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I went to the Donald Trump rally last week to see what I could see.
I saw a sea of cheaply produced red caps. I saw a man in a horse suit. I saw a presidential candidate tell thousands of Arkansans — seemingly out of nowhere — that Alabama "has a hell of a football team," yet still solidly win the crowd over in the end. Maybe he really is just good at winning?
In retrospect, Barton Coliseum was a perfect venue for the narrative of blight and pathos that Trump peddles, of a limping, faded America become the butt of the world's jokes. Milling about for hours with a restive crowd on a vast concrete floor lent a vague sense of being lost in a refugee crisis, although one with good signage and access to concessions.
I spoke to Bob Gardner, a doctor for the Central Arkansas Veterans Healthcare Administration who's been in the National Guard for 35 years. Gardner also likes Florida Sen. Marco Rubio and Texas Sen. Ted Cruz, Trump's leading rivals for the nomination, but like many people I spoke to, the specter of terrorism has fueled his interest in the billionaire. "[ISIS] is not going to go away," he said. "I've studied the whole philosophy of radical Islam for several years now, and it's not an ideology that wants to be tolerant of us."
Does that mean he supports a ban on Muslims entering the U.S., as Trump has proposed? "I have nothing against the religion of Islam. But, when it comes to protecting my family and my country, then I have to put that as a priority first," he said. Gardner used a dubious analogy that's circulated in recent months: Not all snakes are poisonous, but we can't tell which are deadly and which are harmless in this situation. "Until you can identify which ones are poisonous and which ones are not, we don't have a choice."
Unlike some Trump supporters, Gardner isn't a fan of his candidate's eagerness to say outrageous things and lob insults. "I think that's probably his weakest suit. ... But I think he will be very good at picking out people who will be his chief officials. The president's not an entity unto himself. He has to surround himself with really good people — secretary of defense, secretary of the treasury ... . He'll probably have to be a little bit more diplomatic. But everyone's got strong and weak suits."
For a woman named Vicki, a North Little Rock mother of two grown children in the military, the main appeal is economic. She's always voted Democratic, she told me, but now she's sold on Donald Trump's insistence he'll do things different and better, even if the details can be generously described as sketchy.
"We're tired of the politicians telling us the same story. ... Especially for the poor people — we're going to get you out of this, get you out of that. And we believe in them, you know? ... I just think maybe we need some change — maybe we need somebody who ain't so political. Somebody who does know business and how to run things and get us out of what we're in, because we're all in it together, and we're all struggling. ... I'm on disability and I see it every day."
"I just think somebody really needs to listen to what we're saying out here."
Is a billionaire really the person to do that? "I think they're all rich," she replied. "I know, he was born with a silver spoon in his mouth, and I wasn't even born with a plastic spoon in my mouth, you know what I'm saying? But I just hope he might look down upon us little people, poor people — and I'm speaking for myself, being poor — and I just hope he listens to us."
Why her conversion to the GOP? "Obama. He was supposed to be for all of us poor people, he really was. Both times [in 2008 and 2012] I was right for him, yes sir. ... And I still like him. I mean, he's my president. But I just don't like the way he turned out and did us all." She was unclear about what exactly fueled her disillusionment. "Well, No. 1, all the Obamacare. ... I don't know, I just don't think he did us right. ... I think he's biased about a lot of things. I'm ready for a change."
I had to ask: If Vicki is looking for a change for the poor, what about Bernie Sanders? "He scares me. He wants to raise taxes 90 percent? People like me will die. I'll just end up with nothing. ... [and] I never hear Bernie talk about the vets. Donald Trump mentions them all the time. I don't know; I just don't like him."
Trump's plane was grounded in Nashville, Tenn., and he ended up being about two-and-a-half hours late. When he finally showed, he gave a sermon — fresh after his disappointing second-place finish in the Iowa caucus — centered on the venality of politicians.
"Actually, I think I came in first," he said of the Iowa contest, explaining how Ted Cruz stole the election by circulating rumors on caucus night of faded evangelical favorite Ben Carson dropping out of the race. Cruz operatives did indeed pull this dirty trick — though it's not why Trump lost the state. He lost because Cruz outperformed him.
Of course this would be Trump's go-to strategy when faced with defeat: Cry foul and declare victory in the face of reality.
"That voter fraud. These politicians are brutal ... . They are a bunch of dishonest cookies, I want to tell you," he said. "This political stuff is dangerous" — a man nearby began wildly clapping — "and these political people are really dishonest."
Soon thereafter, the first round of protesters was tossed out of the stands by security — a collection of young folks, many of them people of color. "Traitor!" someone near me yelled. Another: "Get 'em outta here!"
Trump turned to wave bye-bye as several gave him the finger. "I didn't think we'd see that in Little Rock," Trump said sadly. "They're not from here!" shouted a young man in front of me, eager to defend our collective honor.
