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Rage and conspiracy on Trump’s trail

At a rally in Schnecksville, Pennsylvania, a fervid former president kept his audience rapt. Suburbs like this will soon decide the fate of America.

By Harry Lambert

On the evening of 13 April, Donald Trump’s cavalcade drove into the suburb of Schnecksville, Pennsylvania. Schnecksville (population: 3,828) is the kind of unremarkable place where the ex-president likes to host a rally – all the better for him to take over the entire town. He prefers to arrive by jet, but strong winds had grounded his plane, forcing him to be driven from New York City, 100 miles away, where he keeps his gilded Fifth Avenue home in Trump Tower. He would return to the city that night ahead of his criminal trial in downtown Manhattan on 15 April.

In the 18 months since I last attended a Trump rally in Pennsylvania, one of the six states that will decide the 2024 US presidential election (the others are Arizona, Georgia, Michigan, Nevada and Wisconsin), everything and nothing had changed. Reporters who closely follow Trump will tell you that he is much the same. But the world is different. In November 2022 Trump was being dismissed as a serial loser of elections since 2016, with the Republican Party determined to avoid his re-nomination. On 13 April Trump proudly paraded the party’s new committee chair, Michael Whatley. The party is back in line.

“They want to gag my constitutional right to talk,” the ex-president told a crowd he claimed was 42,000-strong (he was off by an order of magnitude). He railed against the “crooked judge” overseeing his trial, Juan Merchan, who has served on the New York Supreme Court since 2009. Trump stands accused of falsifying business records to hide a hush money payment made to Stormy Daniels, a porn actress, ahead of the 2016 election (although experts do not expect him to be convicted of a crime). Merchan, Trump told the crowd, “suffers from TDS! Do you know what that is? Trump Derangement Syndrome.” He repeated his own deranged claim, that the four criminal indictments he faces have all been advanced at the behest of Joe Biden, whom he called a “demented tyrant”.

In 2008, the then Republican presidential nominee John McCain pushed back when Republican voters suggested to him at a town hall that Barack Obama was a threat to America. “He is a decent person,” McCain said, “and you do not have to be scared of him as a president of the United States.” The audience booed. McCain stood firm. He sought to restrain an incipient force in the Republican Party: a coming flood of voters whose conspiracy-inflected understanding of the world was gleaned from an uncharted set of fringe news sources. McCain cut off a voter who thought Obama was a foreign-born Arab, not an American – a falsehood Trump eagerly promoted as he took his first steps towards a presidential run in the early 2010s.

While McCain rebuffed his supporters’ wildest theories, Trump wants to set fire to them. He wants his crowds to fear, to hate, to act. “A vote for Joe Biden is a vote to end the rule of law, and it’s a vote to destroy America as you know it. A vote for Donald Trump is a vote to save America’s future, a vote to save American democracy, and a vote to save American freedom.”

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For an hour Trump pummelled his audience, whose attention he does not know how to hold but whose loyalty he has already won. “The [2020] election was rigged, a disgrace… They’re weaponising government, they’re trying to hurt your favourite president… We have to get him [Biden] the hell out of office and send him back to wherever he comes from.”

“The whole world is ablaze,” Trump went on. “Viktor Orbán, a very strong guy, who I think happens to be a very good person, was asked ‘What’s going on with the world?’ And he said, ‘Bring Trump back as president and it’ll all stop!’ Never forget my enemies want to take away my freedom because I will never let them take away your freedom. In the end they’re not after me, they’re after you, and I just happen to be standing in their way.”

Trump casts himself as a martyr, a saviour, the last bulwark against the “Biden fascist state”. It’s a role his supporters want him to play. “He’s the only answer we have, and God,” a man with fervent eyes told me. “This is the start of World War Three.” (Trump spoke in the hours after Iran had attacked Israel.) A short woman in her fifties with a friendly face turned to the man as if she knew him. “Foreign leaders are afraid of him. The world is, and we need that.”

The woman introduced herself as a former immigration official who had spent years helping migrants find a way into America. She had helped children whose families had been executed by cartels. She saw no conflict between her past experience and her present politics, listening to Trump speak of “a rocket ship of illegal immigrants” pouring into America “who don’t even know the names of the countries they’re coming from”. Illegal aliens had voted in 2020, she said, costing Trump the election. The drone of Trump’s voice buzzed overhead – “We will stop the plunder, the rape, the slaughter, the destruction of American suburbs and cities and towns!”

The presidential race is tightening. The slim polling lead Donald Trump had at the start of 2024 has narrowed since Biden delivered an unusually energetic State of the Union address on 8 March. But the incumbent is being dragged down by three issues he cannot do much to fix: his evident incapacity, the aftermath of two years of inflation and an unprecedented rise in illegal immigration. Liberal despair over his response to the crisis in the Middle East, particularly among younger voters, may depress support too.

To win the election in November, Joe Biden will have to overcome some bleak truths. Seven in ten voters think he is too old to be president, while only four in ten think the same of Trump, who, aged 78, would be America’s oldest president on inauguration if he is re-elected. In the last four years the cost of food has risen in the United States by 25 per cent, and petrol prices and house prices by 50 per cent. Voters are nostalgic for the Trump years, a prosperous time he was not responsible for creating. Five in nine Americans remember Trump’s presidency favourably, according to a New York Times/Siena poll. Only three in nine are positive about Biden’s tenure. Five in eight voters disapprove of Biden’s handling of the economy and the border. His management of foreign conflicts, from the fall of Kabul to the wars in Ukraine and Gaza, has not won public support. National Security Advisor Jake Sullivan’s “foreign policy for the middle class” looks like a redundant doctrine.

Trump is scarcely paying a price for anything. The 6 January riots have been forgotten or dismissed. Only four in ten voters think he is a threat to democracy, although most voters agree that he has “committed serious federal crimes” – including one in six of Trump’s current supporters. One in ten of them think that he threatened American democracy in 2020, but they don’t mind much. Biden and Trump are seen as being equally perilous presidential candidates for different reasons. The facts that appal liberals across the world have alarmingly little currency in the suburbs like Schnecksville that will soon decide the fate of America.

[See also: Will there be blood?]

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This article appears in the 17 Apr 2024 issue of the New Statesman, Israel vs Iran