“I saw her today at the reception …” The pure, wistful opening bars of the Stones float across the Las Vegas South Point Arena, a vast indoor oval, with banks of seats around a floor, a walkway above, all of them slowly filling with people, from a dozen doors. There are pictures of horses all around and ads for stuff featuring pictures of horses, and it suddenly becomes clear that it’s an actual goddamn arena, where they have actual horse shows. Triumphalism or what? On the riser, the square bank of TV screens hanging from the roof, there’s the simple red and blue logo: TRUMP — MAKING AMERICA GREAT AGAIN, surrounded by stars.
“You can’t always get whaaaat you want …” sings the man who got everything, over the crowd assembling to see a man who has everything. Billy Joel follows “Uptown girrrrrrrl, she’s been living in her white-bread worrrrrrrrld” and then Elton, “Holy closure, Tony Danza” and then some more Stones. Still people are filing in, the lines snaking back from the door. It’s been going more than an hour, and most of us spent an hour in the queue to get in. There was a queue to get into the queue, all the way back into the casino, people in Trump regalia among the poker slots and one-dollar crap tables. Truth be told, it was a little hard to pick between them.
This was the heartland crowd in all its ragged glory, check sports jackets and pork pie hats, gunslinger moustaches and double denim, pink cowboy hats slung over the back of the neck, peroxide white hair in a Farrah Fawcett curl with Vegemite-dark roots, diamante tops shining all colours beneath the neon, rings in the form of dice on fingers yellow from tar, the obese in sweatpants atopped by “USA #1” T-shirts, mobility scooters with Trump placards in the front basket. They chattered like the inhabitants of some vast basic bitch aviary, repeating the talking points of Fox News: “We’ve got to take this country back”, “‘Cause, I mean, this political correctness has gone mad”, “I mean the Iran deal, what was that?”, “I heard there’s a challenge to Cruz’s eligibility”, “Can he even run?” (He can.) “I dunno, I didn’t follow it too closely, but they’re saying … I dunno … but it sounds bad.”
They knew all the lines already, they were just getting in there to hear it again. It was one of those Green Day concerts where the crowd sings every word. They were more enthusiastic than any political crowd I’ve seen, including for Obama, and if there were any casual rubberneckers here, they were willing to wait almost three hours for the show. Perhaps in recognition of this, there were a couple of concession stands (i.e. kiosks) inside the arena itself. The place began to fill with the smell of nachos and liquid American cheese.
The Donald in Vegas, warm-up music like it was the FM station his car stereo was turned to, and American cheese. The spectacle was terrifying, awe-striking. When you come up Vegas boulevard on the way in from the airport, what you see at the end of it is … Trump Tower, the vast ’80s tan-brown casino at the end of the road. Now here we are, 8000 people, the largest political assembly in the history of Vegas, a crowd that is either the representative of a vast movement of the angry and excluded — the right-wing working class who can deliver the presidency to whomever they choose — or it’s a self-selecting freak show, a few thousand Steve Buscemi lookalikes, partnered by the sort of women who breed cats for a living and drink in the morning. We will know eventually but for the moment it was their night, and the dollar slots could wait.
This was yesterday, the night before the Republican Nevada caucuses began, and Trump has been polling anything between 40% to more than 50%. No one doubts that the guy is going to win Nevada big — Vegas is half the state, and he’s doing well in the rest of it, which is ranching, drug dealers registered to vote, and legal prostitution. The win will set him up for Super Tuesday, where he may win up to 10 of the 14 states, and grab 600-700 delegates. After that the competitions are largely winner-take-all. The only way to stop him is for either Cruz or Rubio to get out of the race, and Kasich as well. But Rubio and Cruz are aiming squarely at each other, playing chicken to the end, hoping that Super Tuesday will give one or other of them a win, to force the other out. Even then it would be a close-run thing, for a challenge against Trump to even be possible.
