Donald Trump came a week ago to Ohio University Eastern as part of his campaign kickoff. I easily got a ticket online (the price is now getting his “Crooked Hillary” twitterfeeds) and easily walked from my class to the athletic building where he spoke in the gymnasium. If I felt a little queasy about possibly being mistaken for a supporter, it was also a chance to be part of “history."
|Trump walks onstage at Ohio University Eastern. I am right behind the woman holding up the cellphone.|
That morning, the beauty salon had chattered excitedly about Trump being in town, mostly because he was being endorsed by the beloved Bob Murray, the local billionaire coal miner who has been a vocal voice against Obama’s “war on coal.” The salon workers were abuzz with wishing they could attend the $100 a plate dinner for Trump that Murray was hosting. When I mentioned going to the Trump rally, I was admonished I might not get in—they do background checks on everyone, I was told—and that it might not be safe. Fights might break out. “I know some of the people who will be there,” my hairdresser warned darkly. “It may not be the right place for you.”
I set out after my class ended. I could have saved myself the bother of registering—while I had to go through a metal detector and security (the irony not lost—why are guns to be allowed anywhere except near the people who most advocate for letting anybody own guns?)—nobody checked my ticket.
Eastern Ohio is mostly white, but even I was surprised at how completely white the audience was. You do occasionally see blacks and Asians here, but none attended the Trump rally, perhaps unsurprisingly. I found a seat behind the stage where Trump would appear.
A man in plaid (I don’t know who) warmed up the crowd with some surprisingly populist rhetoric in which he said the following:
A country is more than a bank account. It is citizens. Being citizens means something.
Yes. He then went on to champion the citizen against the international corporations, and he got cheers. He then said:
People in power don’t want change now or in a thousand years.
This was followed by more cheers.
Next, our congressional representative, Republican Bill Johnson, spoke. He is running uncontested! How did that happen? He won his first election by the slightest of margins. Somebody has got to take on this man! Where are we, Democrats?
He had not much to say—why would he?—Trump is loathsome to his small government, low taxes, anti-citizen, Paul Ryan ideology, and he doesn’t have to earn any votes. He seemed surprised as he was leaving that people wanted to shake his hand, but gamely allowed his flesh to be touched by several members of the hoi poloi. Surely he could wash shortly thereafter.
Then Trump came on—a half hour early and I will give him credit for not forcing people to wait in a hot gym.
|Trump facing behind him, towards where I sat.|
But dear reader—and I couldn’t have been more than 30 feet away—this is the frightening monster we are supposed to fear and loath? He came across to me as a rambling old man. I just turned 58 myself, so am sensitive to issues of aging and ageism, but the thought that flashed across my mind was “is he senile?”
There were no fights, nothing fearful, nothing particularly inspiring, no Nuremburg rally vibes, just a meandering aged guy with a muddy voice squandering his chance to rouse a crowd hungry for anybody who will speak up for their sense of disenfranchisment so that they stop getting screwed. Trump, I am afraid, disappoints. He had an opportunity to arouse a crowd yearning for a leader—and instead, he rambled. He couldn’t connect. He couldn’t find his audience’s vibe. He was throwing out set phrases and familiar talking points as if not quite sure where he was—and hoping something would stick.
Is this the best we can do? This is the best the Republican party can come up with? This is what they are terrified of? As far as charisma and speaking ability to go, this man is a pale shadow of a Mussolini or a Hitler. Thank goodness—that’s good! We don't need a Hitler!—but I couldn’t help but be bemused at how much of a tempest this murky old man has aroused. He is Oz—really. Behind the curtain, nothing much.
|A polite crowd listens to Trump.|
That’s not to say his miscued speech wasn’t offensive and that he wouldn’t be dangerous in office, if only because in a fit of fogginess he could just push the wrong button to "make us great again." He rambled on about the need to waterboard, putting it in the context of strength and weakness, a Game of Thrones match up, though he has none of the heft of that show’s elderly conquerors. “They,” meaning ISIS, beheads its prisoners and burns them alive—and we worry about waterboarding? The crowd was politely interested and cheered the idea of getting rid of ISIS, but not with the greatest gusto.
Trump continued on semi-incoherently. “Something is going on that is really, really bad,” he said. “We have the movement.” He said he was just the messenger, but “a good one.”
The main cheers and boos came for economic policy: Nafta was loudly booed, rejecting TPP robustly cheered. Cheers came for building a wall, along with chants of “build the wall, build the wall.” People cheered as Trump said TPP was “a rape of our country done by wealthy people who want to take advantage of us.”
Trump meandered on about golf for a long time: he had recently returned from celebrating his son, Don Junior, opening a golf resort in Scotland that came. Trump didn’t play any golf while he was there. He didn’t even hold a golf club. He didn’t want anyone to photo him with a golf club in his hand, looking as if he were on vacation in the middle of his campaign. He was only in Scotland for a day, he said, to support his family. Surely, he asked, we all understood standing by your family. Wouldn’t you do the same? And who, he asked, as if amazed at his own feat, goes to Scotland just for a day? But he didn’t play any golf. None. He would have liked to but the campaign was more important. Obama, on the other hand, is always golfing rather than running the country. Which Trump would not be playing if he were elected.
Trump paused during this ramble about his no-golf playing to introduce his son. That was a mistake. This handsome younger man spoke clearly, concisely and coherently, and connected with the audience almost instantly as he talked of how grateful was to be part of the campaign. Any thought that a poor sound system might be the cause of Trump sounding muddled was put to rest. The young Trump may be the one to watch. Next to him, Trump looked all the more like a foggy, disconnected old man. A woman like him would never have gotten this far.
It was very hot in the gym and the crowd remained polite, maybe waiting for the energy that was clearly not going to erupt. I left early, weighing that nothing more was going to happen, and I didn’t want to get caught in the post-rally traffic jam.
In summary, I’m bemused. This is the threat to the Western world? I am also relieved: this old man, roundly spurned by the elites, doesn't appear to have the wherewithal to inspire the kind of populist following he needs to win an election.
I hope I am right.