On Tuesday night, my daughter and her friends went down to Claremont, New Hampshire to see Donald Trump in action. She and her chums range from the not terribly political to those with the usual enthusiasms of youth, so they went mainly because Trump's a hot ticket, and we don't get a lot of those in the Granite State. Her only other candidate encounter this season was at the North Haverhill Fair last summer when Lindsey Graham pounced outside the 4-H barn, no doubt with an eye to recruiting her for one of his "rotating first ladies".
At any rate, after hearing my daughter's account of the night, my sons said they wanted to see Trump, too. I wasn't particularly enthusiastic, having wasted far too much of my time in New Hampshire on campaign events, going all the way back to the oxymoronic "Dole rallies" of 1996. But they persisted. So we checked out the schedule and discovered that he was due to be in Bernie Sanders' socialist fortress of Vermont on Thursday. Which is how we wound up crossing the Connecticut River and traversing the Green Mountain State, and eventually found ourselves in an unusually lively Burlington. Herewith, a few notes on what I saw:
~THE VENUE: When was the last time a GOP presidential candidate held (in the frantic run-up to Iowa and New Hampshire) an event in Vermont? Every fourth January, Republican campaigns are focused on the first caucus and the first primary states, as Bush, Rubio, Christie, Kasich, Huckabee, Fiorina et al are right now. But in fact the Green Mountain primary is on March 1st, and its delegates count as much as any other state's. In recent cycles, the American electoral system has diminished and degraded itself by retreating into turnout-model reductionism and seriously competing only over a handful of purple states. Even if he's only doing it as a massive head-fake, Trump understands the importance of symbolism: By going into Berniestan, he's saying he's going for every voter and he's happy to play down the other guy's half of the field.
~THE PROTESTS: On the closed block of Main Street outside the Flynn Theatre there was something of a carnival atmosphere. On the south side the thousands of Trump supporters snaked down the sidewalk and round the corner. On the north side the hundreds of protesters waved the usual signs: "DUMP TRUMP", "TRUMPISM IS FASCISM", "TRUMP: AMERICAN IDIOT", etc. Marginally more inventive were "TRUMP IS THE REAL TERRORIST" and the elliptical "TRUMP - THE OTHER WHITE MEAT". My older boy ran into high-school pals who were variously there to attend the rally and there to protest it. The media like to play up the anti-Trump demonstrations, but even this works to his benefit, since they come almost exclusively from the leaden clichĂ©s of college-debt social justice. For a six-year bachelor's degree in orientation studies, you'd think these fellows could work up something other than chants that were stale back when Pete Seeger was wondering where all the flowers went. A couple of straggle-bearded hipster dweebs wandered around waving "NO BORDER" signs, which would be a tougher sell in, say, downtown Cologne. A bossy girl of vaguely sapphic mien led us all in a "Black Lives Matter! Black Lives Matter!" chant, which is pretty funny on a street that's 99.99999999999 per cent white. If black lives matter that much, you'd think they could have bussed one in. As enthusiasm faltered, she segued deftly into "Don't give in to racist fear! Immigrants are welcome here!" I must say, as an immigrant myself, I've never found Vermont that welcoming, but perhaps I'm insufficiently exotic for their tastes.
There were a few ill advised ventures into wit. The local toupĂ©e salesman wandered around with a big sign recommending Trump try his range of non-flyaway wigs and weaves: This would have been a cuter joke six months ago, but this far in felt a bit like a bad rug, forced and awkward. Still, he was a pleasant chap, so we all pretended to be amused. The guy from the "Vermont Comedy Club" passed out free tickets inviting us to "Comb Over To A Real Show!" for "Trumprov" - a night of Trump improv comedy he'd scheduled to compete with the main event.
