We have a confession for you guys. Like all other sensible Aussies with ears, we have until now been at best skeptical and at worst terrified of a Donald Trump presidency. This is scandalous to hear, I know. In our writing, we have been really quite cruel to Mr Trump, lambasting everything from his sketchy financials to his creepily dictator-like tendencies to his penchant for harmless locker room sexual assault.
But when you see him speak in person, something strange and disturbing happens. His charisma really is electric. He owns the crowd with or without a teleprompter. And his hands are totally fine.
Before the trip we had got these “Aussies For Trump” tshirts printed as a joke. Again, shocking I know.
Having worn them to a few Pence rallies in the wealthier parts of North Carolina, we were fairly confident in our ability to blend in with Trump supporters as well as understand where they were coming from.
But when we left the swampy heat of Washington DC and travelled north into the drizzly town of Johnstown (population 20 000), we realised we had only just scratched the surface of who Donald Trump supporters are.
The rally itself was buzzing. The local hockey stadium was packed. I even saw a black guy there.
Johnstown had been a big steel town back in the day, and was actually the country’s biggest producer of barbed wire in the 19th Century (the more you know). Now, it seems like quite a sleepy town, and quite beautiful too. You can really see how manufacturing dwindling in the US would have hit a place like Johnstown fairly tough.
What stuck out to me was the more I hung around at Trump rallies and spoke to Trump supporters, the more their worldview seems to make sense, at least internally. You do get interested in what these people believe and why they believe it, and at the end of the day you can’t really argue with what is at the heart of their reasons. It’d be rude.
(I’m not high horsing by the way. I know that most of what we have done on this trip has been making fun of Trump supporters. I guess what I’m trying to do is criticise us for doing that without enough self examination.)
After all, who the hell am I to think I know what’s best for these people and their town? What do I know about having no work? I drink craft beer in inner-city Australian bars. What can I contribute to the conversation in Johnstown, PA? – He says as he writes an article about it.
This sense gets really pronounced when you hear Trump speak in person. His arguments are quite fascinating, in a car crash kind of way. He can influence the crowd so simply and with often with a great sense of humour.
But here’s where it gets creepy. At a few points during the speech he encouraged the crowd to boo and jeer at the media, fenced off behind a barrier in the middle of the room. That was probably the scariest part of the whole day, and I was thankful that although we were technically media we were somewhat undercover as part of the crowd.
Maybe this is the danger of the Trump phenomenon. It’s not that he speaks illogically (he does) or that he both takes advantage of and stokes the fire of anger and frustration that many Americans feel (he totally does). Lots of politicians do that.
But Trump is able to do those things at such a scale and with such ease that you end up fearing the situation you are in immediately, not just the vague future that his policies may bring about.
In any case, most Trump supporters aren’t nuts. It’s stupid and condescending to generalise them like that and lefties probably need to pull their head in and stick their empathy out a bit more.
These people are humans. Again, shocking, I know.
They might be wrong. They might be dangerous. They might elect a human Cheetos tornado as President. But we need to understand why if we are ever going to convince them not to.