COLUMBIA, SOUTH CAROLINA – The fight is going when I get there.
It’s the fourth confrontation I’ve seen since stepping foot inside the Koger Center for the Arts on the University of South Carolina’s campus. By the elevators, just past the college Republicans handing out free Trump t-shirts and Trump bumper stickers and Trump buttons, a man in a yellow polo and khakis leans forward to invade a man in a white undershirt and jeans’ face. Another by the doors, where volunteers in red lanyards corral streams of well-tanned and well-coiffed attendees to their seat. This pair arguing the merits of the word “illegals.”
Inside the theater, the argument is already heated. An usher points me to the open seat between them, surprising both men. The man in a sweater with a straw hat asks if I’d switch seats and I do, placing me next to the insurance salesman whose phone background is a glamour photo of his wife with the words THE HOTTEST surrounding her like magazine print.
“I’ve just never seen anger like this before,” the man with the straw hat says.
The other man shakes his head: “Then you’ve been living in a cloud.”
I listen. Straw hat is from the New York Times and makes the mistake of letting the man know.
“I don’t know what it’s like in New York,” the man says, pronouncing the city’s name like it tastes bad in his mouth, “but here, we’ve got a lot to be angry about.”
“I’m not telling you there isn’t–” the correspondent says.
“Well,” the man interrupts, “I’m just saying, maybe, in New York, there’s nothing to be angry about. Maybe that’s what it’s like when you’re living in a cloud.”
A few minutes later the correspondent excuses himself and seeks a seat elsewhere. The man he’d been talking to leans over the seat between us and asks if I’m from the New York Times too.
I assure him I am not.
“Good,” he says. “I don’t know if I could’ve handled another round of that.”
Donald Trump talks like he’s afraid he’ll never get the chance to talk again.
Every answer is rapid-fire. Every take hot and loaded. He’ll manipulate every single question into a piece of fleshy red meat for his base and marble it with extra fat. And it all comes so fast, and so hot, that there’s little time to digest any of it.
From my notebook:
Reading polls, slagging Rubio
3 priorities: debt, obamacare “replace it with something ‘terrific,’ military, vets, polls
POLLS POLLS POLLS
Vets to illegals
Reviving jobs: I have 10 billion dollars
And those are the first five minutes.
Simply put, Trump is the embodiment of the cable news show, a rambling, bombastic blowhard who says nothing at all but says it fucking loud. By my count, Senator Tim Scott, the town hall’s host, asks a total of eight questions, those questions touching on immigration, job creation, ISIL, and pride. Trump didn’t answer a single question straight on, an impressive feat for a politician, particularly a man whose success hinges upon his status as an outsider from the political process.
“They say Trump does this,” he says, displaying his newfound nervous tic of referring to himself in the third person, “they say Trump does that.”
When Scott asks him about his plans against ISIL he leans down and clasps his hands between his knees like he’s about to deliver bad news to a recent widow.
“I know a lot about Syria,” he says, “but I’m not going to give specifics.”
For the next five minutes he talks about how he’s not going to reveal his thoughts on Syria because he doesn’t think it’s wise to “let enemies know what you’re going to do.” A few audience members clap. Others shift. One heavy man in a navy blue suit stands up, walks over to a door, and fiddles with a camouflage MAKE AMERICA GREAT AGAIN hat he’s just purchased. The Secret Service that now tail Trump are quick to approach him and the man holds out a Trump button and smiles like he’s having the time of his life. An agent gives him the thumbs up as Trump says, “But I’ll tell you this: we’re gonna let Syria fight ISIS and we’re gonna let Russia fight ISIS.”
Another question unanswered, another thumbs up.
While talking with the man next to me, another turns in his seat and weighs in with his take. A county chairman for the Republicans, he’s wearing a Trump button over his heart. When an opening video plays of Ronald Reagan demanding Gorbachev tear down the Berlin Wall–among a slew of famous speeches, this is the only line that draws any applause from the attending–he claps harder than most.
“You’re writing a book?” he asks me. “Just make sure and get your facts straight.”
The three of us chat amiably while another fight breaks out a few rows back. “I’m not racist, but…” somebody says, drawing an eye-roll from the couple in front of me.
We discuss the race and I tell them I think there’s a developing reality gap. People cull their friends on social media until nobody disagrees with them and can choose a side to deliver their news of the day. Liberals follow liberals and watch MSNBC. Right-wingers follow right-wingers and tune into FOX News. It’s easy to forget sometimes we’re even living in the same country.
As if on cue, the chairman and my neighbor with the boudoir background check their phones. The man next to me has a flip-phone he turns nervously in his hands. On the back is a piece of green paper with his number written in fading pen.
“I think that’s right,” the man says as he moves his outdated technology from one hand to the other. “That sounds just about right.”
“I helped John McCain and he lost,” Trump says, “and I helped Romney and he lost. I figured I just needed to do it myself.”
This is the biggest laugh of the night besides the moment when Trump announces some poll–he’s always announcing polls, always drawing from his pocket some mystery stack of papers–where he’s supposedly winning twenty percent of the African-American vote. Scott, who’s black, stands up, checks the stats himself as if he can’t believe what he’s hearing.
The Trump comedy act never fails.
Tip your waiters, people.
Try the veal.
The night mercifully ends and I shake the hands of my newfound acquaintances. They forget my name quickly but there are no hard feelings. They know we’re not from the same reality and maybe it’s easier this way. Any other night and we might’ve co-existed in a restaurant or shared a beer in a bar while a game played on a screen overhead. Tonight, as we make our way out of the building, we’re all three toeing different lines in the sand.
On my way I hear someone say they’re glad Trump’s a candidate.
“It’s about time we got somebody like him,” they say.
I nearly stop to ask why that is. Here’s a man who gamed the system in every conceivable way. He was pro-choice before he was pro-life. He’s on his third marriage. He’s for socialized medicine and for raising taxes. There isn’t a single belief of his that falls in line with the Tea Party’s professed platform.
He’s big government, through and through.
A reformed-liberal who paid Hillary Clinton to come to his wedding.
“That was some show, huh?” I hear a man ask on the stairs down to street level.
And I think, of course, it’s been so long since they had a show worth watching. An over-the-hill maverick-turned-party-favorite and a charisma-less millionaire who even Trump joked “acted like a golfer who got the shakes on the 18th green.” It’s been a long time since the cloud had anything resembling a star. An actor who could call for a “Shining City on the Hill” while dumping the homeless and sick into the streets like so much garbage and raising taxes and the debt ceiling while proselytizing the values of small government and fiscal responsibility. A figurehead who encompassed nothing and said everything.
A balloon without a tether.
A cloud without a silver lining.