Trump then launched into perhaps the flimsiest paean to Arkansas that I've ever heard, telling a confusing story about a friend (or was it two friends?) who were dying of cancer. "Goners," Trump said. But they came to Arkansas and were cured by Dr. Bart Barlogie, formerly of the University of Arkansas for Medical Sciences. "They came to Arkansas; they're fine today. Amazing!" He seemed to credit the state, collectively, for performing this miracle cure. "So — congratulations, folks. That's pretty good."
"The Natural State!" someone yelled. "It was really pretty amazing," Trump said.
Then he turned back to the subject of Cruz, complaining that the senator lately has accused him of supporting Obamacare. "Everybody in this room knows I've been opposed to it so strongly." The truth, he said, is that Cruz pushed for the nomination of Chief Justice John Roberts to the U.S. Supreme Court, and Roberts later upheld the core provisions of the Affordable Care Act on two separate occasions. Therefore: "Ted Cruz gave us Obamacare." (A man next to me shook his head and grumbled, "no he didn't.")
Trump referenced a stopover in Mobile, Ala. "You do like Alabama right? Right?" he asked, inexplicably. He grinned. "You have to say, they have a hell of a football team, right?" There were some laughs, but people seemed disturbed. A wave of boos began; Trump was unshaken, or maybe he didn't notice. He definitely didn't care.
A solo protester near me seized upon the moment. "Call the Hogs!" he began shrieking. "Call the Hogs!" Finally, he got Trump's attention. "Whoops, do I hear somebody shouting? Is he a friend or foe?" Trump said, peering in our direction. "Friend or foe?" In the tiny increment of silence that followed, the man yelled out, "RAZORBACKS!" Trump heard, and smiled amiably. "He's a Razorback!" he announced. The crowd reflexively cheered and cheered. Trump was placated, but a few minutes later the same guy began screaming "SANDERS! BERNIE SANDERS!" and security hustled him outside.
The biggest applause line of the night concerned ISIS: "We gotta knock the shit out of 'em and keep going! We gotta be done with it," Trump boomed. People went absolutely wild, and I suspect many were cheering at least as much for a leading presidential candidate saying the word "shit" as they were for the sentiment itself.
And then this: Trump castigated Washington, D.C., for failing to negotiate prices with pharmaceutical companies, as do other developed countries. This is an issue on which Donald Trump is entirely correct, and on which he's more closely aligned with Obama, Sanders and Hillary Clinton than he is his fellow Republicans.
"These people are taking money from the special interests, and the lobbyists, and the drug companies are an example, and that's why we don't negotiate the cost of drugs. ... So they're selling it pretty much at a retail price — can you believe it? So we're the biggest user in the entire world, and we're paying like you walk into a drugstore and buy something over the counter ... all because the drug stores, and the drug companies, have such power over our politicians."
The explanation was jumbled, but the message was comprehensible enough: Companies are making obscene profits off of necessary prescriptions, and the government rolls over and lets them do it. And this is from the GOP frontrunner. Trump is many things, but he's not your average Republican candidate.
To wrap up, he took questions from the crowd.
"President Trump, I've heard talk about Christian churches losing their tax exempt status," one man asked. "Under you, will we have more protections?"
"I love the question ... you know, with the evangelicals, I do amazingly well. I'm leading with evangelicals," Trump said, sounding like he was talking shop with a pollster instead of addressing a crowd in the heart of the Bible belt. "Christianity is under siege, folks. It's under siege. If I said some of the things I said about Christianity that I have said about, uh, other things, I would have had not the same difficulty."
Trump talks about Christians as if they're a group to which he does not belong. That is clearly in fact the case. The fascinating thing is that such a large number of them don't find this to be much of a problem.
In a recent New Yorker article, Ryan Lizza contrasted the philosophical and strategic differences between the Trump and Cruz insurgencies, and on Wednesday night, as I watched Trump disinterestedly toss a bone to aggrieved evangelicals, I realized another distinction. Yes, they're both men thriving on the darker political emotions — fear, anger, grievance, despair, tribalism — but they're fueled by different paranoid visions of ruin.
Though Trump paints a picture of a fallen nation, it's always framed in terms of a fall from strength — not a fall from grace. Morality simply seems foreign to him. His narrative is ominous, but it's less explicitly apocalyptic than Cruz's vision of an America in which evil stalks the land, abortionists murder babies by the millions and the government's totalitarian ambitions unfold a little further every day. Trump rarely talks about the federal government as sinister; he talks about it contemptuously, as a collection of stupid, venal losers.
Still, that doesn't mean he won't happily accept evangelical paranoia into his fold as well.
"You can't say Merry Christmas anymore," he told the crowd. "If I win, folks, we're all going to be saying 'Merry Christmas.' That I can tell you. ... Folks, I love you, you're special. SEC, get out and vote, we're gonna change, this is change, we're gonna Make America Great Again. Thank you, everybody."
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