NASHUA, N.H.—Donald J. Trump took a break from campaigning in Iowa to stump at the Radisson Hotel on Friday, January 29. The 10 a.m. event occurred the morning after Fox News’s last debate before the Iowa caucuses, which Trump refused to attend unless the news channel removed Megyn Kelly as moderator or donated $5 million to Trump’s veterans charities. When Fox News refused his demands, Trump instead held a fundraiser that Thursday night at Drake University in Des Moines, Iowa, and raised $6 million for the veterans. He was ebullient about it on Friday morning.
Your writer and cohorts woke up at 5:30 a.m. and drove two hours in the dark to the Radisson, hoping to arrive early at the event. (The doors opened at 8 a.m.) While we waited in line to enter the hotel, we spoke to other line-waiters and eyed the vehicles pulling into the parking lot. A middle-aged woman in front of us in line, a New Hampshire resident who wore a red and white Trump scarf she had gotten at a previous rally, told us that she had voted for both Democrats and Republicans in the past but had felt let down by two parties that “couldn’t get anything done.” Trump, she is sure, will make “them” (she was vague, and we let it slide) “pound the sand.”
Also in front of us in line was a woman whose spot we held while she retrieved something from her parked car. When she returned, she told us that the issue she cared most about was taxing and reforming Wall Street, a topic she thinks Bernie Sanders handles quite well, as Donald Trump does. She further implied she would vote for Bernie Sanders if Trump did not win the Republican nomination and Sanders were the Democratic nominee. I imagine she also appreciated Trump’s later discussion about his opposition to free trade deals like the N.A.F.T.A. and the T.P.P., during which he said the agreements “screw New England and New Hampshire” and expressed outrage at the rising cost of college tuition, specifically that “colleges get government money to choke students.” Trump’s populist streak is no secret, and his supporters’ intense concern for the weal of America’s most vulnerable citizens can be heartwarming and infectious.
Smartly dressed young white men in navy blazers, we noticed, were a central demographic at the rally. Appearing only slightly older than us, these guys, presumably from business school programs or small businesses, roved in incongruous rabbles. But these men with uniformly short haircuts were not the only young people we met. After the rally, as hordes of people struggled forward to shake Trump’s hand, we met two college students from out-of-state who plan to vote for Trump. Nick Strada, a student at Brown University, said that Trump was “a good problem solver” and “not politically correct.” Frank Martone, a student at New Haven University, agreed and said that Trump “is straightforward and tells the truth.”
Hats were nearly ubiquitous at the rally. Many supporters came wearing the iconic “Make America Great Again” cap, but there were others as well: Vietnam veterans hats, camouflage N.R.A. hats, and Red Sox caps. Teamsters jackets were common, and one man wore an “International Union of Painters and Allied Trades” shirt. Union members were there in droves, perhaps attracted to Trump’s stance against the Trans-Pacific Partnership and his populist rhetoric.
But even the workmen were diverse: The gruff teamster with a steely, staid demeanor wearing an N.R.A. shirt jawed with the friendly, elderly firefighter with a walrus mustache and a scally cap who drove a red truck with “NICE” on its license plate and “But for the grace of God” on its bumper. A tall, lanky man wore a shirt reading “stamp money out of politics.”1
Yours truly was in possession of an N.R.A. hat, on loan from a classmate, that I intended to use to blend in with the crowd. I was surprised to find that I did not need it. There were plenty of N.R.A. supporters, to be sure, but also coworkers, couples, students, and even families—some dressed hyper-patriotically, some dressed in sweaters and suspenders. Blending in was impossible. There is no quintessential Trump supporter by physical appearance.
Protesting & Energy
When one of my companions told his mother where we were going, she asked if we intended to protest. We must look the type: When we arrived at the rally, campaign staff asked me four or five times if I had signs in my backpack. Even once we were through the security checkpoint run by Secret Service (who confiscated our empty water bottles and told me to keep a companion’s Rubik’s Cube out of sight2), two different ushers asked me if I had signs. A voice over the loudspeaker explained it all:
“Mr. Trump is a big supporter of the First Amendment, but people have abused his hospitality by advancing their own agendas at his rallies with signs. There is a special area for protesters outside the hotel. Mr. Trump likes the First Amendment as much as he likes the Second Amendment. Please do not touch or harm the protesters. If you see a protester, hold up a Trump sign and yell ‘Trump! Trump! Trump!’ until a police officer removes the protester. This is a peaceful rally.”
