As I walked into a soundstage Wednesday night at Grumman Studios, which was filled with thousands upon thousands of Donald Trump supporters penned into metal barricades and donning all manner of Trump paraphernalia, I immediately thought of the words Richard Strout of The New Republic used more than four decades ago to describe the scene at a George Wallace rally during the 1968 presidential campaign.
“There is menace in the blood shout of the crowd,” wrote Strout. “You feel you have known this all somewhere. Never again will you read about Berlin in the ’30s without remembering this wild confrontation here of two irrational forces. The American sickness has finally localized; Wallace is the ablest demagogue of our time.”
The analogy to Germany in the 1930s is, to be sure, inexact. But the atmosphere in Bethpage was unlike anything I’ve seen at a political rally. There was an electricity and energy in the room that felt venomous, violent, terrifying — like the political equivalent of parched kindling before a conflagration. If Trump had told the throngs there to go rampage in the streets, I half think most of them would have complied.
The crowd was almost all white, overwhelmingly male, and disproportionately young. There were constant chants of “USA! USA! USA!,” “Hillary for prison!,” and “Build the wall!” When protesters raised their voices they were drowned out by a particular chant, more regularly heard at football games, that resounded across the hall. “I’d like to tell them they’re going to be on the southern side of the wall,” said one woman about the protesters. Trump’s omnipresent security guards, many of whom looked like they’d overdosed on muscle mass supplements, soon escorted them out. Thankfully, most of the hecklers who are usually a mainstay at Trump events stayed home or perhaps thought better of riling up the crowd.
A smiling old man proudly displayed to me a T-shirt that read “Trump: Get On Board or Get Run Over.” Another read: “Up Yours Hillary.” When I asked the man to pose for a picture, his wife pulled me over and told me “everything in America is terrible” — the economy, health care, the military. “Don’t you worry about your kids future?” she asked me as she demanded to know if I was voting for Trump.
At other Trump events, there is occasionally concern expressed over some of his more inflammatory statements. Not here. “Trump speaks the truth,” ‘Trump is going to fix things,” they told me. “He’s the only person who can beat Hillary,” said another. One man I talked to so frequently parroted Trump’s catchphrases about getting rid of all the “bad deals” signed by stupid politicians and the foreign countries “ripping us off” that he joked“maybe I should be working for the campaign.” If there was doubt about Trump or fear that perhaps he’s pushing the envelope too far it wasn’t evident in Long Island.
Indeed, the more aggressive that Trump was in his comments, the more the crowd responded. When he said “We’re gonna kick the hell out of ISIS,” the ovation was deafening. When he made his obligatory attack on the media for being “terrible people” the crowd reacted on cue, turning toward the press risers and screaming at us or pointing fingers. And when he asked who is going to pay for the wall he wants to build, the crowd yelled back, “Mexico” and then soon began another chant of “Build the wall!”
Trump’s stump speech was the same he’s now delivered countless times — a litany of complaints about stupid politicians who “don’t know what the hell they’re doing,” journalists who don’t tell the truth about the size of Trump’s rallies, heartless corporations who ship jobs overseas (which won’t happen anymore when Trump takes office), and America’s inability to win anymore. “We don’t fight like people from Long Island,” he said when talking about the war against ISIS.
There were the obligatory attacks on Obama, Clinton, and Lyin’ Ted Cruz. And of course, there was the usual Trump bombast about how he’s “gonna turn this country around so fast” and how voters love him. “The Christians like Trump,” he said bragging about his support with evangelicals.
There was even Trump’s now regular reading of “The Snake,” an Oscar Brown song (Trump still incorrectly says it was written by Al Green) that tells the story of a “tender-hearted woman” who saves a snake’s life only to have it bite and kill her. This is Trump’s explanation for why the United States can’t allow Muslim refugees into America.
It’s a fitting ditty for Trump to read because it sums up well the feeling of fear, anxiety and paranoia that are so evident at his rallies. Even when he tries to say something aspirational and talks about how those in attendance will look back in a few years on this “great evening” with fondness, he falls back into his usual rhetoric. “For the first time we heard someone say that we’re not going to be a scapegoat and stupid people anymore,” said Trump. “We’re not going to allow the world to rip us off anymore. . . . America first! America first!”
There’s no poetry at Trump’s events, no higher calling, no challenge other than to vote for Trump, no invocation of the “better angels of our nature” — it’s just raw aggression, an animal, nationalistic spirit, us vs. them, zero sum game resentment politics. But then again, there isn’t much indication Trump’s supporters are looking to be uplifted. “Everything is terrible,” the country is “falling apart,” and someone needs to come in a fix it. For them, that man is Donald Trump . . . the ablest demagogue of our time.
Michael A. Cohen’s column appears regularly in the Globe. Follow him on Twitter @speechboy71.