WILKES-BARRE, Pa. — There are so many troubling aspects to a Donald Trump presidential rally it’s hard to keep count.
There are the constant chants of “CNN sucks!” and “Lock her up!” There are the T-shirts and signs that read “Hillary for Prison” and other off-color descriptions of the first female presidential nominee. And then there is Trump’s dark, conspiratorial rhetoric.
At various points during Trump’s meandering, incoherent speech here Monday night, he said that the election in Pennsylvania would be stolen in Philadelphia by “you know who” (read: black people). He professed his love for WikiLeaks and then read from some of the recent e-mails the group released and which the Russian government hacked in order to help Trump win. He repeatedly labeled Hillary Clinton a liar, said she is as “crooked as a $3 bill,” and reiterated his call for her to be sent to prison. At one point, Trump brought up a young child dressed like him and then asked the little boy if he’d rather go with his “Daddy or Trump.” The little boy said “Trump,” an answer that, considering the cult of personality around the candidate, was cringe-inducing.
The evening was about fear of the media, anxiety about terrorists and people of color (Trump again spoke about African-American communities in apocalyptic terms), hatred of Hillary Clinton, and resentment toward elites and “snobs” who look down their nose at ordinary, hard-working Americans. Trump embodies their resentments and the crowd’s reaction to him is so over-the-top, so adulatory and so unquestioning, that at times the passion of a Trump rally feels more sexual than political.
When Trump joked during the primaries that he could shoot someone on New York’s Fifth Avenue and not lose support, I don’t think people appreciated the accuracy of the statement. Trump supporters are completely unhesitating in their support for him. Virtually every person in Wilkes-Barre was wearing some Trump paraphernalia — a Trump shirt, a button, or a “Make America Great Again” hat. These are the Trump true believers who have been with him since the beginning of the campaign. They love his lack of political correctness; they believe he has the business acumen to turn the economy around; and they think he cares about them in his heart. He doesn’t have to run for president, they said, he doesn’t need it. “He’s a regular guy,” one woman told me, “who will keep us safer.” And contrary to media descriptions of his supporters these were not prototypical white working-class, Rust Belt denizens. This was a solidly middle class crowd.
Above all, precious few were willing to countenance any criticism of the man — even on something as universally condemned as his hot-mic recordings from “Access Hollywood.”
“It happened 10 years ago,” and “he wasn’t a politician then,” people told me. He showed respect for the woman (Nancy O’Dell) who wouldn’t sleep with him, one woman said. If a woman lets Trump grab them and kiss them and they don’t say no, “that’s consent,” another told me. One woman insisted that she has a husband and a son and “this is how men talk.” When I asked how she would feel about her son saying the things that Trump said on that tape, she momentarily hesitated and then said that she’s “heard much worse from them.”
But almost without fail, every Trump supporter I spoke with brought up Bill Clinton and his allegedly more depraved behavior. It became such a rote answer that I finally, exasperatingly, asked one woman how she could criticize Clinton’s behavior while at the same time excusing Trump’s. “It’s just talk” from Trump, she said. “Clinton did those things.” Then she went on to criticize the women who would let Trump accost them. “Where’s their self-respect?” she asked. I didn’t have the heart to tell her that she’d just contradicted herself.
So much of what you hear from Trump’s core supporters is the kind of language you’d hear in describing wayward children — one excuse after another for bad behavior. Over and over I was told that Trump didn’t really mean it when he said he wants to ban all Muslims from entering the United States. He’s backed away from that, I was assured, even though the call for a total ban is still up on Trump’s website. He doesn’t really want to deport 11 million undocumented immigrants, even though there is no indication that Trump has renounced that position.
They parrot his talking points almost verbatim. When I asked about birtherism, I was immediately told, “Hillary did it first.”
“Hillary is a liar”; “she’s crooked”; “she’s in it for money.” They regurgitate back to me every conspiracy theory that Trump has promulgated about the Clintons — Benghazi, deleting her e-mails, acid-washing them, selling uranium to the Russians. I asked every person I met if there was one thing they liked or admired about Hillary. Few could name one. One man said he admired her for “not getting caught.” The one person who had a kind word for Clinton told me “she was a fighter and she didn’t quit,” which is almost precisely what Trump said about her at the debate on Sunday night.
Most ominously for the GOP, many were furious at other Republicans for distancing themselves from Trump. One woman told me she would not vote for Senator Pat Toomey, a Republican who is locked in a close race in the Keystone State. Others felt that national Republicans had responsibility to get in line. When I asked one woman if she could understand how some Republicans might not want to vote for Trump, she insisted that party loyalty must come first.
The entire evening was a troubling reminder that no matter what happens on Election Day, and no matter how badly Trump loses, the mania and cult-like following of his supporters — and their deep mistrust and loathing not just for Hillary Clinton, but for the Republican establishment — will not abate any time soon. Their devotion to Trump could destroy the party that he now leads.
Michael A. Cohen’s column appears regularly in the Globe. Follow him on Twitter @speechboy71.