HUNTINGTON, W.V.—Every day brings new drama, but the Trump Show’s themes remain the same. He’s come to tell his people that everyone else is wrong and they are right.
“The change you voted for is happening every single day,” he proclaims, underscoring each syllable with a raised hand, as the crowd bursts into cheers. Behind him, two signs hang in the rafters of this small arena:
PROMISES MADE, reads one.
PROMISES KEPT, reads the other.
Washington is torn between paralysis and alarm. The Congress is at odds with itself and its president. The special counsel’s investigation gets hotter and hotter, and has just been taken to a grand jury. There is talk of a constitutional crisis.
Yet the Trump Show goes on.
The presidency in crisis! How can this possibly be sustained? Where will it end? What is going to happen? But the answer is right in front of us: It’s happening right now, on an endless loop. This is what’s going to happen, day in and day out—nonstop chaos, plot twists and cliffhangers, a furious, embattled president who finds new ways to shock while never seeming to change.
The show goes on. The ratings are terrific! Trump keeps campaigning for the election that happened nine months ago, determined to keep that feeling alive.
He lashes out at the Congress, including his own party’s failed health-care vote: “The Republicans and Democrats let us down on that.”
He laments the Russia investigation: “A total fabrication.” It is, he says, “just an excuse for the greatest loss in the history of American politics. It just makes them feel better when they have nothing else to talk about. What the prosecutors should be looking at is Hillary Clinton’s 33,000 deleted emails.”
At that, the crowd erupts into a sustained roar, and the old, gleeful chants of “Lock her up!” can be heard.
The message to the faithful is clear enough: You are on the hook for this. An attack on me is an attack on you. To stop believing would be a betrayal.
“They’re trying to cheat you out of the leadership you want with a fake story that is demeaning to all of you,” he says. It’s us versus them, and them is everybody else.
Their T-shirts proudly proclaim their hatreds: TRUMPED THAT BITCH, DEPLORABLE ’N CHIEF, DEATH TO LIBERALS. A leering Trump head on the cartoon Calvin figure, pissing on a snowflake.
Outside, the protesters are massed on a corner, buffered by the riot police in their helmets and bulletproof vests. A middle-aged woman waves a HILLBILLIES AGAINST TRUMP sign as the afternoon’s summer storm clears.
The spectacle, by now, is deeply familiar. But it retains the power to shock.
This is the Trump show, the neverending Trump show, and we’re all still glued to our seats.
They love Trump here in Appalachia, as you may have heard.
Dispatches from Trump Country fill the newspapers every day, sounding a tautological refrain: Trump supporters support Trump! They are predictable to the point of parody: The boarded-up Main Streets, the down-on-their-luck working-class white people, the unwavering loyalty.
Why is this news? If anything, Trump’s hard core seems to be shrinking, not expanding. Somehow it was not news when a devoted core of true believers refused to abandon the last president. But news is the unexpected—man bites dog—and the idea that anyone would stand by this president must be continually explained to the befuddled readers of The New York Times and Washington Post.
West Virginia is lush and green this time of year, the sinuous ribbon of federally-funded highway snaking through its rolling hills. Huntington sits on the western edge of the state, across the river from Ohio and down the road from Kentucky. There’s a glassed-in furniture showroom in the lobby of the Big Sandy Superstore Arena, a stolid brick-red rectangle in the middle of downtown. The arena doesn’t host a lot of events these days, if it ever did: Before the Trump rally, the last one was a WWE Live SummerSlam three weeks back.
It is clear to Dick Woodard, a retiree who drove here two hours from Parkersburg, that Trump’s detractors are simply afraid of the threat he poses to their power. He is just about as mad at the Republicans as the Democrats these days, he tells me. “They need to get out of his way, all of them,” he says. “I think we should vote them all out.”
In the background, Trump’s determinedly eclectic soundtrack is playing full-blast. At the moment that means the high-pitched vibrato of “Memory,” from Cats, wafting incongruously through the popcorn-scented air.
Woodard thinks Trump is doing a great job. He would like to see the wall get built and health care get fixed. “Obamacare about killed us,” he says, before his wife finally became eligible for Medicare.
