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Protestors gathered outside the Flynn Center for the Performing Arts in Burlington, Vermont, when GOP presidential candidate Donald Trump came to town on January 7. / Photograph: Terry J. Allen
On January 7, Donald Trump opened his rally in Burlington, Vermont, by telling those inside the Flynn Center for the Performing Arts how lucky they were to be there. There were still lines down the block, he said. “There’s, like, 20,000 people. We’re not going to fit everyone in.” Trump’s amazement was disingenuous. His campaign had released 20,000 free tickets, but the Flynn seats only 1,400.
I was one of the many whom Trump regrettably could not accommodate. When I arrived that afternoon, I found myself standing in the cold with a woman named Robin, who works for a super PAC backing Carly Fiorina. For both intellectual and professional reasons, Robin is trying to see every candidate speak live. She was the first Fiorina supporter I had met in the flesh, and I found her kind and thoughtful. I asked Robin what, given her well-above-average knowledge of all the Republican candidates, she was hoping to gain from seeing Trump in person. She gave me a bland answer about “energy” and “feel” and then added, with more verve, “According to what I saw on Facebook, I’m going to see a bunch of people walk out at 7:05.” She was talking about the liberals of Burlington, who were staging a protest and candlelight vigil up ahead. The rumor was that many of them were trying to get in just so they could walk out at the beginning of Trump’s speech.
And so it turned out that Robin and I were in line for much the same reason: to see what would happen when Trump showed up in Bernie Sanders’s backyard. Although there are conservatives, libertarians, and disaffected civic dropouts in Vermont—people whose votes will matter in the Republican primary—it was hard to believe Trump was just in Burlington to court ballots. He seemed also to be seeking a particular kind of reaction: a liberal backlash that has not just been futile in disrupting his campaign but has actually emerged as a source of its surprising success.
Trump is the Republican frontrunner, so when he is racist, chauvinistic, dishonest, or otherwise vile, responsible people condemn him. And yet it seems that this outrage only serves to further legitimize him in the minds of supporters and would-be supporters. Any criticism becomes a compliment if it originates in the opposition. When it was quickly revealed, for instance, that Trump’s first television ad featured footage not of Mexicans entering the United States, as implied, but rather of Moroccans crossing into Spain, many liberals felt they had scored an important “gotcha.” The campaign responded masterfully. “No shit it’s not the Mexican border,” said Trump’s campaign manager, the elegant Corey Lewandowski. “But that’s what our country is going to look like. This was one thousand percent on purpose.” Just like that, and the “liberal media” looks more concerned with taking down The Donald than protecting America’s borders—just as Trump’s partisans suspected.
• • •
After four hours of waiting, I was still in line. Trump began to speak, and Robin and I watched a live stream on our phones. As he settled into his address, Trump proved giddy over how many people had shown up to see him. Vermont “has a tendency to be a little bit liberal, a little bit rough,” he said. “I thought it would be a nice, soft evening, 500, 600 people—we’ll sit around a little fireside, we’ll talk. And then I hear CNN all day long saying, ‘This line is massive.’” (As with every Trump brag, this one came with a citation.) Then Trump began plowing through his agenda for the night: the threats of illegal immigration and Islamist terrorism, the failure of nuclear negotiations with Iran, widespread gun ownership as a lynchpin of national security, the recent tanking of Macy’s’ stock.
A pattern soon emerged. Trump would begin speaking, and someone from the crowd would launch a loud, one-person protest. Trump would belittle the protestor, have the person escorted out, and say some version of, “Where was I? Oh yeah, it’s going to be great.” The catch-22 of liberal backlash was in full view, lubricating Trump’s speech as it has any number of televised interviews and debate showdowns. When he leads with a repugnant idea, people instinctually push back. But then Trump gets to respond by defending himself from the attack—terrain on which he clearly excels—rather than being forced to elucidate the proposal under scrutiny. This has allowed Trump to run a kind of electoral Ponzi scheme, whereby his poll success forces his opponents to denounce him, which further legitimizes him for much of this disgruntled electorate, which helps his numbers. (In Burlington, as in many campaign stops, Trump opened with a detailed recap of his death grip on the polls.) The same cycle applies to Republican backlash. Data whiz Nate Silver and others point to Trump’s lack of elite insider support as evidence of his inevitable decline, but it may be that Trump’s powerful enemies will keep him at the top. It often looks like Trump is boldly betting on himself, but it might be more accurate to say that he is shorting the electorate’s faith in traditional politics.
