Trumping the Shark on Lake Michigan

Photograph Source: – CC BY 2.0

In much of the public imagination, and in Trump’s own fantasies, Trump rallies are political juggernauts with armies of thousands marching relentlessly toward a Trump restoration on November 5, 2024. But even if you just stream live into one of his rallies—as I did recently in Racine, Wisconsin—you come away with the impression that he’s little more than a tired vaudeville act that is getting ready to close out of town.

Last week in Festival Park, in Racine, along the shores of Lake Michigan, the Trump carnival unpacked its wagon train and threw up posters announcing the imminent arrival of “the world renowned tragedian” (to use Mark Twain’s phrase in Huckleberry Finn describing the flimflam of The Royal Nonesuch, who were two con men Jim and Huck knew as “the duke and dauphin”). It’s as close as many Americans will get to royalty.

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One of the main selling points of Trump’s grand illusion is crowd estimation, which on stage in Racine he rounded up to 20,000, just as in May he put the crowd in Wildwood on the Jersey Shore at 107,000.

As Trump boasted, “That broke every record in New Jersey history,” although local officials not on the payroll of the Trump campaign put that beach crowd at about 20,000. And it was never clear how many of even that number were just Sunday picnickers heading to the beach.

What was clear in Racine was that the crowd was at best 1,000, and the MAGA faithful were strategically deployed in game show bleachers to give the televised impression of some vast Boy Scouts jamboree (instead of a hired audience papering the house).

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Trump brought little energy to what was supposed to feel like a lakeside summer rock concert. Wearing a baggy blue suit and a red necktie the length of a boa constrictor, he gingerly walked onto the stage, as if perhaps the organizers had forgotten to throw rock salt on a frozen Wisconsin sidewalk.

Not even the walk-on music, Lee Greenwood’s God Bless the U.S.A. (“And I’m proud to be an American/Where at least I know I’m free…”) quickened his pace, which was that of a caged bear from an old-style city zoo wondering why there was a crowd lining the fence at feeding time.

For Trump’s campaign organizers, Racine checked a lot of boxes. For starters, Wisconsin is an important swing state that he won in 2016 and lost in 2020, and which he has to win in 2024 to be re-elected. (In his speech, Trump claimed to have won here in 2020, which can be filed under “Start the steal”.)

Racine is also located between Milwaukee (a “horrible city”—according to the phrase that Trump now denies saying—where the Republican convention is taking place in mid-July) and Kenosha, where a police killing of an innocent man in 2020 touched off three days of rioting. This time around, sounding like an armed teenaged vigilante with an automatic weapon, Trump boasted: “I saved Kenosha, you know that.”

Here, despite the dreams of his campaign staff that Trump was taking the fight to a Democratic stronghold in the Milwaukee suburbs, forcing President Joe Biden to struggle for traditional Democratic votes, all Trump was doing was riffing and telling jokes in an echo chamber, where none of his loyalists had the heart to tell Donald that he was in “Ruh-sine” and not, as he kept calling it, “Ray-sine”.

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Trump spoke (if that’s the verb) for more than hour, but essentially he gave the same ten-minute speech six times, as if someone on his staff had accidentally pushed the “loop” button on the prerecorded candidate with a red MAGA hat (that had typeface that must be visible on the moon).

Over and over, Trump came back to his pitch that “18 million” illegal immigrants (“This is an invasion of our country…”) are flooding across the southern U.S. border (“unvetted and unchecked”).

Once they have navigated the Rio Grande they are either put up in five-star hotels (so as to vote Democratic in the next election) or they are busy with their mission to rape and kill every blonde woman in America who ever went jogging near a drainage ditch.

The other half of Trump’s set stump speech is one long snarl in the direction of President Joe Biden, who depending on the sentence is described as “dumb, vile, horrible, crooked, monstrous, corrupt, the worst….”

In Trump’s vision of America, prior to the Biden presidency, the country (especially when Trump was president) was a Nirvana with little inflation, cheap gasoline, low interest rates, no illegal immigration, and peaceful co-existence with the likes of Russia, China (pronounced “Chiinah”), and North Korea. (“It was a different place four years ago: no wars, no inflation.”)

