It’s a warm December night in South Carolina and we’re about to see Donald Trump speak on a ship that goes nowhere. We’ve been waiting for an hour and a half in a line that snakes around the car-park of the USS Yorktown, an aircraft carrier that Team Trump has rented out for tonight’s rally. The billionaire tycoon is a frontrunner for the Republican nomination in next year’s presidential elections, and his followers are fanatical.
Trump has not even been selected as the nominee and already he is dominating political conversation in the US at every level. He is lambasted by the liberal press and idolised by the right. In November, two young men were heard to yell “Trump 2016!” before opening fire at a Black Lives Matter protest in Minneapolis, injuring three people. A presidential campaign slogan as punctuation to attempted murder wasn’t enough to prompt cross-party calls for Trump to leave the race. What he’s about to say tonight will change all of that.
Trump has already promised to build a wall to keep out Mexican immigrants, who he says are “rapists”, and to force all Muslims to register to prove that they are not terrorists; he gleefully mocks black people, women and, most of all, the mainstream press that hangs on his every outrageous statement. His followers love him not in spite of his cartoonish fat-cat persona but because of it. His platform is nationalist, militaristic and soaked in the language of big business. The usually cautious American liberal media has called him a fascist. I’m here to see if they are right.
The evening breeze is cool and the merchandise stands are everywhere, hawking slogan badges in the near-religious hush. “Bomb The Hell out of Isis”, says one; “Hillary for Prison” is another. Trump’s campaign is still treated as a joke by the media, but nobody here is laughing. These, as one T-shirt for sale declares, are “pro-God, Pro-Gun, Pro-Life Americans”, and they are sick of being laughed at.
I’ve come to this rally with an American activist friend, and we both fretted about what to wear. We thought our dark hoodies and travel-worn jeans might identify us as outsiders. We hadn’t considered the more horrifying possibility that we wouldn’t stand out at all. There are all sorts of people here: dazed teenagers in tie-dye beach sweaters and preppy college students; scruffy peroxide-blonde chain-smokers and wealthy couples in smart suits; raddled veterans in flak jackets and sweet old ladies whose cardigans match their jewellery. They have only one thing in common: they are overwhelmingly white. Ninety-nine per cent of this rally is white. Out of a crowd of thousands, we count eight people of colour, half of whom are members of the media. One young well-dressed black man walks up and down the line waving a Trump banner and asking everyone if they’re excited. He is immediately surrounded by police and questioned as a suspected protester.
My friend and I, meanwhile, walk straight through the two rounds of security checks and the metal detector. My friend actually has the word “sedition” tattooed on his knuckles. It’s OK. He’s white.
The bridge over the water to the USS Yorktown, a tourist attraction that includes a genuine “Vietnam Experience”, is in shadow. An American flag flutters at half mast; it’s Pearl Harbour Day, and Trump is keen to woo the military vote. My friend asks if I remember the last lines of Joseph Conrad’s most famous novel. I call them up on my phone, which has not been confiscated: “The offing was barred by a black bank of clouds, and the tranquil waterway leading to the uttermost ends of the earth flowed sombre under an overcast sky – seemed to lead into the heart of an immense darkness.”
The aircraft carrier is an enormous hulk of metal menacing the sunset. Inside, everything that isn’t a gun or a flag has a picture of a gun or a flag on it. Cheesy rock music pounds under the floodlights. The room is already packed; we have to push through to the back to find standing room. Despite the police, this is a private event, as the organisers make clear. The crowd is encouraged to surround any suspected troublemakers and point them out by yelling Trump’s name.
A preacher is led onto the stage to say a prayer for the soul of America, which has experienced ‘a decline in morals over the last seven years’, presumably since a Black man was elected president. Then we have to put our hands on our hearts and recite the Pledge of Allegiance. Next up is a woman dressed as a disco ball who gives a terrifyingly nasal rendition of “The Star-Spangled Banner”. Feet are stamping. The excitement is building.
Then, finally, Donald Trump arrives, to the strains of Twisted Sister’s anthem “We’re Not Gonna Take It”, and two thousand people shouting “Trump, Trump, Trump!” like a herd of angry elephants. He announces that he’s going to say something that isn’t “very politically correct. But I don’t care”. The crowd stamps and cheers. They hate political correctness.
In fact, Trump spends the first ten minutes reading off his polling numbers, but the crowd still doesn’t care.
This is the first unspoken truth about Trump: for all his bombast, he is barely articulate. His speech consists of half-sentences and unfinished declarations that leave his rapt audience hanging over a chasm of ugly assumptions. “We’re going to make our military so strong,” he yells, “so powerful, so great, that. . .” He trails off, leaving the crowd to fill in the blank with howls of “USA! USA! USA!”
Then a lone woman’s voice calls out from the back of the room: “Black Lives Matter!”
Immediately, the crowd turns on the interloper, pointing and screaming. “Be gentle,” says Trump, smirking, as she is ushered out by police. He knows what he’s saying. Protesters have been beaten and choked at Trump rallies before, and the man himself has told media that they “had it coming”.
Later, I meet this woman in the car park. Her name is Mary Smith, and she’s 24. “I had people get up to me, get right in my face, saying go kill yourself, you don’t belong here, you should go die,” she says, “But I’m glad I did what I did.”
“That person had a very weak voice,” Trump says, as the hubbub dies down. Everyone laughs. Nobody here likes weakness. Weakness is for women, and in this room they worship a male god. Hillary Clinton – whose name cannot be spoken without a chorus of boos – has “no strength, no stamina”, according to Trump.
