Trump is wearing the red baseball cap, or not. From this distance, he is strangely handsome, well proportioned, puts you in mind of a sea captain: Alan Hale from “Gilligan’s Island,” say, had Hale been slimmer, richer, more self-confident. We are afforded a side view of a head of silver-yellow hair and a hawklike orange-red face, the cheeks of which, if stared at steadily enough, will seem, through some optical illusion, to glow orange-redder at moments when the crowd is especially pleased. If you’ve ever, watching “The Apprentice,” entertained fantasies of how you might fare in the boardroom (the Donald, recognizing your excellent qualities with his professional businessman’s acumen, does not fire you but, on the contrary, pulls you aside to assign you some important non-TV, real-world mission), you may, for a brief, embarrassing instant, as he scans the crowd, expect him to recognize you.
He is blessing us here in San Jose, California, with his celebrity, promising never to disappoint us, letting us in on the latest bit of inside-baseball campaign strategy: “Lyin’ Ted” is no longer to be Lyin’ Ted; henceforth he will be just “Ted.” Hillary, however, shall be “Lyin’ Crooked.” And, by the way, Hillary has to go to jail. The statute of limitations is five years, and if he gets elected in November, well . . . The crowd sends forth a coarse blood roar. “She’s guilty as hell,” he snarls.
He growls, rants, shouts, digresses, careens from shtick nugget to shtick nugget, rhapsodizes over past landslides, name-drops Ivanka, Melania, Mike Tyson, Newt Gingrich, Bobby Knight, Bill O’Reilly. His right shoulder thrusts out as he makes the pinched-finger mudra with downswinging arm. His trademark double-eye squint evokes that group of beanie-hatted street-tough Munchkin kids; you expect him to kick gruffly at an imaginary stone. In person, his autocratic streak is presentationally complicated by a Ralph Kramdenesque vulnerability. He’s a man who has just dropped a can opener into his wife’s freshly baked pie. He’s not about to start grovelling about it, and yet he’s sorry—but, come on, it was an accident. He’s sorry, he’s sorry, O.K., but do you expect him to say it? He’s a good guy. Anyway, he didn’t do it.
Once, Jack Benny, whose character was known for frugality and selfishness, got a huge laugh by glancing down at the baseball he was supposed to be first-pitching, pocketing it, and walking off the field. Trump, similarly, knows how well we know him from TV. He is who he is. So sue me, O.K.? I probably shouldn’t say this, but oops—just did. (Hillary’s attack ads? “So false. Ah, some of them aren’t that false, actually.”) It’s oddly riveting, watching someone take such pleasure in going so much farther out on thin ice than anyone else as famous would dare to go. His crowds are ever hopeful for the next thrilling rude swerve. “There could be no politics which gave warmth to one’s body until the country had recovered its imagination, its pioneer lust for the unexpected and incalculable,” Norman Mailer wrote in 1960.
The speeches themselves are nearly all empty assertion. Assertion and bragging. Assertion, bragging, and defensiveness. He is always boasting about the size of this crowd or that crowd, refuting some slight from someone who has treated him “very unfairly,” underscoring his sincerity via adjectival pile-on (he’s “going to appoint beautiful, incredible, unbelievable Supreme Court Justices”). He lies, bullies, menaces, dishes it out but can’t seem to take it, exhibits such a muddy understanding of certain American principles (the press is free, torture illegal, criticism and libel two different things) that he might be a seventeenth-century Austrian prince time-transported here to mess with us. Sometimes it seems that he truly does not give a shit, and you imagine his minders cringing backstage. Other times you imagine them bored, checking their phones, convinced that nothing will ever touch him. Increasingly, his wild veering seems to occur against his will, as if he were not the great, sly strategist we have taken him for but, rather, someone compelled by an inner music that sometimes produces good dancing and sometimes causes him to bring a bookshelf crashing down on an old Mexican lady. Get more, that inner music seems to be telling him. Get, finally, enough. Refute a lifetime of critics. Create a pile of unprecedented testimonials, attendance receipts, polling numbers, and pundit gasps that will, once and for all, prove—what?
Apply Occam’s razor: if someone brags this much, bending every ray of light back to himself, what’s the simplest explanation?
“We’re on the cover of every newspaper, every magazine,” he says in San Jose in early June. “Time magazine many times. I just learned they’re doing yet another cover on Trump—I love that. You know, Time magazine’s a good magazine. You grow up reading Time magazine—who ever thought you’d be on the cover of Time magazine? Especially so much?”
It’s considered an indication of authenticity that he doesn’t generally speak from a teleprompter but just wings it. (In fact, he brings to the podium a few pages of handwritten bullet points, to which he periodically refers as he, mostly, wings it.) He wings it because winging it serves his purpose. He is not trying to persuade, detail, or prove: he is trying to thrill, agitate, be liked, be loved, here and now. He is trying to make energy. (At one point in his San Jose speech, he endearingly fumbles with a sheaf of “statistics,” reads a few, fondly but slightingly mentions the loyal, hapless statistician who compiled them, then seems unable to go on, afraid he might be boring us.)
And make energy he does. It flows out of him, as if channelled in thousands of micro wires, enters the minds of his followers: their cheers go ragged and hoarse, chanting erupts, a look of religious zeal may flash across the face of some non-chanter, who is finally getting, in response to a question long nursed in private, exactly the answer he’s been craving. One such person stays in my memory from a rally in Fountain Hills, Arizona, in March: a solidly built man in his mid-forties, wearing, in the crazy heat, a long-sleeved black shirt, who, as Trump spoke, worked himself into a state of riveted, silent concentration-fury, the rally equivalent of someone at church gazing fixedly down at the pew before him, nodding, Yes, yes, yes.
A Tiny Pissed Voice Rings Out
“Wow, what a crowd this is,” he begins at Fountain Hills. “What a great honor! . . . You have some sheriff—there’s no games with your sheriff, that’s for sure. . . . We have a movement going on, folks. . . . I will never let you down! Remember. And I want to tell you, you know, it’s so much about illegal immigration and so much has been mentioned about it and talked about it, and these politicians are all talk, no action. They’re never going to do anything—they only picked it up because when I went, and when I announced, that I’m running for President, I said, ‘You know, this country has a big, big problem with illegal immigration,’ and all of a sudden we started talking about it. . . . And there was crime and you had so many killings and so much crime, drugs were pouring through the border.” (“STOP IT!” someone pleads from the crowd.) “People are now seeing it. And you know what? We’re going to build a wall and we are going to stop it!”
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