The 2016 presidential primaries have scorched innumerable campaign trails across the nation, like so many well-meaning, patriotic arsonists. Fellow Southeastern Connecticutians might be excused from fully appreciating the quality and quantity of fireworks currently being set off in other parts of New England, upon distant New Hampshire and Massachusetts. Here, along the placid furthest reaches of the Long Island Sound, a stray Bernie Sanders sticker affixed to the back a Saab, or a bit of wry, neighborly coffee shop debate among retired men in the early morning, are the only signs that something is afoot in other—perhaps less lucky—segments of the nation. The village of Mystic likely will neither host a national, televised debate, nor show up one morning the subject of a late-night Donald Trump tweet (“I know more about mid-19th century ship building than anyone!”), and seems content to peacefully ride out this year-long squall.
Amid the peace and quiet I am storm chaser. A Trump chaser.
The Saturday meal on this night in late January has become a winter staple: pasta and a live stream of tonight’s sold out Donald Trump performance, the latest rendition of a nearly one-man show sweeping the country. My computer screen beamed a feed this evening from Sioux City, a frozen outpost of western Iowa. The Republican tornado had not quite arrived. The podium is doing its best to entertaining us for the moment, paired with strains of an Andrew Lloyd Webber aria. A few sign wavers in the front row of the small convention room seemed restive. So was my regular viewing companion next to me.
“I think I’ve seen so many of these Trump rallies I could start giving these speeches from memory—at least in my dreams,” Piper said. She wasn’t sure if she meant this as a joke or not.
“Donald Trump is visiting your dreams?” I ask, smiling all the same. At least that hasn’t happened to me yet. Having little else to do, I consider her effort so far in shadowing the Trump campaign as an interested observer. Yes, it is very impressive, especially considering Piper would never, ever vote for him. She’s probably now more a veteran than many actual Trump supporters—but what kind of medal do you get for such a thing?
She is huddled in the corner of the couch, ready for another round, resting a steaming bowl on her knees. She always sits like this when we watch Trump’s rallies, I’ve noticed. My theory of this is she might need something to hide her face in, like during a scary movie.
“Has he been looking a bit more orange than usual to you?” she wonders, squinting.
“I can’t tell anymore.”
Right as Piper said the word “orange” the mogul we’ve been waiting for enters the shot and takes his place at the podium, smiling and waving to an especially excited fan to his left. Within a moment the speaker before us is already in full theatrics, giving a flourish of his right hand, chopping it through the air. His hand movements are mesmerizing.
“Hey, I have to say this: I was very greedy. Now I’m going to be greedy for the country!”
Lord save me.
A mushroom that had just been on my fork almost went down the wrong way. I gag and cough for a moment, overcome from both the free-roaming spore and the speech line. No matter how many times I hear this Trump line I can’t swallow it.
Piper for her part is too transfixed to do more than casually offer the glass of water near her. The moment and mushroom soon pass.
“So, I have to ask you Piper. This idea Trump’s floating, about greed being synonymous with winning, is a major part of his appeal, and he’s saying it again,” I begin, catching my breath and thinking better of taking another stab of noodles for the moment, “Like, remember how your parents took you to church, and taught you not to be greedy?”
“What about it?” her attention remaining fixed on the screen.
“Did you realize at the time how unpatriotic they were?” My question this time at least warrants an eye roll.
“Trust me, I’m learning new things every day, watching these things.”
The next things we learn are a few “amazing” poll numbers that unsurprisingly have the New York billionaire in first place. This regular speech portion of braggadocio eats up a good ten minutes of the roughly one hour speeches the 69-year old Trump gives most nights; the repetition is telling nevertheless. This lead—I was sure—would be, should be, melting away soon, in the first weeks of primary voting. But as of the closing days of January they were still holding strong.
“You have to give it to the guy, though: I can honestly commend him on his unfailing willingness to at least be accessible to the media.”
“So he talks a bunch more than everyone else—what do we get for all the extra words? Ever hear about the theory that says someone can walk through a wall, given enough chances?” Piper replies, releasing a bit of frustration.
“My subscription to Scientific America lapsed, but I’ll buy that.”
“Scientific America was very sad to see you go, but in the same way, Trump having unlimited media non sequiturs doesn’t mean he can walk through the wall of truth.” Wall of truth—that’s a new one. Piper has come to play tonight.
Right, okay,” I laugh. “The answers he gives can be a walk in the park, but day after day there he is, taking another question from Jake Tapper. Don’t tell anyone, but I secretly think there are, besides the authentic article, four more be-suited clones zipping around the country and onto your TV screen.”
Speaking of which, Onscreen Trump is suddenly making another pivot in his spiel, turning from his domestic stabs of shapeless policy to swipes in the dark at whatever international advantage might benefit him.
