by Joshua Bowen
Photo by: Dave Colabine
[originally published June 2021]
The doors will open at 2 P.M., and although the 45th President of the United States isn’t going to be speaking until 7:00, my two friends and I decide to err on the side of caution, and plan to arrive sometime around 2:30. The Wellington Trump rally is going to be packed. In spite of our best efforts, however, we find ourselves in a line of cars that stretch for what’s probably near a mile. On the brightside, we get to marvel at all the welcoming signs for Trump, including a flowerbed which has been planted to spell out the former president’s name. Of course, I don’t imagine the people who planted it think of Donald Trump as a former president.
To describe the June 26 Trump rally in general terms, it sits somewhere around the nexus of a county fair, 1930s Nuremberg, and a classic rock concert. Before the speakers arrive, there is actually a cover band playing a mix of 80s rock, with a few more recent hits sprinkled in (“Uptown Funk,” for instance). The lead singer will occasionally try to enliven the crowd by ecstatically asking us if we are rebels—thankfully these queries are met with virtually no response. Vendors are lined up near the entrance selling knock-off Trump merchandise, hotdogs, ice cold lemonade, and other fine American cuisine. Nearly everyone around us is wearing “the hat,” or some spin-offs on its core MAGA design; there are flags of varyingly obscure ideologies and organizations draped around shoulders, and many attendees have dawned shirts with obscene sayings like, “Biden Sucks, Kamala Swallows.” I am surprised, however, over the real dearth of QAnon swag on display, and wonder if such insignia is no longer permitted at rallies after the January 6 riot at the Capitol. Whether or not this is the case, I do notice at least one woman wearing a Q-emblazoned t-shirt later during the event. No one—and this includes policemen, secret servicemen, and armed soldiers—is wearing a mask. Considering that counties which went to Trump in the 2020 election are far less likely to have a high percentage of their population vaccinated, and that many of the rally’s attendees are from out of state, the odds are good for a superspreader event.
In the crowd, which, like Yeat’s great beast, slowly lumbers toward its Bethlehem, I’m trying to listen in on the conversations of the sweat soaked, impatient mass huddled around me, while overhead, through the loudspeakers, the coverband has been replaced by what I imagine is Trump’s iTunes playlist. One man is explaining how he has grown disillusioned with the Republican Party, and that the only two politicians in his lifetime to have kept their promises were Ronald Reagan and Donald Trump. I fight the great urge to tell him that Reagan did not outlaw abortion, and Hillary Clinton does not appear to be in prison.
Despite this, disillusionment with officialdom and effeteness of regular politics does seem to be a popular sentiment among many Trump fans. And why shouldn’t they feel this way? What have Republicans, or even Democrats, done for working class people (who make up a significant portion of Trump’s base) in the last four decades? Of course, proponents of this view refuse to recognize a man who served as President of the United States for four years as also being a politician, nor does Trump seem to have succeeded in “draining the swamp” of corrupt officials, since they, as Trump, and every speaker at this rally contends, stole the election.
I try to hold onto threads of conversation in the maelstrom of intermittent, obnoxious attempts at chant starting, and speakers blaring the Village People’s “Macho Man,” but lose them somewhere as the crowd's collective mass jostles us towards the gate. Before the group of spectators reach critical mass, we snake our way to the front of the crowd, within spitting distance of the gated off media section. Thankfully, the only thing that will be hurled on these correspondants is verbal abuse, and not actual spit. The loudspeakers are playing “Macho Man” again, and I can’t help tapping my foot to the song in the absence of any other distraction from the pain in my back, debilitating dehydration, and the absurdity of this situation I have willingly placed myself in. A woman to the left of me sees my dancing as a sign of a kindred Trump-lover, and starts up a conversation with my friends and me. “Were y’all in Washington?,” she asks. By serendipity alone, we have instantly built up a rapport with a participant in the Jan. 6th insurrection, and we do nothing to stymie her desire to relate the experience.
She had been with her husband, and claims that, as the crowd became more riled, they were supposedly pushed towards the entrance to the Capitol. She then pauses to make sure that we know that what happened that day wasn’t an insurrection. Because, she assures us, if it was, “we would have won.” They eventually fled after police disabled phone activity in the area. Our new friend then rails against the injustice of her and her husband later being turned away at the airport, and the media actually having recorded the episode.
“I just love Him,” she says, in response to her granddaughter asking her why she supports Donald Trump; “he keeps his promises.” Such parasocial relationships that many Trump fans exhibit with the President, journalist Michael Wolff argues in a recent article published in the Intelligencer, are attributable to his having far more direct interactions with the crowd than many politicians who leave speaking circuits after campaign season. Surrounded by thousands of anticipant MAGA-capped heads lends this notion credibility. But the difference between Trump’s populism and a milktoast Republican like Ted Cruz, who has tried in many instances to imitate the former’s populist rhetoric, is that Trump occupies a media space all his own. His continued baseless claims of election fraud are the apotheosis of five years of worldbuilding, in a sense, so there’s no need to prove anything to the people occupying it. If you want to appeal to such a base, you also have to genuflect to Trump’s parallel world, whether your a true-believer, or just a grifter.
