reveals the breadth of his appeal, and a politics that's going nowhere.

Gerry Hassan
5 November 2016
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Donald Trump, by Gage Skidmore.

Could Donald Trump actually pull off the biggest election shock in post-war US politics? One week ago the US presidential election was meant to be over.

Now the weekend before the election things look very different. For the past week the Clinton campaign has hit stormy waters, aided by FBI Director James Comey, while Trump has in the last stages found a momentum and even belatedly embraced a degree of message discipline. 

On Friday I went to a Trump rally in the palatial surroundings of Atkinson Country Club, New Hampshire – one of the key states if Trump is to have any chance of reaching 270 Electoral College votes and winning. One Republican source in the state said that the ‘Republicans are coming home’ and that Trump had a real chance of winning it – and with it the presidency.

The atmosphere was very different compared to the previous week when I attended the Hillary Clinton-Elizabeth Warren – ‘nasty women’ – rally. Trumpland is a very different place. For a start, this was a much more intimate event – one which felt more like a gathering of friends and family. It didn’t quite match the expectations and stereoptypes I had of Trump supporters. It was a much more mixed crowd than followed Clinton, with many more working class people and individuals who you could tell have experienced challenging economic times. There were more young people, and families, having a day out at the Trump rally than there were for the Democratic candidate.

The emotions of the rally were more complex than I imagined. There was more energy and enthusiasm than with Clinton, but it was subdued and sedate – with hatred, rage and anger mostly kept under wraps. There were notable exceptions – the crowd burst into regular chants of ‘Lock Her Up’ with both the warm-up speakers and Trump, showing their disdain for the Washington political establishment.

At this event at least there was an element of restraint and self-policing. Over the top, offensive comments such as ‘Kill Hillary’ were seldom chanted and when they did they were challenged. One comment to ‘Execute Hillary’ from the floor was met with a direct challenge from John H. Sununu, ex-Republican Governor of New Hampshire, who said ‘You can’t say that. There are limits’.

The speeches building up to Trump were formulaic and forgetful, with the constant refrain of inviting Republicans with doubts to ‘get over it’ and that ‘Never Trump [voters] need to move over to never Hillary.’ The one exception to the Trump machine was Kate Quigley, sister of Glen Doherty who died in the tragedy of Benghazi, and spoke with a quiet dignity about the events of that night and Hillary Clinton’s subsequent actions as Secretary of State. They were the most genuine comments of the entire event, and didn’t enter into the dark Republican fantasies about what did and didn’t happen in Libya.

Trump in person, on message, isn’t the potent force one might imagine – but he has clear conviction that he is right, and has undoubtedly founded a movement; admittedly one in his own self-image that validates his obvious self-love and narcissism. Standing near to the front, one could sense a negative charisma, presence and projection.

He made all the usual rhetorical pit stops – the Great Wall of Trump, reducing Washington gridlock and corruption to the refrain ‘Drain the Swamp’ and laying into anyone who gets in his way, such as ‘the dreadful, bad people’ in the mainstream media.

Much time was spent criticising Hillary Clinton, her character, bad judgement and financial impropriety. It might seem strange for someone like Trump to tackle an opponent on such dangerous ground, but all through his career he has bullied and demeaned competition, and it has paid off. Electing Clinton, he claimed, would produce ‘a constitutional crisis’ and reduce the country’s standing in the world to ‘a laughing stock’: the latter inviting the retort of what a Trump Presidency would do.

Revealingly, Trump spoke regularly of a ‘Trump administration’ and what it would do in its first hundred days – how it would cancel Obamacare, slash taxes and save America from being ‘the highest taxed country in the world.’ He has clearly begun to believe in his own hype and appears to be thinking himself into his possible new role. Detail, there was none – with his tax plan of slashing business taxes and regulation a sort of second rate Reaganism on steroids.

The crowd lapped all this up, but didn’t go crazy for it, except when Bill and Hillary Clinton were invoked, or the supposed disaster of the Obama presidency. In Trump’s words Obama and Hillary have dared to not see ‘America as exceptional’ and instead ‘view it as just another country amongst countries’, as if that was somehow sacrilege. Sununu portrayed the Obama years as ‘America sliding towards socialism’ – a point not met with disbelief, but cheers.  

So many factors have got us to this point where the US presidential election result is in serious doubt and it is conceivable that Trump could win. He has somehow managed to position himself as an outsider, raging at the elites and establishment, and even the crony capitalism of which he has been an advocate and beneficiary. He railed against the ‘theft of American jobs and prosperity’ and proposed simplistic, unworkable actions – despite his own track record of exploitative employment practices and shipping jobs overseas.

Trump has taken on the role of a challenger and outsider to the status quo which a sizeable part of America finds plausible. It is true that, as E.J. Dionne Jr. observed in the ‘Washington Post’, he is a ‘phony outsider’, putting on the mask of anger and outrage at a status quo he has aided and gained from, but it does reveal something telling.

