On Tuesday, after watching hip youngsters juggle dildos in protest of Texas’s new campus carry law (cocks not glocks!), I headed over to the Trump rally in east Austin. It’s a strange place for a Trump rally, and not just because it’s a blue island in a vast red sea. Austin’s unemployment rate checks in at 3.6 percent, its population growth rate—around 20 percent—is one of the highest in the country, and it’s also the safest of Texas’s big cities. It’s not exactly the place where you’d expect a depiction of the country as a crime-ridden, impoverished hellscape to be well received. But it mostly was, though you can probably chalk this up to the basic nature of campaign rallies.
I’ve been to three campaign rallies in Austin over the years, mostly as a curious observer. One was for John Kerry, another for Barack Obama, and finally, lucky me, for Donald Trump. These things are generally fact-free affairs, pep rallies for lonely people, or, in Trump’s case, a safe space for assholes. This is a longwinded way of saying that campaign rallies are hardly ever about arguments or evidence and more about affect—generate enthusiasm and blow off steam, that’s the name of the game.
Trump accomplished both in spades. Having seen lowlight video accounts of these rallies, I braced myself for the worst. There were a few shouts of “All Lives Matter” and screeching “Fuck Political Correctness!” cries here and there. Fine. Then there were well-worn “Lock Her Up” chants, and a few frat bros next to me came up with their own: “Fuck That Cunt.” Okay… Nothing, however, elated the crowd more than his call-and-response for who would pay for the wall: MEXICO!!!!!!!!! The recent Rubio-ization of Trump’s deportation policy didn’t seem to matter. The wall is good enough, and in any case nothing is more cathartic than rhetorically pummeling a country that is significantly poorer than yours.
There were gag-worthy moments aplenty at the rally, but they seemed a bit too well rehearsed. Teleprompter Trump, it turns out, is pretty boring: Obama is a disaster, Hillary is corrupt, and Trump is going to be “the greatest jobs president that God ever created.” (actual quote) He included his new tune: Black people, your lives are awful, vote for me! It was a practiced ruthlessness that got the expected response, but I was hoping to hear fresh material.
That said, there was one stunt that left noxious fumes. It came not from Trump but from a group of women he brought out on stage mid-speech. They were a selected group of mothers whose children were murdered by undocumented immigrants. (Appeal to Women: Check; Demonize Immigrants: Check) Their ghastly tragedies provoked audible gasps from the audience. One mother told the story of her son being tortured before his murder; another told the story of an immigrant with a lengthy criminal record whose final act was to drive into oncoming traffic, ultimately killing her son. Two of these mothers were actually immigrants (one said she was from Germany), but they both emphasized that they came here legally.
And that’s a point you hear constantly: they are not against immigrants or immigration, just against illegal immigration. Fair enough, but any suggestion that legal immigration be expanded leads someone like Trump to rise and claim that you want a red carpet welcome for drug dealers and rapists. You could note that the extremely limited, one-size-fits-all allotment system for green cards essentially guarantees perpetual unauthorized entry. You could point out that there’s no connection between immigration and crime. You could mention that there has been net out-migration the past several years. You could say all of these things and you wouldn’t be wrong, but you’d be wasting your time.
Again, campaign rallies—be they for Democrats, Republicans, Greens, or Lizard People—are not aimed at disseminating information but rather at producing feeling. The feeling here is that Americans are getting screwed over and killed by Mexicans and Muslims and the liberal establishment (politicians, professors, and the press) that protect them in the name of political correctness. One look at Breitbart’s courtship of the “alt-right” (a politically correct euphemism for white supremacy) and the Trump campaign’s embrace, if not outright merger, with them makes it clear that no one does identity politics quite as well as the American right.
Yet for all the chants and nastiness, the most palpable emotion I picked up on wasn’t anger or bitterness, it was an almost euphoric glee. Here was a place where you could say all these sorts of things and not only escape the scorn of polite society, but be celebrated with cheers from like-minded people. Trump liberated these people from the guilt typically drawn by such hyper-aggression against what’s foreign or different. It’s practically a convention of YouTube commenters. Do you hate Obama? Come to a Trump rally and get cheered for calling him a terrorist. Trump himself will even give you an assist by enunciating his middle name, or, when off the teleprompter, simply stating that he founded ISIS. This is what freedom feels like. Through Trump, Republicans have traded a dog whistle for a megaphone, and it feels liberating.
Like all emancipations, Trump’s liberation presupposes a people in need of emancipation, and it is precisely this sense of victimhood that allows Trump’s politics to thrive. To an outsider it’s all a bit counterintuitive. This is a political world in which the slaves that helped build the White House were housed and well fed (not so bad), but taxes and Obamacare are slavery (very bad). It’s also a world in which the world’s richest and most powerful country is constantly “losing” to countries like Mexico. Who would have thought that Mexico’s Zapatistas and the Republican presidential nominee would one day hold the same position on NAFTA—only to differ on what country was getting ripped off?
This is not all to say that these people should be dismissed, but rather to emphasize the profound weirdness of this ideological moment. Trump has at one point or another called for an increase of the federal minimum wage to “at least” $10 and to spend double what Clinton has proposed for an already ambitious infrastructure program. And, of course, he has come out against the former gospel of capitalism: globalization.
None of this, despite clear violation of free market orthodoxy, has mattered much. Those who banked their candidacy on their appeals to capitalism and small government were fundamentally out of step with the ideological moment. Marco Rubio’s paeans to free enterprise and markets fell flat; Jeb Bush’s championing of small government won over no one. For now, gone is the world in which the sentiment behind the term “job creators” can carry much moral weight. On the right, what gets votes is the wall, the Muslim ban, and “telling it like it is,” even when it’s mostly outrageous lies.
Ultimately, there’s not much gained analytically from attending an event like this one. You get a feel for the raw emotions at play but not much else. It’s creepy as hell, but it’s also American as hell. It’s also something we’ll have to reckon with for a long time. The carnival barker is less interesting than the carnival itself, and in the end, the carnival will be around long after the barker loses his voice.
Joel Suarez is a doctoral candidate in the History Department at Princeton University and ToM’s Chief Mexican Correspondent.