I sent my friend Robert a note that I might not be around when he gets to New Orleans. He’s moving from Kansas to start a new life, arriving November 2nd, the day before the presidential election.
I told Robert I had been hearing from some friends that there was going to be armed violence in the streets. These friends are Trump supporters. They work in the housing trade—painters, carpenters, furniture movers. More of them are mixed race than not. A couple are white.
The point is, they aren’t media people. They aren’t well-educated, generally. But they’re the main people in my life these days, the people I interact with day to day. They believe things that seem crazy to me. But I spent the last 20 years in San Francisco, New York, and Los Angeles around well educated, ambitious liberals. And those people aren’t so great either. So when a Trump supporter complains about the racist treatment of Amy Barrett’s children, I understand where they’re coming from. There’s certainly enough racism to go around.
But still, armed rebellion? It didn’t seem likely. They worry that Biden is going to steal the election and that it’s the only way Biden could possibly win. But how would Biden do that? The governors of Texas and Florida are Republican. The Senate is Republican, the Supreme Court is Republican, the Executive Branch is Republican. How would a Democrat steal the election when almost everyone in power is a Republican?
I’d been worried about the opposite. If Trump won, I was pretty certain liberals would flood the streets. This would be the moment. What they’ve been practicing in Portland and Seattle and, to a lesser but more targeted extent, in Chicago, would spread to every large city in the country, and many small ones. Things would get violent. Antifa would round up the people they’d collected on their lists, mostly other liberals since there is no one a liberal hates more than another liberal who disagrees with them. It hadn’t occurred to me the other side was anticipating the same thing.
“People aren’t going to take it,” Jackie told me, after we’d hauled another king size mattress up three flights of stairs in Algiers Point. I’d already unsuccessfully taken apart an air conditioner and hauled a dryer from the Treme. And Jackie, as he likes to do, was telling me how things are. He gets all his news from YouTube. Stuff he hears and watches on his phone. I gave him my Netflix password, hoping he would find other media to connect with. But so far that hasn’t worked. I tune him out when he starts talking about pedophile rings. But I like to hear what he has to say about the other stuff. I like to listen to him talk.
I told Robert what Jackie told me. I said I was going to interview people at the rallies and see if I could get a handle on what was going on. In retrospect, maybe that was too big of an ask. Friends in San Francisco told me to be careful. They think everyone who goes to a Trump rally has a 50 percent chance of contracting COVID (though, recently, it’s the Pence events where the superspreading’s been happening). Anyway, I said, I’m only going to outdoor rallies. And I don’t have to get in the middle of any crowd. Plus, Quillette is one of the few outlets that pays. I’m getting too old to be pushing the backside of mattresses across old pine floors.
Mike, the carpenter I work with, was going on about liberals. He’s like a lot of the Trump supporters. He doesn’t care too much about policy. He mostly just hates the other guy. I said, I don’t like the liberals so much either. Many lack integrity. They turn on each other. They’re quick to join a mob and point fingers. And they talk down to people like Mike and Jackie: people who didn’t finish high school, who can’t get credit, who’ve spent time in prison, forgotten, voiceless, always on the verge of having their trucks repossessed. The people whom liberals say they’re trying to help. Mike, who is white, doesn’t like it when people refer to him as privileged. Jackie, who is Mexican, doesn’t trust immigrants.
I said to Mike. “What about a nationwide coronavirus testing program? With 100 billion dollars, you can buy anything. People could be tested every week—everyone in the country.”
“What’s testing going to do?” Mike said. “The disease is still out there.” I couldn’t convince him otherwise, though I tried. I tried by refusing to engage with him on anything else, just trying to convince him of this one, important point. But it was a fool’s errand. He would bring up all the things I’d been wrong about, mostly flooring-related, but sometimes measuring windows versus ceiling height. In many of my disagreements with Mike, I’d been proven wrong. But that’s carpentry.
Still, the more I hear about violence in the streets—from people like Jackie, Lynn, and also T (who I can’t even work with anymore because of drug issues)—about how they’ve already decided the election is going to be stolen from them; how they are certain that the vast majority of people prefer Donald Trump; the more I feel like maybe I am misunderstanding.
And Robert says to me in response that it’s okay if I’m not in town when he’s supposed to arrive. He might not be traveling anywhere. He thinks he’s got COVID.
