US midterm elections: A carnival of Trump

5:47 pm on 5 November 2018

As the US prepares to vote in its crucial midterm elections, RNZ's Tim Watkin goes to one of Donald Trump's rallies and discovers it isn't about facts and figures, it's about tribes and theatre.

US President Donald Trump speaks at the campaign rally at the Pensacola International Airport in Florida.

US President Donald Trump speaks at the campaign rally at the Pensacola International Airport in Florida. Photo: AFP

Outside President Donald Trump's last rally in the key state of Florida before this week's midterm elections, an African-American man walks up and down the queue putting on a show. He's got big hair, a big grin and a big voice.

"Get your Donald F*****' Trump t-shirts, oh yeah! You can't get these in Walmart," he hollers. "Get your DFTs".

The crowd's waiting to board the school buses requisitioned to carry an estimated 7000 people into a hangar at Pensacola airport, in the Florida panhandle. Pensacola's claim to fame is that it was home to America's first European settlement (a short-lived Spanish expedition that landed in 1559) and it sits on white sands near the state border with Alabama.

There are at least a dozen stands selling pins and t-shirts, beanies and flags at "prices so low even a liberal can afford 'em", as one stall-holder says - none of them mentioning the candidates actually standing in these midterms. And then there's the showman walking the line, selling just the one style of t-shirt.

"Your Donald F*****' Trump t-shirts. Get your DFTs. He's my hero."

I doubt that. But while the size of the stage couldn't be more different, the similarities between that road-side huckster and Donald Trump are unmissable. Because a Trump rally is nothing if not a show. It's much more besides.

But once we ride the buses, join another queue and the rally finally kicks off, what we get is a political vaudeville show. It's a carnival of Trump, with Trump as Ring-Master-in-Chief. This night, like so many others in the past two years, is all about Trump.

Which is exactly what the crowd has queued and bussed and hollered for. Plenty of them fit the mould, like the bearded guy in the back seat of the bus wearing a shirt made to look like the constitution. As people squeeze on board he chuckles: "If anybody likes him, we can snuggle up. If ya don't…".

But all sorts are here, joining in line as the warm-up guy on the loudspeaker praises Trump to the high heavens. "He has kept his promise to be the greatest jobs president that God has ever created". Families. Hispanics. Millennials. Retirees. The couple in the seats in front of me on the bus are, I think, Pakistani. Many are dressed in forms of red, white and blue; but not all.

What's notable is the lack of African Americans. I saw more working behind the counter of the diner we went to later on, than I did at the rally. Be in no doubt, these midterms are a tale of two Americas.

The show starts as Air Force One pulls up right to the side of the open hangar, beautifully lit, while Tina Turner's 'Simply The Best' blares from the speakers. With the sun setting in the background and a platform that means Trump can walk right out of the plane and onto the stage, the theatrics are impressive.

Then, before Trump and his supporting cast can appear, the next track begins. It is - I kid you not - The Rolling Stones' 'Sympathy for the Devil', which begins, "Please allow me to introduce myself/I'm a man of wealth and taste/I've been around for a long, long year/Stole many a man's soul to waste".

The irony seems lost on everyone. This is a crowd of true believers. Of Trump believers. Primed for the rock star entrance, thousands of arms stretch into the air like an old time revival meeting. Only these days the hands aren't reaching for heaven, they're holding mobile phones waiting to capture the moment this latest prophet appears.

But before the main act, the supporting cast. Vice President Mike Pence starts the speaking with a hint at the hyperbole and inaccuracies to come, telling the crowd they are about to see the man "Americans voted overwhelmingly to be the 45th president". Of course, Trump lost the popular vote by 2.8 million in 2016.

But this is a night where the truth never gets in the way of a good line.

Pence's best line comes when he picks up on the uncertainty surrounding Tuesday's result (Wednesday NZT). He says: "We keep hearing about this blue wave. But that blue wave is going to hit a big red wall."

It's true the polls are tightening as election day gets nearer and while early voting is at record highs for midterms, no-one knows who all those early voters are backing.

Supporters of US President Donald Trump listen while he speaks during the campaign rally in Pensacola.

Supporters of US President Donald Trump listen while he speaks during the campaign rally in Pensacola. Photo: AFP

Then comes Trump. And it's a funny mix of a speech; at times rambling, jumping from his scripted lines to any number of tangents. At times it's funny and commanding, other times brutal and petulant. Most of all it's hyperbolic and triumphant. And the people of Pensacola love it.

The "radical Democrats" get most of the bashing and Trump gives himself the most plaudits, as you would expect. The Democrats want to "give away our country", "knock down the economy with a giant wrecking ball", "impose socialism on the state of Florida" and "take away your borders". Oh, and they "want to turn the USA into a giant sanctuary city for sex predators".

The flailing goes on and on, yet the crowd keeps lapping it up. Earlier in the day I had met two other kinds of Republicans. First, the Gritted Teeth Republican voter; a woman visiting from Texas. She told me, shrugging, "Trump does stuff… I wouldn't want my kids to behave like him. But we believe in freedom".

She doesn't want the government to have too much power and doesn't think the government always knows best, so while she finds Trump a bit embarrassing, it's not enough for her to forego her party.

Second, there was the Never Trump Republican. Danny was driving our taxi and was another long-term Republican. "But I can only sink so low," he said. "I couldn't vote for him". Economic cycles come and go, Danny says, but he fears the "disgraceful" behaviour of this president is giving permission to others and changing the culture. He worries about when Trump has to leave office - whether it's in two years or six.

"I can't see him going quietly," he adds fearfully.

Then there's the crowd around me as Trump goes back over his two years in power. They cheer unquestioningly as he declares America as "the hottest economy anywhere on earth" and "the best economy the country has ever had".

