When Donald Trump’s helicopter took off from the Spooky Nook Sports Center in Pennsylvania’s Lancaster County on Saturday night, people raised their hands in unison and shouted goodbye. They would continue to wait for another hour for a shuttle bus to take them to the adjacent parking lot, after suffering hours on hours of delay and frustration at Trump’s rally. But the New York tycoon is their one and only hope, so they cheered him on even as he peered at them from above and left them behind.
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They were not what I had expected or what I had seen in previous Trump rallies. There were plenty of white men, and only one or two men of other colors, but they didn’t seem particularly angry. There were a lot of women and children, which surprised me, but “this is a county of families,” one supporter explained. And while Trump repeatedly succeeded in whipping up the crowd, especially when he blasted Hillary Clinton, the media or the vast worldwide conspiracy aimed at keeping him out of office, most of the people who came to the sports complex in Manheim, Pennsylvania seemed to be there out of curiosity, on a Saturday night quest for fun and excitement. This was especially true of the truly incongruous segment of the audience, young Amish teens who jumped up and down with the boundless energy reserved for the period in which they are officially allowed to go crazy and sow their oats, known as Rumspringa.
Lancaster County itself isn’t your typical decrepit region devastated by globalization and NAFTA and prone to Trump’s populist message, like other regions of Pennsylvania. Home of the Pennsylvania Dutch – which is actually a distortion of Pennsylvania Deutsch, or German – the county is enjoying solid job growth and economic expansion. The roads are smooth, the houses are neat and the lawns are mown, with many of them sporting Trump-Pence signs. That’s not very surprising: Lancaster is a solidly Republican county. In 2012 it gave Mitt Romney close to 60% of the vote against Barack Obama, as did most other Pennsylvanian counties. That was not enough to overcome the Democratic bunker on Pennsylvania’s eastern seaboard, led by Philadelphia, which voted overwhelmingly for Obama and gave him a victory in the state by a 52-48 margin.
Trump has Philadelphia in mind when he urges his listeners to go and monitor “certain places” on Election Day to prevent voter fraud. They know exactly what and whom he’s talking about, as I found out by asking Jack, Matt and Melanie, who preferred to give me their first names only. They sincerely believe that Obama won Pennsylvania in 2012 “illegally” because “thousands of dead people” voted in his favor. When I point out that no evidence has been uncovered to that effect, they smile at me as if I was an idiot and tell me about the judge that was deterred and state attorneys who looked the other way and the establishment media that covered up the lies.
But Pennsylvania had a Republican governor and administration then, I point out, which is when they start to pity me. “Well, Republicans aren’t Republicans any more either, are they?” Jack replies, shutting me down, “Which is why we need a wild card like Trump.” He agrees with me that a loose cannon like Trump serving as U.S. president is a big gamble, but insists nonetheless “something’s gotta give.” On Meet the Press on Sunday, Movie director Michael Moore, who has projected that Trump will win, said that Trump’s supporters want to use him “like a Molotov cocktail” in order to wreak havoc and break up the existing order.
The belief in a giant all-encompassing conspiracy which oppresses them is the one area in which the seemingly pleasant audience seems to go over the edge. These amiable and largely well behaved Average Joes and Plain Janes come from the same planet as everyone else but they live in an alternate universe nonetheless. When Trump warns of a “rigged” election, they nod in agreement, even though no evidence has ever been uncovered of massive voter fraud in the United States. But they don’t believe any establishment “evidence” anyway, because everyone is in on the fix: the government, the media, the pollsters, and the politicians on both left and right. “The debate on Monday proved how biased the media is,” one Trump supporter tells me, “because they all claimed that Trump lost when we all saw he won.”
Don’t get me wrong: I am not getting uppity about biased or ignorant Americans. Most of the people I spoke to didn’t seem particularly lacking in intelligence. And Israel has its own fair share of people who live in a la-la land in which nothing can be believed, everyone is out to get them and the enemy is constantly knocking on the gates. In fact, it occurred to me that a close parallel can be drawn between Trump and Benjamin Netanyahu and the way they manipulate and are perceived by conspiracy-theorist voters: in Netanyahu’s current coalition, they may even be a majority.