Now “radical left Democrats, Marxists, Communists, and Fascists” (I know, a few of those affiliations should cancel others out) are selling out the country to MS-13, wetbacks, Chinese exporters, Hunter Biden’s laptop, and—as Trump calls transgenders—“people who have transitioned.”

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It had been four years since I last listened to Trump address one of his rallies, and what struck me after the interval is the extent to which his political appeal now rests on violent political imagery and language.

In Racine, Trump sang his usual praise of the world’s supreme leaders (such as Vladimir Putin and Kim Jong Un) whose trains run on time and whose major cities are pristine and elegant—unlike Washington, D.C., “the crime capital of the world.” But he went further in praising dictators and mob leaders (including his particular favorite, Alphonse Capone) who could execute anyone who got in their way.

On one hand, Trump rails against the Biden administration for “persecuting and prosecuting” him (“They go after Trump. He did nothing wrong…”) but at the same time he speaks enviously of Capone’s or Putin’s ability to rub out the opposition.

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Trump’s vision of America in 2024 sounds a lot like New York City in 1977 when ABC sportscaster Howard Cosell said during the World Series: “Ladies and gentlemen: the Bronx is burning.”

Crime is endemic; graffiti is everywhere. Even good hotels are little more than housing projects for murderous illegal immigrants, and any child playing after school is liable to be kidnapped. (“If you let your kids outside for five minutes, they’re gone.”) At this point, the crowd was chanting: “Send them back! Send them back!” to the rhythm of “Lock her up.”

In the United States of Trump, practically every immigrant is wielding a machete, although that may just be the Ecuadorians at Trump’s Bedminster golf course trimming the rough to improve the boss’s lie.

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In this American world of Sodoms and Gomorrahs, Trump presents himself as the messiah, someone who can seal the leaky borders, insert a nuclear “iron dome” over the vulnerable Homeland, roll back gas prices to $1 a gallon, whip inflation now, eliminate taxes on tips (a big applause line), stand tall for the Second Amendment, and “keep men out of women’s sports.”

Conflating his own legal issues with the sufferings of Jesus Christ, Trump says, “I am being indicted for you,” and he does so in a persecuted, self-pitying tone that suggests they would have crucified our lord if he had raped a woman in a department store dressing room, paid off a porn star and cooked his corporate books, stored stolen state secrets in a pool locker room, or listed a sham company on Wall Street to bilk billions from sucker MAGA investors.

The only standing ovation lines in Trump’s otherwise tedious paint-by-the-numbers speech—when he reads text from the teleprompter, he sounds like the public address system in a bus station—were those that touched on the almighty.

For example, Trump ended a recitation of his campaign promises (“I will revoke China’s most favored nation status…I can solve the war between Ukraine and Russia…I will cut your taxes…I will end Biden’s war on crypto…”) with the words “so help me God,” and that got everyone on their feet.

The other lines that had the audience out of their seats were ones that preached anti-vaxxing (“I will not give one cent to any school that has a vaccine or mask mandate…”) and another in which he pledged to strike critical race theory from the lesson plans of the fourth grade.

Otherwise, I have seen more excitement at high school basketball games or on The Price is Right. But this was a sitcom filmed before “a live studio audience;” later on, someone can lay down the laugh tracks.

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During the rally, I looked for all the telltale signs posted across social media that Trump has dementia, malignant narcissism, or criminal psychosis, but as I am not a doctor and he was largely reading from teleprompters it was hard to make a diagnosis based on his digressions from the prepared text, even though in many of Trump’s asides illegal aliens are having their way with your women and sharks are in the shallow end of the club pool.

At numerous instances, however, Trump did struggle with word pronunciations, beyond never mastering Ray-cine. Milwaukee (that “horrible city”) came out sounding like “Me-walk-ee”. Citizenship was rendered as “citizen-sip”. He called the president of France “Macroon,” and referred to the president as “Joe Bride.”

When Trump was politely trying not to say the word “bitch” (in some tangent involving “Crazy” Nancy or “Crooked” Hillary), he explained to his faithful that he was avoiding a word that starts with “b and ends with t.” I was reminded of what Dallas Cowboy Thomas “Hollywood” Henderson said about Steeler quarterback Terry Bradshaw, which was that he couldn’t spell “cat” if you spotted him a “c” and an “a”.

