Stars ‘n’ stripe shirts and John Deere caps, denim skirts and diamante tops, leathered faces, plump pale faces, they gathered around the heavy glass doors of the Convention Centre, in twos and threes and families, in their Trump-Pence ’16 T-shirts, and “Lock Her Up” badges, and “Make America Great Again” hats.
Parents told children “stand up straight”, couples browsed the merch tables on either side of the path — unofficial stuff, “Fuck Hillary” and other T-shirts piled high — they all thrummed their print-out tickets in their hand. “Donald Trump in Pueblo!” they read. Behind them, across the car park, separated by a metal fence, anti-Trump protesters were setting up a holler, persuasion not top of their agenda. “If you go in, you’re a racist!” they yelled. The crowd stared back at them, not angry.
It was part of the great day. Donald Trump was in Pueblo, south Colorado. Indeed, you could hear him, very faintly, through the black glass that ran all the way round the squat, brick convention centre, that distinctive voice, vibrating through. I looked at the expectant crowd, and wondered when they would twig. Not long, as it turned out. A security guard came out to speak to them.
“We can’t come in? But we have tickets!”
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“I’m sorry ma’am, it’s near-full–”
“And Mr Trump has started speaking.”
“But it says it starts at three o’clock! It’s two-thirty.”
“I’m sorry ma’am.”
They turned towards each other in bewilderment. Three tried to wedge the door open, and suddenly the Secret Service were here, tall men in pinstripe suits, and the wire out the back of the head. Snatches of speech came through the opening: “I created the very best businesses, I employed thousands of people …”.
The start of a swing through Colorado, with Donald devotees coming in across the mesa, and the Donald had stiffed them royally. He’d started three-quarters of an hour early. He would be all but done by the listed start time. The doors had opened at noon, but there’d been fewer people than they thought, and the crowd was processed quickly, about 3000 people, the centre no more than three-quarters full.
Inside, there had then been two and a half hours to fill, with a roster of local speakers, and the Trump advance guard, generals and heroes at a fast clip. The head of Latinos for Trump “The law has given us Donald Trump, I thank the Law! Law? Oh, Lord” (dear oh dear, Modern Family has a lot to answer for; impossible to hear an assertive Hispanic woman speaking these days without thinking “aha, Latin firecracker!”), a local alt-country double-denim guy to do the national anthem (“if you sing loud enough, the protesters will hear this for the first time!”) and Benghazi hero Cliff Someone.
By the time they’d all done their schtick, it was only 1.30, so the local Republican Party chair came back out. Paused for a second. “Donald Trump is on his way!” Cheers. “In the meantime … who’d like to hear from our speakers again!” Huge groa- … no, there weren’t. Cheers again. This crowd was like an eight-year-old’s birthday party at a shopping mall, everything was undifferentiatedly fantastic, including the walk from the car park. So the military trooped out again, to fill. “There was this one time …”
When they’d done, they cranked up the music again, the same soundtrack from the primaries, and the crowd got higher, the banging tones of Philadelphia Freedom getting them waving their signs, waving their small kids held high, bashing into each other good-naturedly. Clipped-hair old country folk, ageing hippie types with salt-n-pepper ponytails, hefty 60-something earth mamas in bright-patterned prints. The travelling press filed in up the back, and suddenly he was here, the Donald, on stage, the lights turning him from orange to gold, the mindless touch. “Hello Colorado! We love Colorado! We have many many friends here!”
Not as many as he expected, perhaps. Pueblo sits in the centre of south-east Colorado, a blue-collar town amid the ranches, a steel town, ex-steel town, amid the arid lands verging on to desert. Forty days until election day, and the Donald hath come to the wilderness to preach. Colorado has been veering wildly in the polls, going out to 10% for Clinton, after Trump’s post-convention meltdowns, and then recovered to evens when he managed to stay on message, and Clinton disappeared for a fortnight.
But then Trump came apart again, after the debates, getting into a bruising argument with a former Miss Universe, as to whether he had fat-shamed her, and a whole lot more. The days before the Pueblo appearance had been occupied by the release of a 1995 tax return, which suggested a $900 million loss taken two decades ago, and used to avoid federal income tax ever since. That and a half-dozen other scandalettes — a lawsuit for sexually discriminatory hiring at a club (“fire the ugly waitresses”), and suggestions of systemic sexual harassment on the set of The Apprentice, apparent businesses dealings with Cuba when it was embargoed, and a vicious sledging of Hillary at a rally, mimicking her recent public collapse, and suggesting that she “had cheated on Bill — and why wouldn’t she?” — appeared to have turned the state back to the Democrats, with a seven- to 10-point lead for Clinton registering in the polls.
Whether or not Trump has put himself beyond a recovery, or indeed whether this was even his last such “disaster” remains to be seen. But if he was feeling the strain, he wasn’t showing it. He bounded across the stage with the usual brio, grasped the lectern firmly in his tiny, pudgy, orange hands, and drank up the crowd’s adulation. “We looooooooove Colorado!” Then he launched into his speech, this one being done with autocue, and it became clear why he had been so happy. He was about to spend 90 minutes talking about himself, and what a genius he was.