“Ted Cruz has a lot of problems. Number one: Canada. He could run for prime minister. I wouldn’t ever complain, because he was born in Canada.”
“No denying that, eh?” I say, turning up the volume to hear another recitation of this recently added, questionable attack.
“Alright, Mr. Former Civics teacher,” Piper rejoined, turning the sound right back down to its original level. “Have at it: who’s right? Can being born in Canada hurt Cruz?”
“His mother was a United States citizen. That’s a big case closed on that one,” I say, slapping my left hand down onto my right, with a clap.
“More? How about the Fourteen Amendment, that defined citizenship as a birthright passed down from citizen parents. But there’s lot of other exceptions, like John McCain, being born on a military base in the Panama Canal Zone. If it’s about questioning a foreign born parent, like Cruz’s Cuban-born father, Mitt Romney’s father was born in Mexico. Or, going all the way back, Martin Van Buren would actually be the first American president in 1837, because everyone else had been…” motioning over with my hand to Piper, leaving the question hanging in the air.
“Yep. But the bigger question I’d like to know is why we have yet to make it to Canada ourselves, it just bein’ right up there and stuff. I think I’d like Canada.”
“And border guards really like visitors to have passports that aren’t five years expired.”
“A small detail.”
Our discussion of what it takes to go on a legal vacation makes us miss the beginning to Trump’s careful, nuanced treatment of terrorism. Dangers are coming, he claims, encroaching en masse upon our shores. His promise to keep all Muslim from entering the country is quickly becoming the tent pole classic of the tour, an upside-down, bizarro cover of the Neil Diamond song, “America.”
“America” “Trump Brand Nation State, Featuring America”
We’ve been traveling far Losers traveling far
Without a home Your home’s a warzone?
But not without a star That’s not our fault at all
Only want to be free They only want to flee
We huddle close We hunker down
Hang on to a dream And throw away the key
The rally crowd cheers every prediction of immigrant violence and the absolute barring of Syrian refugees. Trump pulls this into a wider religious context for western Iowans, many who will likely never meet a Syrian:
“If I’m elected president, we’re going to be saying Merry Christmas again!”
“Can a president do anything like that?” Piper asks later, washing a sauce-smeared dish. She’s being serious, but that’s not my mood after witnessing another rally.
“I think Dwight Eisenhower made everyone in the county buy a hoola-hoop once.”
“Funny. But, really—it seems like he’s making all of these promises that obviously he can’t do.”
Like most things concerning Trump, there is the 66% that everyone else running for office also does, and then there is the 33% extra oomph no one this side of George Wallace’s ghost is willing to say. In this way Trump discussions can take on the form of a shimmy— two feet back, three feet forward.
“Well, to be fair, all politicians promise things outside their jurisdiction. Pledging compulsory Merry Christmases wouldn’t normally help a candidate, you’re right. If I was running and such a thing I’d be laughed out of the building. But I’m not a salesman,” I try to reason unreasonableness, taking a dripping plate to towel off, “if you’ll remember how long I once lasted selling furniture a few lifetimes ago.”
“The manager was nice enough to walk you out the building,” Piper teased, reaching for more dish soap, suds halfway up her arms.” For bringing up the memory of a part-time college job I flicked whatever water was on my hands at her. Piper scowled at the few drops, but her comment had also made me thoughtful.
Donald Trump should have just done everyone a favor and sold furniture. I’m sure he could have met the monthly numbers that had alluded me—maybe Trump could have even been Salesperson of the Month! That’s really an accomplishment, I was told. But he has that kind of magic, the piles of pizazz to make people suddenly want to sign up for a full living room set when all they came in for was a lamp. Instead of a lamp lots of Americans now desire—and were being promised—a force field along our southern border.
“Okay, how does that feel?” I would ask years ago as a customer would sink into a leather recliner.
That’s as deep as this election is: leather recliner deep.
“Donald Trump’s not asking anyone to take a long think at anything he’s saying, right?”
Piper doesn’t feel this requires a response.
“He’s asking for everyone to take a long feel. Some people just like hearing what they already think, and get jazzed up along the way. Most people, do, now I that I think about it. Feel the Bern!” I conclude with forced enthusiasm, throwing the damp dishtowel across faucet, not very happy with the tight corner of cynicism my thoughts have brought me to. Piper’s not ready to join me in my hasty corner, and jumps in before I can take anything I just said back.
“So he can say anything?”
“That’s what this entire year has been testing, and the results aren’t in yet. But, you didn’t see the Pella, Iowa rally from earlier today,” I sigh, returning back to the living room to slump into a Queen Anne chair, throwing a leg over an armrest. “Trump actually said about Ted Cruz, “Ted, will you hit me, so I can—you know—do a number?” Piper returns to her sitting-fetal position on the couch.