Also overlooked in mainstream reporting of the rally was Trump’s stand-up routine (his style of political oratory) on the head butt President Biden gave Pope Francis when he greeted his holiness at the G7 meetings in Italy. At his own mention of the pope, Trump launched into his meme imitation of someone handicapped, by waving his arms spasmodically—a curious way to win over the 25% of the Wisconsin population that is Catholic.

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At the end of his speech, Trump recited a litany of the policies that “on day one” would cancel Biden’s presidency, which included a meandering aside about how all the records in women’s swimming now belonged to “people who have transitioned” and a lament that Fort Bragg now has a new politically-correct name. (It was lost on Trump that Braxton Bragg was a Confederate general fighting in the cause of slaveholders.)

Finally, to the beat of the Village People’s YMCA, Trump wandered off the stage, although not before cutting a few robotic disco moves that even in 1979 would have looked like your grandfather shadow boxing on the dance floor.

In 2016, the intro and outro music that included not just the Village People (Macho Man was a favorite) but other hits from the 60s and 70s (“We Are the Champions…”) perhaps connected Trump to Ronald Reagan’s era of good feeling, but in 2024 YMCA sounds like Muzak.

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Overall, my impression of Trump was of someone detached from reality, a person happy to have long conversations with himself and to make up whatever facts and figures might embellish his White Rabbit imaginary worlds. (“Our nations capital is the murder capital of the world…. I produced the cleanest waterThe Paris climate accords cost us $1 trillion…”)

In the same fantasy vein, at many rallies Trump loves to claim “I have never gone bankrupt,” while the list of busted Trump companies includes Trump Steaks, GoTrump, Trump Airlines, Trump Vodka, Trump Mortgage, Trump: The Game, Trump Magazine, Trump University, Trump Ice, Trump Network, Trump Taj Mahal, Trump’s Castle, Trump Plaza Casinos, Trump Plaza Hotel, Trump Hotels and Casinos Resorts, and Trump Entertainment Resorts. (I am always a little surprised that he doesn’t quote from the t-shirt that reads: “I can’t be overdrawn. I still have more checks!”)

The irony of Trump running for president is that he has little interest in politics or republican government. He’s just a grievance machine who longs for dictatorial powers so that he can remake the United States into some variation on a Trump resort (TrumpAmerica?), an antiseptic theme park (perhaps like Pyongyang?) where none of the guests are transitioning and everyone can stay in the right wing.

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In another sense, Trump’s sad rallies, if not his political life, are just one long variation on The Royal Nonesuch, the traveling con game that the duke and dauphin played along the Mississippi as Huck and Jim were drifting down the river to freedom.

In Racine, the carpet bags and posters (“LADIES AND CHILDREN NOT ADMITTED…”) were unpacked alongside Lake Michigan, not the banks of the Mississippi; otherwise, it was the same flimflam by the same “Dr. Armand de Montalban, of Paris,” giving the same lecture on the “Science of Phrenology” charging the same admission to “furnish charts of character at twenty-five cents apiece.”

I am sorry that Mark Twain (born Samuel Clemens, who grew up in Hannibal, Missouri) never lived to attend a Trump rally in Racine, but at least we have Huckleberry Finn’s take on similar proceedings on a similar stretch of water in the West. Huck said:

It didn’t take me long to make up my mind that these liars warn’t no kings nor dukes at all, but just low-down humbugs and frauds. But I never said nothing, never let on; kept it to myself; it’s the best way; then you don’t have no quarrels, and don’t get into no trouble. If they wanted us to call them kings and dukes, I hadn’t no objections, ’long as it would keep peace in the family; and it warn’t no use to tell Jim, so I didn’t tell him. If I never learnt nothing else out of pap, I learnt that the best way to get along with his kind of people is to let them have their own way.

In three nights along the Mississippi, the duke and dauphin took in four hundred and sixty-five dollars, which adjusted for inflation is the same as an $85 million gift to Trump’s PAC, so that he can pay off his criminal lawyers and pocket the difference.

Matthew Stevenson is the author of many books, including Reading the Rails, Appalachia Spring, andThe Revolution as a Dinner Party, about China throughout its turbulent twentieth century. His most recent books are Biking with Bismarck and Our Man in Iran. Out now: Donald Trump’s Circus Maximus and Joe Biden’s Excellent Adventure, about the 2016 and 2020 elections.