I went to hear Donald Trump speak at the state fairgrounds on Friday in Raleigh out of curiosity and out of the feeling that even a broken-down journalist ought to go see what this political phenomenon is all about. I did not go to evaluate his policies. A number of things surprised me:
The crowd: I was surprised by the size and makeup of the crowd. Some insiders had sneered he wouldn’t fill the Dorton Arena. But there was a long line of people who packed the hall.
Nor were they the angry mob media accounts might lead you to expect. It was more like a crowd going to see a popular movie than a political rally.
Were they supporters of his? The crowd was indeed supportive. But there was a sense that they were there to check him out and enjoy the show. Will they put a check by his name at the primary election March 15? I’ll know for sure … on March 16.
The man. From the media I expected an angry man, and found someone different. Oh, sure, he was bombastic and cranky. But this is obviously an act – what New York comedians and actors call shtick. People expect it, and he knows how to play the part.
At the same time, live at the podium he’s a more genial personality than you might expect. He rattled off his lines like a comedian, and the crowd laughed and cheered like fans hearing their favorite punch lines:
“We have a movement going on!”
“We’re going to take our country back!”
“Don’t you love this winning stuff!”
“We’re going to build the wall!”
“If I win we are going to be so proud of our country!”
“We’re going to bring our jobs back!”
“Common Core is a disaster! We are going to have local, beautiful education!”
How he speaks: By the way, he says “beautiful” more often than I would have expected. His overall tone is softer and more upbeat than the sound bites on the news suggest. That’s one reason he gets away with saying the things he does.
Yet he speaks with a tone and force that gives his remarks power. This spring I heard Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker say he wanted to make America great again. Whether right or wrong, voters didn’t believe him. When Trump says it, a good chunk of voters believe him.
What will he do: Whatever he does will probably shock me. In Raleigh, Trump didn’t go into details of his plans, which he assured the crowd could be found on his website. He seems to think the details can be filled in later. Is he a CEO keeping his eye on the big picture? Or a hustler who doesn’t want you to inquire too closely into the fine print on the contract?
The protestors. I couldn’t believe what idiots leftist protesters are. At several points, a few young radicals raised a ruckus. The crowd booed, though not in a truly angry way; I’ve heard worse booing at Little League games. Meanwhile, Trump scowled – or grinned smugly.
The protests of course validated Trump’s complaints about his opponents, and made him look (if you can believe it) relatively composed and magnanimous. The protests were a kind of counterpoint that added variety to the show, and rallied the audience to his side, while letting Trump rest his raspy vocal chords. The protesters were so trapped in their own infantile narcissism that they didn’t see their protests were actually helping Trump. That also goes for most liberals, the news media, and the political establishment. The more they lambaste him, the stronger he gets.
The future: Whatever it is, I’ll probably be surprised – as will all of the pundits or experts, none of whom expected Trump to do this well for so long. None of us in the chattering classes understands what is going on. His “support” could evaporate as soon as voters get serious. Maybe he finally will go too far. I don’t pretend to forecast his political future, or to analyze his policies, or tell you if he’d be a good president. But if you were at Dorton Arena when he was here, you’d at least be better prepared for what he does next.