EAU CLAIRE, Wis. — Listening to Donald Trump at one of his rallies is a lot different than seeing him on cable news or watching the back-and-forth at a GOP primary debate. Instead of sound bites, you get a long, impromptu ramble. Trump on stage, alone, without notes, for an hour.
If you’re not a Trump fan, the experience is rather like being trapped at the kitchen table with your curmudgeonly grandpa as he rants about the news of the day, pausing for long asides about his life. Every so often he cuts himself off in mid-sentence, hands waving—“They’re stupid! We have stupid people running our country!”
If you love Trump, this is exactly what you want to hear. It’s why you came to the rally. Here in the small west-central Wisconsin town of Eau Claire (pop. 65,883), Trump supporters stood in line for hours to get into Memorial High School Saturday night and listen to Trump rant for an hour. Those who got in were lucky. The auditorium only seats about 1,500, leaving thousands of people stranded outside in 30-degree weather and a stiff Wisconsin wind.
Inside, however, Trump’s fans were elated. They cheered at every applause line as Trump rambled from talking point to talking point. He opened by bashing “Lyin’ Ted”—Trump’s new nickname for Sen. Ted Cruz. “What does he hold high before he lies?” Trump asks the crowd. They shout back, “The Bible!” Trump nods. “He holds the Bible high, he puts the Bible down, and then he lies. Lyin’ Ted—and he’s not a very good liar, either. He always gets caught!”
The crowd laughs and Trump moves on to Gov. Scott Walker, criticizing him by citing a wildly exaggerated state jobless rate of 20 percent, as he has done elsewhere in Wisconsin. (The jobless rate here is 4.6 percent, less than the national average). When Trump gets around to the Iran deal, he rails against President Obama, shouting, “He’s like a baby—a baby!” The crowd goes wild.
Seeking Protection and Catharsis
At one point, a woman in the crowd screams, “I love you!” Trump says, “I love you too! That’s why I’m doing this—to protect you people!”
In the wake of recent terrorist attacks across the globe, protection has become a potent theme in Trump’s campaign. A pro-Trump ad that’s been airing here in recent days features a “concerned mother” bustling around the kitchen as she sends her kids off to school. “Sure, I get some grief when I say I’m voting for Donald Trump, but I want to protect my family,” she says. “Paris, San Bernardino, and now Brussels? I want a president that will keep us safe, and stop letting in dangerous people. And Trump will do that.”
The promise of protection also has a domestic angle. Evangelical voters, weary from what they see as a string of lost battles in the culture war, are turning to Trump for protection. But so are non-evangelicals. If nothing else, Trump says what he wants. Many Americans feel they can’t do that anymore, and hearing Trump violate the sacred cows of the Left inspires his supporters.
One man at the rally Saturday night tells me that’s why he’s supporting Trump. “More than anything else, he just says what he thinks, and if you don’t like it, fine. You don’t have to like it. But Trump doesn’t apologize for his views.”
Trump Is ‘Real,’ and Cruz Just Another Politician
Trump supporters here have told me repeatedly that they’re supporting Trump because they don’t trust the politicians—not even Cruz, who counts as part of the “establishment” because he’s in the Senate. Trump is aware of this perception, and played to it Saturday night: “Cruz is always complaining about the establishment. He’s in the Senate! There’s only a hundred of those guys!”
Cruz leads Trump by about seven points in the most recent Wisconsin polls and stands a decent chance of winning most of the state’s 42 delegates on Tuesday. But Cruz’s greatest weakness with people who are otherwise sympathetic to him is the perception that he’s just another politician captured by special interests, a member of the hated establishment.
One working-class couple tells me they agree with almost everything Cruz says, but don’t think he can change anything in Washington, D.C. The man worked for years in the local creameries and now works at a municipal-owned waste incinerator. He voted for Mitt Romney, John McCain, and George W. Bush in the last three presidential elections. But back in 1992, when he was in his early twenties, he voted for Ross Perot, and this time he’s voting for Trump.
He says he agrees with Cruz on a lot of things, and he supported Walker in his 2012 recall election. But, he says, the country needs a non-politician in the White House. His wife nods in agreement. She tells me she’s never voted in a presidential primary or general election, but on Tuesday she’s voting for Trump. “I like the way he talks,” she says. “He talks like us. He’s real.”
‘You Will Be So Proud of This Country Again’
Trump supporters aren’t just disillusioned with the political establishment, they’re angry about it. In exit polls from the March 8 primaries in Michigan and Mississippi, 32 and 40 percent of Republican voters, respectively, said they were angry at the federal government. Trump won 58 percent of those voters in Mississippi and 50 percent of them in Michigan. The numbers were similar in Illinois and Missouri and elsewhere.
Trump is tapping into that anger, and mining a vague and inchoate shame associated with it. Sometimes the anger and shame are associated with President Obama, sometimes with the political establishment in general. One of Trump’s favorite refrains, “We don’t win anymore,” is a tacit endorsement of this shame: it’s okay to be ashamed because our leaders act shamefully. We lose to everybody and they don’t care. Shame is the right response of decent people. So is anger. Our leaders don’t just betray us; they make us into fools. And we won’t be made into fools anymore.
Trump’s campaign slogan, “Make America Great Again,” is the answer to the anger and the shame. Trump is offering expiation. If you feel ashamed of your country, that’s okay. You should feel that way. We’re not great any more, after all. We have a lot to be ashamed of.
Maybe you even feel ashamed, a little, of your own situation, your job or lack of a job. Maybe it’s not what you wanted but it’s the best you can do with this economy. It’s better than a lot of people you know. It’s okay, under these circumstances, to be ashamed and angry. Trump tells you it’s not your fault. You didn’t do this—your stupid, corrupt leaders did. It’s a crime, what they’ve done. And they’ve been doing it for years.
Trump offers a way out, a path to redemption and pride. “You’re going to remember this evening as one of the greatest evenings of your life,” Trump says to the crowd at the end of the rally. “And when you vote on Tuesday you’ll remember it as one of the greatest votes of your life. And you’re going to be so proud of your president and you’re going to be so proud of your country.” He doesn’t say it, but he doesn’t have to: you’re going to be so proud of yourself, too.
“Go vote on Tuesday, and I promise you, you will be so proud of this country again,” Trump says. “You’re going to say, ‘That was a great day, when I voted for Donald Trump.’”