Listening to Donald Trump speak is like walking into an ongoing conversation. It doesn’t matter where in his speech you start; it feels like he’s already in the middle of a thought on polls or the size of the crowd or some lowlife reporter, and he has just decided to open his mouth and let you in on it. At his Nashua, New Hampshire, rally on December 28, no one introduced him. He just sauntered onstage to Twisted Sister’s “We’re Not Gonna Take It”—the anthem of high school seniors everywhere—and grinned as the crowd chanted his name.
“This is great, I love it. I love it. I’ll tell you—you know, I missed—heh, heh. Thank you. Thank you,” Trump began from the podium set up at the Pennichuck Middle School gym. “We have got to get out and vote; remember that folks. No matter what’s going on in your life, if you’re depressed or you’re down, if you’re—whatever the hell is going on in your life—if you’ve lost your job like everybody else is losing their job, you have to get out, and you have to vote.”
And so it began.
I wound up at the rally because I was on vacation in Ogunquit, Maine, with two friends who also follow politics, and when we heard that Trump would be nearby, our curiosity got the better of us. When we arrived, at about 6:30 p.m. for a rally that was supposed to start at 7:00, supporters in Trump hats and Pats gear had already been in line for nearly two hours in 30-degree weather, talking Trump to pass the time. “He’ll definitely be the nominee,” the man behind me assured his group. The man in front of me showed off a photo of him and Trump from “before he started doing all these big rallies.”
By the time those of us at the end of the line made it in, we were herded to the overflow room, with a screen broadcasting podium-up from the main room. Trump would start soon, a man in a gray suit and a Trump-like New York accent told those of us in the surplus crowd. “He’s seeing some very important people right now,” the man said. Nods all around. And, the man said, Trump would even come see us in the overflow room after the main event.
I found out quickly after Trump started speaking (time: 7:12 p.m.) that there’s a catch about the overflow room: It’s hard to get hyped for a screen. The main room whooped while everyone around me stuck with clapping and chuckling. I’d describe it as—dare I say it?—low energy. But it gave me a chance to look around at the crowd. It was family night in Nashua. A father showed his two little girls Trump buttons, there was a lip-glossed tween crowd, parents with older children, and grandparents. Everyone I saw was white.
Most of the rally was loaded with Trump staples: polls (“they love me”), Muslims (“once they go, they’re gone”), and some version of national security (“the illegals”; those great negotiators, “the Persians”; the “great ratings” he and Vladimir Putin got on 60 Minutes). Over a pizza in Nashua later, my friend compared the experience to a Bruce Springsteen concert where everyone yelled out song requests. Only in Trump’s case, everyone (in the main room, anyway) screamed out favorite Trump lines or policy solutions: “A wall!” “Make America Great Again!” “U.-S.-A.! U.-S.-A.!” “Trump! Trump! Trump! Trump!” Even Trump himself, who seemed to think chanting his name was fabulous idea, joined right in, fist raised: “Trump! Trump! Trump! Trump!”
Interestingly, the top-billed story of the night in the media world—Trump’s 15-minute rant about the New Hampshire Union Leader’s Joe McQuaid (a “lowlife”)—was the one that played the worst with the crowd. The main room, from what I could tell listening to the stream, was silent. As for people in the overflow room, they just stared into space and shifted from foot to foot. The only spark of excitement in the main-room crowd during this rant was when Trump held up the Union Leader (“a piece of garbage”) and threw it into the crowd—which dove for it like a foul ball.
It took until almost 8:40—just under 20 minutes after he stopped speaking—for Trump to make his way into the overflow room. For the first time all night, the surplus crowd showed signs of life and pressed forward, cell phones raised. Trump spoke for a grand total of four minutes and, at 8:44, agreed to go “sign a few things.” Suddenly, everyone in the room seemed to have “Trump” signs.
“Donald, who’s gonna be your V.P.?” one man yelled.
“Who do you like?” Trump asked, brandishing a pen.
Trump didn’t say anything, but his face—eyebrows up, lips pursed—answered the question well enough.
“How about Bush?” someone else joked.
“Low-energy!” Trump shot back.
Jeb jokes all around.
One man kept shouting, “Merry Christmas” (no reaction). A woman who sidled up next to me yelled that Trump needed a female vice president (but received no reaction any of the three times she said it).
Three minutes later, at 8:47, he’d had enough of the stale-smelling room and the people pressing against each other to get to him. Trump waved, made his way back to the makeshift podium, and went out to his motorcade.
Trump is a master of the political pep rally. But I do have one piece of advice for his ground team: Do something about the soundtrack. When about 200 people have stood for well over an hour in a crammed spare room, waiting for the candidate to come and say just a few words while they chant his name over and over, blasting the Rolling Stones’ “You Can’t Always Get What You Want” isn’t a great choice.