MYRTLE BEACH, South Carolina—All politicians, if they are any good at their craft, know the truth about human nature.
Donald Trump is very good, and he knows it better than most.
Trump stands alone on a long platform, surrounded by a rapturous throng. Below and behind him—sitting on bleachers and standing on the floor—they fill this city’s cavernous, yellow-beige convention center by the thousands. As Trump will shortly point out, there are a lot of other Republican presidential candidates, but none of them get crowds anything like this.
Trump raises an orange-pink hand like a waiter holding a tray. “They are not coming in from Syria,” he says. “We’re sending them back!” The crowd surges, whistles, cheers. “So many bad things are happening—they have sections of Paris where the police are afraid to go,” he continues. “Look at Belgium, the whole place is closed down! We can’t let it happen here, folks.”
Four months into his crazed foray into presidential politics, Trump is still winning this thing. And what could once be dismissed as a larkish piece of political performance art has seemingly turned into something darker. Pundits, even conservative ones, say that Trump resembles a fascist. The recent terrorist attacks in Paris, which some hoped would expose Trump’s shallowness, have instead strengthened him by intensifying people’s anger and fear. Trump has falsely claimed that thousands of Muslims cheered the 9/11 attacks from rooftops in New Jersey; he has declined to rule out a national database of Muslims. The other day, a reporter asked Trump if the things he was proposing weren’t just like what the Nazis did to the Jews. Trump replied, “You tell me.”
Some observers still think Trump’s support might be soft. Trump has dipped in the polls a couple of times, after a listless debate performance, for example. Perhaps the people who first glommed on to his celebrity got bored and drifted away. But if so, they didn’t find anybody else they liked. And they came back. And now, they are not leaving.
“I have got my mind made up, pretty much so,” says Michael Barnhill, a 67-year-old factory supervisor with a leathery complexion and yellow teeth. “The fact is, politicians have not done anything for our country in a lot of years.”
These people are not confused. They are sticking with Trump, the only candidate who gets it, who is man enough to show the enemy who’s boss.
Barnhill is wearing a button he just bought from a vendor outside the convention center. It says “TRUMP 2016: FINALLY SOMEONE WITH BALLS.”
They seem so nice, your friends and neighbors. Your fellow Americans.
“In today’s time, if I’m a white person who’s proud to be white, I’m a racist,” says 44-year-old Kevin Stubbs, a land surveyor who shared his Marlboro Reds with an African American T-shirt vendor on the way in. “Yet a minority can say that.”
“I do not feel safe,” says his fiancee, Loree Ballenberger, 42. “People are coming in across the border, and we have no idea where they are coming from.” She recently called her congressman to urge him to vote for a bill limiting Syrian refugees.
“I remember seeing Muslims around the world celebrating after 9/11,” says Chip Matthews, a 63-year-old retired carpentry teacher in glasses with tinted lenses. So what if it was the Mideast and not New Jersey? “The basic point, I think, is true,” he says.
“I look at the pictures of those refugees and they all look like able-bodied young men, 18 to 30 years old,” says his wife, Patrice Matthews, a 62-year-old retired school-district worker. Matthews doesn’t see why we have to be the ones to help these people. “It’s their country—they need to take it back,” she says.
I hear versions of the point about able-bodied young men from five different people. I hear, over and over again, that illegal immigration is the biggest problem we face. Almost everyone says their second-choice candidate is Ted Cruz, the senator from Texas; many express a wish that he and Trump would run on the same ticket.
Barnhill, the man with the “balls” button, says, “Like he says, people have got to abide by the law. And unfortunately, a lot of minorities don’t.”
Jay Alter, a 49-year-old computer programmer in a tweed blazer, is here with his 15-year-old son. “Just because he thinks illegal immigrants and terrorists should be deported doesn’t make him a racist,” he says. “He’s calling it as it is. You’ll never see CNN do that.”
“I grew up in Northern Virginia. I’m a big Washington Redskins fan for decades,” says 68-year-old Mike Long, a Navy vet and former defense contractor. “But all of a sudden you can’t say that anymore because it’s racist? It’s bullshit!”
“I’m against the anchor babies, and I’m against the Muslims,” says Kathy Parker, a tiny former elementary-school teacher with gold hoop earrings. “We can’t have churches in their countries—why should they have mosques in ours? He is the only one with the guts to speak out and say it.”
“We’re just tired of paying for people who don’t deserve to be here,” says Nina Lewis, a blue-eyed 33-year-old former sheriff’s deputy who is going back to school to be a veterinary technician. She has brought a giant handmade sign that says “TRUMP: FOR THE VOICE OF THE AMERICAN WORKING CLASS CITIZENS.” “He stands up for the blue-collar people everywhere. He speaks for us,” she says. There is no one else she would vote for.
