Inside Donald Trump’s Nevada triumph (from the British viewpoint)
US elections 2016 Wednesday 24 February 2016 10.50 EST
‘A cauldron of the baser instincts of humanity’: inside Donald Trump’s Nevada triumph
Ideology is almost beside the point at the Republican caucus in Nevada. Dave Schilling reports on how personality and temperament are swaying voters in this insane, apocalyptic election
There is a moment during Donald Trump’s effusive, ebullient victory speech, following his huge victory in Nevada, when he asks fellow hotel magnate Steve Wynn to stand up. Trump and Wynn are both bombastic personalities with a penchant for self-mythologizing. Trump says that he constantly reminds Wynn that the Trump International Hotel is the best in Las Vegas. On this one assertion, I cannot quibble with The Donald, having spent the past 48 hours staying there. Trump’s hotel doesn’t have a casino. You can’t smoke inside either. The ostentatious decor suits the man whose name adorns practically every inch of the 50-floor tower on Fashion Show Drive. It is all marble and gold, with crystal chandeliers and wood paneling. The whole place reeks of what I can only describe as a curious mix of embalming fluid and baby powder. It is, in short, a monument to all that is tacky and grandiose about America.
The hotel’s faux-chic styling is in stark contrast to the supporters, who stand in interminable queues for the opportunity to get a glimpse of their burnt-orange hero at Donald Trump’s pre-caucus rally on Monday.
The rally takes place in a quaint venue called the South Point Arena, an event space adjacent to a casino in Enterprise, Nevada, an area known as horse country that mostly caters to the rodeo crowd. Oversized photos of men in cowboy hats, and ads for fertilizer adorn the walls. The concession stands sell nachos, hot dogs, and flat soda pop.
A tractor with an American flag draped over it is near the stage from which Trump says he would like to punch a protester in the face as the man is escorted out of the building.
A supporter waits for Donald Trump to speak at Monday’s campaign rally
A supporter waits for Donald Trump to speak at Monday’s campaign rally. Photograph: John Locher/AP
It is worlds away from the overwhelming grandeur with which he typically associates himself, as memorialized by his Fashion Show Drive hotel. The Trump brand seems more than a little confused. Is he the populist hero giving voice to the blue-collar folks who feel lost in Barack Obama’s America? Or is he the man with a private jet and an overpriced collection of handbags on sale in the lobby of his hotel?
It doesn’t seem to matter to his supporters that Trump represents all the worst excesses of cheesy, heartless capitalism. It certainly doesn’t matter that, on his arrival before the opening of voting in Nevada on Tuesday – a state he later wins with a resounding victory – a group of activists from the Culinary Workers Union protest in front of the hotel over Trump’s unwillingness to negotiate with employees who recently voted to unionize. It’s all meaningless to Trump supporters, in no small part because they have banded together against a common enemy: the media.
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Follow us along the trail after a raucous caucus night in Nevada that saw Donald Trump put distance between himself and rivals Marco Rubio and Ted Cruz
Attending a Trump rally is a nervy thing for a journalist. Invariably, the Republican frontrunner will single out the cordoned-off media pen, pointing in our direction while declaring that we are mostly horrible people who are ruining the nation one word at a time. Apart from the incessant blaring out of Billy Joel’s Uptown Girl, diatribes against the media are the most common occurrences at Trump gatherings. They boo us in the pen. They boo Fox News host Megyn Kelly. “These are the most dishonest people, bad people,” Trump says. It’s taken as gospel that 80% of journalists are shrieking devil worshippers who want nothing more than to consume the souls of right-thinking individuals all over the country.
It is quite a feeling to be among a crowd of thousands who would gladly tear you to pieces, given the right circumstances. As Trump so callously tells one of the hecklers being escorted out of the rally, in the old days, he would have been taken out on a stretcher. The greying, overwhelmingly white audience might not actually be able to beat me up due to their age, but the spectre of menace is almost as potent as the real thing. “There’s not even a woman here my own age,” 28-year-old Timmy Lally, a documentary film-maker from Los Angeles tells me. Lally, bizarrely, considers himself undecided, despite his own fearful impression of the crowd. “I see a stadium full of racists,” he says. He is even more dubious of Trump’s potential as a world leader. “If people tell you he can’t run a hotel, how can he run a country?”
After a few hours of cowering in terror, I feel the need to unwind with a bit of classic Vegas entertainment. A Trump rally isn’t that much different from the average casino show. There is loud music, acrobatics (in the case of Trump, the rhetorical kind that make your head spin like a faulty amusement park ride), free-flowing alcohol, ponderous pomposity, and a towering crescendo that leaves you with a sense of either blissful euphoria or crippling depression. There are even people in costumes. I spot a man wearing an American revolution uniform, an off-duty Elvis impersonator, and Robert S Ensler, a working Donald Trump impersonator. Ensler was once a Dean Martin impersonator, but got too old for it and eventually hopped on to the Trump gravy train. I ask him if he has ever met Trump. “Four years ago, I saw him at a women’s Republican event. This is when he first was thinking about running for president. And he was very unpolitically correct, swore, gutter mouth. It was great. I loved it. Everyone went nuts for it. He saw me. He said: ‘I know you. You’re a good-looking guy.’”
