By Jonathon Van Maren
I’ve seen plenty of political rallies, and heard plenty of stump speeches. But nothing quite compares to the day I spent with my fiancée in Charleston, South Carolina, where the Republican Civil War was underway.
When we arrived at Charleston College, we discovered that Ted Cruz’s event with Fox News host Sean Hannity and “Duck Commander” Phil Robertson, who is apparently a significant person to many South Carolinians, was already packed full and overflowing. I snagged some of his campaign literature on the way to a little ‘50’s diner across the street, and Charmaine and I ordered some breakfast while chuckling at the idea that a constitutional lawyer and a duck hunter would have much to discuss.
I have to say, I’ll give Cruz this: He knows how to appeal to people like me. On his list of things a Cruz Administration would tackle on Day One, he included “Instruct the United States Department of Justice to investigate and prosecute Planned Parenthood’s abusive and illegal activities,” and “Inform the Department of Justice and the IRS and every other branch of federal government that the persecution of religious liberty is over.” There are plenty of Republicans who pay obligatory lip-service to these ideas here and there, sure. There aren’t many who nail down wide planks in the centre of their platform.
I’ve always been a bit bothered by the fact that it seems at times as if not a single other human being likes Cruz as a human being. But on the other hand, the Republicans in DC seem to get along with everyone like a House on fire, burning stacks of money merrily. Perhaps Douglas Wilson was right in his analysis of Cruz: “I don’t want to send a deal-maker to Washington. I don’t want someone who knows how to work both sides of the aisle. I want an Ostrogoth king dressed in furs with a spear of ash in his right hand and his well-worn copy of Hazlitt in the other. So to speak.”
After lunch, we headed down to a high school in North Charleston to see Senator Marco Rubio in action. We arrived over an hour early, but a line was already starting to form. An enormous C-Span bus was parked outside and the flag flapped at half mast, reminding me that Justice Antonin Scalia was lying in state in DC at the Supreme Court. The high stakes of Election 2016 had been ratcheted up even higher by his passing.
We struck up a conversation with a middle-aged couple behind us in line. She was a well-dressed, cheery brunette, and he wore a blue polo shirt and an enormous gray handlebar mustache. She was definitely a decided voter, she told us. Rubio all the way. We chatted about the state of the Republican primary for a bit. Everyone around us seemed to agree that Jeb Bush was a tragic figure—everyone liked him, and felt that he had definitely done a “good job” as governor of Florida. But this simply wasn’t his year. Right man, perhaps, wrong time—and a bit tone-deaf. With Trump mauling him for being “low energy” and “weak,” Jeb had spent the day campaigning near Charleston with his mother Barbara. At that point, Mustache revealed that he was torn between Rubio and Trump. His wife revealed that if he didn’t agree with her by the end of the rally, he would be sleeping outside. Her chuckle was menacingly cheery.
She then inquired of a fellow standing just behind us whether or not he was a decided voter. “I’m not a voter,” he replied with smile. “I’m from Israel. Very interested in politics.” Very interested, indeed. Upon further questioning, it turned out that he was Aron Shaviv, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s campaign manager. He liked Cruz, but thought that Rubio was the best choice. “For selfish reasons, of course. He has been the best, consistently and from the beginning, for Israel.”
I couldn’t resist. “So what do you think of our new Prime Minister Trudeau?” I asked him. He snorted and shook his head. “Very, very bad. Harper was our best friend in the world. Rock solid. Trudeau is a…is a disaster.” How about Obama? “Very bad for Israel. We are very much looking forward to the end of his presidency.”
When he began discussing the decline of the United States as a global superpower—in his mind, the specific point in time being when Obama refused to enforce his “red line” in Syria—the cheery woman turned her attention elsewhere. She, like many others in line, was here to be reassured.
Inside the high school, we were ushered into a gymnasium with folding chairs arranged around a raised platform backed by an enormous American flag. Brooks & Dunn’s Red Dirt Road was booming from a dozen speakers. The venue filled up quickly, and when South Carolina Governor Nikki Haley emerged, they gave her a rousing cheer. “We need to remind the Republicans who they are and what they were!” she called out unspecifically. After breezing through a list of things that Rubio would accomplish, she delivered what was clearly intended to be her applause-line: “And let’s have term limits for everyone in DC!”
Senator Tim Scott was next, the first black Republican senator elected from the South since 1881. With an enormous smile, he seemed in his element. “This was my high school,” he announced to roars of laughter, “and I think I was the first senator to fail civics!”
But in all seriousness, Scott said, tone changing, Rubio was the man to support for three reasons: He’d be a fantastic commander-in-chief. Scott knew this in part because he had a brother who was a colonel in the air force, and this brother very much disliked Obama. Rubio would also build the economy for the middle class, a promise so typical and so boring I almost yawned. Also, he would bring conservatism to a new generation of young voters who had never been attracted to it before. That one I could believe.
