First published at www.businesspost.ie
On Saturday night I attended a Donald Trump rally in Fairfield, Connecticut.
At a modest, 19-year-old gymnasium at Sacred Heart University, I watched fat droplets of sweat build at the ends of a nearby mullet, fall to the floor, and build again. I despaired at the rivulets coursing down my own shins, and at the elderly man who I watched produce a large glass cloth to scrape his wet face with.
The National Weather Service had issued an “excessive heat warning” for the region, the hall was not air-conditioned, the doors were sealed, the available water was sparse, and Trump was late.
Members of the accredited press, the only group elevated above the steaming mass of bodies, tweeted about paramedics’ stretchering out those who had fainted. Those congregated who managed to retain consciousness were too proud to leave, too stubborn, or both.
Once the candidate arrived, however, the outflow of people began.
First, a drip-drip of those seemingly satisfied to have simply regarded Trump in the flesh and listened to his introductory words. As the night wore on, the sweaty stream of departures steadied. As each saturated standee retreated, his place was filled by an advancing other.
“Isn’t it great?” Trump demanded of the shrinking crowd, 75% of the way through his address. “That we can have a 115-degree room, and we haven’t lost one person?”
It was the only statement made by Trump that evening to elicit anything other than comprehensive support from the audience. Dormant brows were roused, raised. Disbelieving laugher and sideways glances proved impossible for even his most ardent backers to forebear from.
Trump had a tricky week. Last Wednesday in Florida he called Barack Obama “the founder of Isis”, Hillary Clinton “the co-founder”. On Thursday, on conservative radio, Trump would not be moved. On Friday, on Twitter, he cried sarcasm.
Last night, though, his running mate Mike Pence told CNN that the statement had been “very serious” and “making a point that needs to be made”.
Earlier in the week Trump said that if Clinton was elected, they would be powerless watching her selection of Supreme Court judges who would support the abolition of the second amendment, which permits the right to bear arms. “Nothing you can do, folks,” he said to an audience in North Carolina. “Although the second amendment people…maybe there is, I don’t know.”
The New York Times approached the allusion delicately the following day. Trump had posted a thin tweet in the aftermath which may have been designed to in some way revise the statement’s import. Yesterday, Paul Manafort, campaign chairman, continued to take questions on it.
Late last night, the New York Times broke a deeply reported story about “handwritten ledgers” which carry a record of $12.7 million in “undisclosed cash payments” designated for Manafort from the then-government of former Ukrainian president Viktor Yanukovych.
Manafort worked as a consultant for Yanukovych until the deposition of the latter in 2014. The “off-the-books” books, the Times reports, are under investigation by Ukraine’s anti-corruption bureau. This, even on first read, would seem to ensure Manafort will not be asked to account for or defend any of Trump’s verbal wrangling, however contentious, for…at least a week.
In Fairfield on Saturday, Trump found himself, as he does at each of his rallies, among friends. He could jovially dispense with the defending and explaining that had been required of him in the preceding days, and get along instead with the business of attacking.
Hillary, of course, “crooked”. CNN, “so disgusting”. Obama, “failed”. The New York Times, “a garbage paper”. “Speaking of garbage,” Trump said. “You have a governor in this state who has done a very poor job.”
Trump did not open on the offensive, however. He opened with avuncular. To the sweltering congregation, he asked, in sweeping pantomime form: “Would anybody like to volunteer to give somebody outside your place?”
“No!”, the audience cried, in loud, long, childish unison.
“I’m shocked. I’m shocked,” Trump said.
The unusual blend of cheering and booing to be heard inside the hall found unity, here and there, in one of three three-beat chants familiar to those assembled.
Lock her up! Lock her up! “You have a point. You have a point,” Trump replied that evening, U-turning on “Let’s just beat her on November 8th”, his more temperate response to this Chris Christie-precipitated number at the Republican National Convention.
USA! USA! This would typically follow a “bit” about the building of Trump’s long-promised wall on the Mexican border, which is itself typically followed by Trump’s declaration that Mexico will pay for its construction.
Get them out! Get them out! Used where the supporters round on a “protestor”. At Fairfield, Trump threw three parties “out”. He suggested one woman looked like Hillary Clinton. Much laughter ensued.
In the weird melée of the rally, there was no room for the substantive. Much apart from the fact that Trump himself deliberately moves, for the duration, to have limited truck with concrete themes or subjects, aspects of the rally were so ridiculous as to divorce it from reality.
The dead heat, to begin with, was incredibly addling. (“How does this compare to Afghanistan?” one man solemnly asked another, who was using a flattened paper cup as a fan.)
The sight of elderly supporters waving walking canes in the air so that they could be seen on television was addling. The obscene t-shirt slogans, none of which I will be the first person to relay, were addling. The music choices addled.
After more than an hour of waiting for Trump to take the stage, it was difficult to interpret the third loop of “Time Is On My Side” as anything other than a taunt.
Once, a restive group broke into a fourth variety of chant: “We want Trump!”. The call was followed by the opening bars of “You Can’t Always Get What You Want”.
Nessun Dorma played, incongruously, hilariously, maybe four times. A group of teenage boys in damp seersucker suits, suffocated by dicky bows, reverently passed around a vape pen. “This is like the Superman song,” one of them said.
Luciano Pavarotti’s widow asked the Trump campaign to stop playing the track last month. The Rolling Stones, too, have asked Trump to stop using their music.
The events proceed, much like their centerpiece, in their own realm.