Netanyahu was once revered by his voters but after almost a dozen years in office, his main virtue is that he’s not the others, particularly the leftist Ashkenazi elite. People that I spoke to at the rally are no blind admirers of Trump, either. I don’t think they particularly like him even. Even though they unwittingly confirm the media narrative that they debunked a short minute ago, people I spoke to were are all too willing to admit that Trump has badly mishandled the aftermath of the debate – “he gets sidetracked,” one said, “he’s gone off the rails," opined another. But maybe that’s what we need, they say, and in any case, is preferable to a Clinton presidency, which is “the end of us.” And what if Vladimir Putin insults Trump and he “gets sidetracked” into launching a nuclear war, I ask Jack, and he calmly replies: “If that’s what it takes.” Still, for some reason, he wants to ensure I know that Trump is his candidate of last resort: “He wasn’t my first choice,” he says, and his companions nod in agreement.
Hatred for Hillary, who Trump said “could be crazy,” is the contact glue that holds the crowd together. “Lock her up” is by far the strongest chant of the night. Trump’s rather revolting imitation of her stumble and near collapse after the September 11 ceremony gets the biggest laugh of the night. Judging by the decibel levels of the applause, immigration is next, followed by Second Amendment gun rights and “the rights of the unborn” which Trump mentions in passing even though it’s obviously a favorite in this relatively religious area. Trump devotes much of his time to lambasting free trade agreements and promising to bring back jobs, though I doubt if his listeners are following him beyond the fact that they know to jeer the Pacific area’s TPP or the NAFTA agreement with Canada and Mexico. It’s not their fault: Trump is inclined to babble about these topics and to present incoherent arguments that seldom go beyond his overarching verdict “It’s a disaster.”
Trump plays on his audiences’ willingness to believe the worst about everything. His conspiracy theories are often childish, such as the one about a faulty microphone that allegedly ruined his appearance at a debate he claims he won, but others sound more ominous, especially for Jews. He depicts Clinton as a puppet of big money, bloodsucking multinational companies, foreign governments who contribute to the Clinton Foundation and the catchall “global special interests," which sounds disturbingly familiar. One of the men standing next to me, who heard I was from Israel, comes up and whispers in my ear, “he means the Rothschilds." As far as I could tell, he was trying to be helpful.
And while the relatively relaxed atmosphere at the Lancaster rally, devoid of any manifestations of hate or racism, nixed the comparisons to Nazi brownshirt rallies in early 1930s Germany that I had kept in reserve, Trump provided the one moment that should send chills down every Jewish spine. “One people under one God saluting one American flag,” he chants and the audience repeats after him. Just as Trump once persisted in using the term America First despite being told of unpleasant associations to pro-Nazi American isolationism in the late 1930s, so he is apparently oblivious to – or actually ignorant of - the unnerving similarity of the meter of his tripartite “One people” slogan to the Nazi “Ein Volk, Ein Reich, Ein Fuhrer.” Or maybe not.
Trump speaks in circles, going through his talking points but then returning to them in no particular order, with statements that often don’t make sense but seem to sound right to the audience. It’s more of a vortex than a stream of consciousness. “If we win Pennsylvania, we’re taking back the rifles,” he says. “Most pundits aren’t worth the ground they stay on, though I’m in real estate so ground is actually worth a lot.” If we win “we’re going to be so happy," though that’s a stretch even for his fans.
This was probably not one of Trump’s best rallies: the auditorium was full, but not packed, the audience supportive but not overly enthusiastic, his speech peaked at times but mostly seemed to be falling flat. That may have something to do with the 100-minute delay in Trump’s arrival, which he ascribed to bad weather that prevented his helicopter from landing but may also have had something to do with the New York Times story about his tax returns, which was being published as he spoke.
By the time Trump finally started talking – with no apologies whatsoever – his audience was exhausted and on edge. It was hot inside the Spooky Nook Sports Center and emergency crews were evacuating fainters every few minutes. Adding insult to injury, the limited song list that played itself over and over in a loop seemed to be mocking the audience. The Rolling Stones sang “Let’s Spend the Night Together," which suddenly seemed like a serious proposition, then “Time is on My Side," which conjured images of Trump laughing his head off, then “You can’t always get what you want," so what are we doing here, then Elton John’s “Funeral for a Friend," with debate over who the “friend” was, and finally the double whammy of Luciano Pavarotti singing to the country-music-loving crowd Nessun Dorma from Puccini’s Turandot, which means “none shall sleep," an assertion that turned out to be an accurate prediction by the time people finally got home.
In terms of organization, it was a disaster, possibly because the GOP organizers wanted to save money or because they’re basically incompetent. At the peak of their frustration, several people were heard to say, “If this goes on, I’ll vote for Hillary Clinton” but immediately backtracked, lest someone take them seriously. “Wash your mouth out with soap” one mother told her young daughter, because there are some things, outrageous if not blasphemous, that you just don’t joke about.