Twenty minutes in, Trump was riffing on the military when he was interrupted by a protestor. When the dust settled he collected himself. “You know what I love about the protestors, though?” he said:
These protestors, they come in, and the only thing I like about them is that they—look at all of those cameras back there, look at them—everybody’s on television, but they never want to show the crowd. . . . And what happens is, when you have a protestor, it’s the only time that people learn how big these crowds are. Because we have 20,000 in Dallas, 30,000 in Mobile. In Iowa, in New Hampshire—we have the biggest crowds. In South Carolina, we’re packed. We’re going to be in Pensacola, Florida, next week. We’re going to have 20,000 people. And nobody ever knows. I go home to my wife—she says ‘Oh, you did well tonight. How was your speech, did you have many people?’ I said, ‘Many people? I had thousands! I had 15,000 people in Lowell, Massachusetts, the other night—you saw that—we set a record in the history of the arena!’ And she’ll say, ‘Did you have many people?’ And I’ll say, ‘Why do you ask?’ ‘Because they never show the crowd.’ And so that’s why I love protestors.
This was Trump distilled into a single spoken paragraph. It featured his data-driven megalomania, his transparent insecurity, his truly awesome understanding of media manipulation, and his undeniable foothold in this race.
But when it happened, Robin and I were still outside and had lost the feeling in our toes. I had massaged a hand-warmer so vigorously that it exploded in my mitten. The liberals of Burlington were obvious in their schadenfreude. When an older man, sporting Bernie pins in both English and Spanish, came to our part of the line to offer a primer on unions, I overcompensated with too-intense eye contact and a wide grin. Twenty minutes later, a young guy wandered through the crowd passing out green pamphlets and urging, “Say no to Islamaphobia.” “Say no to green paper!” spat back a woman from Plattsburgh, New York. She was using a walker and looked completely frozen underneath her pink “MAKE AMERICA GREAT AGAIN” beanie. Throughout the rally, people had been moving slowly into the Flynn, but as our wait drew on, we still could not see the auditorium from our place in line.
As the protestor walked away, a Trump supporter mocked her chanting with a deranged shriek and said something about ‘straitjacket time.’
I wondered how the people around me really felt about Trump in this moment— if they were even a tiny bit resentful of this man, who promises to make us sick of winning but gladly issues tickets to thousands of supporters he knows will wait outside all day and never get inside to see him (“It’s like ten degrees below zero outside,” he would later quip before asking security to confiscate a protestor’s coat.) But I didn’t ask any of them. They were on edge, in no need of further provocation.
Our little huddle grew colder and more dejected, and Trump’s supporters began testing their candidate’s rhetorical approach on their own detractors. A protestor walked up to us with a cardboard sign that read, in an apparent allusion to The Apprentice and Trump’s cult of celebrity, “TURN OFF YOUR TV.” A woman about ten people behind me, who earlier looked so obviously like a Bernie-loving Burlingtonian that I was stunned to now see her wearing a pin with Donald’s big orange face, leered at the sign. “None of us here have televisions,” she said, gesturing to her group and attacking the protestor on what I hoped was an intentionally hyper-literal level, “so why don’t you get the hell out of here.” As the protestor walked away, a Martin Shkrelli lookalike mocked her chanting with a deranged shriek and said something about “straitjacket time.” Soon after, another Bernie supporter came by with a sign taped to a hockey stick. A very lanky boy behind me called out, like Nelson Muntz from The Simpsons, “Ha-ha! That guy’s so poor that he couldn’t afford a normal stick for his sign.” It seemed immediately too late to point out that hockey sticks are expensive, while normal sticks are free and abundant on the ground, especially in Vermont. His joke killed with everyone around me.
• • •
On a recent episode of NPR’s On Point, host Tom Ashbrook asked conservative commentator David Frum, “If it were actually, one way or another, a Trump victory, what kind of policies would you expect?” “Ah . . . I . . . don’t know,” Frum shrugged. “And I don’t believe he knows.” Trump is an alleged champion of the blue-collar worker who won’t raise the minimum wage or protect universal healthcare. He is the Republican who won’t pander to Wall Street, and yet would seek the council of Carl Icahn at every opportunity. In Burlington he lamented that, if elected president and forced to ride in armored cars, he would “never see the inside of a Rolls-Royce again.” His is the most cynical kind of populism. He so understands the intensity of his supporters’ fears that all he has to do is repeat those fears back and call it politics. And as long as those supporters show up to be counted, Trump has all he wants.
At last I neared the door, and that is where my wait ended. I was tenth in line when they stopped letting people in. I shook Robin’s hand and went to thaw out in a bar and watch the rest of the rally. Trump had just been disturbed by another protestor, and he paused to relish the moment. “Honestly, they’re very rude,” he smirked. “But isn’t it more fun this way?”
Sam Rosen, previously an editorial assistant at Boston Review, works for Brown University's Center for the Study of Race and Ethnicity in America. His writing has appeared in New York magazine and GQ.
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