The resumption of the rallies is Trump’s last great campaign gambit: a ferocious communing with supporters in sports stadiums across the United States. It also threatens to be his ultimate undoing.
Hoffman has lived with and written about former cannibals in New Guinea, the folk who ride Mumbai’s railways (the deadliest in the world) and the hunter-gatherers of Borneo.
However, his journey into the heart of his own nation felt even more foreign to him than hanging out with the pygmies in the Ituri rainforest in the Congo. Trump’s Make America Great Again campaign truly unsettled him, he said, a bizarro universe of alternative fact.
Hoffman stood in line for days with crowds of supporters, travelling across the country from Minnesota to Texas to Mississippi interviewing hundreds of attendees and immersing himself in their culture.
He said that, to those on the left, the rallies are a “black mass of American politics at which Trump plays high priest, recklessly summoning the darkest forces” within the nation.
However, to the MAGA faithful, the rallies are a form of pilgrimage, combining classic FM hits played at high volume, evangelical religious revival tropes and professional wrestling buffoonery, with clearly defined heroes and villains, binding people together and making them feel a part of something bigger than themselves.
“Trump had found influence not through cultivation of years of relationships, of studied political favours and lever pulling in back rooms, but through an unruly, feral, electric mob – incubated and indoctrinated online – that was made flesh and blood and nourished weekly in a new kind of ritual,” Hoffman said.
“It has a lot to say about why Trump is so revered and the rallies are everything to him, which is why he was flailing so badly over the past five months [when the rallies were shut down because of the pandemic].”
During this lockdown, a number of American commentators have begun openly to question whether Americans are turning off the Trump reality show. They say his appeal is fading
“We live in an attention economy. And attention equals power. And we still, as a country, have not fully been able to reckon with what that means,” said Harvard University professor Nancy Gibbs in the documentary, Enemies of the People, which aired on Vice TV last week.
Trump dominated the “attention economy” dynamic in 2015 and 2016. However, he is failing to generate as much attention, they say, pointing to last week’s duelling town halls when more Americans watched Biden on ABC than Trump on NBC, MSNBC and CNBC combined, according to Nielsen.
Biden retains a sizeable advantage over Trump in the polls, but his lead has declined from its peak after the first presidential debate. Biden leads Trump by 7.5 per cent nationally, according to the RealClearPolitics average, down from a lead of 10.3 on October 11. Biden’s average lead in the key battleground states ranges from 2.1 per cent in Florida to 7.8 in Michigan.
Hoffman said the critics failed to understand how each rally built a collective momentum that served to amplify Trump’s power, creating an echo-chamber where reality itself is unacknowledged.
It’s a “make-believe, upside down world that is larger than life”, a fantasy arena full of largely white men and women spellbound by the words and the symbols and the icons of their youth where all of their hopes and dreams and resentments are addressed.
“To stand alone against an entire world view, an entire narrative, all by yourself for hours on end is emotionally exhausting,” Hoffman said.
“The craziest part of it was that Trump was so relaxed and confident and strong. I didn’t want to see it or feel it but I did: an immense strength. A strongman. It can be hard to resist and very seductive.”
Hoffman said only the pandemic breaks the spell. COVID-19 has cut through so sharply. It’s never been defeated. Trump is going where people are clustered closely together and they’re not wearing masks or social distancing. It swings a daily spotlight on Trump’s failure to prevent more than 220,000 Americans from dying.
Trump is losing some of his fellow Baby Boomers who voted for him in 2016.
Four years ago, Trump handily won his own generation, which is generally defined as being born between 1946 and 1964, while losing every younger generation.
The Pew Research Centre estimates that Trump beat Hillary Clinton by nine percentage points among voters 65 and older. The latest polls this year show a radically different situation. A CNN poll released yesterday found Biden leading Trump by 21 points — 60 per cent to 39 per cent — among likely voters 65 and older.
“Here’s the thing,” Hoffman said, “Trump’s hardcore base love going to the rallies again. They’re loving every piece of that.
“But if you’re an older couple who voted for Trump in 2016, you’re now worried about going outside and getting the virus. They’re not living their hoped-for big, bold life. These are the types who think 70 years old is the new 50 and they’re furious and nervous and afraid.
“That’s the fault line in Trump’s supporter base. And the rallies are a constant reminder of that fault line.”
With The New York Times
Heath Gilmore is the US Votes 2020 editor.