~THE MUSIC: In Claremont, my daughter had been bewildered by the songs played beforehand: a loop of Andrew Lloyd Webber's Phantom of the Opera and Cats alternating with Elton John's "Tiny Dancer" and "Rocket Man", occasionally punctuated by the Beatles' "Hey, Jude"... Listening to the same tape in Burlington, it occurred to me the unifying feature might be that they're all tenants of Trump's at Trump Tower (I know Andrew is, and Sir Elt), or it might just be that British pop stars are more easygoing about being associated with Republican candidates. You'll recall that Sam & Dave and Isaac Hayes told Bob Dole to quit using his version of "I'm A Soul Man" ("I'm A Dole Man") and Heart did the same re Sarah Palin and "Barracuda". Evidently, Andrew Lloyd Webber is more relaxed about the title song of Phantom, and certainly its descending haunted-house organ motif is unlike any other warm-up music for a presidential nominee: "The Phantom of the Op-e-ra is here ...inside your mind!" Very true.
~THE ESTABLISHMENT: The reserved seating at the front of these events is usually held for the big donors. Trump has no donors, so there are no money guys who've paid for access hogging the best seats. Instead, they were taken by folks who'd been backing him the longest. One couple were there because they were tootling along with a Trump sticker on the back of the car (something of a rare sight in Vermont) and at the stop sign an appreciative campaign staffer behind had leaped out and offered them VIP tickets. The only real VIP in the seats was a former finalist at "The Apprentice" whom Trump had asked along.
That said, while the donor class continues to hurl bazillion-dollar checks at Mike Murphy's "Right-to-Risibility" Bush campaign, at the state level of the GOP establishment Trump is not without supporters: He was introduced on stage by Deb Billado, the Chittenden County chair for the Vermont Republican Party (Chittenden is the state's most populous county - and the most Ben & Jerrified), and prowling the aisles you could spot the occasional New Hampshire state rep. So if, as some of the dottier rumors suggest, the Republican establishment is planning to run third-party if Trump gets the nomination, it's not clear how much of the state apparatus they'll be taking with them. "If Trump were the nominee, the GOP would cease to be," declares Michael Gerson. The state legislators and volunteers present on Thursday would disagree.
~BACKSTAGE: I did check out the action backstage, and I'll say this: It was unlike any other candidate event I've been to. By comparison with, say, presidential campaigns such as Lamar Alexander's or Orrin Hatch's, Trump is very lightly staffed, and entirely unmanaged. Twenty minutes before the event, backstage is usually a whirl of activity with minions pretending to look busy and frantically tippy-tapping away on their phones over some vital matter or other. Deputy speechwriters and assistant campaign managers bustle about saying things like, "Mike's seen the Egyptian Prime Minister's response to the Secretary of State, so we're working on a sentence to add to the nuclear-proliferation section." There's none of that around Trump. He's meandering around back there shooting the breeze, posing for pics, totally relaxed - and so are his press secretary and campaign manager, too. If you've seen any of those inside-the-campaign movies, from Robert Redford in The Candidate to George Clooney in Ides of March, it looks all wrong: There's far too few people, and there's none of the fake busyness.
And then the announcement: "Ladies and gentlemen, the next President of the United States, Donald J Trump..."
~THE SHOW: He's very good at this. Very good. On the same day as Trump's speech, Peter Shumlin, the colorless dullard serving as Vermont's governor, came to the State House in Montpelier to deliver his "State of the State" address. He required two prompters so he could do the Obama swivel-head like a guy with good seats at Wimbledon following the world's slowest centre-court rally. Two prompters! In the Vermont legislature! And for the same old generic boilerplate you forget as soon as you've heard it.
Trump has no prompters. He walks out, pulls a couple of pieces of folded paper from his pocket, and then starts talking. Somewhere in there is the germ of a stump speech, but it would bore him to do the same poll-tested focus-grouped thing night after night, so he basically riffs on whatever's on his mind. This can lead to some odd juxtapositions: One minute he's talking about the Iran deal, the next he detours into how Macy's stock is in the toilet since they dumped Trump ties. But in a strange way it all hangs together: It's both a political speech, and a simultaneous running commentary on his own campaign.
It's also hilarious. I've seen no end of really mediocre shows at the Flynn in the last quarter-century, and I would have to account this the best night's entertainment I've had there with the exception of the great jazz singer Dianne Reeves a few years back. He's way funnier than half the stand-up acts I've seen at the Juste pour rires comedy festival a couple of hours north in Montreal. And I can guarantee that he was funnier than any of the guys trying their hand at Trump Improv night at the Vermont Comedy Club a couple of blocks away. He has a natural comic timing.
