CINCINNATI — Open throats, captive minds. Maybe 17,000 of each, deafening in different ways. Joy, fear, love, hate, fellowship. Unbridled, roaring nationalism. Shirts that said “JESUS IS MY SAVIOR, TRUMP IS MY PRESIDENT,” though it was hard to tell the difference here at Rally No. 64 of his presidency, on Day 923 of his first term.
About 15 minutes into his speech Thursday evening, Donald Trump riffed on one of his favorite topics: American “inner cities” and how they are utter hellholes.
“We can name one after the other, but I won’t do that,” Trump said. “Because I don’t want to be controversial.” He paused to let the crowd goad him into being controversial. “We want no controversy.” This was his first rally since his pillorying of Baltimore as “infested,” since his last audience chanted “send her back” in reference to Rep. Ilhan Omar (D-Minn.), the Somali American congresswoman.
Would he go there again? Would he go beyond? Would they? How racist was everyone feeling tonight?
When asked earlier in the day about indecent chants, outside the White House, Trump said: “I don’t know that you can stop people.”
Presently, onstage, the president pivoted to his left and looked into the crowd at the U.S. Bank Arena. His followers, reacting as one red-hatted organism, had detected an invasion: a few protesters who had unfurled a small banner that said “IMMIGRANTS BUILT AMERICA.” The organism’s immune system pulsed to life. People snatched at the banner, swarmed the protesters.
Trump sidestepped the microphone and addressed the fans closest to him, just off the stage. “Democrat mayor?” he asked them, hand beside his mouth, perhaps to block his audio. “Democrat mayor. Democrat?” When the slight infection was treated, the capacity crowd chanted “U-S-A.”
“Cincinnati, do you have a Democrat mayor?” Trump said at the microphone. “Well, that’s what happens.”
Yes, that’s what happens if you vote Democrat, or if a Democrat is in charge, or if anyone is in charge but Donald Trump in 2021: chaos, lawlessness, the slavery of socialism, epidemics of disease and drugs, criminal immigrants pillaging schools and hospitals, the slaughter of newborn babies by abortion doctors, pesky investigations of presidential wrongdoing by people such as Elijah E. Cummings (D-Md.), congressman from Baltimore and chairman of the House Oversight Committee.
Trump decided to go after Cummings again, without naming him, by comparing Baltimore’s homicide rate to entire Central American countries. His tone was that of a stand-up comic chiding the DMV for bad service.
“I believe it’s higher than — gimme a place that you think is pretty bad,” Trump said, breaking his teleprompter trance to start freestyling. “Gimme a place.” People shouted the names of American cities. People shouted locations they’d been conditioned to look down upon. “Pakistan,” shouted one man. “Afghanistan,” shouted another.
“I believe it’s higher than Afghanistan,” Trump said.
Oh, people had fun here! They were gleeful. They chanted “LOCK HER UP,” and turned to each other and smiled, moving and clapping as if they were at a Lynyrd Skynyrd concert. (“Free Bird” had played multiple times outside the arena to entertain the epic queue in the hot sun.) Pubescent boys wearing the Infowars logo, soccer moms in pink tops emblazoned with “Women for Trump,” a couple of rows of black supporters with T-shirts that said “TRUMP & Republicans ARE NOT RACIST,” a group of friends from Middletown (setting of the memoir “Hillbilly Elegy”) who’d chartered a limousine to make a night of it — they were so happy to spend hours here, in this hot hockey venue across the river from Kentucky, as the leader of the free world gave a sermon of digressive demagoguery and tell-it-like-it-isms. The president wasn’t racist, his people believed; he was an equal-opportunity counterpuncher. Some said they weren’t even here for the counterpunching. They were here for the sheer camaraderie, the energy, the excitement. It was validating for people. It was inspiring.
The president talks a lot about what he’s doing for the country. What is he doing for his followers?
Rewind for a moment, to about two hours before Trump’s entrance. It was the fifth rally for Steve and Tina Callahan, real estate agents from Springfield, Ohio. They were waiting in the first row of the second tier of seating, in attire patterned with the American flag, because they wanted to feel unity, to be around people with “common sense,” to see their hero in the flesh.
“He is sacrificing his life to save America from a new world order,” Tina said.
What if he is not reelected?
“God is real, and He’s told many people that Trump is going to serve eight years,” said Tina, a born-again Christian. “And Pence is going to serve eight years. And Pence’s vice president is going to serve eight years.”
Jennifer Heinlein, a patient-services specialist, loves how her 401(k) has swelled. She pays “heavily” for her health insurance but wants to keep it, and she worries that a Democrat would take it away. She pointed to her compatriots moving through the concourse in Trump-branded merchandise. “When I see people wearing all this,” Heinlein said, “it makes me a believer.”
Down on the floor of the arena, in the standing VIP section, was a woman named Michelle Sellati, wearing a shirt adorned with the letter “Q.” She was part of a noticeable contingent of rallygoers wearing the symbols of the QAnon conspiracy theory, which at least one FBI field office has identified as a domestic terrorist threat, according to a Yahoo News story published earlier in the day. Besides being a portal to uncertain revelations of a dubious nature, QAnon also helps explain the president’s foibles to those who see him as the author of living scripture.
“I wait for him to misspell or mispronounce something, and then I wait for my Serial Brain to decode,” said Sellati, referring to a YouTube channel that she says analyzes the missing letters in the president’s tweets — and the garbled words in the president’s mouth — for clues to what’s going to happen in the future.
What’s an example of something that’s happened, after a clue?
“The chemtrails,” Sellati said.
“The chemtrails are gone. Since July 4. Look at the sky. It’s beautiful.”
But we were inside. The absurd ballad “Memory,” from the absurd musical “Cats,” was blaring over the speakers at headache decibels.
IF YOU TOUCH ME, YOU’LL UNDERSTAND WHAT HAPPINESS IS.
“You had to suffer for a long time,” Trump said around Minute 38, “until I came along.” He was referring to the previous administration’s policy toward fossil fuels. His people nodded and applauded, as many miles away the Greenland ice sheet continued its historic melt: 197 billion tons of water, swept into the Atlantic Ocean over the past month, which scientists attribute to climate change’s growing impact on the Arctic.
But in this arena, among the believers, the future was rosy. Over an hour into his speech, the president declared that he would end the AIDS epidemic “shortly” and cure childhood cancer “very shortly.” There was moderate applause. The crowd was thinning; it had been a long day. But then, seconds later, he mentioned “the right to keep and bear arms.” Thunder. Rafter-shaking cheers. Standing. Screaming.
“Americans won the race to the moon,” Trump also said, “and we will now win the race to Mars.”
A new world. Sometimes it feels like we’re already there.