I left a few hours before hurricane Zeta made landfall in Louisiana on Wednesday. The electricity in my house, and the two properties I manage, would be knocked out, along with 100,000 other homes in the city, a million people without power in an area stretching from Louisiana into Texas.
I went straight from the airport to the Trump rally in Goodyear, Arizona. The sun was endless and the sky a beautiful blue. I had to cover my head with a shirt, aware of the irony of needing a hat while surrounded by MAGA bills.
There were a lot of Hispanic people there, which seems an underreported story. Why is Trump doing so well with Hispanic voters when he says such horrible things about Mexicans and Central Americans? I think it’s because Hispanic voters tend to be conservative, and also because many of them don’t think of themselves as Mexicans, or Salvadoreans. They think of themselves as Americans. And they think of themselves as white. At least the ones I spoke with at the rally. And my friend Jackie. There are some voters who don’t want to be “othered.” They want to assimilate.
It wasn’t a well-attended rally, but it wasn’t like there was no one there. I’d say there were 4,000 people, similar to the rallies I saw for John Kerry when I covered his campaign in 2004. But John Kerry was a boring politician, and Donald Trump isn’t. Still, the crowd size seemed a bad omen for a campaign desperate for momentum.
A woman told me she didn’t particularly like Trump, even though she was wearing a plum-colored Trump shirt and MAGA hat. She said he was a pig. She would vote for him, but she’d prefer someone else. Democrats, she said, were socialists. Her friend, a Hispanic woman, said that if Biden was elected, he’d only be in power a month or two before the real people pulling the strings took over. I think she was talking about the “deep state”—career civil service types. And also “The Squad”—Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, Ilhan Omar, Ayanna Pressley, Rashida Tlaib—and what they represent to people who voted Republican. She meant people who are anti-America. People who hate America and want to tear it down.
There was no table selling merchandise, which seemed odd. There were 14 porto-toilets and not much of a line to use them. (United Rentals recommends 30 porto-toilets for a three-hour event with 4,000 people). I waited for a slice of pizza and a guy asked me to hold his spot. Later, he explained he’d hurt his back but was unable to get a doctor’s appointment initially because of COVID. He’d lost his job five months ago. He was hoping there would be another stimulus check in the mail. He said he had been too late to apply for unemployment, which didn’t sound right to me. Later I wanted to ask him, Why exactly are you voting for Trump? But by then I’d lost him.
I stayed on the edge, but most people crowded toward the stage. It seemed deeply irresponsible, even though we were outside, where the disease doesn’t spread as easily. The strong sun is also supposed to help suppress spread. I kept my mask on, but I was in a distinct minority. And Trump was late, the way he always is. Thousands of people stayed huddled together, unmoving, under the relentless sun.
The counterpoint to the Trump rallies has been the BLM protests—which are also irresponsible. But the protests are in motion, which matters. And the attendees aren’t explicitly anti-mask. More importantly, the protests weren’t officially sanctioned and organized by the president, who people look to as an example. Still, there were many officials sanctioning the BLM protests after the fact, prominent epidemiologists declared that racism is also a public health crisis. But what does that even mean? Epidemiologists don’t know any more about racism than my neighbor. Socrates observed that people who knew a lot about one thing, like blacksmiths, often thought they knew a lot about many other things, which they did not. At which point Socrates came to the conclusion, “I am certain of nothing,” which I have tattooed on my forearm.
If COVID is a public health crisis, and racism is also a public health crisis, what else is a public health crisis? Obviously, anything you want. And therefore nothing. And so Trump. (I do understand the argument that racism is a public health crisis. And there’s data behind it. I just think that casting it in this way is intentionally misleading.)
A big muscular plane barreled down the landing strip behind the podium. The song was Frank Sinatra’s I Did It My Way. Followed by Eye of the Tiger. Then Macho Macho Man and YMCA. It occurred to me, as it must have to many others, that Trump has the gayest soundtrack of any candidate ever. Which matches some of the full-on queen fashion around the hangars. The sateen American flag pajamas, Donald Trump capes, flag jewelry, embossed caps. I imagined an apt description that’s sure to offend literally everyone—Faggot Republican Couture. Of course, I’m in favor of people wearing whatever makes them comfortable.
The crowd roared when Trump ascended the stage and launched into what can only be called his shtick. He did impersonations of people he doesn’t like. A monologue about Joe Biden living in his basement, unable to remember where he was.
“Could you imagine losing to someone like that?”