These people aren’t skinheads. They don’t seem like jerks. Most of them are wearing jeans. There are guys with mullets and satin jackets, and well-groomed young men in blue blazers with gold buttons. There are people with babies and people with canes. There are women in plaid shirts and women in tight dresses and matrons with pearl earrings. There are trucker-hat versions of Trump’s famous Make America Great Again cap, and camo versions, and one in hunting-vest blaze orange. There are a lot of couples. They are, it is true, overwhelmingly white people. Do you have a problem with that?
The other night, at a Trump rally in Alabama, a black protester who shouted “Black lives matter!” was surrounded by white men who punched and kicked him. Far from apologizing for this, Trump is gloating about it: “What an obnoxious, terrible guy that was,” he tells the crowd in Myrtle Beach, who turn around and hiss at the press on his cue. In August, two Boston men said Trump inspired their vicious beating of a homeless Mexican immigrant. This week, a group of civil-rights protesters in Minneapolis was fired upon by four white men in masks and camouflage.
So, America, it seems we do not like each other very much right now. But is this a momentary phenomenon, a passing, mad-as-hell instant? Or is this the eternal darkness of the human heart?
Trump enters to Twisted Sister’s “We’re Not Gonna Take It,” because this whole thing is, at this point, way beyond parody. (“You’re so condescending/ Your gall is never-ending/ We don’t want nothin’, not a thing from you.”)
Someone must have suggested to Trump, presumably not flatteringly, that his racial-wedge strategy resembled Nixon’s coded appeals to the “silent majority.” Trump, rather than deny it, put it on his signs: They say, in red cursive letters, “the silent majority stands with Trump.”
I keep asking people what it means to them, and I can’t find anyone who gets the reference. “I think it means that there’s a lot of people who are afraid to speak their minds openly,” says 63-year-old Diane Rosa, who does not have that problem. She is wearing a cowboy hat covered in red sequins and silver stars.
“Wow, look at this crowd!” Trump says. He does a slow 360-degree rotation at his lectern, putting both thumbs up and displaying himself for the masses. “Our country is going to start winning again really, really soon. Really soon.”
Trump’s family is with him tonight, and he calls them up onstage: his wife, Melania; adult daughters Tiffany and Ivanka; his 9-year-old son, Barron; Ivanka’s husband Jared; Melania’s Slovenian parents. He summons Melania to the microphone. “Good evening,” she says, in her Slavic purr. “Isn’t he the best? He would be the best president ever! We love you!”
At another point, Trump brings a man from the audience onto the stage. Stocky and 40-something, he is wearing a blue suit, red tie, and shiny-blond wig. Trump calls out to his wife in the audience, “Are you happy with your husband?” After a beat: “She said yes! She fantasizes that he’s really the real Donald Trump!”
It is fun to be here. Even the reporters, to whose perfidy Trump devotes a substantial chunk of his speech, are having fun—you never know what Trump is going to say, and you get a lot of airtime. “Sometimes it’s ‘bomb the hell out of ISIS,’ sometimes it’s ‘bomb the crap out of them,’ sometimes it’s ‘bomb the shit out of them,’” one network correspondent tells me. “Last night was the first time he said ‘ass,’” in reference to waterboarding, which Trump says—“you bet your ass”—he would resume.
Despite all the negativity and fear, the energy in this room does not feel dark and aggressive and threatening. It doesn’t feel like a powder keg about to blow, a lynch mob about to rampage. It feels joyous.
“There is so much love in every room I go to,” Trump says, near the end of nearly an hour and a half of free-associative bombast, silly and sometimes offensive impressions, and insane pronouncements. “We want our country to be great again, and we know it can be done!”
Twisted Sister comes on again, and the people start filing out, pumped-up and smiling to each other. They file out past the pen where all the reporters are imprisoned—citing an unspecified Secret Service directive, the campaign has announced that reporters may not mingle with the crowd until Trump has left the building; one is escorted to the restroom while he is still working the rope line. (Last week, Trump’s campaign manager threatened to “blacklist” a CNN reporter who tried to leave the pen to film a protester.)
The people wave and make faces at the press as they go by. One gray-haired lady in a sweatshirt keeps pointing at her butt and sticking out her tongue at us as she ambles by. She has a savage look on her face.
This is the thing Trump knows: You can stand around fretting about truth and propriety and the danger of pandering to baser instincts.
Or you can give the people what they want.