About two hours before gates opened for Donald Trump’s out-of-nowhere, only vaguely explicable rally at Ladd-Peebles Stadium in Mobile, Alabama, a gaggle of us journalists began to work the line. The line—already 1,500 deep two hours out—was a dream, a Venn diagram of everything a political journalist desires at this particular point of this already ludicrous and undeniably irresistible campaign. There were:
- Trump voters.
- A bloc so engaged they would sit for three hours in 95-degree Alabama heat when it’s threatening to storm to get into a football stadium where no football will be played.
- Many people locked into a line and thus physically unable to run away from a journalist.
It was chum in the water: It was crack. You could talk to young people, old people, white people, black people, tall people, short people, purple people (a couple did seem purple), all of whom were there to see the biggest, most confounding political story to hit since Barack Obama. Donald J. Trump, the Queens-bred real estate magnate with the mansions and the germ phobias and the love of Jacqueline Bissett, had packed an Alabama football stadium on a sweltering Friday night; it was as if he hastily assembled this rally on a dare, a dare he appeared to be winning.
At one point, a CNN crew set up a shot where they pointed their camera at a subsection of the line consisting of about 15 people. The producer said, “All right, we’ve got a question for you guys. We’re rolling. You ready?” The people in line, bored and hot, nodded vaguely. “All right, here’s the question: Are you guys here for Trump the candidate, or Trump the celebrity?” Half the people in line said, “Candidate”; the other half groaned loudly. “That was a dumbass question,” one said, and he was of course right. That’s the sort of question someone asks when he is trying to make fun of you.
There was not much resembling a consensus among the people in the Trump line. They were from different backgrounds, had different priorities, carried different political agendas, and sometimes appeared to be from different planets all together. But there was one thing all of them had in common and couldn’t wait to tell you about: They were sick of all the bulls--t. They were sick of being talked to like they’re idiots. They might not be up on the policy papers or every specific detail of the Iran deal. But they can smell bulls--t.
They know Trump’s a bullsh--ter too, but for the right reason. He bulls--ts to cut through the bulls--t.
“I love that he talks like a normal person,” said Kevin Ward, who traveled 35 miles from Pascagoula, Mississippi, for the rally. “Every other politician talks weird, like an alien.” Diana Alston, a woman who had moved to Mobile from St. Louis a decade before, wore a Michael Jackson RIP T-shirt and sat in a walker while breathing through a nasal cannula and an oxygen tank, was wistful when asked to describe what she liked about Trump. “It feels like you know him,” she said. “He’s like your uncle. No one else feels like anyone you’d know, or even meet. Trump feels like one of us.” She gave a conspiratorial wink. “And he’s a good-looking man for 69, if you know what I mean.”
They hate Hillary Clinton, they hate Obama, they hate Jeb Bush, and they hate them all for the same reason: They think they’re lying to them. Many, I found, especially hated Bush for his Spanish-language campaign ads. This came up several times. Bush is “as bad as any of them,” said Tony Hamilton, a truck driver from nearby Pensacola, Florida. “I voted for his brother and his dad, but not him, never. He’s just like the rest of them.” Hamilton, who smoked and drank from a coffee mug emblazoned with “If You Don’t Like Me, Buy A Map, Get A Car And Go To Hell!!!!”, said he’d been waiting to vote for Trump for years, and that he couldn't understand how Obama had been re-elected. When asked how he thought Obama got elected the first time, Hamilton pointed to his friend Marco. Marco, a security guard in Pensacola who is African-American, just shrugged. Later, Hamilton would spot a woman’s wallet lying in the road and lose his place in line trying to find a police officer to give it to. The last I saw him, he was asking people in the line if they knew this “Sarah Shepherd,” and if so, those cops over there had her wallet.
Few of the people in line could summon any specific policies Trump was advocating, other than “build the wall” and “Make America Great Again.” He's a vessel, a receptacle, as has often been observed, for an inchoate rage. His wealth and celebrity are crucial parts of his political appeal. And he doesn’t even seem to want to be president all that badly.
This was a common refrain: “He doesn’t even need it!” One woman told me she worried that Trump would win the election but not take the job because “it’s a headache” and “wouldn’t pay him enough.”
Hope, and idealism, are not much in evidence among the people in line outside the stadium. They know the score already. “It’s not like Trump’s going to make us all rich,” Alston said. “But wouldn’t it be nice?” It was as close to dreamy as anyone got. Trump was a full-throated "no," a cheerful middle finger to the system that put forth Clintons and Bushes in succession. Here in Mobile, that seemed to be enough.