And it was. There were a few protesters outside the hotel, but things were civil inside the ballroom. Over in the “special area” right outside the hotel, a man dressed in what can only be described as slices of burlap sack sang “Donald Trump is going to make America hate again.” The protester was the driver of a red 2003 Mazda Protege that had “How can we make the world better?” and “#peacenow” written on it in duct tape. In addition to singing and dancing, the man comically “fought” a Trump supporter for ownership of a sign in the ground.3
In the front of the parking lot was a bus with “T.RUMP” and “#MakeFruitPunchGreatAgain!” written on a banner hanging over its side. On top of the bus, a man wearing a Trump hat and a neon yellow-green vest swung a golf club with a professional stroke. Apparently the golfer drives a ball into the sunset every evening, and people are invited to hurl fruit punch at the banner—none of which we witnessed. I learned later that the bus is a project managed by artist David Gleeson, who intends “to kind of drive Mr. Trump possibly out of the race.” Gleeson has “kind of possibly” failed.
The people inside the rally were just as passionate. The wearer of the I.U.P.A.T. shirt I mentioned earlier—short and earnestly smiling, and wearing a large silver cross around his neck—asked several groups of people to stand up and sing “God Bless America” when Trump entered the ballroom. (No one did.) When campaign staff started to hand out Trump signs, people jumped and waved their hands with shocking energy for 9 a.m. The most obvious display of the audience’s fervor was in their responses to Trump’s hyping phrases. The way he announced poll numbers and the way the crowd responded were reminiscent of summer camp color war captains announcing a lead to younger campers. After we win this team handball game, we’ll only be down 20 points! sounds a lot like The latest poll had us at 65 percent! The rally’s attendees, like campers, wore logoed garb and cheered jubilantly for Trump’s incendiary, philosophical, and inquisitive chants.
- “How does Jeb spend $100 million and not do better?”
- “Does anybody believe in the carbon footprint?”
- “Borders good, Common Core bad, Second Amendment great!”
With each exclamation the crowd grew wilder, and people shouted out addendums to Trump’s decrees: “Common Core is the dumbing down of America!”
During his segment on illegal immigrants, Trump mentioned that Joseph Michael Arpaio of Arizona—a.k.a. “Sheriff Joe”—endorsed him for president, an action that lends credibility to Trump’s tough-on-immigration position. As Trump went on to discuss some recent crimes committed by illegal immigrants, a man in the back of the ballroom shouted “get rid of the dirty people.” To our surprise, the crowd and Trump completely ignored him, and I do not doubt that Trump heard the man’s bellow.
In terms of hatefulness, Trump’s rally did not live up to liberal caricatures. My expectation for the rally’s energy—that it would be vile—was wrong. The energy was positive. Even when Trump was saying negative things about other candidates, his tone was jocular; he and the crowd laughed endearingly. (Political correctness was the only thing to incite unanimous vitriol.) Even though he was “tired” and “might say some stuff,” Trump failed to say anything explicitly, or maybe even implicitly, hateful.
Donald Trump proved himself to be waggish and idiosyncratic, both in his speech and designs. He has proposed unique policies, such as the building of a Mexico-funded wall between the United States and its neighbor to the south, because he claims Mexico has “taken the United States to the cleaners.” Critics have often asked Trump how he plans to force Mexico to pay for the wall; he has not ever explained it publicly, to my knowledge. But with a quick visit to his website, I learned that he intends to slam Mexico with the following sanctions, “among other things,” until the country’s government agrees to pay for the wall:
- impound all remittance payments derived from illegal wages;
- increase fees on all temporary visas issued to Mexican CEOs and diplomats (and if necessary, cancel them);
- increase fees on all border crossing cards—of which we issue about 1 million to Mexican nationals each year (a major source of visa overstays);
- increase fees on all NAFTA worker visas from Mexico (another major source of overstays);
- and increase fees at ports of entry to the United States from Mexico.
- (Tariffs and foreign aid cuts are also options.)
I submit no political opinions on the matter here. The policy proposal fascinates me, namely because Trump’s explanation for how he will intimidate Mexico into paying for the wall is not absurd, but also because it is markedly different from what every other candidate is proposing and I have never seen it mentioned in any debate, interview, or news story.4
Trump’s lectern exclamations are poetic, ripe with rhythm and verve. He smacks the audience with Caesarean tricola (“No drugs, no alcohol, no cigarettes!”) and antimetaboles (“Cops love Trump, Trump loves cops!”), and pumps them up with rhetorical questions: “Who’s the best on ISIS?” With New York bluntness and a Yiddish-like punch to his diction, Trump avoids condescending to his audience altogether. No candidate but Trump can say “Joe McQuaid? That guy’s a psycho.” And he summons all this lyricism without a teleprompter.