Although Trump won Ohio pretty handily, his victory in the state was not enough for Dr. Douglas Frank, a science teacher (with a PhD in chemistry according to his personal website) at a school for gifted children in Cincinnati. Dr. Frank, who has been featured quite heavily in Mike Lindell’s documentary films which aim to prove the fraudulence of the 2020 election, is at the rally to show us the stats behind the steal. He prompts the audience by emphasizing that he’s simplified the maths for us, really driving home the point that what we’re about to see is obvious voter fraud on a mass scale. He proceeds to inaccurately define the term “algorithm” and how one works, and then presents a series of graphs which, despite being screened on the jumbotron, are remarkably difficult to read. As Dr. Frank flashes through the graphs at a breakneck pace, pointing out putative inconsistencies between census data and voter turnout, I begin to worry that I’m having some dehydration-induced stroke. Meanwhile, everyone around me nods and mumbles amongst themselves in affirmation. Only later, after my friends and I have left this scene, does it occur to us that Dr. Frank’s insistence on the simplicity of what he’s arguing, and the spurious reason of his claims, seem a bit dubious to say the least. In fact, they’re familiar tactics to those of cult leaders trying to alienate an individual from reality, sort of transplanting them into some bizarro world where they determine the facts. And in a setting where everyone around you has, to some extent, given up reality for the narrative of a single authority figure, it’s hard to not fall under that spell. Isolated, something so asinine as, “the election was stolen because you can’t roll a dice 83 times and get the same number without that dice being controlled by an algorithm,” or “poll data reflecting the census means the results are fraudulent” can clearly be debunked. But surrounded by people who accept it without scrutiny… your mind stops being your own.
Which is why, I suppose, Republicans who refuse this narrative, or even do something small to draw the ire of its creator, always become enemies of Trump’s base. When Marjorie Taylor Greene takes the stage and disparages Rep. Anthony Gonzalez of Ohio’s 16th District House, who voted to impeach Trump, for example, her words are met with approbation and screamed accusations of Gonzalez being a RINO (Republican In Name Only).
We are indeed later graced with the presence of illustrious QAnon Queen Marjorie Taylor Greene, who is greeted with rapturous applause and one audience member calling out, “I love you Marjoire!” to which she responds, “I love you, too.” Representative Greene's ascendancy may at first glance seem to be a product of circumstance: a former crossfitter from Georgia promoting conspiracy theories, just another nobody riding on Trump’s coattails. And while Trump certainly set the stage, Greene has just as much bombast, and as strong an inclination towards bending reality for political purposes as the MAGA-man himself. Her speech today is not only a paean to Trump, hailing him as the greatest President in American history, but is also pursuing more pragmatic ends than just paying tribute to the Godhead. She is here to galvinize Trump supporters, excoriate her enemies (Ihlan Omar, AOC, and pertinent to Ohio’s 16th District Congressional race, Anthony Gonzalez), and exhort attendees to elect representatives to Congress that truly represent their interests.
Although there are stands behind her where the more affluent attendees sit, having paid for actual seats, which are closer to the stands, she addresses us “real Americans” in the pit, whom she claims politicians in Washington don’t understand. The real people who understand the trials and tribulations of farmers in Lorain Ohio—which has a poverty rate of 25% —are billionaires (or so she says) like Trump, or heirs to multi-million dollar construction companies, like Greene herself. As with all politics at this point, whether liberal or nationalistic, there is but a thin veneer of identity politics under which runs the seemingly unstoppable current of neoliberlism. Your job as an actor in this spectacle is to point the feelings of alienation and discontent most people feel as a result of this interminable policy of privatization and exploitation in the direction of an opponent. For Greene and her constituents, these are “socialists” that argue for a Green New Deal, Black Lives Matter activists, and President Joe Biden. For liberals, that figure of contempt is Trump.
But the target of liberal ire may be shifting with MTG’s rising star. Her tirades against the RINOs and leftists are greeted with ecstatic cries and cheers and her condemnation of the media for its continued lies about the results of the 2020 election are echoed by violent jeering at the camera crews and correspondants to the right of us. If anyone can carry Trump’s legacy, it’s Marjorie Taylor Greene.
Up next is 15th District Republican nominee Mike Carry, who first acknowledges the challenge of following Greene’s act, and subsequently fails to do so. Peddling your standard fare about the stolen election and America first policies, he lacks the outsider energy many Republicans are attempting to cultivate. He fails to grasp the real heart of Trump’s appeal—he fails to add his own spin to the narrative, to make himself MAGA cannon, instead coming off as more of a toady.
Rep. Jim Jordan similarly can’t seem to stray too far from his standard neocon roots. Although he’s been one of the former President’s closest allies in Congress, he still very much presents as an alien in the movement, focusing less on the spiteful rhetoric, and more on the dangers of reducing fossil fuel consumption at the risk of job losses. Just how long your garden variety Republican can stay a viable candidate is hard to say, but Trump’s brand of wrathful populism appears to be metastasizing throughout the whole party. The biggest difference between Democrats and Republicans at this point is that, while the former does all in its power to suppress its popular extremists, the GOP has embraced them.