I felt like I was watching a warmup act in the Catskills, but the audience ate it up. They hated whoever Trump said was mean to him and cheered all of his victories, which were mostly lies. They went crazy when he talked about how good he felt after beating COVID and how soon everyone with COVID would be given Regeneron, just like he was, free of charge.
“I felt like Superman! I tell you what, I wanted to rip off my shirt!”
He made it sound so good I could imagine someone wanting to catch COVID just for the high.
Trump promised COVID would end right after the election, and he was fixing the Dreamer thing. This time for sure. I didn’t think Trump was an idiot or a genius. Could it really be as simple as a salesman thirsty for an audience? A populace that’s grown tired of elitism and the malleability of knowledge? Most, though decidedly not all, of these people do not seem crazy. Hard to think they believe what’s being said. In fact, I’m certain most of them don’t.
In Trump’s 60 Minutes interview, he said he had watched every Biden interview. He insisted, “Every single one.” And Joe Biden, he said, was treated much kinder than he was. The interviewer, Lesley Stahl, paused for a moment as if she wasn’t sure what to say. I wondered if she considered responding, “Well that’s just a lie.” Was there anyone alive who thought Donald Trump had sat through every single Joe Biden interview?
“Joe Biden,” Trump told the crowd in Phoenix, “Wants to keep everyone locked down forever.” The crowd booed. But again, what are words? Did they know what he meant? Did he? Is racism really a public health crisis?
Trump continued, lauding the American response to COVID, which he proclaimed a great success. The 95 percent maskless crowd applauded. How to make sense of it? This is when I started getting notices on my phone that the power was out all over New Orleans.
After the rally, there were lines of people boarding large busses brought in to shuttle them back to the staging area, where they’d parked their cars. A driver told me it was a 25-minute ride. The busses were packed. All these people who had given up on fighting COVID, who didn’t believe in wearing masks, stuffed into people movers with blackened windows. No more sun baking the germs, or open space whisking away the aerosols. Virus on wheels.
That can’t be good, I thought, walking away.
I sat in some shade, always in short supply in Phoenix, and called an Uber. From there, I went to meet a friend who was a professional dominatrix in the Phoenix area. She let me stay the night in her dungeon, located conveniently just a mile or two from the Sky Harbor airport, where I grabbed a flight across the country to catch another rally, this one in Philadelphia. A little while later, President Trump won the endorsement of Lil Wayne.
* * *
There were only four people at the “Black Voices for Trump” rally in West Philadelphia. Two of them, I learned, were paid. One of the ward bosses, an older black lady, was skeptical. She said more people needed to wear masks. She was the only one inside wearing one. She said Trump had not always treated people well. “He doesn’t pay his employees.”
I asked how they would feel if Trump lost. The Regional director said, “Trump’s not going to lose.”
But I thought, only four people? I think he’s going to lose. And I was struck how, in places where I think I’m going to meet Trump’s most enthusiastic supporters, there’s always someone who openly disdains him.
I asked a friend of mine who writes for conservative papers if she’d voted for Trump. She replied that “the amount of unpleasantness a Trump presidency brings to the nation is not worth the cost of the fuck you.”
I never expected Trump to do that well with the black vote, but if he lost the fuck-you vote, I knew he was doomed.
That evening, I went to a MAGA Meetup at the Trump Reelection office in a part of Philadelphia that’s considered more Republican. But it was empty. In fact, no one in the office knew about the meetup, which was listed prominently on the Trump events page on the reelection website. There was a receptionist, an elderly lady and her elderly daughter, and the local area representative. And a man who said he hoped the weather was bad on election day so nobody voted.
“No,” the elderly woman said. “People need to vote. If Democrats have mailed in all their ballots, and Republicans don’t get out on election day, we can’t win. We have to encourage voting.” The man frowned, thinking about it, not seeming to like the idea of encouraging voting.
I stayed for 20 minutes to see if the party would get started. I ate a sandwich and some chips.
This is fucked, I thought, driving back to the hotel. There was a curfew going into effect. Another police officer had been shot. Many of the businesses I passed around Philadelphia were boarded up. The city felt like it was under siege.
So I called Mike and asked if he thought Republicans would accept Biden if Trump lost the election.
“Of course,” he said, taking the opposite position of Jackie. “We’re for law and order.”
What about those yahoos who wanted to kidnap the governor of Michigan, I thought. But those were just yahoos. You can always find 10 yahoos to make a point.
