Over the last few months, a pattern has started to emerge in the 2016 presidential campaign. First, a new poll reveals that Donald Trump is leading the Republican primary field, that his momentum is growing, that his more than double that of his nearest rival. Then Trump says something outrageous—that illegal immigrants are "rapists" and "killers," that John McCain isn't really a war hero, that Megyn Kelly is on her period—and the chattering classes declare that his candidacy is effectively over. Because clearly Republican voters will reject this kind of erratic extremism, especially when they're directed at one of their own. Except then another poll comes out, and Trump's support has only gotten stronger.
It's tempting to dismiss all this as a fluke, a media bubble that's bound to pop sometime. True, there is virtually no way that Trump will end up winning anything, at least according to any one who analyzes politics for a living. And yes, the constant coverage of Trump's brash antics and outrageous rhetoric likely accounts for some of his popularity. But not all of it.
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The reality is, that brash and outrageous message is resonating with voters—millions of them. And that's what makes it so fascinating. Whether it's his billionaire populism, or the fact that its fun to have a reality TV star in an otherwise dull presidential race, there's something about Trump that's firing up voters in a way the Jeb Bushes and Scott Walkers of the world are not.
In an effort to get to figure out just what it is that makes people want to vote for Donald Trump, I headed out to a high school in Hampton, New Hampshire, a small beach town where the real-estate mogul was holding a rally Friday night.
By the time I got there, a long line is already saking down the driveway. I find a couple of ladies near the end, chatting cheerfully while they wait for The Donald to arrive, and asked what brought them out to the event. The women—Massachusetts real-estate agent Kathryn O'Brien, a real estate agent who owns a horse farm, and her friend Elise Graves, a retiree who described herself as a "chauffeur for grandchildren"— said they've been big fans of Trump, and drove up to New Hampshire to hear him speak. Both said they consider themselves conservatives.
Kathryn O'Brien is a Massachusetts real estate agent who owns a horse farm. She also supports Donald Trump. Photos by author
"Actually," Graves clarified, "I'm an Americanist. America first." When I asked her what that meant, she explained: "It means that we need to look out for ourselves, be charitable to others but take care of ourselves," she explained. The US, for example, spends too much in foreign aid, she said. "And Trump is for less government and I think that's what we need in this country right now—and more individual responsibility."
"Less socialism," O'Brien chimed in.
What they like most about Trump, though, is that he doesn't care what any one else thinks. "The average person can relate to him because he doesn't put so much effort into being politically correct that he doesn't say anything," O'Brien said. "So many people are so interested in being politically correct that you don't even know what they say. They say nothing, but they say it loudly."
A little further up the line, Cameron Demarche, a registered nurse who'd also driven up from Massachusetts to see Trump, echoed this idea. "Even though he says things people don't like to hear, it's truthful," she said. I ask her what Trump comments she's thinking of. "Well, he's insulted women, and I'm a woman—I'm a professional woman—and he hasn't insulted me," Demarche replied. "I like what he has to say. He's honest."
I'm slightly baffled, but the next thing Demarche says helps me understand why she, and many other Trump supporters, put so much value in the fact that their candidate is, for lack of a better word, an asshole.
"I can see him dealing with Putin, and not sitting there being wishy-washy," Demarche said. "Telling it just like it is and facing Putin like somebody should face Putin, and ISIS also."
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I hear variations of this again and again Friday night. Behind almost every policy issue is another sign of America's decline: Bridges and roads are crumbling because the US is spending too much money on foreign aid; American jobs are disappearing because Washington negotiated bad trade deals that benefit China and Mexico while America struggles; terrorism remains a threat because the US doesn't do enough to look after its own. And all of this is a result of US leaders who are just too nice—to politically correct. Trump, or at least the campaign caricature of himself that he's presented to voters, is the opposite: a tough guy who, as his campaign slogan promises, can "Make America Great Again."
Trump's signature issue, illegal immigration, falls squarely into this framework. If America was strong, it would have a strong border wall to protect them; if it was smart, it wouldn't have been outsmarted by the Mexican government, tricked into accepting anyone who manages to sneak across the border.
"I've had friends who came over here from other countries and went through legal means and went through all the right processes," said Tracy Bliss, a nurse in a Harley Davidson shirt who's come down from Maine to attend the rally. "And it's not right that they have to be threatened with deportation because a period wasn't in the right box on a piece of paper, and these people [undocumented immigrants]can just go walking right through and come right in."
"It's not how it should work," she added. "It's not how anybody else works."
Inside the auditorium, I'm seated next to Shirley Dustin, a New Hampshire retiree who volunteers at a charity for homeless veterans. When I asked her why she likes Trump, she responded with a litany of woes about the state of America. "We owe too much money to China. We can't take all of these people on welfare. Obama's given the country away. I used to be a proud American."
I asked why she's not feeling proud anymore. She responded with a wide-eyed look, as though the question is too stupid to even bother answering. People today, she explained, leave their hats on during the Pledge of Allegiance.
"Everything has changed," Dustin continued. "People don't know how to work, or they don't want to work. They want to go on the system... Everything's made in China."
In a tone of exasperated disbelief, she added that her 30-year-old granddaughter gives her old clothes away to poor Mexicans. Then she gave me that wide-eyed look again, as though she couldn't believe I was making her spell this out. "Take care of our own," she added.
After a couple of minutes of blasting country pop campaign music, Trump finally took the stage, promising the audience he'd be speaking off the cuff, because "if you're running for president, you should not be allowed to use a teleprompter." Then he launched into his stump speech, talking a lot about just how he is smart and rich and accomplished he is, taking special care to compare himself to his 2016 opponents.
"I can't say anything because Carly [Fiorina]'s a woman, and I don't want to be accused of being tough on her," he joked, to laughter from the audience. "I promised I would not say that she ran Hewlett-Packard into the ground, that she laid off tens of thousands of people and she got viciously fired. I said I will not say it, so I will not say it."
But the main thrust of Trump's talk is that American politicians are naïve, and that the US is being taken advantage of. "I don't know about you but I'm ready for a sledgehammer in the White House," Trump remarked, before going off on a long tangent about how the airports in Dubai and Qatar are superior to those in the states. Bringing it back to Mexico and China, and all of the factories that US companies have moved overseas, Trump explained: "Their leaders are sharper and more cunning than our leaders. They know what's going on. We don't make good deals."
Of course, Trump added, he loves Mexico. He loves China and Qatar and Dubai. If he thinks America is a particularly nice and fair place, that's precisely the problem: The country has fallen behind the rest of the world, and needs to get shrewder and meaner to catch up.
"Do we want nice people, or do we want horrible human beings?" he asked the audience. "I want horrible!"
As he wrapped up, Trump cited an earlier speech, in which he'd told the audience that "the American Dream is dead, but I'm going to make it bigger, better, and stronger than ever." The media, he complained, just reported the first part of the quote. But, he asked the audience, isn't it true? Don't a lot of us think the American Dream is dead? The room erupted in applause.
"But we are going to make our country great again," Trump concluded. "We are going to be respected by the world again and not laughed at like we're all a bunch of stupid people."
Livia Gershon is on Twitter.