MANCHESTER, N.H. — If I had died on the icy roads of New Hampshire driving to or from Donald Trump’s big primary-eve rally in this city’s downtown hockey arena, at least my kids could console themselves that it was all for the cause of Making America Great Again. That was pretty much the attitude expressed by Trump himself toward the end of his speech, a free-associative Song of Himself panegyric delivered to a large but restless audience that clearly longed for something meatier.
Trump likes his campaign events to run with business-world efficiency, but he was more than half an hour late thanks to Monday’s unexpectedly heavy snowstorm and snarled traffic. After telling us that he needed to wrap things up briskly because road conditions were getting worse and he wanted us all to get home safely, he cracked wise in classic Donald fashion: “I don’t really care if you get hurt or not, but I want you to be OK tomorrow. I need you tomorrow. So if you’re gonna go out there and drive like a total maniac and get yourself hurt, at least wait until after you vote.”
That came after he had begun his address by expressing concern for some of his campaign workers who were reportedly stuck in the snow: “I just want to make sure they’re OK. If they’re not, I guess there’s nothing I can do about it.” He also urged his daughter, Ivanka, who is nearly nine months pregnant, to have her baby that night in New Hampshire. “If she has the baby tonight, that guarantees victory. Please, Ivanka! Have the baby tonight!” (He introduced her as “famous Ivanka, from ‘The Apprentice.’”) Ivanka delivered her usual canned remarks about how great her dad is, and made no promises about the arrival of the newest Trumpian spawn.
Yes, as you have probably heard by now he called Ted Cruz a “pussy,” or at least passed along that description from a woman in the audience. He was just being helpful! We couldn’t hear her clearly! Then he remembered the media furor in September after another New Hampshire audience member had said that Barack Obama was a Muslim and “not even an American” and Trump had declined to correct him. “Ma’am, you’re reprimanded right now,” he told Cruz Pussy Lady. “You’re reprimanded.” Then, turning to the crowd: “Can she stay?” Big cheer. “To the press, this is a serious reprimand.”
Words of caring and moral clarity, from our prospective A-hole-in-chief. It’s not exactly news that Trump’s sense of humor — I’m going to work from the hypothesis that all of this was meant in a waggish spirit — is belligerent, tone-deaf and thoroughly self-centered. I’m pretty sure that’s what people like about him. At breakfast in a southern New Hampshire diner on Monday, I sat with a bald-headed, muscular snowplow operator named Josh, who told me he planned to vote for Trump. “It’s all Trump,” he said. “None of the rest of those assholes are worth anything.” What issues were driving Josh’s vote? Not issues, he’s not interested in those. “Trump says exactly what he thinks, and he doesn’t give a fuck. At least you know where you stand with him.”
I’m grateful to Josh and his workmates across the state for doing such a good job clearing the roads for primary day, and I see no point in repeating the stuff he had to say about Hillary Clinton. You’ve heard it before. “She’s an evil woman” is the part I can print. Josh and his friend Stu are clearly regulars at Sammy J.’s, and the woman behind the counter was displeased with him: “Josh, that’s not nice. She’s somebody’s mother and grandmother.” Josh snorted as if he could think of various responses to this, and I have to agree that it’s a weak line of defense. Unbelievable as this seems, Donald Trump is various people’s father and grandfather as well, and that does not decrease the horror.
Much as I would like to claim that we are already past peak Trump, and that after Iowa his campaign trajectory is on the downward slope, everyone who has said that so far has been wrong. I have already bought into the narrative that many Republicans and independents in New Hampshire have responded strongly to Jeb Bush and John Kasich, the non-insane GOP candidates, and that they may do better than expected. But there’s no way around the fact that Trump got several thousand people to come out, driving in hazardous conditions through a storm that was much worse than predicted, simply to pre-celebrate his expected victory here on Tuesday. Some reporters immediately started tweeting that the arena was only about three-quarters full, but under the circumstances that’s pretty damn impressive.
