Last Tuesday, my wife and I braved the bitter cold and police-blocked highways to drive over to State Fair Park in West Allis. President-elect Donald Trump was in town, on his post-election “victory lap,” holding a rally to thank the people of Wisconsin for his recent electoral victory. We had a connection to get tickets, and since neither of us had seen Trump speak in person, and both of us wanted to see firsthand what he and the crowd were like at a rally, we took what we expect – but don’t really know for certain – might be the last opportunity to witness both interacting during this campaign, the politician and the people.
This election certainly has been an interesting one, to understate matters mildly. So much has already been said in the last months – though quite often shooting from the hip, groping for explanations and intelligibility, rather than contributing cogent analysis – about all sorts of topics. Fake news, interference with the elections, fascism, the alt-right, the anger of the white working class, authoritarianism, a post-truth environment, bullying and insults, demagoguery, normalization. Those are among the topics that still require a good bit of sorting out and sorting through at present.
There are some who at this point are prepared to believe anything Donald Trump says (though we might need to specify just what “believe” means), and there are some at the other extreme, not only ready to label him as already the worst of presidents, but to lay any even slightly plausible charge against him. Between these two extremes, there exists a wide range of viewpoints and commitments. To call that range a spectrum, I think, would paint a mistaken picture, since it is not as if everything political falls neatly along a line one could draw these days. This has been an intensely disruptive election, certainly to communities, people, and media, and perhaps even to the party systems themselves (one can hope at least).
So, presented with the chance to attend the Trump rally, and given all I’d heard, read, and seen from rallies past, I definitely wanted to get a first-person perspective on the event. By the time we arrived, and made it through the security checkpoint, a sizable crowd had already occupied the entire center floor, flowing out around the elevated press platform. Four Christmas trees were set up on the stage, and massive American and Wisconsin flags hung above and behind the platform. It is difficult to estimate close-to-precise numbers of the people who came, some of them from considerable distances, and I haven’t seen any figures published. Quite likely it was somewhere between 2,000 and 3,000 people attending.
I had gone to the rally expecting to see and hear examples of the sorts of promises, charges, and behaviors that many find so worrisome – not only about Trump, but also his supporters – and I did observe some of that, as I’ll discuss below. What was particularly interesting to me was the largely positive atmosphere – not entirely surprising, since this was essentially a victory celebration in a state that did go quite red, even in counties where blue eked out a small majority or in some cases dominated (Trump lost Milwaukee county, for example, but did get 29% of the vote – over 126,000 votes – there).
Trump himself appeared relaxed, cheery even – and the palpable mood of the crowd was largely upbeat. There didn’t seem to be much of the anger that’s been so often discussed visible. Things were, you might say, close to placid. There were a few moments that proved exceptions to this, though, some marked by booing and some others expressed by cheers, clapping, and sign-waving.
When the crowd booed, it wasn’t just a few people engaging in it. In fact, even out on the fringes where we stood to watch their reactions, many of the audience became visibly engaged in it. When Barack Obama and Hilary Clinton got mentioned, they were, as one would expect, booed by the crowd. Speaker of the House Paul Ryan – who is from Wisconsin, and absolutely central to the Republican Party, but who has been at odds with Trump – got booed as well, not only when he was later mentioned and even compared to a “fine wine” by Trump, but earlier when he spoke (Priebus, Walker, Ryan, and Pence preceded Trump, each speaking for just a few minutes).
The loudest, longest, and most consistent booing, however, was reserved for the media covering the event – or really any mention of the media at all. To many people – and certainly most of the traditional media – this is one of the more troubling aspects of Trump’s overall approach, his contentious relationship with the media who aim to cover stories about him. The crowd of Trump supporters and the media exist in these halls and centers where rallies occur in a relationship marked by the very juxtaposed spaces they occupy. The crowd flows out from the front of the stage along its sides, and back towards, along, and behind the elevated press platform, where cameras, mikes, and faces point uniformly at the speaker. The press is a tight knot set far apart and above the people who are there motivated by very different purposes than the news media.
Even the long story that Trump told about the last weeks of the election campaign connected deliberately with the view he has consistently set out on the press. They report selectively, picking up on just the parts of his speeches that they can use to push their agendas, out of touch with the real people of the republic – that’s a portion of Trump’s take. An interesting contrast as well emerged in the narrative.
Trump stressed that towards the end of the campaign, he did two things. First, he didn’t engage in press conferences or interviews. Second, he stepped up the number of appearances, speaking at more rallies that were originally planned, sometimes as many as six events per day. The contrasts there are obvious and easy to unpack intellectually. Instead of wasting his time with an unsympathetic, sometimes hostile, fact-checking, challenging press and traditional media – the people accustomed to acting as gatekeepers of information, shapers of opinion and the range of expressed judgement – he prioritized the people, meeting with them directly in what were, hyperbole aside, admittedly at times huge events.
This is clearly one of the advantages that Trump was able to deploy in the election, and can be expected to rely upon during his presidency – an ability to cut out what he perceives to be ideological opponents and to connect more immediately with at least a certain portion of the American people. It’s arguably not simply a strategy, but something integral to his style. And it is quite something to observe this canny connection in practice, occurring in real time, right before one’s eyes, in the room, as opposed to seeing it through videorecordings or live feeds. That’s all I’ll say about it at this point, since I won’t pretend to have entirely thought out to my satisfaction what I saw occurring in the rally.
I’ll end by noting that the event itself, once Trump started speaking to the audience, ended up becoming something like an opportunity for the members of the crowd to participate in a well-worked out narrative. This is a narrative in part about what motivated Trump and his supporters throughout the long election campaign – the Wall and illegal immigration, Crooked Hillary, Obamacare, the loss of jobs, the need for someone to stand up for those who want to work, law and order and the blue line. There were other old standard themes touched upon as well. That is what we might call the narrative components or dimensions of the past and the present. The previous administration really messed things up – the past. Now we’re going to fix it all – the future.
But it was also a narrative of a present, a making-present-again of what the crowd and the candidate had just recently experienced, a triumph. This rally, and the long story told – interrupted at points by Trump connecting very directly in asides to the audience – culminated on a crescendo of audience participation, inviting the crowd to finish the story with the campaign slogan “let’s make America great again.” That narrative of winning the difficult election offered the crowd a chance to relive that event, to celebrate their admittedly tenuous win, no longer as individuals anxiously watching television screens announce the election results, but now as winners gathered in a mass, thanked by the candidate in a state that proved essential to cementing his own status as “winner.”