Friday, June 17, 2016

Trumpers

It has seemed to me that there has been too much focus on Trump, his politics, his motivations, his psyche, and too little on his followers, so I was happy to see Dave Eggars focus on the latter, writing about his experience attending a Trump rally in Sacramento.
As we’d been waiting, about 500 more people had arrived to stand in line behind us. Vendors moved up and down the line, selling Trump T-shirts, buttons and towels. And all the while, the scene was exceedingly calm. It might have been the heat. It might have been the fluoridation Jim was talking about. But the attendees could have easily been confused with people in line for a Disney ride or a holiday sale at Walmart. They were amiable, polite, dressed in red, white and blue shorts and tank tops and sandals, and surprisingly diverse.
Yes, they were generally white, but there were also African-Americans and plenty of Latinos. A startling number of Asian-Americans, Pacific Islanders and South Asian-Americans. There were the expected Harley-Davidson riders in black vests, but there were also a remarkable number of people with disabilities. There were families, professional types, veterans and one Filipino-American navy officer in full dress whites. It was not the homogenous sea of angry white men that one might have expected. Instead, it appeared to be a skewed but not wholly unrepresentative cross-section of the people of northern California.
After a long and patient wait, the crowd finally is in the presence of Trump:
“They say there are 11,000 people in the hangar,” he said, to cheers from the audience. “Last night I watched as Bernie had a crowd of 3,000 people. That’s not bad. That’s not bad. And the news media said, ‘Bernie Sanders had this massive crowd of 3,000 people.’ You know what 3,000 people is? It’s like a small audience, it’s like forget it. When we have a crowd like this – look at this!” They cheered again.
The actual capacity of the hangar was 2,500, and that day it was less than half full. But factual accuracy is not the point of Trump’s speeches. The point is entertainment, and Trump delivers. Any given portion of his speech contained a lively mix of boasts, jokes, grievances, name-calling, threats, exaggerations and non sequiturs – all of it delivered theatrically, without notes and with great comic timing, aided by his guttural accent and his gift for crude but memorable language. Over the next 44 minutes, he had vivid and unvarnished things to say about the North American Free Trade Agreement (“a total disaster”) and the World Trade Organisation (“a catastrophe”). He said the elected leaders in Washington are “stupid, stupid people” and that Hillary Clinton was “a person with absolutely no natural talent”. The fact that she was allowed to run at all, given her email imbroglio, was “a disgrace”.
As he listens and watches, Eggars has an epiphany:
And then it came together. I’d been watching Trump’s speech, hearing the crowd laugh and cheer and have a good time in the early evening sun, and all along I’d been trying to put my finger on what the rally reminded me of. And now, my head back in the 1980s, it hit me: Andrew Dice Clay. He might not be familiar to audiences outside the US, but in the 80s, for a few years, he was the most popular comedian in America. He would come out looking like the Fonz – in jeans, a leather jacket and a white T-shirt – and he’d tell jokes that were politically incorrect but often very funny. His posture was that of a braggy thug from Brooklyn, saying crude things on the street corner. At the height of his fame, he could sell out stadiums.
It was just an act, of course. But like a lot of comedy, the appeal is in the forbidden delight in hearing highly inappropriate things spoken into a microphone. We can’t believe someone said that, on stage, or behind a podium, to so many.
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His supporters are not really listening to anything he says. They cheer when he says he’ll help the veterans, they cheer when he says he’ll build a wall, but ultimately they do not care what he says. They don’t care if he actually will build a wall. If Trump decided, tomorrow, to reverse himself on the idea of building a wall, his supporters would shrug and their support would not waver. He has been for gun control and against gun control. He has stated his support for Planned Parenthood and for the idea of criminal punishment for women who seek abortions. He has called the Iraq war, and most of our adventures in the Middle East, mistakes, but has said he would carpet bomb Isis. He has reversed himself on nearly every major issue, often in the same week, and has offered scant specifics on anything in particular – though in Sacramento, about infrastructure, he did say, “We’re gonna have new roads, bridges, all that stuff”.
His supporters do not care. Nothing in Trump’s platform matters. There is no policy that matters. There is no promise that matters. There is no villain, no scapegoat, that matters. If, tomorrow, he said that Canadians, not Mexicans, were rapists and drug dealers, and the wall should be built on that border, no one would blink. His poll numbers would not waver. Because there are no positions and no statements that matter to them. There is only the man, the name, the brand, the personality they have seen on television.
Believing that Trump’s supporters are all fascists or racists is a grave mistake. This day in Sacramento presented a different picture, of a thousand or so regular people who thought it was pretty cool how Trump showed up in a plane with his name on it. How naughty it was when he called the president “stupid”. How funny it was when he said the word “huge” the peculiar way he does, without the “h” (the audience yelled back “uuuuge!”, laughing half with him, half at him). In the same way we rooted for Clay a few years ago when he showed up as an actual actor in a Woody Allen movie, the audience at a Trump rally is thinking, How funny would it be if this guy were across the table from Angela Merkel? That would be classic.
Americans who have voted for Trump in the primaries have done so not because they agree with all, or any, of his statements or promises, but because he is an entertainment. He is a loud, captivating distraction and a very good comedian. His appeal is aided by these rallies, and by media coverage, and both are fuelled not by substance but by his willingness to say crazy shit.
To quote David Hume:
Nothing appears more surprising to those, who consider human affairs with a philosophical eye, than the easiness with which the many are governed by the few; and the implicit submission, with which men resign their own sentiments and passions to those of their rulers. When we enquire by what means this wonder is effected, we shall find, that, as Force is always on the side of the governed, the governors have nothing to support them but opinion. It is therefore, on opinion only that government is founded; and this maxim extends to the most despotic and most military governments, as well as to the most free and most popular. (Part I, Essay 4: Of The First Principles of Government)
Back to Eggars:
 As long as he continues to say crazy shit, he will continue to dominate the news and will continue to attract crowds. The moment he ceases to entertain – to say crazy shit – he will evaporate.
 As does the audience, less than half an hour into his speech:
Just over halfway through his speech, people started leaving. Twenty-five minutes in, he had begun to repeat himself, and he’d started looking down at the podium, reading dubious statistics about Sacramento’s economic situation. People didn’t care. At one point he read from an article he said he’d clipped from a newspaper. He was getting too specific, and the entertainment value was sinking.
People from the front of the crowd started making their way back, and out. It started with the elderly woman in the Veterans of Foreign Wars hat. She, and the two people helping her, squeezed their way through the throng and into the darkness of the hangar. This began a steady flow of the departing. These people had arrived at 4pm, had waited three hours and now, at 7.30pm, they were leaving. Trump was still talking, but they were not worried about missing anything he would say, because they did not care. They had seen him, heard the zingers, taken a picture or two, and now they were heading to the parking lot, to get a head start on the traffic.
By the time Trump finished, there was no one behind me. Most of the hangar was empty. The only people left were the few hundred outside, pressed against the barricades, waiting for him to sign their posters and hats. 
I've read that American consumption is now aimed more at experiences rather than things. Maybe being a Trump supporter, going to a rally,even voting for him, are consumable experiences. Bon appetit.

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