Sarcastic ribbing might be Trump’s strongest rhetorical weapon. When he first got on stage at 10:26 a.m., Trump encouraged all the attendees to “get up and vote, even if your wife leaves you—I’ll cure your depression.” Trump then noticed the legions of press at the back of the ballroom, all eager for him to say something asinine. “All the press followed Trump from Iowa. Why didn’t they go to Iowa, where the rest of the candidates are?” After uttering a few standard insults for his Democratic competitors, Trump came to Martin O’Malley, whom he roasted like a chestnut. “O’Malley had a rally and only one guy showed up. He sat with one guy for an hour and afterward the guy said he wouldn’t vote for him. Why is O’Malley running?” When a man far to our port side shouted something incomprehensible after Trump referred to political correctness, Trump said, “I have no idea what that guy said, but he’s got a helluva voice.”
The frequent recipient of Trump’s ridicule was Joe McQuaid, publisher of the New Hampshire Union Leader. According to Trump, McQuaid wrote vicious editorials in the Union Leader criticizing him, and then asked him via letter to spend money on ads for his paper. Trump held up the letter from McQuaid in front of the audience. “The guy wants to play golf with Trump, but I don’t have time—I’m not Obama.” Because Trump is a generous man, he worked out a lunch with McQuaid, and at the very least, got a hamburger out of it. McQuaid apparently makes up quotes, so Trump asked the audience if there was a “lawyer in the house” and “Can we sue this guy for making up quotes?” This line of discussion continued into a lengthy diatribe about Trump’s piques with McQuaid that became more oddly specific as he continued. Its full detail does not warrant space here, but let me note that Trump did at one point say the phrase “Here’s the beauty of me.”
Not every joke landed laughter. Confusing comments comparing Common Core mandates to Charles O. Finley, whom I understand now to be a Major League Baseball team owner, flopped to uneasy chuckles.5 Somehow this comparison tied into bureaucrats, whom Trump claims are bad and got their jobs in return for favors. (“We are led by stupid, incompetent people.”) Trump said he would pay government employees more money in order to attract more competent workers, an attitude also held by former mayor of New York City Michael Bloomberg, a potential presidential candidate.
Trump’s music selection was the quirkiest part of the rally. Personally selected by Trump, the songs discharged for the entirety of the two hours and twenty-six minutes the audience waited for him. I found it difficult not to wonder about his intention in choosing these particular songs. What “Glory Days” is doing on the playlist is clear, but I wonder if even Trump could know what “Blinded by the Light” means.
The rally ended at 11:17 a.m., only fifty-one minutes after Trump began speaking. Once we retrieved our water bottles from the Secret Service, my compatriots and I purloined anti-Hillary yard signs and drove to a nearby diner for eggs and sausages. Locals chatted with the waitress, who refilled our coffee every four minutes, and enervated truck drivers grumbled at the counter. Stump ads for R. E. Cruz, M. A. Rubio, and Bernard Sanders blared on a flat-screen T.V. perched precariously on a mount hanging two horizontal feet from the wall. The atmosphere was charged; people in booths ardently debated the merits of different candidates. Wearing horn-rimmed glasses and holding a notebook, not registered to vote, I was more out of place there than at the rally. A political tourist, I felt like I was intruding upon something sacred: a people, suffering from a heroin epidemic and economic downturn, harnessing their electric passion for self-governance and politics to better their own lives.
James Callahan, Benjamin Ratner, Mikayla Kifer, and Emlyn Knox also contributed reporting and photographs.
D. J. Trump’s Rally Playlist:
Blinded by the Light (extended version)—Manfred Mann’s Earth Band
Hey Jude—The Beatles
Rocket Man—Elton John
Glory Days—Bruce Springsteen
I Won’t Back Down—Tom Petty
Tiny Dancer—Elton John
Nessun dorma—from Giacomo Puccini’s opera Turandot, sung by Luciano Pavarotti.
American Girl—Tom Petty
Crazy Little Thing Called Love—Queen
The Music of the Night—from The Phantom of the Opera
Start Me Up—The Rolling Stones
Blue Suede Shoes—Elvis Presley
Rolling in the Deep—Adele
- Taking “stamp” as a noun would lead one to believe that this man opposed the United States Post Office’s influence in politics, but the shirt actually refers to a grassroots campaign—started by Ben Cohen of Ben & Jerry’s ice cream—that advocates for a constitutional amendment to restrict campaign finance contributions from corporations, an idea Bernie Sanders and his followers support.
- Running theories: (a) Someone in my party might throw the cube, which is admittedly sized well for that; (b) Such an intellectual puzzle was so alien to the event as to invite suspicion; (c) Someone in the ballroom might mistake the cube for a bomb. I am as confused as you are.
- We were only able to retrieve an anti-Hillary sign from the premises, but we grabbed a Trump one elsewhere in the city.
- I consume a considerable amount of political media, but my intake is not comprehensive. Please excuse my potential ignorance.
- Although I am usually a fan of obscure references or esoteric language (see: J. E. Bush’s “actuarially sound” comment in Iowa), Trump turkeyed here.