As the doors were about to open, I met a group of four college students from the University of Southern Mississippi. This will be their first Presidential election. Mallory Hayden is a shortstop for the USM softball team; she came with Katie Cleary, the first baseman. Hayden arrived carrying her own sign: A printed-out cardboard blowup of a Trump retweet close to her heart. “I couldn’t believe it,” she said. “He retweeted me!” She posed with the sign outside the rally, and of course tweeted out the photo.
“I loved him on The Apprentice,” Hayden said. “I love that he doesn’t back down from anyone.” Then she went inside. She had to leave the sign in her car.
Two hours before Trump was scheduled to appear, his surname-stamped plane made two laps around Ladd-Peebles Stadium. The announcer implored people to wave, and every one of them seemed to.
It would be another two hours before Trump appeared. The crowd was kept occupied, strangely, by showtunes (lots of Andrew Lloyd Webber) and the Aerosmith song, “Dream On,” which was played at least six different times. A man, inevitably, was dressed as Trump, though his hair was a pale imitation.
A man in blue overalls over a blue T-shirt and jeans and carrying a sign that said “GIVING 2 BILLION COMMUNISTS OUR INDUSTRIAL POWER IS BEYOND STUPID” (a sign Trump would later comment on during his speech, saying he liked the sign but that it was getting in the way of people’s view) sprinted up to the press area as soon as he was let into the building and began screaming. “They didn’t check us for guns!,” he yelled, in a way that was a little alarming at first. “They scan people for guns at football games, but not here. That’s just stupid! You just wait!” He then took his place at the front of the stage to await Trump. A local band attempted to warm up the crowd by playing the keyboard power chords of Van Halen’s “Jump” to cue everyone to yell “TRUMP!” It didn’t quite work.
Then, finally, the moment came. Trump, he of Mar-a-Lago and endless gilt, appeared to the strains of “Sweet Home Alabama,” which is both completely obvious and totally absurd—which is, after all, the Trumpian aesthetic.
But Trump doesn't need a warm-up act, doesn't even need to warm up. He has always carried himself like someone who is constantly hearing tens of thousands of people chanting his name in his head, so when at an event like this, when it’s actually happening, he’s in his natural element; he took the stage like he was Nick Saban, like he’d lived in Alabama his whole life. “This is beautiful, this is beautiful,” he said, and you never believed anything a politician said more.
By any objective measure, Trump is a terrible public speaker. There are no prepared notes and no overarching message. In Mobile, he began by tossing out some red-meat immigration gruel, then spent the next half hour rambling to and fro, all over the place, landing wherever. A new building he’s constructing in Washington DC. His financial disclosure papers. What networks were carrying his speech live. When he said Jeb Bush’s name for the first time, he said, “Jeb Bush … DOYYY!” like he was Beavis. It was impossible not to laugh.
For two minutes, out of nowhere, he went after Caroline Kennedy, for reasons only he could possibly understand. (Even as he was going after her, he said he loved her because his daughter Ivanka loved her, and Ivanka, “she’s just great, just a great great girl.”) His speech is less a speech than a ride from brain synapse to brain synapse. He goes off on tangents, he loses his train of thought, he chases rabbits that only he sees. (I think at one point he claimed that Secretariat wasn’t actually that fast of a horse? And praised the Mafia? And vowed not to ride a bicycle as president.) When he has completely lost the thread, he gathers himself and says something like, “I just want to say: I just want to make this country great. And that’s what I’m gonna do.”
The uncertainty is a large part of the excitement—it's a thrill ride, where outrageous gaffes constantly loom. At one point, Trump wandered into a mind nugget about German automobiles, and said, to an audience of largely lower-income disaffected white Tea Party voters, in Mobile, Alabama, “anybody here have a Mercedes-Benz? They’re wonderful, right? Great, great cars.” The crowd roared at every bewildering word he spoke. They ate it up. Nobody cared about a gaffe because nobody was looking for gaffes. They just went along with it. Nobody got mad at him, because it was real, it was all real, he’s like your uncle, it feels like you know him.
Trump finished his speech, such as it was, and the crowd filed out through dark Mobile streets. He was supposed to speak to the press afterwards but decided not to, possibly the most surprising thing about the evening. (“He’s already on his plane,” a volunteer announced, sort of glowing, emphasizing and drawing out the word plane.)
Was this rally peak Trump? Well, possibly. And the stadium, which holds 40,000 people, was half-full at best. But still, Trump is leading in every poll. He is showing staying power.
For many people, he answers a question about politics—even if they know he would be tempted to rename the White House to match his plane. There are currently five, maybe six people on this planet who have a chance to become the next leader of the free world, and you are kidding yourself if you do not believe he is one of them. If you don’t like it, you can always buy a map, get a car and go to hell.