Just to be non-partisan about this, the other day I was listening to Obama's gun-control photo-op at the White House, and he thanked Gabby Giffords, by explaining that her husband Mark's brother is an astronaut in outer space and he'd called just before Mark's last meeting at the White House but, not wishing to disturb the President, Mark didn't pick up. "Which made me feel kind of bad," said the President. "That's a long-distance call." As I was driving along, I remember thinking how brilliantly Obama delivered that line. He's not usually generous to others and he's too thin-skinned to be self-deprecating with respect to himself, but, when he wants to get laughs, he knows how to do it. Trump's is a different style: He's looser, and more freewheeling. He's not like Jeb - he doesn't need writers, and scripted lines; he has a natural instinct for where the comedy lies. He has a zest for the comedy of life.
To be sure, some of the gags can be a little - what's the word? - mean-spirited. The performance was interrupted by knots of protesters. "Throw 'em out!" barked Trump, after the first chants broke out. The second time it happened, he watched one of the security guys carefully picking up the heckler's coat. "Confiscate their coats," deadpanned Trump. "It's ten below zero outside." Third time it happened, he extended his coat riff: "We'll mail them back to them in a couple of weeks." On MSNBC, they apparently had a discussion on how Trump could be so outrageous as to demand the confiscation of private property. But in showbusiness this is what is known as a "joke". And in the theatre it lands: everyone's laughing and having a ball.
That's the point. I think it would help if every member of the pundit class had to attend a Trump rally before cranking out the usual shtick about how he's tapping into what Jeb called "angst and anger". Yes, Trump supporters are indignant (and right to be) about the bipartisan cartel's erasure of the southern border and their preference for unskilled Third World labor over their own citizenry, but "anger" is not the defining quality of a Trump night out. The candidate is clearly having the time of his life, and that's infectious, which is why his supporters are having a good time, too. Had Mitt campaigned like this, he'd be president. But he had no ability to connect with voters. Nor does Jeb ("I've been endorsed by another 27 has-beens") Bush.
~THE HORSE RACE: Trump always talks about the polls - or "the ratings", as he calls them. For example, he suggested it was time for Rand Paul to get out because his ratings are "horrible". Pundits complain that Trump spends time in his speeches scoffing at his rivals' numbers rather than laying out his ten-point plan for capital-gains tax reform. But these same pundits go on cable TV shows where the same polls are pored over in great detail - Carson's down five in Iowa, Christie's up three in New Hampshire. So presumably the media feel this horse-race stuff is of interest to their general audience. In that case, why shouldn't it be of interest to people so into it that they've spent all day lining up in freezing temperatures to see their preferred candidate? And Trump is funnier on the horse-race stuff than most of the professional analysts: He'd noticed in one poll that George Pataki had been at zero, but then he saw that next to the "0" was the "less than" symbol ("<"), and he wondered how that was even possible, even for George Pataki. That's a very endearing feature of his act: He's done Miss Universe and "The Apprentice" and he understands that the conventions of the nominating system are more ridiculous than either.
~MESSAGE DISCIPLINE: In fairness, he is (or was) actually competing against Pataki, and still is (just about) against Rand Paul. But he also did a couple of minutes on Martin O'Malley. He'd been talking about the crowds he's been getting, and he'd said that when he goes back home his wife asks him how the speech went and whether anyone was there. Because the cameras stay directly focused on him and never show the audience. And he thought at first this was because they were fixed and hammered into place - until a protester starts yelling and then suddenly the cameras are twisting around like pretzels, no matter what corner of the room they're in. Anyway, at some point, he mused on a Martin O'Malley rally at which apparently only one person showed up. So O'Malley talked with him one on one for an hour, and at the end a reporter asked the guy whether he would be supporting O'Malley. And the fellow said no.
And we all laughed, as did Trump.
