On January 19th, 2004, Howard Dean gave a speech in Iowa while campaigning for the Democratic nomination. At the end of his short talk, in what is often known as the “I Have A Scream” speech, Dean let out a strange “yaaahhhh” as the kicker to his time on stage. It was widely seen as a gaffe by political pundits. Verne Gay of Newsday called it “peculiar and unpresidential” among other things. Within a week Dean had lost his lead in Iowa (finishing 3rd there) and his 30% lead in New Hampshire evaporated almost overnight. John Kerry would steal Dean’s momentum and go on to win the nomination easily with 60% of primary votes. Dean finished with 5%.
For those who’ve studied, written about or closely followed politics, Dean’s 2004 story is more or less the norm. It might seem funny that a serious candidate (Dean would go on to chair the DNC from 2005-2009) could blow his presidential opportunity on something that had nothing to do with policy or issues, but we all understand that politics and ‘presidentialness’ plays a part in this. It simply comes with the territory whether we like it or not, even if it’s often only politicos or “political junkies” who pay attention to that stuff.
This is why journalists are so drawn to Donald Trump. The general public probably believes that the media’s fascination with the real estate mogul is based on ratings and clicks, and while some of that is true, it goes deeper than that. Like Dean, Trump’s gaffes should have blown his shot long ago. The usual rules have ceased to apply to him. This isn’t supposed to happen. If a Las Vegas casino had taken bets on the continued success of Trump’s campaign immediately following his Senator McCain comments (mocking the former lieutenant commander’s capture in Vietnam), let’s just say I would be down one life savings. I thought he was done after his disparaging remarks about Latinos. I thought he was done after he ridiculed a disabled journalist. But he wasn’t.
And here we are, or here I was, standing in Dorton Arena in Raleigh on Friday night at the Trump campaign rally — to hear the man speak who is the substantial leader in all current Republican primary polls. As you might have heard, or might just assume, Trump likes to have fun with the media and we were placed inside a metal fenced-in holding pen in the middle of the building. Trump uses this setup of course so he can employ us as a prop — pointing us out and waving when he’s taking shots at the press. But, it also gave us a 360° degree view of the crowd, which of course, is the main reason I wanted to cover the event. Everyone who isn’t a Trump supporter is interested in who is a Trump supporter, and what better way to find that out than at a Trump rally?
Literally the press pen they have journalists camped out in at Trump rally pic.twitter.com/TGXQ2ASybt
— Jordan Rogers (@RogersWork) December 4, 2015
Firstly, in most ways it was just like any campaign rally. The mood was light, there was a DJ, and music was playing loudly before Trump spoke.1 Signs were waved2 and vague promises were made. Again, it was like any other campaign rally, save maybe the arrests that took place before the event even began.
Already lit here at Raleigh Trump rally pic.twitter.com/KfkIDp1TJh
— Jordan Rogers (@RogersWork) December 4, 2015
Secondly, the crowd was significantly more diverse than one might think, and in more ways than one. There were hipsters, high schoolers, Latinos, white people, African-Americans, pregnant women, families with kids, single individuals and more. And it was incredibly age diverse, which is rare for most campaign rallies which tend to skew hard one way or another depending on the candidate. But it was all on display at Dorton, and if anything, it was fitting to take place on the state fairgrounds.
—Of course, I have no clue which of these people or demographics were actually there to support Trump, just that they were there. To that point, Trump experienced the most significant disruption by the #BlackLivesMatter movement to date within his campaign, as reported extensively coast-to-coast. Some even suggested Trump quit speaking earlier than he would have liked to because of it. Tom Jensen of Public Policy Polling was in the crowd and Tweeted about how well coordinated the protest cleary was, with nine or ten separate actions in different parts of the arena at different times, which kept Trump’s men on their feet when trying to remove the protestors. Were the African-Americans in the crowd there for #BLM, to support the candidate, or simply for entertainment? I can’t say, though I spoke with sympathizers from all of those groups.
Thirdly, the dirty little secret lost on much of the public about campaign rallies and likewise events is that the politically engaged almost exclusively tend to show up at events like this. So while we might like to think that those who get caught up in the cult of personality of the campaign season are fickle, and they might be, the people I spoke with at the rally definitely knew why they were there. It wasn’t simply, “rah rah for Trump.” Amnesty for immigrants, terrorism, security, border control, fair trade — these were the issues that brought them into the building, and Trump knows it.
But there’s a problem here, that frankly won’t surprise anyone. As different as the issues listed above are, when contextualized to Trump, it becomes clear that they’re different apples falling from the same tree, and that tree of course is xenophobia, which is the central tenet of everything Trump says and why his supporters follow him. Literally every issue I heard cited as the reason someone had come to Dorton could somehow be tied to Mexican immigrants, Syrian refugees, Muslim mosques, Chinese trade and the list goes on. Every question from the crowd (except one on Common Core and others that were completely unintelligible) had something to do with some non-white and/or un-American labelled group, though they were not necessarily always coming from white people.
This should terrify everyone. And thankfully, it is terrifying just about everyone. The Economist went as far last week as to label Trump’s campaign as some sort of bizarre (and dangerous) “bouffant fascism” and Trump has been roundly criticized by just about every level-headed person in politics and the media both American and worldwide. Talk of Muslim registration lists and mass deportations are just that absurd.
But Trump remains. And it’s likely because, unfortunately, xenophobia is still an integral part of the human experience. Tribalism is as human as just about anything else. I’m not aware of an election or society or nation devoid of xenophobia, and whether Americans believe it or not, their nation is actually on the low end of the scale (thanks to the First Amendment, we’re just more likely to hear it).3 But either way, let’s face it, this world is a very, very racist and nativist place.
But, America has proven to be objectively different. As infamous as racial strife has been and remains in this country, and the different paces for which they’ve come about, America has historically found a way to move forward. There’s the Irish, the Chinese, the Japanese, and the list goes on of racial groups that were discriminated against that we’ve found a way to move past. Ironically, Catholicism was once treated with the same suspicion as Islam, with a popular children’s game called “Break the pope’s neck” and an entire political party (the Know Nothing) built to oppose them.
As racist as America plainly still is, it’s in Germany where resumes usually still require a headshot (and it’s not to check for a good smile), it’s in Japan where the Japanese marrying non-Japanese is still exceedingly rare, and it’s in any soccer stadium on earth outside the USA where black players are at risk of being pelted with bananas. America isn’t perfect, but even the #BlackLivesMatter movement has shown most recently that there are large and maybe even majority swaths of people across the country working toward racial equality. Recent xenophobic waves have been intense, but like those before them, they won’t last.
This history matters because it will eventually catch up to Trump. He won’t last either. The rampant xenophobia in America right now has insulated him from his Howard Dean moment, but Republicans currently polling for Trump haven’t even been reminded yet that he used to be a pro-choice, anti-gun, pro-Clinton card carrying Democrat. And as Nate Silver points out, the current polls are enormously over-weighted (Silver argues that Trump more accurately leads with around 5% of the vote, not 40%, because 80% is still undecided and not even participating).
Trump isn’t an actual player here, he’s just an actor currently filling the xenophobic candidate role. He’s a clown, and as I walked around Dorton Arena Friday night, it eventually became clear that most weren’t there for him.
- Sympathy For The Devil was easily the most interesting choice ↩
- My favorite was the “TRiUMPh!” ↩
- The United States is in the top half of nations in ethnic diversity, and ranks near the top in general “would you live beside someone who doesn’t look like you” polls. ↩