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Guglielmo Marconi died on July 20, 1937, at the age of 63.

July 20, 2019

Four years ago next month, I covered a Donald Trump rally, one of the very first Donald Trump rallies, in Mobile, Alabama. I have written about covering this rally before, about how my Bloomberg Politics editors assumed because I live in the South I was just down the street (Mobile is 400 miles away from Athens), about how absurd and silly everyone thought the whole spectacle of a germaphobic Manhattan philistine addressing a football stadium full of people in the Deep South was at the time, about how he spent most of the speech rambling on about Rosie O’Donnell. I wrote a long, long piece about it, one that’s now behind the Bloomberg Terminal paywall, but I’m gonna post it at the end of this newsletter anyway since those Bloomberg terminals cost about 24 grand a year and that seems a bit much to ask.

But, in the wake of the horror of this week, I think it’s worth looking back at it one more time.

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Donald Trump is who he is and has always been, but that’s only part of it. The Atlantic had an exhaustive Oral History Of Donald Trump’s Racism earlier this summer — literally the first time he was ever quoted in The New York Times, he was responding to the Justice Department charging his family’s company with racial bias — but the key takeaway to me was how he ultimately realized how he could use this natural inclination to his personal advantage. (These are the only realizations Trump ever comes to.) From his full-page ad about the Central Park Five to coming out against the supposed “Ground Zero mosque” on Letterman in 2010 to Obama birtherism, Trump has used racism as a way to promote his personal brand, to appeal to the worst people with a sort of cruel, fake “toughness.” Former Trump advisor Sam Nunberg says in that piece, “Trump will do anything to win. Birtherism would brand Trump as the guy who would do anything he could to take down Obama. He wasn’t just going to lose with a smile and lose respectably the way John McCain and Mitt Romney liked doing.” Trump’s racism is a core part of he is ... but it is also an active, open appeal. The man who will say anything to get you to pay attention to him discovered that saying racist things was a terrific, lasting way to do it. Now, there is reason to argue that this strategy isn’t nearly as successful for as he believes it is. But it’s clearly what he’s counting on. As Andrew Sullivan put it this week, “Trump is calculating that his election has proved that indecency is now a winner in America, that cruelty can be popular, that liberal democratic norms are dead, and that the coarsest form of nationalism — my country, love it or leave it — is the key to political success.” It’s a terrifying thought. And I really do believe he is wrong. But that’s his plan. That’s who he is.

It is, thusly, difficult for me to muster up much personal shock or outrage about anything Donald Trump says anymore. You can call that “normalizing” if you wish, but I think of it more like the old Onion bit about Marilyn Manson going door-to-door to shock people. (“[Manson] was standing at my front door wearing those fake breasts he wore on the cover of Mechanical Animals,” retiree Judith Hahn said. “He said, ‘My name is Marilyn Manson, and I’m here to tear your little world apart.’ I thought he was collecting for the Kiwanis food drive, so I gave him some cans of pumpkin-pie filling.”) He is jumping up and down and flailing his arms the best he can. It’s how we react that matters.

And this is where it starts to really hurt.


The chant that erupted at Trump’s rally in Greenville, North Carolina earlier this week, with thousands of people yelling “Send Her Back!” about Representative Ilhan Omar, was not started by Donald Trump. He sure didn’t try to shut it down — and after pretending he didn’t like it, he’s back to defending it again; he’ll be actively inciting it by next week — but he did not physically begin the chant. The crowd took the words from his infamous Tweet telling the four Congresswomen to “go back to where they came from,” so he’s hardly innocent here, but that chant began organically. People did that on their own.

I cannot imagine what it must be like to hear that about yourself, to have lost your mother when you were two years old, to have fled a war-torn country and spent four years of your childhood in a refugee camp, to become a United States citizen as a teenager and dedicate your life to contributing to this new country that welcomed you, to embrace the search for the American ideal so thoroughly that you run for Congress and win ... and to have the response to this be thousands of people screaming for you to be returned to the place your family escaped and have the President of the United States giddily nodding along. How do you still have faith in that country? How can you believe in its people? How can you still subscribe to that ideal?

It is not what Trump does; it is how people react. When I covered that rally four years ago, I found it remarkable how friendly and affable everyone in the audience was. Beforehand, when everyone was waiting in line for so many hours, a person found a wallet on the ground and the crowd spent a good hour collectively attempting to find the person who had lost it. They took turns keeping each other cool in the insane Alabama heat, at one point teaming up to walk up and down the line outside with small bottles of water. There were no cruel chants or collective calls to violence. Everyone was just sort of ... curious. I was not treated as a member of the evil media horde; people happily talked to me for as long as I asked them to, and during the rally, the few media people there were allowed and encouraged to mill among the crowd asking people whatever we wanted. You look at the crowd this week, and you see active malice — you see cruelty for the sake of cruelty. But I didn’t see that four years ago.