Now, short of the mullahs nuking Hillary in Chappaqua and the following day Kim Jong-Un nuking Bernie in Burlington, there is no conceivable scenario in which Trump will be facing off against Martin O'Malley. So talking about him is a complete waste of time - and Karl Rove says that campaigning is all about the efficient use of the dwindling amount of time you have this close to Iowa and New Hampshire. So doing ten minutes of knee-slappers on Martin O'Malley is ten minutes you could have used to talk about Social Security reform that you'll never get back.
Maybe Rove is right. But as a practical matter it's led to the stilted robotic artificiality of the eternally on-message candidate - which is one of the things that normal people hate about politics. And Trump's messages are so clear that he doesn't have to "stay on" them. People get them instantly: On Thursday he did a little bit of audience participation. "Who's going to pay for the wall?" And everyone yelled back, "Mexico!" He may appear to be totally undisciplined, yet everyone's got the message. Likewise, his line on an end to Muslim immigration "until we can figure out what the hell's going on" is actually a subtle and very artfully poised way of putting it that generates huge applause. Trump has such a natural talent for "message" that it frees up plenty of time to do ten minutes of Martin O'Malley shtick.
~AUTHENTICITY: Traditionally in American politics the way you connect with voters is to pretend you're just as big a broken-down loser as they are. One recalls Lamar Alexander and his team flying in to Manchester, New Hampshire and just before touchdown changing out of their Brooks Brothers suits and button-down shirts into suspiciously pressed and unstained plaid. In this cycle, it's been John Kasich doing his slickly produced, soft-focus "son of a mailman" ads. So much presidential politicking is now complete bollocks, as rote and meaningless as English panto or Chinese opera conventions. Trump doesn't bother with any of that. Halfway through, he detoured into an aside about how he was now having to go around in an armored car, and how many rounds it could take before the window disintegrated, and how the security guys shove you in and let the reinforced door slam you in the ass. And the thing's ugly as hell. "If I win," sighed Trump, "I'll never ride in a Rolls-Royce ever again." And all around me guys who drive Chevy Silverados and women who drive Honda Civics roared with laughter. Usually, a candidate claims, like Clinton, to feel our pain, but, just for a moment there, we felt Trump's.
What is "authenticity" in contemporary politics? Is it a man who parlayed a routine Congressional career into a lucrative gig at Lehman Brothers presenting himself as the son of a mailman? Or is it a billionaire with a supermodel wife dropping the pretense that he's no different from you stump-toothed losers in the rusting double-wides? Trump's lack of pandering extends to America, too. He doesn't do the this-is-the-greatest-country-in-the-history-of-countries shtick that Mitt did last time round. He isn't promising, like Marco Rubio, a "second American century". His pitch is that the American dream is dead - which, for many Americans, it is. In 1980, Jimmy Carter's "malaise" was an aberration - a half-decade blip in three decades of post-war US prosperity that had enabled Americans with high school educations to lead middle-class lives in a three-bedroom house on a nice-sized lot in an agreeable neighborhood. In 2015, for many Americans, "malaise" is not a blip, but a permanent feature of life that has squeezed them out of the middle class. They're not in the mood for bromides about second American centuries: They'd like what's left of their own lifespan to be less worse.
That's the other quality on display: at certain points - for example, when Trump started talking about "beautiful Kate in San Francisco" being killed by an illegal immigrant - I turned around and saw men and women tearing up.
~IDEOLOGY: Is Trump "conservative"? Peggy Noonan:
Mr. Trump's supporters don't care if he's classically conservative. Doctrinal purity is not the story this year.
If the national GOP is a vehicle for ensuring that John Boehner, Mitch McConnell and Paul Ryan have a car and driver and a Gulf emir-sized retinue, then it's very effective. If it's a vehicle for advancing conservative principles, then it's a rusted-up lemon on cinder blocks. At an event with Newt Gingrich about a decade ago, one of my neighbors asked why the Republicans were so ineffectual. Newt said it was because they're still getting used to being the majority party. Somebody responded, "So the Iraqis are supposed to get the hang of self-government after six months, but the Republican Party still can't manage it after ten years?"