When Rubio emerged, looking surprisingly relaxed, the crowd surged to their feet as Scott’s cry of Rubioooooo died away. He launched right into his stump speech, talking fast. It was rapid-fire, and started a bit choppy. Sanders was a socialist. Clinton thought she was above the law. Obama consistently betrayed Israel—I couldn’t see Aron from where I was sitting, but I’m sure he nodded to that one.
It was his heart-felt values that I had liked about Rubio when I met him six years ago while he was running for the Senate, and it was his values that I liked best about his campaign, too. Pop culture was cramming decadence down our throat, he said to nods and affirming murmurs from the crowd. “Our rights,” he said earnestly, “come from an all-powerful God. If there is no God, where do our rights come from?” And when he declared that a Rubio Administration would work to protect every human life, the crowd rewarded him with a deafening standing ovation.
The funny thing about Rubio’s stump speech is that he’s obviously trying to channel Reagan, and he’s not doing that bad a job of it. He asked the veterans to stand up to applause. He promised to rebuild the military. He rattled off a list of foreign threats, including the “son of a dictator” in North Korea who “has never been told no,” and each time, promised that America can do better—that the twenty-first century was “custom-made for us.” I sensed a bit of skepticism in the crowd, even though most of them were waving signs declaring that Rubio could usher in a “New American Century.” His promises would sound unrealistic, even naïve coming from other candidates. From Rubio, even though I’m still skeptical of his optimism, you at least got the sense that he actually believed it.
The powerful part of his speech is when he talks about his family, who came to the United States—legally, of course—from Cuba. His dad worked at a bar in Miami Beach so his family could have a better life. His brother—21 years older than Marco—was a Green Beret. Rubio’s tone dripped with pride, and there was no sign of any rehearsed lines. Everywhere I looked, the crowd was listening intently to his story. This is where the power of Rubio’s narrative lies—not in shots at Sanders the Socialist, as woodenly humorous as they might be. The crowd rewarded him with his fourth standing ovation.
Just before the crowd dispersed, Fox News host Sean Hannity bounded out onto the stage. He must have driven over from the Cruz event. “Do you all watch Fox?” he asked with wide, confident smile. They all did. Hannity beckoned to his camera crew to begin his “LIVE from the Rubio Campaign in South Carolina!” broadcast, filling the commercial breaks with banter and a few jokes. He caught me almost off-guard when I was noticing that he looked a lot paunchier than I remembered, and he called out to laughter: “I look a lot skinnier in person, don’t I?”
It was only here that you could see that Rubio still smarted from the mauling Governor Chris Christie had given him in New Hampshire debate. He’d answer a question, highlighting Obama’s record, and then follow up hurriedly with, “I know people criticize me for repeating that point, but it’s true.” Hannity rushed to reassure him. “I agreed with you, actually.”
Charmaine and I headed out to the parking lot, and Aron asked if he could catch a ride. We were headed twenty minutes away to the Charleston Arena Convention where Donald J. Trump, billionaire mogul and runaway train, was hosting a mega-rally. I’ve been writing about Trump from approximately the time we all realized he wasn’t going to go away, I’ve analyzed footage from his reality show The Celebrity Apprentice, I’ve watched televised Trump rallies, and I still can’t quite figure out what people see in him. Mark Steyn says he’s hilarious. Ann Coulter has folded her entire career into his campaign, turning all the poison usually reserved for Democrats onto Trump’s opponents. And on the stage at the Convention Centre, the Lieutenant Governor of South Carolina was bellowing at a growing crowd that, “These times demand a leader, and I don’t care how long you live, we have never had a candidate so matched for the times!”
I won’t argue with him there, but I don’t think that means what he thinks it means.
The convention centre was packed. The music wasn’t just loud, it physically assaulted us. I think the first notes I wrote were actually vibrated out onto the page. An hour early, people were already piling up against the railing where Trump would emerge, readying their cameras. As the music pounded with indiscriminate drum beats, people throughout the crowd engaged in what I believe they thought was dancing, but more closely resembled flailing. An enormously obese man cut a swathe in the middle of the crowd by either dancing or quivering with excitement. Another paunchy fellow pushed through, sporting a Donald Trump wig.
Just before Trump emerged, some fellow took the stage to say a prayer, which felt out of place to say the least—but after all, this is the South Carolina primary. He prayed that God would deal with the 19 trillion-dollar debt, for Justice Antonin Scalia’s family, and for voters in South Carolina to make the right decision, which seemed to be, in his mind, voting for the thrice-married strip-club owner that hundreds of eager voters were awaiting with bated breath. A scrawny blonde in sky-high heels and a short dress teetered onto the podium to squawk out the National Anthem, trying to sound sensuous but coming off only as short on air. Someone recited the Pledge of Allegiance. And just as I was beginning to worry that we were going to experience a dramatic reading of all of America’s founding documents, the music began to crescendo. It sounded like a heavy-metal altar call at a mega-church. Just as it reached a fever-pitch, a voice smashed through the crowd: “LADIES AND GENTLEMEN, DONALD J. TRUMP!”
