LAS VEGAS — There was a lot of rancor and ugliness on display at Donald Trump’s rally Monday night at the Westgate Casino. There were fights between protesters and an unforgiving hotel security team, accompanied by cries of “Sieg Heil” directed at Black Lives Matter protesters. There was, of course, Trump himself, who repeatedly called reporters “dishonest” and said they were “the worst.” He egged on his supporters to direct hostile jeers at those of us in the media pen.
Make no mistake, a Trump rally circa 2015 is the closest one will come to recreating the ugliness of a George Wallace rally from 1968 — the heated emotions, the embittered supporters battling it out with protesters, and the angry candidate fueling the crowd. The hatred, alienation, and polarization are palpable; and so too is the feeling that you’re on the knife’s edge of a political explosion.
But there is another side to Trump that merits greater attention — fear.
This is not the fear of “others” — immigrants, Muslims, etc. There is plenty of that, but in talking to Trump’s supporters, a different kind of fear emerges — a sense that the country is falling apart, that the nation’s safety and security are at risk, and that America needs someone who is strong, decisive, and unafraid to say what he thinks must be done to fix things.
Granted, plenty of that fear is manufactured too, but it’s a fear that must be fully reckoned with if one wants to understand why Trump has become such a political force.
One must be careful in drawing too many conclusions from interviews with those who show up at a political rally. But among the two dozen voters I spoke to, several recurrent themes emerged.
Many, surprisingly, seemed either troubled by Trump’s attacks on Muslims and Hispanics or worried that he’d perhaps gone too far. One man spoke about growing up in Southern California alongside Mexican-Americans and being concerned by some of Trump’s attacks. Another woman said she felt terrible for the “innocent Muslims” in America who are being targeted. But for all of them, these concerns take a back seat to safety — and a belief that the country can do a better job of weeding out the bad seeds from the overwhelming number of good ones.
Any reservations about Trump’s tactlessness and outrageousness are more than outweighed by the reassurance that comes from Trump’s willingness to do and say things that aren’t politically correct.
To this point, if I didn’t know better, I would have thought that the campaign handed out talking points to supporters; when asked what they liked about Trump, they all had the same answer. “He speaks his mind,” “he says what he thinks,” and he says what many of them are thinking. As one man said, “He says all the things that I’ve been yelling at the TV for the past seven years.” Even though Trump has been caught in lie after lie, his backers said they liked his “honesty.” One woman even called his candor “refreshing.”
The brashness, the indifference to facts that breeds such media scrutiny of Trump – and such fear from many — are precisely what his backers love about him.
In fact, the more Trump is excoriated, the more it plays to this particular strength. If there is one article of faith for Trump supporters it is that the political system is hopelessly corrupt. Trump, because he’s so rich, “can’t be bought,” and because he is incorruptible he can say — and potentially do — the things the need to get it done, no matter who it might offend. He might have an “agenda,” one woman said, but it’s “his agenda, not the special interests’.”
Trump played on this theme in his remarks as he decried the Republican politicians who say they are going to end Obamacare, but “totally change their tune” when they get to Washington.
“I promise you this,” said Trump, “President Trump will never change his tune” — a line that was met with raucous applause.
But, in the end, it is Trump’s pledge to “make America great again” and to make the American Dream “bigger and better and stronger” that is the core of his appeal. In a time of uncertainty and anxiety, when his overwhelmingly white supporters feel alienated from not just the political system, but also from the political party they call home, Trump speaks to them. It is the language of nostalgia, it’s an ideology of preservatism, and a harking back to a time when politicians weren’t “stupid people,” the Chinese, the Mexicans, and the Japanese weren’t “robbing us blind,” and America was “not so lost as a country.”
Wayne Allyn Root, a local radio personality who opened up for Trump, declared in a fiery speech that the GOP front-runner would “save the greatest nation in world history.” It was a fitting reminder that intense patriotism goes a long way to explaining Trump’s rise.
All of this is an explanation of Trump’s appeal, but it certainly doesn’t excuse it. Racism and xenophobia (both explicit and implicit) are helping drive his poll numbers ever higher. This is without question. But that doesn’t tell the whole story.
Underneath the ugliness is, amazingly, an aspirational message and a notion that Trump, uncorrupted and unafraid to say what needs to be said, is the only politician who can, yes, make America great again.
Michael A. Cohen’s column appears regularly in the Globe. Follow him on Twitter @speechboy71.