“Remember when I fixed the downstairs of the building,” Mike said. It was at the beginning of the pandemic. The walls were leaning out and the roof was steadily flattening. The base of the retaining walls had turned to dust after years of leaks. It was possible the building would collapse. It was in a historic district. Permits and inspections would cost a fortune, and by the time the permits went through, the roof would have caved. Any work we did had to keep the building looking exactly the same. But there were no inspectors coming around. And so Mike closed the doors and built interior walls where you couldn’t see them. He found holes in the center of the floor clearly meant for support beams, so we didn’t bother with an engineer. The new walls held up the roof and the old walls looked exactly the same, but they were no longer holding anything.
“I cut some corners,” Mike said. “But I did a good job. I didn’t do it the way it was supposed to be done, officially, but I got it done. And if I hadn’t, it wouldn’t have gotten done at all. And that’s why you asked me to build that extra room upstairs, with the bamboo floor and the window. You knew I would do it right. Well that’s Trump.”
It wasn’t my impression of Trump. I thought that even without policy changes, what the president said mattered a great deal. “What about the lies?” I started to ask Mike. I wanted to know if he believed any of what Trump said. But I didn’t get to pose the question.
“I don’t watch Trump,” Mike said. “He aggravates the hell out of me. I mainly turn him off. But I agree with what he has to say. He’s helping black people. He’s behind America. He’s trying to get an equal playing field, and for America to stop paying for everybody else. I don’t need to watch his speech. There are things Trump can do. The negotiation stuff. He got four Middle East countries to make peace. The smart people can see that. Biden’s just not better. And that’s what it is. I know people hate Trump. I know he’s egotistical. But I think he’s sincerely empathetic. But you can only be so much when you’re president. You have to be able to say, now bomb that city of 80,000.”
“I’m not a Trump fan, but I am a fan of the guy who is in the office of the president who is doing a good job. And as far as the pandemic, I think he’s done as good as anyone could do.”
Then he said, “Actually, I threw my vote away. I voted for [Jo] Jorgensen”—the Libertarian Party’s candidate.
* * *
In Beaver County, Pennsylvania, Ted Nugent and Donald Trump Jr. held a rally. Baby Don said, “You need to know how to build a foundation to build a building.” It seemed cynical to me, this rich kid in a fleece and jeans making a plea to blue-collar workers, as if he were one of them.
My liberal friends, what’s left of them after I was cancelled a couple of years ago, complain about lower class and uneducated Americans voting against their own interests. It makes them crazy that these idiots won’t do what is best for them. At least that’s the subtext.
In truth, self-interest is a terrible reason to vote for anything. It’s true that values and self-interest often overlap, but self-interest as its own justification is immoral. People should vote their values, and usually do. Which isn’t to say they aren’t lied to, tricked, and manipulated. But to expect people to vote purely for their own self-interest is to expect them to be selfish. To expect their selfishness to align with your values is the height of elitism. The real mark of privilege is the ability to vote your beliefs, and then let everyone know that you’d voted against your own interests, on behalf of people you look down upon.
The last Trump rally I attended was in Reading, Pennsylvania, three days before the election. I was still hoping for some measure of truth and insight. Or at least an aphorism. Something short and pithy with which to sum up our current moment.
There was no parking near the rally, and attendees were directed to fairgrounds, then loaded on busses. This time, the trip was only three miles, but it still didn’t seem safe to me. I walked along the regional airport fence, past what looked like an abandoned school bus.
I don’t think I’m paranoid about COVID. I wear a mask if there are a lot of people around, or if I’m in a store, but not when I’m walking outside. I occasionally have an indoor meal with someone, though not very often. I get on planes and wear a mask for the entire flight. But those busses would be packed and maskless. They don’t wear masks because the big boss man has treated mask wearing like it wasn’t necessary. He’s told people not to listen to Dr. Fauci. As the head manager of America’s COVID response, he’s failed. If you think he’s done a good job, I’m not going to bother arguing with you. But he hasn’t.
The rally in Reading was well attended, and there was more enthusiasm than in Arizona. A lot more. A man I spoke to in line said he didn’t have any problem with Biden voters, as long as they kept it civil. But he didn’t understand them. We talked about the pandemic, and he wasn’t happy with the way Trump had handled it either. “But,” he said, “You take the good with the bad.” Trump, he believed, had saved the economy when the pandemic started.