Woodard’s neighbor in the stands, a Church of Christ minister in sunglasses and a Fitbit, leans over to interrupt the interview. “Nothing he’s saying is original!” he teases his friend. “It’s all Fox News!”
I tell Woodard I’m curious why people come to a campaign rally for an election that’s already over. “It’s like a ballgame,” he says. “It makes you feel good to hear the things you agree with and be with like-minded people.” He pauses. “It’s like a ballgame, but I guess here you only have one team.”
They have come here, more or less, to be lied to: Trump, in his speech, will say, “We are building a wall on the Southern border,” which is not actually happening, though some preexisting fencing is being repaired. He will also claim that thousands more people were turned away outside, which isn’t true, and that coal jobs are “coming back strong,” though only about 1,000 coal jobs have been created during his tenure—a decrease from the previous administration’s pace.
One of the signs they’re waving tonight says “TRUMP DIGS COAL,” white letters on a black background. As Trump strides down the long catwalk to his lectern in the middle of the crowd, golden hair gleaming under the lights, he snatches one from a fan. He waves it and they cheer.
“The news pisses me off,” says Jerry Pullen, a 45-year-old local who’s sitting at the end of a row of wheelchairs and motorized scooters. He’s tired of the phony statistics, the negative tone. “I don’t think they should keep letting people into America when I’m unemployed,” he says. Raised a Democrat, Pullen dislikes both parties now; he only likes Trump.
I ask Pullen what Trump needs to accomplish to satisfy him, and he says, “Quit letting the Mexicans and Muslims in here. All the other foreign people, too. They’re terrorists. There’s too many people in this country—we’re overpopulated.” When he’s out on the street, he says, he can tell certain people are looking at him with contempt. “They hate me because I’m a white guy,” he says. “I can feel it.”
The sun is still out as they exit the arena around 8:30 p.m. Things are getting better in America every day, says JoAnn Lester, who worked at the coal mines until she was laid off a few years ago. “We can feel in our hearts that Trump does support us,” she says. “He won’t allow the immigrants in to take our jobs. He won’t allow MS-13 to kill us or Isis to destroy us. Everything America stands for, Trump stands for.”
Trump has a big win to brag about this evening—a major new addition to his team—and naturally it comes with a side of humiliation.
“We have a very, very large announcement, you understand?” he tells the crowd. “Large! Jim Justice—come on up, Jim. Look at this guy.”
The governor of West Virginia, who is indeed a large man, comes lumbering up to the lectern. A Democrat who used to be a Republican, he has decided to switch back to the GOP because of Trump—that’s the announcement.
The crowd seems indifferent at best as Justice begins to speak. A billionaire businessman who recently brought a tray of actual cow dung to show what he thought of his legislature’s budget plans, Justice says, “I can’t help you anymore as a Democratic governor.” Like Trump, he says, he doesn’t care about party—he just wants to get things done.
“What in the world is wrong with us as peoples?” Justice pleads. “Have we not heard enough about the Russians? I mean, to our God and heaven above! The stock market is at 22,000! We have hope!”
Trump’s most important quality, Justice says, is that he “has made us, as common, everyday Americans, feel good and be proud of who we are.”
Trump has been president for six months with not much to show for it. He was right, it turns out, when he said Washington was full of clowns, a bunch of politicians who had no idea what they were doing. He was just wrong, at least so far, about being able to fix it.
The most significant legislative achievement of the current Congress has been a bill that ties the president’s hands in international diplomacy. Trump responded with an angry counterpunch of a statement—“Congress could not even negotiate a health-care bill after seven years of talking”—but capitulated, signing the bill anyway. And then the House and Senate left for the summer. Sad!
But when you don’t have accomplishments, you still have identity to fall back on, and this more than anything is Trump’s refrain: We are a team, in this together, united by our shared blood and shared enemies.
“Our agenda rises above left and right,” he says. “It’s an agenda for all the people—especially the tens of millions of forgotten Americans. They’re not so forgotten anymore. And we will make sure you are never ignored again.”