“National security is important, but today I am going to talk about something only I can solve — our broken tax codes!” Well, the reason for an autocue became clear. Someone in his core staff and family had convinced him that the tax stuff had to be tackled head on. For that an actual speech was required, not the usual off-message free-floating Celebrity Roast. Whether what followed constituted on-message was another question.
“You’re going to hear a lot of talk about me and my tax what they wont tell you is this — that happened at the heart of the ’90s recession, the worst time in our country since 1929, worse than 2008. Every property developer was close to going under, you had to be very tough to survive, you had to believe in yourself. We lost many friends that year, they just went under and they were never heard of again, because why? Because they didn’t have my temperament. I have the best temperament …”
And we were away.
“I built a billion-dollar business and then I built another one …”, “I was smart not to pay taxes, that was a measure of how smart I was, because that helped me win where others lost”, “I was 900 million in debt, in personal debt …”, “I got up every morning as if going to war, and I won, I had the best victory…”, on and on, over and over, in that strange soft bray, a Queens NY accent, tonified at private schools and Wharton, re-roughened for electoral purposes. It was an hour of clinical narcissism, by exactly the sort of New York know-it-all such people were supposed to despise.
I looked across the standing rows of them crowded round the stage, and lying twenty ranks thick. Men, women, children, their faces were all up-tilted, glowing, smiling in admiration, and gratitude. They looked ecstatic, filled, completed, as if at an altar, or the edge of the baptism stream. The more toxically self-obsessive and delusional he became — “other people went bankrupt, I never went bankrupt” — the more grateful they appeared to be.
Bored by the ninth recitativo of “I built a great company, one of the best” I slipped out through the press entrance, and walked round the side to scope the protesters, and came across the huddled masses yearning to get in.
“Scuse me is this the line?” said one woman, with her adult daughter, both wide of beam, in puffy-sleeved faux wild west blouses and wide swathes of blue eye-shadow.
“There’s no line … no one’s going in. Trump’s three-quarters finished already,” I said.
“Oh that is not true.” She bustled up to the door security, was told the same thing, glanced back at me, a mildly stricken look. They were all stricken. There was no way round it. The Donald had stiffed them, making everyone go through the rigmarole of registering for tickets, etc, and these folks had done the right thing, and then he had started whenever he felt like it, would finish as they rocked up. Their faces betrayed the struggle going on within them, to square this rude, shabby, practically Hillary-esque treatment with Trump’s role as their saviour.
A family of six, father and boys in white Stetsons, three small daughters in blond tresses and six-dollar Walmart jeans and pink tops, walked up to the door, the dad leaning on a stick as he went. When told that they wouldn’t be let in, he started as if shot. The kids looked up at him in bewilderment. It was deeply pitiful, all the more so because he didn’t curse out the door staff. The family shuffled to the side of the crowd and tried to gather themselves together. After a few minutes, he noticed that the side glass wall was buzzing slightly with Trump’s amplified tones, and he shot an inquiring look at the guard. After getting a curt nod, he pushed his hat to the side of his head and pressed his hands and then his ear against the glass. The kids lined up beside him, peering in, able to see nothing through the black glass except themselves, reflected.
Thus arrayed, they were comical, but really, you wanted to weep. What need, what perceived possible good could compel a man like this to surrender up all dignity, and crouch at a wall, hoping for a few stray syllables? What could they possibly see in this New York blowhard grifter, the embodiment of everything they have always despised about the metropolis? To try and do an end run round the Secret Service to catch a glimpse of him?
Presumably it’s the very fallibility, their unsuitability as objects of admiration, the bohemian corporal-artist blowhard, a hack journalist like Mussolini, that makes it possible. We couldn’t surrender ourselves to someone genuinely admirable in every respect — we’d been annihilated. Trump is the perfect candidate for all the hope such people want to put into the notion that an Idealised version of their nation can be restored by the simple act of wishing it were so. For such deliverance, small humiliations are no price at all.
Eventually one of the merch sellers rigged up a speaker and plugged it into the C-Span audio feed — the merch sellers are all black carney spruikers and T-shirt roadies. There’s not a Trump voter among them. Perhaps they were as moved and disturbed as I was. The rejects — “we’re the deplorables!” someone yelled to cheers — gathered round. Trump’s tones poured out: “I built the best company, a wonderful company …” Was this on delay? No, the speech itself was a loop. It was all Trump, all the time. He sucked all notion of self-reliance out of needy people and sold it back to ’em for the price of a vote.
Spaced around a black Marshall speaker, they applauded every new note of his transcendent genius. They stayed to see if they might glimpse him leaving too. No dice. His buscade and limocade was out the back, ready to slide back through the broken-down old town, streets cleared for him. As the afternoon waned, they streamed back to their cars, a few SUVs and Priuses, and a lot of long, boxy old Chevys, tape holding down the boot, wire where the aerial was. Two vans came through the car park, pumping out this summer’s hit Fuck Fuck Fuck Donald Trump. The air was seasoned with smoke. They said it was from a nearby brush fire, but it was hard not believe that the devil had just come to town.