Flanked by four huge bodyguards who resembled turrets, Trump emerged from backstage, high-fiving those who had clung to the railing for hours to await his arrival. He smiled as a thousand cheers caressed his ego. Charmaine and I looked at each other with more than a little shock. Aron was looking half-bemused, half-stunned. People loved this guy. They thought he was a savior. It was absolutely nuts. A gaggle of old ladies just ahead of me were giggling and shaking like a dog waiting to be let outside to relieve himself. A hundred “The Silent Majority Stands With Trump” signs flapped ironically about. These people might be a lot of things, but silent they are not.
Trump reached the podium, and the stream-of-consciousness stump speech began, unlike anything I’d ever heard. There were no policy proposals, there was no narrative, Trump wasn’t even trying. He didn’t have any notes, he simply pulled the mic towards his mouth and starting riffing on things that irritated him. His chubby finger stabbed at the line of cameras at the back of the hall. “There’s the press. Look at them.” The crowd roared. They knew what was coming. “I’ve called the press so many names. So today, I’m going to be nice. I love the press.” He paused, trying to decide what to say next. He glanced up, and saw the ceiling. His finger stabbed upwards. “Do you know what that ceiling reminds me of? That wall we’re going to build.”
People had been waiting for it, and they went berserk. The excited old ladies nodded so hard I briefly worried that they would physically damage themselves, hugged each other and cackled. Trump smiled smugly, and chuckled. Aron chuckled. Israelis know the value of walls.
The speech went on for almost an hour. In New Hampshire, Trump announced, they’d won every category: “Rich, poor, fat, thin, all of them. Wonderful people. Beautiful people.” That was one common thread throughout Trump’s speech: All those who agreed with him were “great,” “wonderful,” and “high-quality.” Those who didn’t were something else entirely. Ted Cruz “lies more than any human being, ever.” Jeb Bush, “poor guy, doesn’t have a clue.” Apple, which is currently refusing to unlock the phone of the San Bernardino shooter for US law enforcement so as not to compromise their privacy technology, is “stupid. Why wouldn’t they want to do it?”
Trump didn’t have to explain how he was going to do anything, and the crowd didn’t ask him to. “We’re going to take care of our veterans, we know this,” he explained. On the Second Amendment, he assured everyone that he was on their side and would protect it: “Believe me.” Based on their hysterical cheering, it’s safe to say that they did. “They say I’m not conservative,” he told the crowd (“they” being conservatives), “But I’m more conservative on building a wall. And so many things.” The crowd lapped it up. A sign flapped above the mob: “Democrats for Trump—We Need A Leader, Too!”
He rambled, too. He talked about New Hampshire’s trees for a few minutes. “Beautiful trees, beautiful roadways. But I met with the people, and all they wanted to talk about was heroin!” Where was he going with this? “So I told them, we’re going to secure the southern border.” Oh right, the wall. Everyone cheered again. Also, Cruz was weak on torture, insofar as that he didn’t want to torture nearly enough people, unlike Trump, who “loved” waterboarding. Another cheer. At this point Trump told a story about General Pershing, who apparently summarily executed 49 Muslim terrorists in the Philippines with bullets dipped in pig’s blood. This was apparently a great and effective thing, and can be found in any history book. More cheers. “My numbers are so great. I’ve been in the center for every debate. Nice, right?” Trump! Trump! Trump!
With that, he waded into the crowd, announcing that, “America needs to start winning again!” As hundreds of people pressed towards him for selfies and signatures, Charmaine and I headed out into the darkening parking lot. The circus had arrived there, too. A bunch of fellows in white coveralls carrying signs announcing their “bowel movement” and depicting Trump as a steaming pile of feces (“Dump Trump!”) were facing off with a decidedly unamused group of rally attendees, who responded to the protestors with chants of Trump! Trump! Trump! And USA! USA! USA! Neither side seemed to be making much progress.
Nothing quite highlighted the Republican Civil War more starkly than contrasting a Rubio rally with the Trump carnival. At one, a life-long pro-life conservative accompanied by a star governor of Indian heritage and an African-American conservative senator laid out a plan for rebuilding Reagan’s big tent. It’s hard to believe Rubio would lose to Hillary, a nagging hangover from the ‘90’s that won’t go away until she’s dragged out of DC in handcuffs. On the other hand, you have a reality show star garnering the largest audiences seen in a generation, a carnival barker throwing out applause lines and vague ideas without any attempt to define them or explain how they’ll be implemented. Audiences love Trump, and Trump loves them back because he needs to be adored. And as I watched with more than a little shock, I had the nasty feeling that this sordid love affair was not going to end well.