The added problem is there’s no indication that any of the people at this rally would likely be attracted to anyone the GOP could throw up as an alternative. We’ve had some bozo local radio DJ — “Wayne Allyn Root, listen to my show WAR now” — and a guy in a shiny grey suit, Mel Torme his way through The Star-Spangled Banner — “ohaaaahhhh, say say say can you seeuhseeuheee …” — plus Joe Arpaio, the Arizona sheriff who rounded up random Latinos and became a birther, who rambled through a warm-up speech — “we had the most successful brothel in the world here, and the government took it over for tax reasons and they drove it broke within a year. Government can’t even run a brothel.” Huge cheers. And then, hilariously, brazenly, a sort of slide show on the riser, with pundits denouncing him and saying he’d go nowhere: Karl Rove, Brit Hume, and his Trumpness, on screen, basically introducing himself: “We’re selling a new package. The package is you, but it is in the form of me.”
Shades of Peking, 1967.
Then a roar goes up through the crowd as the Trump family comes in, the identikit boys, and Melania in a flaming red dress, and then the lights go out, and there’s only a thousand bluish iPhone screens and Trump is there, and the crowd goes wild. He’s talking already, soon as he gets to the lectern, before the noise has even abated: “You gotta go out and vote! You gotta go out and vote! They’re these crazy caucus things, I hate caucuses, why can’t we just vote, but you gotta go out and vote.” Then he’s off. Having seen a few Trump extravaganzas, I’ve come to the conclusion that it’s like a Grateful Dead tour: you go and you go again (the people behind me had seen him in South Carolina; they were vacationing here, and they couldn’t get enough) to see the thousand tiny variations. Most stump speeches are word-perfect. Trump has a series of bites that he throws together in various orders, bending and stretching, compressing.
There’s the wall: “We’re going to build a big beautiful wall we’re not going to be the dummies anymore. Who’s going to pay for it?”
“The MEXICANS!” everyone roars back.
There’s the trade war.
“Did you see what carrier did, the air-conditioner people? They just moved to Mexico, all those jobs just gone, my god. You know what I’m going to say to them? ‘Fine. Good luck. But you want to bring any air-conditioners back through my big beautiful wall, you’re going to pay tax on it!'”
“Thirty-five per cent!” they yell.
There’s the media hate: “Look at those people there, they never show the crowds on TV. That’s the media. Bad people. Baaaaaaaaad people.”
“Booooooooooo!” The crowd boos the media on the platform at the back of the auditorium.
There’s Obamacare: “We’re going to kill it.” Cheers. A common curriculum: “Common Core — that’s gone.” Cheers.
“We’re going to kill ISIS”
“Ted Cruz, that guy is disgusting …”
Halfway through, the atmosphere is getting ugly, and the crowd is getting off on it. Trump’s rallies once had a positive energy to them, of sorts. They’ve become darker as the primaries have proceeded, a channelling of all the resentment and anger that brought the crowd to look for a representative in the first place.
The thing is stage-managed of course. Trump is throwing red meat to the base and guaranteeing himself a story for free media coverage. The one that got it this time around was when a few protesters — young men in black T-shirts who could not be heard — were escorted out
“Get ’em out, get ’em out … boy, those people. I miss the old days when if someone did something like that, they’d be leaving on a stretcher.” Roars. “Look at him, he’s smiling.” Roars. “I’d like to punch him in the face.”
Violence projected outwards, violence projected inwards, and a series of promises of how beautiful it’s going to be. The fusion of this idea of “beauty” and all the ugliness around it has a lot of antecedents. Trump is unquestioningly testing the outer edges of fascism, a politics that shoots way beyond the pious constitutionalism of the Tea Party. Trump’s supporters couldn’t give a fuck about the constitution. They want a great and powerful America to wield force and terrify, in a way that will give their own beaten-down lives a sense of power.
“Get out and vote,” he ended as he started “and … I hate these caucuses … but stick around there, make sure they don’t cheat, that Ted Cruz is such a liar. He’s such a liar. Get out and vote.”
The lights dipped and the Stones came back on, and Trump was mobbed for photos by hundreds, including an Elvis and a Trump impersonator. The rest of the crowd streamed out, and fused with the wider casino crowd, chipped teeth, and mottled skin, the rows of them watching Keno, people playing a slot machine themed on the Ellen show, the single saddest thing I have seen. I thought of the last scene of Casino, where the fanny-backed, jowled rubes invade the pleasure grounds. That’s whats happening to the Republicans. They can’t ever get what they want. Trump is what they think they need.