Trump rallies, like Vegas itself, are a roiling cauldron of the baser instincts of humanity. Self-absorption, frustration, and unrequited yearning combine to create a circus of the desperate. I suppose the only difference between the Trump rally and the musical I see afterwards is that I don’t fear for my safety during Cirque du Soleil’s Michael Jackson ONE at the Mandalay Bay casino. In ONE, four squeaky nerds learn the power of dance through their discovery of relics owned by Michael Jackson – his single sparkly glove, a hat, shoes, and sunglasses. A jukebox revue of Jackson’s songs follows, accompanied by smoke machines, open flames, sparks, and ghastly video projections of the dead pop star. Throughout the show, the protagonists are accosted by fascistic paparazzi demons with cameras attached to their heads, who want nothing more than to steal the spirit of Jacko and, I guess, take pictures. After the protagonists triumph over the media through their spangled creativity and gratuitous crotch-grabbing, they are strapped into what resemble metal coffins and ascend to what I can only assume is heaven, or some other place where there are no journalists, like Malibu.
Even for the cost of a Vegas show ticket, I still can’t escape the disgust that meets the average journalist. Never mind that Jackson was accused of molesting numerous children or that Trump has no problem inciting violence at his rallies. The real villains here are the media, who want to talk about it in public. Going to Trump’s victory speech was not nearly as perilous as his rally, but that doesn’t mean I feel totally comfortable surrounded by people hyped up on lukewarm Budweiser and good cheer. Trump still finds the time to chastise the media for vilifying him and wishing for his electoral demise, lashing out at pundits who believe he is vulnerable if either Ted Cruz or Marco Rubio drops out. “If they could just take the other candidates and add ’em up,” he says mockingly above jeers from the adoring masses. Cruz people and Rubio people and everyone else will end up Trump supporters, he contends.
As he said at the previous night’s rally, reflecting on his victory in South Carolina, which followed his victory in New Hampshire, there is no one who doesn’t like him. “Actually, I won everything. I won short people, tall people. I won fat people, skinny people. I won highly educated, OK-educated, and practically-not-educated-at-all. I won the evangelicals big and I won the military.” We all love Trump, and Trump loves us, even the so-called “poorly educated”. He loves them too, as long as they keep voting for him in droves.
But scooping up his rivals’ supporters might not be as easy as Trump claims. I go to the Durango Hills Community Center YMCA for a Cruz rally the Monday before the caucus, to figure out what is keeping some Republicans from embracing the man who has wrested a lion’s share of the available delegates from his befuddled competitors.
A crowd of 100 or so Cruz people fills the modest gymnasium, patiently sitting through preliminary speakers such as former Fox News host Glenn Beck. Beck’s remarks meander from declaring that Hillary Clinton should be running for “president of cell block six” to a bizarre story about George Washington’s reluctant participation in the constitutional convention that produced the American system of government we tolerate today. Beck holds up a book that he says “confused him for a long time”. That book – not the Bible or a copy of the US constitution – is what he claims to be Washington’s personal copy of Don Quixote, which he says was purchased after the ratification of the nation’s governing document. That book, Beck says, carries some sort of special meaning for him, a meaning that he never quite got around to revealing to us by the time he was ushered off in favor of Cruz. The guest of honor’s speech is a combination of attacks on Trump and dorky aphorisms such as: “I don’t advise carrying money in your underwear” and “Pick up the phone and call your mom,” which might be useful information for a slothful college student. This is not the kind of soaring, inspiring material that catapults the average politician to power, nor is it the bellicose hectoring of his main rival. Still, what Cruz says inexplicably inspires some to action.
One 62-year-old Cruz supporter I meet at the YMCA, might find it difficult to toss her vote to Trump if her chosen candidate gives up his own personal quixotic journey. “He’s a narcissist. He’s had three wives and his wife [now] is a porno star.” It’sunfair to label Melania Trump a “porno star”, considering the sorts of actual porno one can consume on and around the Las Vegas Strip, but statements such as this are indicative of the animosity that many people on the Republican side feel toward Trump, even as he careens into their presidential nomination. Despite this, there are points of agreement that might give his campaign a bit of hope. “All of us hate the Muslims,” the woman says casually during our chat, as though this is an unassailable truth that I must agree with.
Ideology is almost beside the point with the people here in Nevada. Personality and temperament are what sway voters in this insane, apocalyptic election. Before Trump’s mortal enemy the media declare him the winner of the caucus, I speak to Tario Mills, a 19-year-old woman covered in tattoos. She came to the victory speech with her father. This is her first election and she is a firmly committed Trump voter. She wants to go into politics as a profession, but is concerned that her tattoos may make that difficult. “When Donald wants something, he’s going to fight for it. I need someone who’s going to fight for what I want too,” she says. When I ask which issue she cares about the most, she says LGBT rights. I mention that Trump’s not the most committed ally of the cause. “Hillary shifted in support of it. Maybe he will, too.” But what if he doesn’t? “Then he doesn’t do it, you know.” At this moment, I realise that there is a segment of the Trump base that doesn’t care what he says. They just trust him to be tough, like a surly father figure from whom you crave approval in between swats from a leather belt. “If I don’t agree with what he does, I’ll still love and support him.”
If it doesn’t matter what Trump believes, and if it doesn’t matter that he lives in a gold and marble palace while his employees earn less than a living wage, then he might just be unstoppable.