In August 2015, Bloomberg Politics sent me to Mobile, Alabama, to write about Donald Trump’s rally in Mobile, Alabama. You can’t read my dispatch anymore unless you have a Bloomberg terminal subscription, and only my financial advisors has one of those. In the wake of this week, I thought I would thus republish it here.
MOBILE, Ala. – About two hours before gates opened for Donald Trump’s out-of-nowhere, only vaguely explicable rally at Ladd-Peebles Stadium, 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. You had:
*** Trump voters.
*** A bloc so engaged they would sit in 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.
*** 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 in decades: Donald J. Trump. This Queens real estate magnet with the mansions and the germ phobias and “close, personal friendship” with Jacqueline Bissett, packing an Alabama football stadium on a sweltering Friday night; it was like he hastily assembled this rally on a dare, a dare he appeared to be winning. These were Trump People, in the raw. These are the people rewriting everything everyone thought they knew about politics, in real time, all in a row, and they can’t leave. We all could have worked that line for days.
Anyway, 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. (Even people who love celebrities don’t say, “I love celebrities!”) The people in the Trump line were from different backgrounds, and had different priorities, and carried different political agendas, and sometimes appeared to be different planets all together. But there was one thing every single one of them had in common and couldn’t wait to tell you about: They were sick of all the bullshit. 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 bullshit.
They know Trump’s a bullshitter too, but in the right way. When Trump bullshits, it’s the way everyone bullshits. He bullshits to cut through the bullshit.
“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.” Next to us, a woman listening, slender and busty and only willing to be classified to a reporter as “a small-business owner,” nodded and began to mime the Clintonian closed-fist, thumb-out, biting-lower motion. “Who does that?” she laughed. “Only Clintons and Bushes.” Diana Altson, 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, 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, also hated Bush for his Spanish-language campaign ads. This came up several times.) “[Jeb’s] 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 emblazed with “If You Don’t Like Me, Buy A Map, Get A Car And Go To Hell!!!!” on the side, said he’d been waiting to vote for Trump for years and that “I don’t even know how Obama got elected the second time.” 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 find 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.
For most of these people, Trump is a vessel. Few of them knew of any specific policies Trump was advocating, other than “build the wall” and “Make America Great Again.” There’s a vague, unfocused anger at the whole political system, Democrats, Republicans, any bullshitter. And Trump represents that anger to them. He’s successful. He’s famous. And mostly, he doesn’t seem to be 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.” “But that’s what I like about him,” she said. “The others will say anything they can to be President. He just says whatever he wants, and if we make him President great, but if not, he’s still rich.” There’s no real idealism in Trump’s supporters. 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. They want Trump because he’s not the rest of them. This makes him a vessel of a candidate more than a particularly inspiring one. But what candidate isn’t a vessel? Isn’t that how you win?
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 time that Trump had retweeted her. “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.
When Donald Trump is introduced to talk to 20,000 people in Alabama — the city of Mobile confirmed 30,000 attendees, but that stadium, which holds 40,000, was half full at best; that’s still pretty impressive! – he comes out to “Sweet Home Alabama,” which is both completely obvious and predictable, and also totally absurd. That’s to say: It’s pure Trump. Two hours before, his plane made two laps around Ladd-Peebles Stadium, and the public address announcer implored people to wave at the Donald above. Every single one of them did.
The crowd was one that doesn’t seem to attend political rallies that often and tended to grow restless while waiting for Trump, who didn’t go on until an hour after the scheduled start time. They were 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 dressed up as Trump, which was probably inevitable.
A man in blue overalls over a blue T-shirt and jeans 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 the minute he was let in 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.
Besides, Donald Trump needs no warm up act. Trump 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 waltzed on 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.
Trump is quite the public speaker. By any objective measure, he’s terrible at it. He has no prepared notes and no overarching message. He began his speech by tossing out some red-meat immigration gruel that the crowd ate up, but then he spent the next half an 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 or something. I laughed. It made me laugh.
For one odd two-minute stretch, he went after Caroline Kennedy out of nowhere, for some reason only Trump 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. In this way, his speeches are not unlike his infamous Instagram account, which I described in June as “whatever detritus happened to be hanging around Trump’s lower lip that particular second.” 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 in office?) His oratorical style is Word Soup. When in doubt, 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.”
And yet the crowd remains riveted, and, frankly, so do I. We all watch, wondering where he’s going to go next. Trump gaffes like nobody has ever gaffed, and it has just become part of the Trump package, another reason he’s different. 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 all 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, perhaps a first for Trump. (“He’s already on his plane,” a volunteer announced, sort of glowing, emphasizing and drawing out the word plane.) And then he was gone, on to the next one. This Queens kid, with the ex-wifes and the capped teeth and the Rosie O’Donnell feuds, he went into an Alabama football stadium, drew 20,000 people and kicked everybody’s ass. He did last week, he’ll do it next week, he’ll keep doing it. He is leading in every poll. He is showing staying power.
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.