They say magic happens when you step out of your comfort zone. This casino hotel in the southern end of Las Vegas must be full of magic then, as I’m surrounded by 10 000 trumpists. Me, a guy from the liberal leftist-green bubble of a Scandinavian capital, now surrounded by people who’d like nothing more but to see Donald Trump as their president. Donald Trump, who from my European perspective mostly seemed as a comic relief in US politics and yet another proof that the rightmost wing of the American political spectrum has completely lost its collective mind. But even the northern end of Europe had received news indicating that Trump’s success might not be just a sudden fluke – and that he even could be on the brink of accomplishing something revolutionary in the US political scene.
So when I noticed Trump would be doing a rally in Las Vegas during my holiday there, I quickly booked the tickets. This seemed to be a fascinating opportunity to see history in the making, and at the very least it would be a chance to get an insider look into what it is in Trump that people are drawn to. And let’s not forget: Trump has loads of comic value, so if all else fails I would, at least, get a stand-up comedy set for free – in Vegas that’s a formidable deal.
10 000 people for Trump
Let’s get one thing out of the way: there are very few people in the crowd who seem like total nutcases. That might come as a surprise, considering how crazy Trump’s statements have seemed from the European perspective. Most people in the crowd of 10 000 are ordinary looking middle-class people in T-shirts and jeans, mixed with people in suits who seem to be aspiring to the ballsy and arrogant “business leader status” represented by Trump.
Given Trump’s downright racist comments, it’s not a big surprise that the crowd is predominantly white. The audience also clearly leans towards the older end of demographics, with very few 20- or 30-somethings.
With that in mind, we need to start acknowledging that Trump’s popularity really is not a phenomenon within minor or extreme groups, but something that speaks to a much wider audience. Otherwise, he would not be pulling in 10 000 people for a political event – a feat that was advertised as historical in Nevada history. The fact that Trump really is a force to be reckoned with is something that the American mainstream media and politicians were just starting to grasp around the time I visited the heart of the Trump-craze.
Smoke screens, but no smoke machines
The setup of the event feels homespun or even pedestrian – it’s just a standard arena with full-on lights and no decorations. This being Las Vegas and the US presidential elections, I had anticipated a lot more production value: smoke machines and spotlights at the bare minimum. This is still only the beginning of the election process, so perhaps the bigger bangs are saved for a later date.
It seems, however, that Trump doesn’t really need any stage effects: this is his crowd to play as he likes. He only has to throw in a short reference to his earlier punchlines, like “Oh, we’re gonna build that wall!”, and the crowd applauds and starts chanting “USA! USA! USA!”. Trump feeds the audience exactly the things they want to hear: how America is going to be great again, how he’s gonna get the jobs back from Mexico and China, how all the other politicians are corrupted by big corporations, how mainstream media is dishonest and disses him and his fans, how Europe is weak, and Iran, China and Mexico are bad. Trump is the very definition of a populist. He aims to please, without bothering to explain how any of this is going to happen, probably fully understanding that explanations would only bore his audience.
In some way, you have to admire Trump for that: instead of playing the standard edition of the presidential election game like the rest of the candidates, he decided to start a different play altogether and write the rules himself. That move has gotten Trump a huge amount of free media publicity while confusing the play for everyone else in the field – and most importantly, it has given him unbelievable support numbers. There seems to be a big audience in the States who have been disillusioned with the standard edition of politics and who are at the same time eager for easy answers to the problems they’ve been personally facing – and who are not interested in asking questions about the implementation or feasibility of Trump’s promises.
But if you’re not a part of Trump’s core audience, his rhetoric quickly becomes boring. He’s not really giving a speech – there are no teleprompters or cue cards. Instead, he talks informally to the audience in plain language, repeating the same punchlines (resembling a certain Finnish politician from the Jytky-party). This is as far from Obama’s evocative speeches as you can get, while still technically being in the same category. And no matter if you subscribed to what Obama was selling or not, you could still admire the speechwriting and delivery skills that were involved – but here in the Las Vegas South Point arena, Trump’s words start to sound hollow if you’re not a believer of building that wall (or if you’d just like to know exactly how he plans to do it).
Mob mentality in action
The rhetoric and rallying turn downright scary when Trump openly advocates violence both as the form of national security policy (“Waterboarding – nah, I say we don’t go far enough!”) and as a way of controlling local dissidents. You see, whenever there are protesters at Trump rallies, the crowd surrounds them, angrily shouting “Trump! Trump!”. Trump encourages it from the podium until the protesters are finally carried out by security. He gets the loudest applause of the evening when he talks about how he misses the “good old days” when protesters would’ve been beaten up instead of verbally attacked by an angry mob.
Seeing how effective Trump’s demagogical hatemongering is, one can only feel scared about the potential of him really becoming the president. And given how well the hollow talk is received in the plentiful audience, one can only worry about that potential being somewhat realistic. At least, the Republican candidacy is well within his reach given his success with the people, although he might, in the end, receive strong opposition from the party leadership who see his success tearing the party’s old power structures down. Trump’s chances in the November elections are much slimmer, though, as he’s probably the most polarizing of all the possible candidates so it’s hard to see a majority of people voting for him. But then again, US presidential elections have been known to give victory to people who actually lost by popular vote, so who knows what will happen in the end. With this kind of uncertainty in the air here at the South Point arena in Las Vegas, I can only end with a quote from “Fear and loathing in Las Vegas”:
“–This place is getting to me. I think I’m getting the Fear.
–Nonsense. We came here to find the American Dream. Now that we’re right in the vortex, do you wanna quit? Man, we’ve found the main nerve.
–That’s what gives me the Fear.”