For many conservative voters, 2014 was the GOP's last chance, and they blew it. For those conservative voters whose priority is immigration, 2016 is America's last chance, and Trump's the only reason anyone's even talking about that.
~IT'S CHRISTMAS IN AMERICA: One of the loudest cheers came from another diversion in the midst of China trade talk or whatever: a pledge that under a Trump Administration people would be saying "Merry Christmas!" again. At a certain level it seems an odd thing to be talking about on January 7th *[SEE NOTE BELOW], but in a broader sense it resonates because people understand that at the municipal, school and county level the culture wars never stop. Christmas concerts become "winter" and "holiday" concerts. Department stores issue elaborate instructions on approved seasonal greetings. School districts declare the American flag culturally insensitive. "Cinco de Mayo" is a wonderfully diverse and inclusive way of celebrating the Mexican contribution to America, but nobody thinks of marking "Victoria Day" to help Canadians feel welcome. Powerline's John Hinderaker has a note on whether or not Trump is aware that he can't sign an executive order abolishing gun-free zones in American schoolhouses. Yes, he knows that. But he also knows that using the bully pulpit to push back against the remorseless one-way cultural warfare of the left is one of the most powerful tools a president has - and one that, for example, President Bush chose not to use, to disastrous effect.
~THE DIFFERENCE: Trump has already demonstrated that he knows how to change the conversation. Peggy Noonan:
He changed the debate on illegal immigration. He said he'd build a wall and close the border and as the months passed and his competitors saw his surge, they too were suddenly, clearly, aggressively for ending illegal immigration.
At least until they can see him off, and get back to talking about "comprehensive reform" and bringing people "out of the shadows" and how family values "don't stop at the Rio Grande". But until then Trump has so dramatically moved the needle on this subject that in The New York Times Thomas L Friedman is now calling for "controlling low-skilled immigration".
He moved the meter on the "war on women", too. Mrs Clinton pulled out the card, and Trump flung it right back in her face with her sleazy sociopath of a husband's four decades of abuse against vulnerable women. Hillary's now backed off.
On Thursday, because of Obama, gun control was in the news. Trump's pushing back on that, too:
You know what a gun-free zone is to a sicko? That's bait.
~THE WINNOWING: It's assumed by the GOP establishment that once the field narrows Trump will bump up against his natural ceiling. I think the opposite is true. Trump has essentially sat out these stupid ten-man TV debates and then resumed his rise once they're over. If it came down to a four- or three- or two-man race, the man I saw on Thursday night would be a formidable debate opponent. And I don't doubt he could hold his own against Hillary.
~THE END: What can stop Trump? The establishment want him gone, and are pinning their hopes on an alleged lack of precinct captains in the fiendishly difficult caucus state of Iowa. If that doesn't work, they're building a southern firewall. Peggy Noonan again:
In Virginia the state Republican Party wants a so-called loyalty oath in the March 1 presidential primary. Virginia is an open-primary stateâ€”any registered voter can vote in either primaryâ€”but the GOP apparently wants to discourage independents and Democrats from voting for Mr. Trump. So they've decided voters should sign a statement of affiliation with the GOP before they get to cast a ballot. This is so idiotic it's almost unbelievable. When Democrats and independents want to vote in your primary you should be happy. Politics is a game of addition! You want headlines that say "Massive GOP Turnout." You don't greet first-time voters with an oath but with cookies, ginger ale and balloons.
So, for all the post-2012 talk about outreach to Hispanics and gays, in the end the GOP would rather have the old, safe, depressed-turnout model than a bunch of first-time Republican voters coming in and monkeying about with their racket.
The headline in Friday's local paper read: "BURLINGTON TRUMPED". That's what his fans liked. In the liberal heart of a liberal state, the supporters streaming out of the Flynn Theatre, waving genially to the social-justice doofuses across the way, couldn't recall a night like it. Not in Vermont. In New Hampshire, sure. In South Carolina. But not in Vermont. It felt good to be taking it to the other side's turf. And they'd like a lot more of it between now and November.
*[UPDATE: See here, and scroll down.]