I did get the feeling, however, that Trump’s upbeat, rambling speech in Manchester was not what these people had risked their lives and welfare for. His litany of non-specific promises to rebuild everything in America that is falling down and bring back all the jobs from Mexico and China received only mild applause. “We’re gonna have so many great things,” Trump said blissfully, and I suspect that even my snowplow friend Josh would agree that sounds like a load of hooey. Screw great things! We want to hear Donald unload on someone. The crowd seemed bored while Trump rattled on about how the people who booed him during Saturday night’s GOP debate were obviously “donors” and “special interests.” That stung, for whatever reason. They woke up when he complained about the prisoner swap to retrieve Sgt. Bowe Bergdahl, the former Taliban captive whom he called a “dirty, rotten traitor.”
I don’t think Trump uttered the word “Muslims” even once on Monday. That particular theme has receded, although he repeated the historically illiterate claim that ISIS was more horrible than anything seen in the world “since medieval times.” (Does he mean the theme restaurant, or the actual Middle Ages?) Right, because there has been no mass murder and no outbreaks of genocidal ethnic or religious violence over the last 500 years. That was the one moment where I went beyond “this is a buffoon, riffing about whatever stupid thing comes into his mind” and into “why is someone actually allowed to say that?”
Granted, Trump’s conception of ISIS is limited to “If you’re Christian, your head comes off. If you’re not Christian, your head comes off.” And he presumably has no idea that ISIS has killed many times more Muslims than people of other faiths, or would dismiss that as some politically correct fiction. But to suggest that this small group of murderous crazies ranks anywhere near the Top 100 in terms of Historical Atrocities of Recent History, or that they pose a major threat to the world’s greatest military superpower is just … I mean, blinkered or asinine or delusional doesn’t capture it. It’s a big fat whopping lie being used to lure us into yet more terrible decisions, and not just by Trump.
If citizens had guns in Paris, Trump said, and “bullets had been flying both ways” during the recent ISIS attack there, that dreadful evening might have had a different outcome. Well, maybe. It’s also true that despite considerable social disorder in recent years, the murder rate in France is three to four times lower than in the United States. Fact-checking Donald Trump is a pointless task, I realize, but the Republican obsession with the Second Amendment rests on this tradeoff. Large numbers of Americans are willing to accept a much higher risk of random death in exchange for the Clint Eastwood fantasy that when the dangerous brown-skinned people come for your womenfolk and your big-screen TV, you’ll be ready. That’s all pretty obvious, but we probably don’t say it often enough.
There’s always a temptation for people like me to say that the crowd in the Verizon Wireless Arena wanted Trump to go full Nuremberg on them, blood and soil and racial purity, and were a little bummed out that he didn’t go there. But I can’t read minds and I don’t know that. I didn’t get that vibe from Josh in the diner, who despite his deep Hillary-hate struck me as a good-natured guy who believes, with considerable justification, that no one in national politics speaks for him. I could have told him that I thought the whole Trump thing was an infantile fantasy, in which the powerless imagine a leader of unlimited power, and that there was at least some chance that one of the real-world candidates (even Hillary!) might do something to improve his living conditions incrementally. But me in the hospital and Josh in jail didn’t seem like a constructive ending to our breakfast.
Trump didn’t mention his plan to bar Muslims from entering the country during his Manchester speech, but he did not neglect the wall. Boy, does his audience love that wall. It’s almost a shame, from a spectacle point of view, that Pink Floyd frontman Roger Waters loathes Trump and has banned him from playing “The Wall” at rallies. In this meta-wall period of the campaign, Trump uses call-and-response. “Who’s gonna build that wall?” he demands. “Mexico!” everyone shouts. “Yesterday we heard the head of Mexico say, ‘Please tell Mr. Trump there’s no way we’re paying for that wall,’” Trump continued. (It was actually former Mexican President Felipe Calderón.) “Well, the wall’s just gonna get bigger if he has that attitude!”
Like I said, infantile fantasy. The wall might as well be infinitely yu-u-ge, since it will never exist. I don’t think President Trump will happen either but I’m back to believing he will win pretty big in New Hampshire and, hey, famous last words. If he blows apart the Republican Party or the entire political system along the way to whatever disastrous conclusion, it kinda feels like we had it coming. When I told Josh in the diner that I was more of a columnist than a political reporter, he said, “So you’re just here to take it all in.” That’s right, I said. I might even write about talking to him. He laughed. “Don’t do that, man. That’s gonna be one shitty column.”