By ROBERT HARDMAN,
writing from Pennsylvania
‘He may be an ogre, but he’s our ogre!’ That’s the view of Trump’s devoted supporters whose hatred of Hillary means they’ll forgive him anything.
“We are now beyond any semblance of normality.”
— Veteran right wing political analyst Alan Roth
Donald Trump has only been going for a few minutes when he lobs in the first grenade. ‘Crooked Hillary Clinton! Oh, she’s crooked folks,’ he growls. ‘She’s as crooked as a three dollar bill . . .’
A middle-aged man is on his feet in an instant. ‘Lock her up!’ he shouts. Whereupon the entire crowd of 10,000 — all ages, mainly white and evenly balanced between men and women — start chanting: ‘Lock! Her! Up!’
I spot an eerily convincing Hillary Clinton lookalike wearing giant handcuffs. She raises her chained hands aloft, shrieking: ‘Lock! Her! Up!’ with the rest of them.
Trump turns his disdain towards the fenced-off media enclosure, where I am standing, in the middle of this enormous indoor ice hockey arena.
‘They are so dishonest,’ he sneers at us. ‘Without the media, Hillary Clinton couldn’t be elected dog-catcher!’
The crowd roars its appreciation and turns on its favourite media villain, chanting: ‘CNN sucks! CNN sucks!’ The TV news network, Trump fans insist, is strongly skewed in Clinton’s favour.
They’ll be even angrier in the morning when they learn of a fresh batch of emails released by the Wikileaks website showing how cosy relations have become between the Clinton camp and various key players in the U.S. media. One reveals how Mrs Clinton was allowed to edit her own quotes in an article by the once-saintly New York Times.
Under normal circumstances, revelations such as these, not to mention explosive remarks by Clinton campaign managers mocking the Catholic and envangelical churches, would make headline news.
Instead, they will be eclipsed by further allegations about Donald Trump’s skirt-chasing past, now far and away the dominant issue of this campaign.
Yet, having followed Mr Trump and his grass-roots campaigners across the U.S. during a week which would have annihilated almost any other would-be world leader, two things are clear to me.
First, he retains the unwavering support of a very substantial chunk of middle America. Second, he is going to fight the nastiest campaign in living memory all the way to the finish. And while the odds are certainly against him, a great deal could happen between now and polling day on November 8.
Whatever people think about the Republican candidate — and even his fans acknowledge that the daily drip-feed of accusations of casual sexism is toe-curling stuff — there is no denying his skill as a great showman.
It’s what helped him come back from the brink with a poisonously effective performance during last Sunday night’s television debate against his Democrat opponent.
And it is a skill manifestly lacking in his opponent, which is why Hillary Clinton has been doing fewer election meetings to smaller crowds. Her lighter schedule has also reinforced rumours about her health following last month’s collapse in New York.
But, in truth, all she needs to do is to let her opponent keep generating terrible headlines. Trump, on the other hand, has been criss-crossing the marginal states of the U.S. in his personal airliner to fire up rallies like this one in Wilkes-Barre, Pennsylvania.
It is prime Trump territory, a former mining town struggling to carve out a 21st-century future. It’s just up the road from Allentown, immortalised in the 1982 Billy Joel hit (‘Well, we’re living here in Allentown, And they’re closing all the factories down . . .’).
Historically, a place like this would have leaned heavily to the Left and to the Democrats. But today the locals have been queuing for half a mile round the block to salute a New York property billionaire who has apparently gone for years without paying a penny of federal tax thanks to clever accountants.
‘Blue-collar workers respect a man like Trump who has had it, lost it and built himself up again,’ says Daniel Smerigilio, 33, a former soldier and policeman who now runs a security business. He’s wearing a ‘Hillary For Prison’ sweatshirt.
‘I’ve been waiting for a politician like Trump since I was a kid,’ he explains, before lifting up his sweatshirt to reveal the T-shirt underneath. It has former President Bill Clinton’s face above one word in huge type: ‘RAPE.’
Mrs Clinton’s personal ratings are dismal.
Between 60 and 70 per cent of Americans do not trust her
Until you set foot on the U.S. election trail for yourself, it is hard for an outsider to comprehend the visceral hatred which underpins this campaign.
Superficially, this started out as a battle between the spouse of a flawed ex-President and a straight-talking celebrity loudmouth — a U.S. equivalent of, say, an election contest between Cherie Blair and Jeremy Clarkson.
Here was a battle between the established political class and an outsider wielding a sledgehammer, a struggle between liberal values and a sepia-tinted but very frayed American Dream.
However, in recent days, the contest has come down to what many Americans regard as a stark choice between the lesser of two evils — whether to go for a liar or a sexist brute.
Mrs Clinton’s personal ratings are dismal. Between 60 and 70 per cent of Americans do not trust her. They smell a political opportunist with a massive sense of entitlement and much to hide, not least her £500,000 speeches to a private audience of Goldman Sachs bankers, and 33,000 emails deleted from a private email account in contravention of a court order.
Her greatest electoral appeal is not that she could be the first female president of the United States, but that she is not Donald Trump.
That should, in theory, give her an unassailable advantage, particularly now that so many Republican candidates for the Senate and other public offices have publicly disavowed their own man, splitting the Grand Old Party down the middle.
Following last week’s release of an 11-year-old tape in which Trump brags about grabbing women by their private parts and getting away with it because of his celebrity, he has now been accused of historic sexual misconduct by several women. The allegations are denied by Trump.