“And they cheered the line?”
“Sure. It was said with such conviction, this thing most in the crowd would be horrified if their children said the same thing.”
“Alright,” Piper turned to me, eyeing me like she was ready to really corner me for good. Make your best case: why do people choose to support Trump?”
“Besides the awesome hats?”
“Fine, Fine. Actually, I’ve been trying to square this circle the last several days, about what draws an individual to Donald Trump’s campaign. In truth, I am fascinated: I’ve read across the horizon, from the conservative National Review to the New Yorker to get a fuller perspective.
I have found myself more sympathetic and empathetic to several of the fears and frustrations many do feel, that starts the initial interest in Trump. The regions that most gravitate to Trump: small towns, the Rust Belt, and swathes of the South, have been hurting for a long time. Most, if not all, of my life these struggling, poorer groups have been weakly served by parties of every stripe. The Great Recession only exacerbated the strain of these same areas.
People’s pain in today’s economy reminds me of the Virginia colony of Jamestown, when it’s early tobacco crops would fail. The wealthy planters back then always had enough resources to get through the rough patch well enough, and could be first to reinvest when things brightened. But the poor Virginia farmers were devastated.
People today understood all this much better, this current and inherent disparity in opportunity. And that engenders a general sense of unfairness. But I have to believe this problem bothers nearly every American today, and we differ only in how we would like to address it. There are similar shades to both Trump and Bernie Sanders’ economic message when you stand back, after all.
Trump crowds though have an extra the sense of loss that aren’t popping up with Sanders rallies: A sense of cultural loss. The idea of being knocked off an age-old pedestal by an emerging future that looks and sounds different.
And this change will play out for the rest of our lives. But I cannot tell anyone else how to feel about all this. Everyone has to decide this for themselves. But I am actually optimistic of these changes. At the very least I get to watch something important play out, and I believe it will play out like many other past changes. If the goal now is to make a 21st century house we can live in, all of this breaking of dishes and chairs is probably a wasted step. But then again, maybe America has so much in the attic that this how it has to be.
Beyond these real concerns, I’ve tried to place myself within the mindset of a prospective Trump supporter. But I’m always failing to recognize that final, embracing buy-in to their candidate. Is this leap borne of desperation? A promised pay-out to big to ignore? I just can’t follow that far. The chasm separating me from understanding what it takes to sign on the Trump-ed line is too gaping for me to see the other side, let alone jump across. Is it for lack of imagination, or childhood-grafted morals? I don’t know. But I take seriously that they see what they do.
In the end, what we are seeing across the country an uncovering of millions of people, who, in their own ways, feel dispossessed and forgotten.
I finish, and look over, waiting.
“Or something like that,” Piper says in the mildest of agreement.
“Or something like that,” I backhand.
“Alright. So those are some of the symptoms, I’ll go along with that. But like you just said, what makes Trump the cure for so many?”
“Now you’re talking,” I say, scratching an itch on the top of my head, leaning forward in the thinly cushioned chair. “There’s a line from Henry V that goes, ‘You might as well say, that’s a valiant flea that dare eat his breakfast on the lip of a lion.’ But I ask you, really, who in the Republican party right now are the fleas and who is the lion? Seems to me the lion has run amok of the zoo—and what tamers are left? There simply is no other choice for voters, by virtue of all the roaring. The choice may be for the flattened flea circus to take their show on the road.”
I get no reply on my animal metaphor. Piper has taken to laying down full on the coach with a pillow over her face. She considers this political menagerie a moment in silence.
“But there’s like ten other candidates for everyone to choose from,” she muffles into the fabric of the pillow, “even if some like, Marco Rubio and Jeb Bush get ignored until they look like insects on Trump’s back, alright. But who’s back would Chris Christie fit onto?” The imagine of the New Jersey governor astride anything is a great imagine, but I let it pass, shifting my weight in the narrow chair. I honestly have no idea, but like a new, discount Socrates I know at the very least that with all the new rules of politics and civility being written these last months I’m just as much along for the ride as everyone else.
“Well, normally all history and common sense says the G.O.P should have been able to stuff him back into their own gold-plated Pandora’s box, back into Trump Tower. But Donald Trump is the pompadoured purveyor of news things. You know…I never told you how Trump finished his Cruz-hitting line. He said, ‘Because I’m much better when somebody hits me. I like that better. I feel better, you know, inside my gut.’”
“I don’t want to think about Donald Trump’s gut,” Piper says with a shudder, suddenly inspired to close my laptop resting on the coffee table.