The hyperbole is all part of the show. This isn't about facts and figures, it's about tribes and theatre. And like any good showman, Trump has his go-to lines.

He insists his crowds are bigger than his opponents and to prove it orders the camera operators to pan across the crowd to show its size. When they stay trained on him, he shakes his head with mock sadness and says "they never do, they never do".

He then launches into a line on how Democrats will double, triple, quadruple taxes. I'm waiting for him to start talking about them raking in a gazillion dollars, because the land of real numbers was left behind long ago. He's now in full flight, playing to the crowd, soaring far above the politics of facts and compromise, to Trumpland.

The downside for him is that, like the boy who cried wolf, you now have no idea what to believe. He says he's cut more regulations in two years than any other administration has in four. Who knows? Maybe he has. But then he talks about the "violent predators" coming to the US in the "caravan" walking up through Central America.

Homeland Security have reportedly said 270 people in the caravan have criminal records, but have not said where that number comes from. Trump gives no evidence that any of them are "predators".

Patriotism is the other line that never fails. Trump is shameless in his praise of "the greatest country on earth" and is canny enough to always put himself in the story when he's talking about the country's strength and greatness. It is he, Trump, who has made American Great Again. But even as he brandishes his bravado, the insecurities peep through.

Like an ageing ball player, he harks back to 2016 and replays the old tape. He still insists the media took Hillary Clinton's side and talks about election night - almost wistfully - as "one of the greatest nights in political history". He can't seem to help himself, because a moment later he adds, "one of the best rating nights in our history too. A lot of great things happened that night."

Standing there beside Air Force One, as President of the United States and with a crowd hanging on every word, he can't top himself talking about one night of TV ratings two years ago.

This man's desperate need to be loved… to win… hangs in the air for just a second. Then the persuader-in-chief is back, returning as he does time and again, to the caravan and illegal immigration. It gets the biggest cheer each time. It's what has him catching up in the polls.

Fear is making these Floridians loud and like any good entertainer, Trump knows when to pivot back to the lines that work. He talks about the wall a lot and the 2016 chant "build that wall" still rings out loud and often. But in recent days he's added a new twist, talking about the "beautiful barbed wire" going up along the southern border.

President Donald Trump speaks at the Florida campaign rally.

President Donald Trump speaks at the Florida campaign rally. Photo: AFP

In a late attempt to reach out to the suburban women who threaten to leave the Republicans in droves at this election - according to surveys - he stresses that barbed wire is keeping those predators away from women and their children, who want to live safe and secure in their neighbourhoods.

But with the medicinal fear comes the honey of humour. He says things like, "I shouldn't say this, but I will…" and the crowd is laughing before he even gets to the next line. When he talks about "socialised medicine", he quips, "Welcome to Venezuela". Then he pivots back to immigration and the man beside me shouts, "send 'em back".

What's surprising is how little attention Trump gives to the Republicans who are actually on the ticket. Senate candidate Rick Scott and candidate for governor, Ron DeSantis, get a few minutes each at the podium. But they soon relinquish the stage to the president, having spent most of their short speeches praising - you guessed it - Trump.

But there are other surprises as well. Because much of the time he's demonising immigrants, he's careful to say it's illegal immigrants he's talking about. More than once he stresses the US welcomes immigrants who come by legal means. "We want people to come in through our strong borders," he says at one stage.

At another he addresses the Democrats main attack line these elections - that Republicans will again try to dismantle Obamacare if they hold the House of Representatives after the midterms. Specifically, they will take away the requirement for insurance companies to cover people for pre-existing health conditions. But listen to this:

"We will always protect Americans with pre-existing conditions," Trump offers. "Always". It's a throw-away line and he says it only once. But given the heat generated by that issue this campaign, you'd think that would be the subject of significant coverage. Yet I saw none. No, he didn't say what 'protect' means. But it's interesting what gets lost in the sea of divisive declaiming.

And while the crowd hoots and hollers at every insult to the 'other' that Trump can through out, they are polite and courteous throughout. I'm at the event with a Muslim woman reporter in a head scarf. A man standing beside us has been shouting his support all night, but when she asks in broken English if he will take a photo of her, he does without a moment's hesitation, checking to see if she's happy with it.

When we're waiting for the buses later, the crowd moves aside so a young mother and her crying baby can move to the front of the queue. These are people who know how to be kind and polite. But they also want to believe.

They want to believe the world isn't changing and leaving behind so much they know and value. So they cheer when the showman says, "this election is about safety", because they want to feel safe, and they don't. They cheer when he says "the last administration said the jobs are not coming back; you'd need a magic wand. Well, we found the magic wand".

And they cheer most of all in his big finale when he says "We will never give in. We will never give up. We will never back down. We will never surrender. And we will always fight on to victory - always because we are America and our hearts bleed red, white and blue."

Quite who they might have to surrender to and what they might have to give up is never said. But it's there between the lines of his rhetoric. It's a white protestant working class way of life that has underscored these people's lives for generations. Trump is the man who will build the wall to keep change at bay. And for that, they love him.

In the Waffle House afterwards, I ask a retired white woman what she thought of it. She sighs and her eyes widen. "It was wonderful," she says, as if she was talking about the wedding of a favourite grandchild. "And you know the best thing. A black man was there and he had a sign saying 'Blacks for Trump'. Handwritten, three times". She pauses for effect and nods sagely. "We are all one people".

And with that she heads for the door and out into the night, surely vowing in her heart to never give up. Never surrender.

The hanger doors open as supporters wait for the arrival of Air Force One and US President Donald Trump at the Pensacola campaign rally.

The hanger doors open as supporters wait for the arrival of Air Force One and US President Donald Trump at the Pensacola campaign rally. Photo: AFP

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