Donald Trump recently came to Kentucky to get some strokes. He loves a good pep rally, so on the night of March 20 he disembarked from Air Force One to make a half mile limo ride to Freedom Hall in Louisville, Kentucky. The Trump circus had arrived. One enthusiastic fan had even created a Trump float for the occasion. It played “I’m a Yankee Doodle Dandy” -- the float was hitched to a monster pickup truck, one of many that filled the Kentucky Fairgrounds parking lot. About 15,000 people, most of them Kentuckians, went to hear the POTUS speak. Yours truly went along to check it all out, to see The Donald in action.
So much has happened these past two weeks that the rally in Louisville almost seems like ancient history. The Russian cloud continues to expand over the White House and now Mike Flynn, the fired former national security adviser, wants immunity to tell his story. Meanwhile, Devin Nunes has made himself the messenger many want to kill while the Senate investigative committee, led by Mark Warner (D Virginia) and Richard Burr (R North Carolina), has in contrast shown competence and purpose. Trump may be going down, but his speech in Louisville, with its blurring of the lines between campaign and governance, with its conspicuous populist appeal, was a reminder of how a sucker really is born nearly every millisecond.
While snaking through the cars and pickups in the parking lot, I kept my mouth shut and observed the Trump faithful. There were lots of families, lots of kids decked out in Trump regalia. They created a sea of red, white, and blue. Vendors were trying to sell ball caps, some of them camouflage caps, that bore the Trump slogan “Make America Great Again”. Almost all of these vendors were African-American. I got to talking with one man who was attending with his wife and three daughters. “How’s your day been buddy?” he asked me. We shot the shit for a few minutes, talking about important stuff like uncooperative colleagues, infuriating emails, and the heat of the tunnel that took us to Freedom Hall, Louisville’s old basketball arena. Then we lined up to empty our pockets and go through metal detectors, to get patted down while the German Shepherds sat at attention.
Getting to the seats inside was kind of a chore. The gates into the arena were choked with people and I was reminded of the discomfort of standing in the Stretford End and The Kop in the mid-eighties. One thing was abundantly clear: this was a rural crowd. Louisville is a city of about one million people, but these folks did not look like Louisvillians. They were country folk, people from out in the state. During the election in November 2016, 118 of Kentucky’s 120 counties threw their support behind Trump. These folks were at Freedom Hall to cheer on their champion, their boy.
The surreal event began to unfold. No panem, lots of circenses.
“Kentucky was the first state to declare for Donald Trump!” Kentucky’s governor Matt Bevin proudly declares from the speaker’s podium. Bevin has a nice haircut, perfect in fact, but in almost every other sense he’s a Trump acolyte, right down to his pesky refusal to pay taxes or reveal other details of his riches. Bevin receives loud cheers from the audience, most of which is still filing into the old basketball arena. Mitch McConnell isn’t so lucky. McConnell, the Senate majority leader from Kentucky, is introduced to an audible foot shuffle, even to a few boos. Wisely, he stays on stage for a whopping two minutes, promising the swelling crowd that the real celebrity is in route.
During the wait, the PA plays a loop of three songs: a Backstreet Boys number called “I Want it That Way” (there was a Kentuckian in that particular boy band) and two ancient songs by The Rolling Stones “Tell Me” and “Heart of Stone” with its refrain “You’ll never break this heart of stone. No no no, you’ll never break this heart of stone.”
Then at approximately 7:33 pm EDT, the moment we’d all been waiting for: the swell of anticipation, the collective hootin’ ‘n’ hollerin’, the curtain parting, and then . . . The Donald. His distinctive coiff glistens in the lights. He’s dressed in the blue suit, the red tie dangling below the belt. He waves and points and does his little turn on the catwalk. He stalks slowly to the podium where he bellows into the mic, “It’s good to be back in the Heartland!” Signs down on the floor, signs which read “Women for Trump” (in pink) and “Drain the Swamp”, bob up and down.
“We’re going to take care of our country first,” Trump declares to loud cheers. In a week when he hopes to push through a health care bill designed to repeal Obamacare and replace it with something even more convoluted, Trump has a set list and does not stray: fake media is the enemy of the people, quarterback Colin Kaepernick is an enemy of the people, a so-called judge (a bad, bad judge) is the worst kind of enemy of the people. A woman in the second tier, about 50 yards from me, throws a black banner over the rail, its message hard to read. She shouts and shakes it vigorously. A giant man dressed in a wife-beater shirt jumps up, runs over to the protester, grabs her hands and begins a tug-of-war. It’s not much of a contest. The ogre wrests control of the banner and chucks it over the rail to loud cheers from the fans. Two security officers try to grab the woman, but she manages to break free and runs to the rail where she shoots middle fingers at Trump. The officers regroup, grab her, and bundle her out of the arena.
