My Donald Trump rally nightmare: Inside the reality TV spectacle and hellscape of our sad new politics

I went to South Carolina to see Donald Trump in action. It was more manipulative and cynical than you'd imagine

By Savannah Cox
February 14, 2016 3:59PM (UTC)
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(AP/John Bazemore)

The Salesman is on his way to Florence, South Carolina. Crowds drape the perimeter of the civic center, huddling together to stay warm while they wait. Shards of glass sparkle in the parking lot, and participants beam as they talk about what their candidate will do for America. A man calls out, “Bomb the shit out of ISIS!” The crowd, thickening by the minute, whoops in apparent agreement.

In many ways, the rally takes place before the Salesman even arrives. Enterprising eventgoers set up shop outside the civic center, offering their homemade wares to the highest bidder. One man displays his for-sale underwear, which read “Make America Great Again” on the rear. He says not to forget to check out his tie-dye shirts, and adds that he made all of these himself, that “Trump doesn’t get a penny of his profits,” and that’s “exactly the way [he likes] it.” Elsewhere, Hillary Clinton makes an appearance — usually in button form — wearing an orange pantsuit, her face partially obscured by prison cell bars.


A female vendor, who said she traveled to Florence from Sarasota, Florida, and is selling baseball caps that feature “The Donald” hair, tells me that she is voting for the Salesman because he is the one politician to say that if he makes a mistake, he will pay for it. She adds that this isn’t her first rally for the candidate, either. “We follow him everywhere,” she says, gesturing to her partner.

A man in a sombrero briefly steps out of line, addressing everyone and no one in particular when he says that the country is $40 trillion in debt — but it might be closer to $100 trillion, actually — and that his candidate is the only person who can help dig the country out of it. When asked why he’s sporting a sombrero, he says that approximately 40 percent of the Salesman’s voters are Mexicans, who are legal in this country, and so he doesn’t have a problem with them. He clutches his candidate’s doll — still in the box — and laughs when he presses a button and the figurine says “You’re fired” in the colicky brusqueness that so many of the candidate’s fans have come to love.

At 5 p.m. sharp, the civic center opens its doors to the public, and the crowd quickly files in, excited to see their star. “It’s like going to the movies,” one attendee says.


After a prayer, two songs, and words from Lt. Gov. Henry McMaster, the Salesman appears — and to the tune of The Beatles’ “Revolution.” He holds up his thumbs — the bread and wine of this holy communion — and commands to his crowd of thousands, “We are going to make America great again.” The Salesman then proceeds to praise himself for being the first to bemoan the menace of The Illegals, and thus “making something happen.” The audience does not respond. He then — and repeatedly — congratulates himself for being the only self-funded politician in the year’s presidential race. The people applaud.

The Salesman continues to riff on this theme in pursuit of more praise, and then ventures into the topic of Medicare drug price negotiation. He receives no applause, and so the Salesman begins to talk about churches, and how “Christianity is under siege.” He has received his desired reaction: A plaintive chorus of “Boo’s” reverberates throughout the auditorium. The Salesman, recognizing a winner when he sees it, proceeds to embed this into his pitch, using it to sculpt and sell his stances on immigration and ISIS to his believers, who at this point are increasingly responsive to his words. Politics, it would seem, is very similar to his business.

In the 1987 book “The Art of the Deal,” the Salesman writes that in order to seal a transaction, he engages in what he calls “truthful hyperbole,” which he describes as an “innocent form of exaggeration.” Essentially, the Salesman says, “I play to people’s fantasies…. People want to believe that something is the biggest and the greatest and the most spectacular.” He adds that he does this for one reason: effective promotion.


If the Florence rally is to serve as any kind of guide, his truthful hyperbole has succeeded in closing deals in the board room and, now, on the presidential campaign trail. An estimated 10,000 people attended the Salesman’s rally in Florence, with cars lining up for miles outside the civic center when the event started. Kids donned superhero capes along with lettered shirts that spelled the Salesman’s last name. Adults munched on popcorn as the Salesman talked about ISIS beheadings. In the same breath, guests would describe the event as “like seeing Chris Rock” and add that Trump was the only person who could “save” the country from impending doom. The event was spectacular, indeed.

And that’s precisely the problem. The spectacular images of Trump, and the “great” world he says he will offer his followers once elected, are just that: illusions, and incredibly powerful ones at that. In invoking the superlative in his proclamations, Trump has made his fans believe that a Clinton presidency means death — as echoed by so many in Florence that day — and that only Trump is endowed with the capacity to “make America great again.”


Of course, Trump cannot just wave a magic wand and enact a better America, but that’s not the point: what matters, and what he recognizes, is that he is the billionaire who — in speaking the language of his fans — appears that way. That’s not to say that Trump is alone in summoning the grandiose or illusory to win a vote; he simply does it the most blatantly. In Florence, for instance, Trump said that he would replace Obamacare with “something that’s going to be great.” He likewise quipped that he would hire the “top smartest” people for his cabinet, and that “nobody cares” about the country’s veterans except for him. In actuality, we know that not to be true, but Trump recognizes that actuality does not matter; rather, its representation does.

In "Society of the Spectacle," author Guy Debord writes that in the modern “spectacle” society, appearance — not authenticity — dominates reality. During this period, images of reality become real, and therefore useful tools in shaping social behaviors. Trump knew this back in the ’80s, when he wrote in the "Art of the Deal" about how one of his “highly successful and very well-known” painter friends told him how he could make tens of thousands of dollars in minutes. According to Trump, his friend proceeded to splash several cans of paint onto a canvas and say, “Well, that’s it. I’ve just earned 25 thousand dollars. Let’s go to lunch.” The point his friend was trying to make, Trump said, “was that plenty of collectors wouldn’t know the difference between his two-minute art and the paintings he really cares about.” The real interest, Trump said, was simply buying the artist’s name — or, to put it in Debord’s terms, obtaining part of the artist’s image.

That caliber of entrepreneurial cynicism is fine and good for selling a painting or closing a deal, but when translated to the political sphere — let alone one’s candidacy for the American presidency — the reality is that we’re not all art collectors. We need more than images. When Trump left Florence for dinner in New Hampshire, he left Florence behind. One of the people Trump left behind is a middle-aged man named Jeff, whom I met earlier that day at lunch. Of Trump, Jeff said he most admired the fact that Trump “didn’t give a flying fuck" about political correctness. However, that sentiment might apply to Jeff, too. After all, it’s the art of the deal.

Savannah Cox

Savannah Cox is the Managing Editor of All That Is Interesting. She holds a Master's Degree in International Relations, and works as a reporter/producer for DNAinfo, as well as a graduate researcher at The New School.

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