On Thursday, President Donald Trump held a rally at the American Airlines Center in Dallas, the same site as his first rally ever in Texas. That was on September 14, 2015, approximately four years, one month, three days, and several centuries ago. At the time, I’m embarrassed to say now, I was as much baffled by the Trump phenomenon as concerned. The carnivalesque atmosphere I saw at the rally was reassuring. Peanut shells littered the ground, and people were pounding beer. Attendees ran from housewives who were devotees of The Apprentice to some goofy teens from Oklahoma who just wanted to see a celebrity in person. Though there were some more menacing types there too, my main takeaway was: Oh, this is a show.
And what a show it turned out to be! The last Trump rally of the 2016 election I attended, in Austin, was less fun. Something had changed. I wandered out of the press pen to talk to people, and a minder ran after me to push me back. “For my protection?” I asked, jokingly. “Yes,” she said, tersely. As the rally progressed and the candidate railed again and again at the Enemies of the People in the room, his acolytes took aim at the media pit. One older woman ambled over and started yelling—screaming, really—something in the nature of “fake news” or “lügenpresse.” That kind of thing. She kept going, exercising years of pent-up emotion and resentment, as a bunch of schlubby cameramen stared at her blankly. Well, this is bleak, I thought. At least it will be over soon.
There have been a lot of rallies between then and now. Each one has had its own features, but really, if you’ve seen one, you’ve seen them all. You know how you feel about this guy already, probably, and there’s little left to say about him. There was a moment in Trump’s speech on Thursday that seemed to encapsulate the unusual features of the president’s brain. Pointing to the media assembled in the back, Trump said he often sees the red lights on cameras that signal they’re recording turn off when he starts to talk bad about the press.
It’s a fun story, but it doesn’t make sense for a bunch of reasons, among them that cable news outlets love when Trump picks on them. It’s CNN’s whole business model. While it’s sort of interesting to watch in real time as Trump invents a story about his personal experiences from whole cloth, it doesn’t tell us anything about the president that we don’t already know, and it seems pointless to try to rebut. The whole thing is just kind of numbing.
Instead, in year five of what Lieutenant Governor Dan Patrick last night called the Trump “Revolution,” the most interesting thing about Trump is the effect he’s having on other people. That starts with his audience. You should go to a Trump rally if you want to see thousands of older conservative men swaying to music that includes, in no particular order, the Broadway standard “Memory” from Cats, “I Want It That Way” by the Backstreet Boys, and “Macho Man” and “Y.M.C.A.” by the Village People—the latter being a barely coded anthem about the culture of anonymous gay sex in 1970s New York. Texas conservatives really are dancing to Trump’s tune, even if they’re not hearing its actual meaning.
Texas Republicans, or at least elected officials, are privately uneasy. The backdrop to Trump’s visit is that his support here looks shaky. Democratic candidates are beating him in some head-to-head polls, and the more he tries to make his presence felt here, the more he puts local Republicans at risk. In the illicit recording of Dennis Bonnen that leaked to the public this week, the Texas House speaker offered that Trump was “killing us in urban-suburban districts,” adding that in the Dallas state House district represented by Angie Chen Button (a seat Republicans very much want to defend), polling showed Trump’s net approval rating 15 points underwater while Button was holding even.
Republicans have a tricky problem to solve. They can try to distance themselves from the president and emphasize their own accomplishments to try to win back suburban voters, or they can sign on for the president’s crusade. In Dallas, Trump was pushing the crusade. “At stake in this fight is the survival of American democracy itself,” he said, about the House’s impeachment investigations. “You know, I really don’t believe anymore that they love our country,” he said of Democrats.
He did not have much specifically to say to Texans. Playing some of the old GOP favorites, he claimed Democrats want to ban “guns,” “religion,” and “oil and gas,” and that he had done bigly things for the economy. But there were some odd numbers on his set list. He said Texas had “made a fortune” off the disaster relief aid he’d allowed the state to have, and he once again made fun of Texas senators John Cornyn and Ted Cruz, who were in attendance, for trying to get him to support $10 billion in funding for something like the Ike Dike. It was a stupid and audacious request for an outrageous amount of money, Trump said, for some “crazy thing.” (Whether or not the Ike Dike is a good idea, $10 billion is about one-seventieth of America’s annual military budget.)
Trump name-checked seven GOP representatives seeking re-election—Granger, Gohmert, Weber, Ratcliffe, Babin, Gooden, Wright—most of whom seemed to be in attendance. None of them come from contestable seats. They’re all-in for the crusade. So is Patrick, who gave one of the most unhinged speeches he’s ever given as Trump’s warm-up act.
“We did not have an election in 2016. We had a revolt,” Patrick told the crowd. “The revolution is only getting louder and larger!” The will of the People, as manifested through the Donald, had to lead—well, wherever it would lead. “The progressive left, they are not our opponents. They are our enemy,” he said, enemies that would would have to be repulsed as God’s enemies are smitten.
“Those people out there,” Patrick says, pointing at the press pen. “They have no idea what’s coming a year from now, because we in Texas and around this country will not stand by idly or quietly and let the progressive left,” and the socialists and communists, “take our country away from us.” It went on and on like this.
We live in a trickle-down political economy—the language and behavior normalized by the big dogs filters down to the little ones. Patrick, the little guv, has always had a bark louder than his bite. It was nonetheless unsettling to see him using the kind of rhetoric that leaders use in countries where everyone keeps a go-bag on hand in case they have to get on the move in the middle of the night. Patrick left the stage, and Frank Sinatra came on the booming arena speakers, singing “My Way,” the song that starts, “And now, the end is near…” One way or another, that’s surely true.