Trump moves on to one of his greatest hits, his romantic Latin love song for Hispanics. “We’re going to build a wall, a great, great wall,” he reminds the crowd. Details are in short supply. He gets the best response from the chorus, the worm in the brain about how border crossing illegals (aka Mexicans and other Mexican type “bad hombres”) are “degenerates, predators, murderers, and killers” who “prey” on good, law-abiding Americans. He reminds us that these aliens -- all of them apparently -- are “poisoning our children with their drugs.” No fear, “They are being tracked down and thrown the Hell out of our country!” The crowd goes nuts.
In general the speech is much more slick than I anticipated. Practice has made Trump a pro, and some handlers have obviously convinced him to temper his improvisation. Given the Kentucky dominant crowd -- some Hoosiers from Mike Pence’s Indiana are there too -- Trump name drops the famous Scots-Irish trailblazer Daniel Boone. He also praises Henry Clay’s “American System”. On cue, he tries to make a connection to the Republican president Abraham Lincoln, the great Lincoln who was born in a log cabin near Hodgenville, Kentucky. Trump and Lincoln, of course, have nothing in common.
These allusions to Kentucky history fall on deaf ears and elicit next to no response; sadly, Kentuckians don’t know much about their own history. Nor are they fully cognizant of Kentucky’s traditional animosity for the enemies of native son Henry Clay, those Federalists along the eastern seaboard who were culturally attached to Europe, who had nothing but disdain for the rough-hewn pioneers of the First West: i.e. Kentucky and Tennessee. New Yorkers and other easterners have always taken Kentuckians for suckers. Trump leaves out that bit of history. He promises to bring coal jobs back to Kentucky and gives himself a pat on the back for signing an executive order that allows coal companies to dump debris from strip mining and MTR (Mountain Top Removal) into the streams of Appalachian Kentucky. When a working man jumps up to yell abuse at Trump for his bunk on coal, he too gets manhandled and escorted from the arena.
“We won’t be played for the fool,” Trump booms, “And we won’t be played for the sucker. Again!” These appeals to nationalism go over extremely well. The talk about Obamacare and how it’s going to collapse do not. The crowd gets a little restless and bored. A gentleman behind me says, “The Democrats done fucked up everything.” During the rally the same country boy nearly shatters my eardrum with his rendition of the Rebel Yell. I turn to see his response to Trump’s comments on health care, but he’s gone. He and his buddies have left the building.
Trump wraps up and repeats a pledge: “You’re going to get your country back again.” The signs bob up and down once more. It’s all pretty perfunctory. The men in suits and dark sunglasses with little devices in their ears scurry around Freedom Hall. The chief executive does a slow victory march down the catwalk. Then he disappears behind the curtain. The angelic English choir that provides the intro to The Stones’ “You Can’t Always Get What You Want” comes over the PA. My sister-in-law Teresa is trying to reach me on the cellphone. It’s a non-starter. Mick, Keef and their bandmates swamp the space with Let It Bleed’s closer: “I saw her today at the reception, in her glass was a bleeding man. She was practiced at the art of deception. Well I could tell by her blood-stained hands . . . You can’t always get what you want, but if you try sometimes, you just might find, you get what you need.”
Jammed up with the sheep waddling out of Freedom Hall, I finally emerge from a front door and try to find Teresa. Somehow, someway, I slip through a cordon of police and towering police horses that form a line between the Trump supporters leaving the arena and the vocal protesters grouped around a disused fountain. “You can’t go that way, buddy,” a policeman tells me. I’m confused and lost. Then someone behind me yells, “Michael!” It’s Teresa and a friend. They too are wrapping up a speech, more a debate I guess, with a jovial Trump supporter who shakes my hand and then disappears into the night.
A few days after the Louisville rally, Trump’s health care bill, sponsored by House majority leader Paul Ryan from Wisconsin, tanks. The bill was withdrawn from the floor before a humiliating vote could even be cast. Unfortunately for the president, pep rally attendees, his base, don’t get to vote on bills. In a republic, we have representatives for that kind of thing. Now Russian thug life and the mobster ways of its mobster oligarchs threaten to bring down Trump and his cabal of carnies and cronies. Recently, the American comic and political commentator Bill Maher opined, “Trump and his administration are sweating like whores in church.” Problem is they’re pimps. And pimps have no shame.