Max Miller, another Congressional candidate in Ohio, also attempts to become a Trump in miniature. Miller is competing for the 16th district, the House seat currently occupied by the day’s whipping boy, Anthony Gonzalez. But whereas Carry lacked bombast, Miller turned it up eleven. Following Jim Jordan’s speech, Miller comes to the stage to bestow upon Gonzalez in Trumpian fashion the nickname “Turncoat Tony.” Needless to say, this does not work. The epithets Trump gives his enemies are always biting in their crudeness, and there’s no sting to such an antiquated term as turncoat. Nonetheless, this is the man facing one of the Republicans who did not support Trump, and as evinced by a Republican so influential as Liz Cheney being demoted for dissenting from the pro-Trump party line, Gonzalez will likely not be spared.
After the wannabes have said their piece, we wait. Trump should be here in the next fifteen minutes. Everyone is a bit anxious, slick with sweat, dehydrated, but adamantly standing- or sitting -by for the man of the hour to arrive. We run through the same five or six songs again on the loudspeakers, “Macho Man” again, of course, several Elton John hits, and Dolly Parton's “Jolene”, which, considering her comments about the President, I highly doubt the Save America Pac has the rights to. We proceed to go through this same playlist again, because Trump is an hour late, and at this point I’m very tempted to join some of my fellow attendees sitting in the grass. The air is thick with stale tobacco smoke, as our insurrectionist friend chain smokes some of the longest cigarettes I have ever seen.
But just as my companions and I have given up all hope of Trump arriving before nine o’clock, a triumphant rendition of “God Bless the USA” begins to play, and the bulwarks that could barely contain people’s anticipation finally burst open as Donald Trump ascends to the podium. Everyone is elated: deafening shouts and thunderous applause greet a king finally returning to his people. The former President soaks in their adulation.
Audience members around me scramble to film Trump’s address, so I, and the thousands of people behind me, don’t really have much of a visual. It’s strange, too, because unlike every other speaker that came before, organizers have neglected to turn on the jumbotron for the main event. Nonetheless, Donald Trump begins his spiel with characteristic insouciance, starting with the classic condemnation of America’s policy on undocumented immigrants. “Our poor borders, they were so perfect, so good.” he laments, following with the hyperbolic claim that under Biden, the influx of undocumented people’s has reached all time high. Trump goes beyond the lukewarm assaults of civil politics, employing the same sort of “end of days” language that you might find in a Millennialist sermon. Biden’s presidency is not only a crisis, it is an apocalypse.
Trump takes a moment, however, to contrast this barbarism with the sanctity of communities like Wellington, complimenting residents on their welcoming signs and exquisite lawn-care. “I bet you don’t have any murders here,” he speculates, to which a few people surrounding us quietly disagree. In an even further display of surprising disrespect for the former President, demands for the jumbotron to be turned on pick up steam, and eventually come to drown out Trump’s speech. Trump doesn’t acknowledge this, however, and first just tries to continue as if everyone in the stadium isn’t screaming at him. Then he pauses, waits for the crowd to calm, and then picks up again where he left off. Eventually the crowd gets its way, but even then, the camera’s distance from Trump is far greater than it was for every speaker before him.
Even if this weren’t the case, however, Trump is not nearly as imposing a speaker as liberal media networks make him out to be. My friends and I only stick around long enough to hear Trump’s telling of the allegory of the woman who nurtures an injured snake back to health only to end up getting bitten, apparently supposed to reflect the U.S.’s embrace of undocumented immigrants. Not only is this metaphor highly objectionable in its comparison of people trying desperately to escape poverty and war to a treacherous snake, it can hardly be said that the United States has cared for such tired and poor huddled masses. Despite Trump’s claims otherwise, the immigration policy under his administration has barely changed under Biden’s.
While Trump’s performance was itself rather uninspired, his return to the public eye and the mass turnout of the first stop on his Save America Tour are testament to the staying power of his movement. Although Democrats represented the 2020 campaign as the ultimate battle to stop Trump, it’s now all too clear that the former President has managed to effectively split off a substantial portion of America’s population, with the Guardian reporting that some 25% of Americans believe Trump is the “true President.” As former General and QAnon promoter Mike Flynn stated in a 2016 post-election speech, “the American people decided to take over the idea of information. They took over the idea, and they did it through social media.” Although Flynn’s conception of the American people consisting of far-right influencers and conspiracy theorists is certainly off base, he is quite right in saying that just what information means has for most Trump supporters, changed irrevocably. This movement has a world of its own which even without Trump being in the White House can maintain itself, and even further metastasize into what was once a nationally accepted reality of mainstream media (e.g. Newsmax). One could even argue that Trump’s presidency was a pacifier for his adherents, and that the onus of saving America will be upon his legion of fans empowered to now enter the political arena themselves.