“Democrats will never deregulate like Republicans,” he said. Which seemed almost certainly true. He said, “People need to pay attention to what Donald Trump does, not what he says.”
Trump was almost two hours late, which is not unusual for him, and in a good mood. Much better than in Minnesota the day before apparently, where he’d had his shortest rally in front of only 250 people, because the governor had refused to permit a larger gathering. He talked about how Biden would end fracking and the state’s Democratic governor would try to steal the election. “We have to watch very closely.”
He said any number of untrue things which aren’t worth pointing out. For four years, people have been pointing to things that Trump said that weren’t true, starting with the size of crowds at his inauguration. Surely by now it’s beside the point, or it’s the only point.
The crowd booed when they were supposed to. Applauded. Chanted “lock him up!”
The energy at this event, in an important state, was so palpably different from anything else I’d seen that it whisked away any conclusions I might have been teetering toward. If Trump was within distance of stealing the election, then he would. That was obvious. But it was equally obvious that would only come into play if the election was razor close, something I still doubted. Anyway, I didn’t need to make a prediction. I could just wait.
According to John Stuart Mill “right” is an action that promotes the greatest amount of happiness for the greatest number. By “happiness,” he meant a higher pleasure that is of the intellect and includes notions of art and justice. The greatest amount, in other words, of a certain quality. (I consulted on this with philosophy professor Gwendolyn Dolske.) Emmanuel Kant believed in absolutes, in right and wrong, but he died a virgin and never left his town. For Aristotle, being “good” essentially meant character development, acting in a way that allows for excellence and flourishing. Aristotle felt the best way to achieve this was a life of contemplation, though my lived experience refutes his theory.
Only Ayn Rand, among the major philosophers (yes, I will call her that), would argue that “right” is acting in accord with one’s self interest, what is called “ethical egoism.”
Someone once said that the experience of being disillusioned with politics was exactly the same as realizing a hooker doesn’t love you. Actually, that was me, I said that.
Politics does have real consequences. Like hundreds of thousands of COVID deaths. Or violence in the streets. But none of the people at the rally in Reading were there for that reason. It was something else. It’s always something else. Anger? Pride? Community?
I walked the miles back along the fence, past the abandoned bus still sitting there like a Zen koan. I’ve often thought about Elia Kazan’s great memoir, A Life when thinking about politics. Kazan testified in front of the House Committee on un-American affairs, ruining the careers of many people. Throughout the 860-page memoir he both justifies and backs away from his actions. At one point, he remembers a friend who’d been ruined by the media blacklists. It’s just a sentence or two, and it’s so sudden, and just as quickly forgotten. He says, and I’m paraphrasing, “What is politics? It’s nothing! It’s not worth one human life!” And then, as if catching himself, he retreats, waving it all away and saying, “Well, we can’t change the past.”
* * *
By a strange coincidence, the night of the Reading, PA rally was the same night as the Femdom Calendar Release Party in Philadelphia. There had been days of curfews, and the party was expected to be shut down. But somehow, it wasn’t. It was in a warehouse and the entire loading bay was open, so similar to being outside. And there weren’t too many people, and everyone wore a mask. I thought my life seemed so strange that I would end up at a place like that, at that particular time. For this to be happening during a pandemic and during rioting that had convulsed the city felt surreal and forbidden, even though there were only maybe 30 attendees. I just happened to know the organizer and took over bartending duties.
I’ll skip the details. But after the party, two dominatrixes and I and another man went to the home of one of the ladies. I hadn’t met these people before. It was after midnight and one of the ladies was making some food. I was giving a shoulder rub to the other lady, who also had her feet in the face of the man who was laying beneath her on the floor.
I mentioned that I was in Pennsylvania because I had been traveling with the Trump campaign, trying to understand what it was all about.
“He’s going to win,” the man said, the woman’s toes in his mouth.
“What?” I asked. I was surprised because we were in the inner city. And I just assumed the ladies were liberal. But he seemed completely comfortable and sure of his opinion, even on the floor, running his tongue along her soles.
“Absolutely,” he said as she stepped on him, his own face covered in spit. “Nobody likes the other guy.”
I do, I thought. I like the other guy. But no question, it’s definitely a weird situation.
Stephen Elliott is an author, editor, activist and film director. Follow him on Twitter at @S___Elliott.
Featured image: Author’s photo of October, 2020 Trump rally in Reading, PA.