We do have to try and understand why nearly half of America’s voters have bought into the Trump agenda? Some of it is understandable – the failure of the Democrats and Republicans to widen prosperity; the decline in well-paid working class jobs, and bitter divisions of race, ethnicity, identity and status. There is an absence of mainstream solutions to much that torments America, so it is much more reassuring to buy into simple, populist, sloganeering.

The Democrats and the Clinton era are as much to blame for a lot of this as the Republicans. Nowhere in this election have either of the two main presidential candidates talked of the 28 million Americans who don’t have health care, despite the increased coverage of Obamacare, or the millions of Americans who don’t have access to clean water and sanitation, or that so many essential public goods don’t work for so many people, such as reliable electricity supply.

A big element of this is that millions of Americans have lost their place, status and economic security, and don’t know where to turn, or who to blame. Organised labour and activism is now a rump minority part of the economy and even of the Democratic coalition, so talking a traditional labour message no longer resonates with most of the population.

Another is how the changing economy and society has rebalanced class, gender and race. It isn’t an accident that Trump’s biggest constituency is non-college educated white men – who have lost out in recent decades in the labour market. Nor is it happenchance that the Democrats have become shaped by gender and race, seen in the Obama presidency and candidature of Hillary Clinton.

Trump’s candidature has tapped into and been made possible by a furious male rage across the nation. His sexist, misogynist, predatory comments and behaviour have to be seen in this context. Rebecca Traister, author of ‘All the Single Ladies: Unmarried Women and the Rise of an Independent Nation’, observed that the revelation of Trump’s ‘groping’ comments was ‘not universal, but not unique’ and ‘representative of a certain class of Republican men.’ 

The Trump coalition is a complex phenomenon. It does not make sense to dismiss all of it as being hateful, xenophobic or racist. One New York liberal observer the week previous dismissed Trump’s appeal to me with the words that ’40% of Americans are racist.’ That is as unhelpful in its politics as it is wrong.

A nationwide poll this week showed that 7% of Obama’s 2012 vote is now voting for Trump and the reasons for such a shift cannot all be reduced to caricature. One voter, Gary Kerns, 42, from Gettysburg, called himself a ‘bandwagon voter’ and explained his shift from Obama to Trump thus: ‘Obama was blazing hot. There was momentum with him, and I got caught up with it. I loved it.’ And concluded his conversion with the words: ‘Let’s roll with the hot hand.’ 

Another ex-Obama voter, William Hansen, a former marine who served with the National Guard in two tours in Iraq said in the ‘New York Times’ ‘When we jump into wars without having a real plan, things like Vietnam, things like Iraq and Afghanistan happen’, observing: ‘This is sixteen years. This is longer than Vietnam.’ Dismay, anxiety and foreboding at America’s imperial over-reach is everywhere, and Trump is mining this, calling out the US Middle East wars as ‘Obama and Hillary’s wars’ and the ‘$6 trillion spending’ as Democrat conflicts, when these were begun by Bush I and II.

There is an understandable wish in the UK and elsewhere, along with huge parts of the US, to pray that this nightmare just goes away. That Hillary Clinton is elected (even though she is not perfect) but gets on with the act of governing and being president, and Trump and the forces he has given voice to just disappear. But this isn’t going to happen.

The emergence of a Trump nation says something is deeply rotten at the heart of politics, society and the economy. His agenda, concerns, insults and complaints did not emerge from nowhere. The breakdown of agreement about the normative rules and processes of the US political system didn’t just happen under Trump; instead, they have been crumbling for decades. 

Trump has, whether he narrowly wins or loses, in many respects already won this election, framing the arguments, tone and demeanour of the national debate. In this he has similarities with his admirer, former UKIP leader Nigel Farage, with Trump delighted to make the overt comparison by calling himself ‘Mr. Brexit’ – and placing his revolt in the same milieu of a people’s uprising against the liberal and PC classes.

It has been a long decline to this sad state of affairs. One where such transparently chameleon-like and opportunist populism from someone such as Donald Trump should find such an enthusiastic and sizeable constituency. The reasons in the US, UK and across Europe for such political and popular dislocation go way beyond the Clintons, Tony Blair and Gordon Brown, and Gerhard Schröder. Instead, as Cas Mudde said in ‘Foreign Affairs’ we are witnessing an ‘illiberal democratic response to decades of undemocratic liberal policies’.

None of the factors that produced the Trump candidacy will disappear whatever the result. A Clinton presidency with the narrowest of mandates could be an ugly, messy interlude for what comes after. A denied Trump would be a nasty, unpredictable force, while the possibility of a Trump presidency would be playing with powerful fire and high stakes.

This then is what loss, rage, confusion and anger at a politics and at an economy that has failed many people looks like. This is a society and empire which doesn’t want to confront difficult truths and have a serious debate about what has gone wrong and how to put it right. It is a frightening picture, but we have to face it calmly to even begin to understand how to counteract it. Trump is not a one-off, or an outsider, or even a unique American phenomenon. The politics of the strongman who alone has the answers can seemingly happen nearly anywhere. It is that serious and alarming.

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