The Calm Despite the Storm

At a “normal” Trump rally in Cincinnati.

Donald Trump speaks to a crowd of attendees at U.S. Bank Arena on October 13, 2016 in Cincinnati, Ohio.
Donald Trump speaks to a crowd at U.S. Bank Arena on Thursday in Cincinnati.

Ty Wright/Getty Images

CINCINNATI— I was ready for almost anything at Thursday’s Trump rally. But I was still taken aback by one person I met: a black, female, teenage immigrant Trump supporter.

The unicorn of American politics.

“He went to the inner cities and told the kids he was going to help them,” said Amoni Jalen, a 19-year-old native of Liberia who had come from Louisville, Kentucky, with friends to the Trump rally here on Thursday. “That’s a big plus for me. I grew up in the ghetto.”

Jalen was eager to talk and quickly departed from my list of questions. Her family moved from Liberia in 2003, when she was 5, and bounced around the United States.

“I grew up in New Jersey, Philadelphia, New Hampshire, South Dakota, Arizona, Iowa,” she said. “What can you do when your mom thinks you’re going to get shot? We moved a lot.”

Jalen can’t vote as she’s not yet a citizen, but that has not stopped her from being politically active. While they lived in New Hampshire in 2008, her parents took her to an Obama rally. “I was so happy! First black president. Everything was so amazing. The thing was, after a year was over, I was like, ‘What was I so hyped about?’ But I appreciate him.”

Jalen went on to say that she didn’t think Obama was effective in dealing with the racial problems in the U.S., though she added, “I have never been president, so I can’t judge him on why he did what he did.”

And now? “I’m picking the lesser of two evils, and he’s not a liar. For now.”

As someone who is also looking for the least-bad option in an awful election, I empathized with Jalen. And if she seemed at all naïve about Trump, she wasn’t alone. A sort of free-floating wishfulness was the prevailing order of the day, from Donald Trump to his surrogates to his supporters, everyone earnestly believing that their man could win, even without a huge chunk of the party working with them. They were an embattled remnant mistaking themselves for a plurality.

Given that so many of Trump’s rallies have been marked by violence and protests, I wasn’t sure what to expect from an event in my hometown. In nonelection times, people here are less inclined to wear their ideology on their sleeves. You can get through a whole picnic without a political debate. Had Trump’s outrageous campaign changed that? I was surprised to find on Thursday that it had not. A toxic demagogue was onstage, and his campaign had entered its violent death throes, and otherwise it was just another Thursday night in Cincinnati. This might have been the crowd at a Reds game. Parents brought their kids; adult children brought their elderly parents.

Almost everyone I spoke to focused on a few narrow reasons for backing Trump. Namely, 1) he’s not a politician; 2) he’ll fix the economy and keep us safe; and 3) he’s not Hillary Clinton. And as for those pesky sexual assault allegations that have surfaced in the wake of the infamous Access Hollywood hot-mic recording? The reactions ranged from “It’s not right, but … ” to “The timing’s pretty convenient, isn’t it?” to “Horse manure.”

“He’s going to be what’s best for our country, economically, and that’s what we need. We don’t need another politician,” said Connie Farmer of Cincinnati. “It wasn’t right what he said about women, but he’s apologized, and it’s no worse than what a lot of politicians have said and done in the past.”

The past actions of one politician in particular mitigates the accusations against Trump in the eyes of his supporters.

“My biggest concern is that [Clinton] is a liar; she’s a lifetime politician,” said Beth Williams, 44, an administrator at the Cincinnati College of Mortuary Science, told me in a phone interview before the rally. “She backed her husband up with the things he did but stands there high and mighty over words that Donald Trump said years ago. She’s a hypocrite.”

The crowd that mostly filled U.S. Bank Arena had perhaps fewer performance artists than other rallies. Unlike my colleague Seth Stevenson, I did not see a woman dressed up as Trump leading around a woman dressed as Clinton in shackles. But the attendees fully embraced the label Clinton had given them. “Adorable Deplorable” T-shirts were everywhere, and I spotted even a preteen girl wearing an “I’m a Deplorable” shirt.

And they really, really, really wanted to “Lock her up.” The chant rang through the arena perhaps a half-dozen times, both before Trump came out and during his speech.

The warmup speaker who got the loudest reception from the crowd was Butler County Sheriff Richard K. Jones, who’s garnered attention nationally for his extreme stance on immigration. “I’m here to serve up some red meat. Am I doing my job?” Yes, yes, he was.

There was an anecdote about writing a letter to the president of Mexico, billing him $1 million for the crime and drugs that illegal immigrants had brought to his county. But, Jones lamented,  “They told me I wasn’t allowed to talk to presidents and leaders of foreign countries.” Then he turned his attention from those who aren’t welcome in the United States to those who are no longer welcome in Trump’s GOP.

“You’re going to see, when this election is over, we’re going to remove all the people who are running against Mr. Trump,” Jones said. “They are hiding. They aren’t here tonight. They are afraid to meet with us, the people who hire them.”

That was one of the more surprising sentiments that I heard from Ohioans I talked to. Wanting to get a broader picture of Trump’s local support, I reached out to a few people before the rally. “I’m so disappointed in the Republican Party,” said Barb Mills, 68, of Loveland, with whom I spoke by phone. “I loved George Bush. But when he turned on Trump—sure he didn’t like what he said about Jeb, but Jeb was never going to get elected. And now Paul Ryan? I went to see him at a rally at Lunken Airport. I served Montgomery Inn barbecue sandwiches to him. I really liked him, but boy, has he been a disappointment. Him and Romney.”

At a rally in Florida earlier on Thursday, Trump seemed angry and depressed on the stage, lashed out at the media and the establishment for coordinating against him. He was comparatively better behaved by Thursday evening, perhaps buoyed by an NBC /Wall Street Journal/Marist poll that shows him up by a point in Ohio—not much, but against the downward trend he’d been facing. He offered the usual list of promises—to repeal and replace Obamacare, to stop TPP and “renegotiate” NAFTA—and offered some more outlandish ones, like vowing that, “No more companies are going to leave the state of Ohio.”

But a war was on, and the soft stuff wouldn’t suffice. In his own mind at least, Trump is waging a three-front battle right now: against his opponent, against the media, and against those in his own party who’ve abandoned him. On Thursday, he let his surrogates fight the latter battles; he focused his attacks on Clinton. He told the audience that WikiLeaks revealed that Clinton and Attorney General Loretta Lynch were good friends (based on an email in which Huma Abedin told John Podesta they had a “cordial relationship”) and rehashed Bill Clinton’s tarmac visit with Lynch during the Department of Justice’s investigation of Hillary Clinton’s emails. Republicans considered this evidence of tampering.

And so Trump couldn’t resist going full Trump for at least a few minutes. In a bizarre combined jab at Clinton’s “stamina” and apparent desire to send all of our jobs and money to China, he said, “She doesn’t have the strength, she doesn’t have the aptitude, she doesn’t have what it takes. When she’s over in China, if she goes down in Tiananmen Square, they’ll just leave her there. They are tough people. They are just going to leave her there. They are not going to help her up.”

At the end, there was the ritual playing of the Rolling Stones’ “You Can’t Always Get What You Want,” and the traveling press had to be escorted to the media bus by police in riot gear. The media was being menaced by people who believe it and only it was the cause of the candidate’s problems. The naïveté had been weaponized. I left wondering what Nov. 9 would bring.

Read more Slate coverage of the 2016 campaign.