Was that there then, submerged? Obviously it was somewhat. I am certain, just as I’m certain that if I’d been a female Muslim reporter wearing a hajib rather than a white male reporter wearing jeans, those people in line would have been a lot less welcoming. If I were a better reporter, or just less blinded by my own perspective and privilege, I might have noticed it more at the time. But that it is so out in the open now, I’d argue, does matter. Trump is Trump, and all that comes with that, and he will always be that way. (Though it does seem like the cognition of Trump being Trump is starting to ... erode.) But the number of abhorrent things we see in daily life that aren’t done by Donald Trump has increased exponentially in the last four years. He’s not just horrible: He has brought out the worst in us. Some argue this is a positive, that we can see some of the worst aspects of our society out in the open like this. Did Trump unearth something lodged in the American subconscious and expose it for the world to see? There’s no question. If you thought the world was a horrible place, and that America was unsalvageable, you have plenty of evidence for your belief these days. But a positive? I dunno, you tell me: Does this feel like a positive to you? Does it feel like we’re all reacting well to it?

I look at what happened Wednesday, with thousands of people telling a person who to me is the living embodiment of the American Dream, someone who believed in this country’s promise and has worked within our system to both thrive and also to attempt to evoke positive change, that she should be “sent back,” is as chilling a thing as I’ve seen in the public square. You can say it was always there. You’re probably right. But this why we elect people: To lead us away from our worst instincts and toward our best ones. We’re going to screw up. I screw up all the time. So do you. One of the worst things about social media is that it allows us to construct narratives for ourselves in which we are always the good guy, to put out a persona in which everyone who agrees with you is right and everyone who doesn’t is a monster, that making a mistake and admitting to it is some sort of sign of ideological weakness. It makes you think you know people that you don’t, and it can make you act like something you are not. You do not have to look far to see the ramifications of that. But it still matters: What we see in the public square affects us. What is put out into the world changes it.

I’ve been on this earth for almost 44 years now, and in my lifetime, it has never been like this. Cheering for the expulsion of political opponents, accusing those who look different than you of inherently being your enemy, actively fighting against the idea that we are all in this together ... that’s the theoretical most un-American thing I can imagine. We have lots of problems, and we’ll always have them. The goal is to try to do good. The goal is to leave the world in a higher place than when we found it. We’re never going to get it perfect. But goddammit, we’ve got to get it better than this.

*****************

And here’s the original Mobile piece, just for posterity.


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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.
*** Southerners.
*** 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.

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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.

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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.”

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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.

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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.

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“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.

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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.

Will Leitch on Instagram: “Not the actual Trump.”

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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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Here is a numerical breakdown of all the things I wrote this week, in order of what I believe to be their quality. You may disagree. It is your wont.

1. Review: “The Lion King,” Paste Magazine. Is this the logical endgame of remake and reboot culture? It might be?

2. In Defense of the MLB Home Run Spike, New York. See, the thing is, home runs, they are good.

3. Data Decade: The Best Trades of the Decade, MLB.com. It turns out that I did not miss you, Colby Rasmus.

4. How Last Year’s Deadline Trades Worked Out, MLB.com. Here is your reminder that the Cardinals traded Luke Voit, Tommy Pham and Oscar Mercado in a matter of hours last year.

5. Seven Teams That Should Sit Out the Trade Deadline, MLB.com. Of course the Cardinals are on there.

6. The Thirty: Every Team’s Untradeable Player, MLB.com. I think if I were a Major League Baseball player, I would constantly be being traded. It just seems to fit.

7. Debate Club: Best Fictional Planets, SYFY Wire. It turns out ... we were AFTER Earth!

THE WILL LEITCH SHOW


Back in September! Watch the ones you haven’t seen on Amazon or on SI TV.

PODCASTS

Grierson & Leitch, quiet show this week, with “The Farewell,” “Stuber,” “Crawl” and “Poetry.”

Seeing Red, Bernie and I talk more about Bob Gibson and Mike Shannon than we do the Cardinals.

Waitin’ Since Last Saturday, new show, starting to stretch our legs for the new season.

GET THIS LUNATIC OUT OF HERE 2020 PRESIDENTIAL POWER RANKINGS


After this week, anyone who I think has a better chance of beating that shithead — as opposed to whether or not they are with me 100 percent on every issue — gets a little bump in the ratings. Good Christ.

1. Kamala Harris
2. Elizabeth Warren
3. Amy Klobuchar
4. Joe Biden
5. Kirsten Gillibrand
6. Cory Booker
7. Pete Buttigieg
8. Julian Castro
9. Beto O’Rourke
10. Jay Inslee
11. Bernie Sanders
12. Steve Bullock
13. Seth Moulton
14. Michael Bennet
15. Tim Ryan
16. Tulsi Gabbard
17. Bill de Blasio
18. Tom Steyer
19. John Hickenlooper
20. William Weld
21. Marianne Williamson
22. John Delaney
23. Andrew Yang
24. Wayne Messam
25. Mike Gravel

ONGOING LETTER-WRITING PROJECT!

Writing letters is good for you. The last batch of responses I have left is headed out this weekend. Bring ‘em on at:

Will Leitch
P.O. Box 48
Athens GA 30603

CURRENTLY LISTENING TO



“Sugarfoot,” Black Joe Lewis and the Honeybears. I saw these guys play at a live taping of Letterman a few years ago and have followed them ever since. They’re in Athens next month, I’m in.

Have a great week, everyone, and remember: Life really is better when the Cardinals win.


Best,
Will






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