AUSTIN — Donald Trump held a rally in Texas on Tuesday night, vexing political professionals who say he should’ve had the reliably red state locked up by now, freeing him to focus on swing states he needs to win, like Ohio and Florida. Worse, he staged a rally in one of the most Democratic counties in the state, which he has no chance of winning in November. If he wanted to shore up support in Texas, why go to Austin, a city former Texas Gov. Rick Perry once called a blueberry in the tomato soup that is Texas?
But Trump isn’t running a conventional campaign. He might not be running a campaign at all. Trump rallies, whether they’re in central Texas or rural Wisconsin, are not so much political rallies as they are celebrity appearances—reality TV episodes adorned with American flag bunting and campaign slogans. The drama comes, as it always does, when protesters interrupt the TV star, as if on cue, and incite the crowd to cathartic outrage.
Trump always stops midsentence when this happens, as it did several times Tuesday night at the Travis County Expo Center. He lets the moment percolate. The crowd realizes a protester is among them, a foreign pathogen in the blood, and reacts quickly, shouting and gesturing wildly to nearby police or security. They march in and parade the offender through the crowd to the exit. Trump steps to the mic and says something like, “Get ‘em outta here!” The crowd goes wild.
Something’s Not Right About Trump’s Campaign
It’s a show, in other words. A pretty good one, too, if you’re into that sort of thing. But is it the sort of thing that will net a majority of American voters in November? So far, national polls say no, not even close. Even in Texas, a recent survey by Public Policy Polling only had Trump ahead by 6 percent—a margin too slim by half, especially if Trump underperforms here. It’s possible that he will, especially if Hillary Clinton makes a lunge for the Lone Star State, which she might.
In that case, Trump will need to do more than run a reality TV road-show. Right now, that’s what his campaign appears to be. If you pay attention to the little things at his rallies, something is definitely off. For example, the official merchandise booth inside the rally Tuesday night was staffed by bright twenty-somethings wearing official Trump campaign T-shirts, as you might expect. You might also expect them to be local volunteers or campaign staffers, but they weren’t. They were employees of an event company in Austin.
One young woman told me that she and a number of her coworkers were called in that night to sell Trump campaign merch. She said she’s never worked a political rally before, didn’t even know her company did them. This weekend, for example, they’re catering a Fantasy Football event.
Outside the venue, a small army of vendors hock unofficial Trump campaign swag (the edgier stuff, Hillary in prison and whatnot). This supposed traveling band of merchant hangers-on has been a feature of Trump rallies everywhere, from Pennsylvania to Texas. But here too, something is off. I asked a woman working one of the merch tents outside the expo center if they go wherever the campaign goes, city to city and state to state. She said yes, “But we’re not really independent, we work for a nonprofit that’s supporting the campaign.” “Like a super PAC?” I asked. “Yeah, sort of.”
Trump Draws A Crowd, But Can He Draw Votes?
But if Trump rallies are not exactly political campaign events of the sort we’re used to, they at least draw in the crowds. The expo center, a 6,500-seat venue, had at least that many packed into the stands and onto the floor Tuesday night, with hundreds lined up waiting to get in after the event had begun. Although most of the attendees were white,* plenty of minorities, and even a few immigrants, were scattered throughout the stands. And they seemed to like Trump.
There was a 34-year-old rabbi who emigrated from England, voted in his first election in 2012 (for Romney), and agrees with Trump that you can’t have a country without borders. “Citizenship should cost something,” he told me, “otherwise it’s not worth anything.”
There was an Asian woman who kept shouting “Lock her up!” when Trump ran down the list of Hillary Clinton’s misdeeds. There was a Muslim couple, the woman in a full hijab and the man in an American flag-patterned button-down. And for as much as we’re told that Trump isn’t polling well with millennials, there were a lot of them in the crowd—some clearly still in high school, thinking they were cool as hell in their “Make American Great Again” hats.
So whatever the irregularities of Trump’s campaign apparatus, he draws a crowd—even in Austin, of all places. The question is, will he draw the votes? It’s one thing to come out to see a reality TV celebrity when his show rolls through town. It’s something else to be part of a political movement. It requires more than simply being entertained.
That could become a problem for Trump as the months wear on. It might be a problem already. Long before he finished his remarks Tuesday night, people started leaving. And not just a cluster of old people here and there. Hundreds of people were just casually walking out, like NBA fans whose hometown team is up by 30 points in the fourth quarter. They were happy enough with Trump, but they were going home. They were bored.
[CORRECTION: An earlier version of this article incorrectly stated the percentage of white residents in Travis County. The U.S. Census Bureau estimates it was 49.5 percent in 2015.]