What I learned at a Trump rally

I was standing outside last night’s Trump rally in Jackson, MS, just like the country Baptist preacher near the front door of the only liquor store in town, looking forward to the experience yet hoping I wouldn’t see anybody I knew. But this was research: a focus group on steroids. I had a chance to look into the hearts and minds of Trump loyalists, and I was determined to attend. I spent about two hours at the Coliseum observing and eavesdropping. I mustered up the courage for a couple of lengthy conversations - one with a 60 year old truck driver who’d never even voted before and another with a seasoned but sad GOP operative who was there only out of party loyalty. Here’s my take: 

First the good news:

  • I heard no racist comments nor saw clothing or signs that celebrated religious bigotry. This was nothing like the Facebook videos of some Trump rallies where the N-word and insults to Hispanics or Muslims were commonplace.
  • Nobody seems to revere Trump like the Nazis of prewar Germany viewed their Fuhrer. There is no emerging myth of Trump as a demigod. His most loyal supports accept his failings and, through some twisted logic, embrace them as their own—bankruptcy, five kids by three wives, (regrettable) insults toward women and minorities, etc.
  • The crowd was enthusiastic but not giddy. Like the fourth night of a booze cruise, everybody knew the purpose at hand but were struggling to get into it.
  • The building was one-third empty. Even in Deep Red Mississippi, the Donald up close is like Brillcream—a little dab'll do ya.    
  • The scripting was questionable. Trump spoke for 10 minutes, then paused so a well-tanned Nigel Farage could lecture the audience on the evils of Brussels. A straw poll of those in earshot confirmed that nobody knew or gave a damn about Brexit.  

Now the bad news:

  • Trump followed the teleprompter. His speech delivery is better than a week ago, and the flow had purpose.
  • A few of his lines, directed at a larger audience, have weight. The most memorable was, “We don’t know where the Clinton Foundation ends and the State Department starts.” 
  • The “Hillary is a bigot” line was scripted. I’ll bet a dollar to a donut it was focus group tested, and I fear that with Kellyanne Conway there it's increasing method behind the madness

Best observation of the night:

One sobering reminder is that a substantial majority of Americans don’t think we’re better off today than eight years ago. They want change. Trump’s message, stripped of all the xenophobia, misogyny and bluster, speaks to that. But Trump the messenger is anything but the embodiment of responsible change. As the loyal GOP operative remarked, “Right now this election is a referendum on whether Trump is crazy….and we are losing.”

Forgive our departure from the normal essays on voter behavior studies. Sometime you have to put the academic journals down and get out there.


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