Strength, particularly his own, will be a major theme of the evening. It does not matter that Trump has never done military service, nor that he once opposed military intervention in the Middle East: today he is standing on an aircraft carrier flanked by veterans in uniform, and calling, in effect for all-out war on otherness at home and abroad. That, along with his “unbelievable wealth”, is what matters to this dogma of weaponised capitalism, red in tooth and tape. Trump has promised to “make America Great Again”. But “great” does not mean “good”.
Trump’s people love free speech, but they hate journalists. There’s a reason most of the reporters are behind a safety rail tonight. “Seventy-five per cent of the mainstream media,” he assures us, are “absolute scum” who want to “surrender the constitution”. The crowd boos. A bleached-blonde lady to my right is practically spitting. “Tell the truth or go home!” she hollers over my shoulder at the press standing behind the safety rail.
Right now, I want to do both.
After some customary bashing of his Republican rivals, who are all weak and stupid, we get on to the meat of the matter: Muslims and what to do about them. Trump’s theme is the recent murder of 14 people in San Bernadino, California, by two killers of Muslim descent. He conveniently avoids the fact that almost all of the hundreds of mass shootings in America this year alone have been perpetrated by white men. Nor, more pertinently, does he mention the deadliest hate crime in decades on American soil, in June 2015, when white supremacist Dylann Roof murdered nine people at the Emmanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church in Charleston, just over the water. That’s not the kind of terrorism Donald Trump’s followers care about.
“We have to look at mosques,” says Trump. “We have no choice. Something is happening in there. We have to be strong. Don’t worry about profiling.” Then comes the money quote. “Donald J Trump is calling for a total and complete shutdown of Muslims entering the United States.” Thunderous applause. This is what we’ve all been waiting for. He’s done it again: he’s said something so outrageous that nobody else would dare to go there, which means he must be telling the truth.
This is the second unspoken paradox of Trump’s campaign: by lying through his teeth, he has managed to persuade thousands of people that he is the one truth- teller in American politics. He may or may not believe the xenophobic race-baiting he peddles, but his audiences certainly do. This campaign is giving hundreds of thousands of Americans permission to be nakedly racist and unabashedly xenophobic. It’s not about truth. It’s about power.
There is not a jot of irony in this room. Donald J Trump is not a comedian. He takes himself entirely seriously. Nobody who did not take themselves seriously would talk about themselves in the third person. If he’s a clown, he’s the sort that stalks the pages of pulp horror, cackling and covered in other people’s blood. And for the record, yes, this is a frightening place to be. I am frightened, and not just in a broad, theoretical sense, for the future of the United States and everyone who lives in its shadow , but in an immediate sense. I am afraid for myself and my friend, in this room, right now.
“We’re losing a lot of people to the internet,” Trump is saying. “We’re going to have to talk about shutting that internet down in some way.” More cheers from a crowd that, less than an hour ago, was screaming its support for the right to free speech.
Whether or not Donald Trump becomes president is, at this stage, beside the point. A Trump presidency looks about as likely as – well, actually, it looks about as likely as a victory for Hitler looked in 1924, when Weimar Germany considered the Nazis a joke, albeit one that Jews, gay people and gypsies could already see wasn’t funny. But democracy does not begin and end at the ballot box. Donald Trump has shifted the conversation about race, immigration, healthcare, abortion and national security sharply to the right, and in the process made the rest of the Republican Party look sane.
This may well be his most dangerous legacy. In the days after the rally, Congress suspends the US Visa Waiver Programme for foreign nationals who have visited Syria, Iraq, Iran or Sudan. It’s not quite Trump’s blanket proposal to ban all Muslims, but there is a strong family resemblance.
“There is unbelievable love in these rooms,” says Trump to a crowd that has just agreed to bar people from the country on the basis of religion and shut down the internet. He finishes with some rambling platitudes and then it’s time to go home. He does not take questions. Asking questions is a sign of weakness, and weakness is practically un-American.
“I like what Trump has to say,” says 14-year old Jared, one of many excited young men in the audience. “He’s going to kick out the illegals, build a bigger wall to keep them out. They’re taking our jobs and our tax money and that’s just not right.”
Not all of the kids are convinced, though. “It’s a bunch of bullshit,” says 15-year old Katie, a school pupil from Mount Pleasant. “He isn’t fit to be a politician in this day and age.”
“We support Bernie Sanders,” says her friend Lauren, also 15. The pair has identical brown bangs and finishes each other’s sentences. “There was a CNN article calling Trump a fascist,” says Lauren, “And the things we just saw just clearly point out that he is.”
Were they scared? “A little bit, yeah.” Lauren looks at Katie. “I mean, Katie’s my girlfriend, so, yeah. That scared us.” “But we wanted to broaden our horizons and become more intelligent on politics,” says Katie. “So you know – whatever it takes.”
This is bravery. Not falling at the feet of the first strong man who promises to “protect” you from the spectres he’s conjured out of the darkest part of your country’s collective id.
That’s what Donald Trump is: America’s id personified, complete with spray-tan, extemporising a neofascist playbook from pulpits paid for with real estate money. He’s a brutal punchline to a joke that was never funny in the first place. People have been laughing at Donald Trump for 20 years and he still has that hair. It’s too late for laughter. Trump is selling fascism with a cartoon face. It’s is the only type of fascism that was ever going to sell in America.
Now listen to a discussion about why we should take Donald Trump seriously on the NS podcast:
This article appears in the 14 Dec 2015 issue of the New Statesman, Christmas and New Year special