Gwynn Guilford writes: Over the span of three days in March, in far-flung corners of Ohio, more than 20,000 people—retired schoolteachers, hair stylists, chinos-clad Young Republicans, Nicaraguan immigrants, Vietnam vets, primly coiffed soccer moms—braved downpours, traffic, muscle spasms, hunger, and protesters for a chance to behold, in the very tanned flesh, Donald J. Trump, billionaire, business genius, TV star, and, very possibly, the next president of the United States. One of those people was me.
I went, first and foremost, to answer a deceptively simple question: How has Trump defied pretty much every rule not just of electoral politics, but of contemporary civil discourse to lead the race for the Republican party’s nomination for president? Set aside for one moment the economic conditions that we know have made Trump’s rise possible. What about those of the human psyche? What does Trump’s improbable rise reveal about how Americans understand themselves, what they imagine for their country, what they crave in their leaders?
To find answers to these questions, I decided to become part of Trump’s audience, not just its observer. For three days in mid-March, I buried my reporter credentials in my bag and lost myself in the throngs of Trump supporters at rallies in Cleveland, Cincinnati, and Youngstown. What I experienced astonished me. I’m far from being a Trump supporter; in fact I object to most of his views. But as I shuffled out of a Youngstown aircraft hangar, I became aware of the unsettling but very real possibility that, in the thrill of the moment, I’d been chanting along with the Trump crowd. (I don’t think I did, but I can’t be sure). Indeed, it felt like I had just taken part in an epic psychological experiment.
Spending three straight days in the audience taught me one crucial thing. The overlooked star of the Trump show is the crowd—the single-voiced creature that roars “Mexico!” when asked about wall construction, and emits a foghorn of boos when reminded of reporters cooped in a pen at the rear of the room. From within the Trump rally masses, I felt the strange sea-change that fuses 20,000 individuals into one being, I felt its power swell, and sometimes it felt good. [Continue reading…]