One woman claims he groped her on a plane 37 years ago while another says he walked in on naked contestants during a beauty pageant (an incident which he himself has joked about on talk radio).
Yesterday, a new tape emerged of a 46-year-old Trump filming a TV special in 1992, during which he meets a young girl and jokes: ‘I am going to be dating her in ten years. Can you believe it?’
Here in post-Jimmy Savile, post-Rolf Harris Britain, such allegations would swiftly derail any politician, especially one seeking to run the country.
But while they trouble and even appal many Americans, millions of voters are now too politically entrenched to change. ‘Trump may be an ogre,’ they say, ‘but he is our ogre — and he is not a crook.’
And then they point to President Bill Clinton’s sexual shenanigans during his days in power.
As a result, strange things are happening out there in real America. The veteran Right-wing political analyst Allen Roth tells me that we are now ‘beyond any semblance of normality’. He points to the fact that a Republican Senate candidate in Nevada has seen his ratings plummet since condemning Trump after last week’s excruciating tape expose, whereas pro-Trump Republicans in states like Wisconsin and Colorado have actually enjoyed a late boost.
‘This is still a contestable race,’ he says.
The crowd certainly think so here in this noisy Pennsylvania arena.
‘The media are just grasping at straws with these stories. Everyone knows what Donald Trump was like before he ran for office,’ says Mary Richardson, standing at the front of the crowd. ‘But I am a businesswoman, I am college-educated, I am a mum — and I love Donald Trump.’ Her teenage son and daughter both agree.
They have queued for hours to be in the front row at this rally. Hillary Clinton has derided these people as a ‘basket of deplorables’ (an insult which they all love, by the way). This, though, is a much broader crowd than the stereotypical male, elderly, blue-collar/redneck Trump fanbase painted by his critics.
I meet Trump-supporting female civil servants, Clinton-hating executives and an ex-U.S. air force pilot who is now flying for a major commercial airline.
There are warm-up acts like ‘Bikers For Trump’ and former Mayor of New York Rudy Giuliani who come on stage to welcome their ‘fellow adorable deplorables’. But this crowd doesn’t need warming up.
One man (an African-American as it happens), leaps up shouting: ‘Build the Wall!’ The whole stadium joins in, howling for the fabled wall which Mr Trump insists he will erect along the America’s southern border with Mexico. With wholly unintentional irony, the chanting is followed by a Mexican wave or two.
When Trump finally appears, greeted like some Messianic saviour to a thunderous chorus of ‘U-S-A!’, he exudes that same slightly bored look he showed at last weekend’s TV debate.
It’s part of a core message which could be translated as follows: ‘I don’t really need to be here. I am not a politician. I am fabulously rich. I am doing this for your benefit not mine.’
Arrogance is a disastrous quality in most politicians, but it seems to work just fine for Trump, and his audience loves it.
He snaps his fingers and an aide called Dan trots up on to the stage with various bits of fresh polling data which suggests that he is heading for a landslide victory.
‘Is there any more fun [place] to be than a Donald Trump rally?’ Mr Trump asks immodestly, in between a pledge to reopen the coal mines and a poem about a woman who nurses a wounded snake back to good health only to receive a fatal bite (a well-worn Trump parable on mass immigration). Then comes a moment of pure showbiz brilliance. He spots two-year-old Hunter Tirpak sitting on his father’s shoulders dressed in a little dark suit with a little red tie, just like Trump. He even has the same hair.
Here is Trump’s Mini-Me. His parents have never met Trump in their lives. But now young Hunter is suddenly being invited up to the lectern, carried aloft by Secret Service officers into the arms of the real Donald.
Trump clasps him like a ventriloquist’s dummy and asks him his name. ‘Name,’ Hunter replies. ‘Are you having a good time tonight?’ asks Trump. ‘Night,’ says Hunter.
Wily old Trump has latched on to the fact that the boy simply repeats the last word addressed to him. So he asks Hunter if he wants to go back to his parents, ‘or do you want to stay with Donald Trump?’
Sure enough, little Hunter replies: ‘Trump!’ The entire arena erupts in a mix of euphoria and hysteria.
Back in my Wilkes-Barre hotel room, I imagine that this moment will feature on the evening news bulletins, a moment of unscripted levity amid the murk of this septic campaign. But it never appears.
This helps explain why Trump’s followers loathe the media almost as much as they loathe Mrs Clinton.
This week’s leaks of cosy chats and confidences between the Clinton camp and senior figures at the CNN network, the Boston Globe and other big news outlets have only confirmed the sense among Trump diehards that the establishment has it in for the little people.
But the Trump camp has its own media base. As well as sympathetic voices within the Right-wing Fox News network, there are plenty of heavy-hitting Republican ‘shock jocks’ on the talk radio stations plus assorted well-known Right-wing/anti-establishment websites and bloggers.
I have already met some of them during my earlier travels to watch last Sunday’s big TV debate in St Louis, Missouri.
Jim Hoft runs the popular Gateway Pundit website, a pro-Trump website for true believers. Before the debate, he shows me video footage of Trump supporters being surrounded and beaten up on their way home from a rally in California.
‘Why does that never get shown on TV?’ he asks. ‘Whenever some crazy person turns on a Democrat, it’s always big news.’
At Washington University, where the debate is being staged, the entire university campus is rooting for Mrs Clinton. Even the university’s tiny cohort of Republican students have put up a sign saying: ‘Trump Scares Us Too.’
Everyone is gobsmacked when, shortly before the debate, Mr Trump wheels out a panel of women to repeat historic allegations of sexual assault by former President Bill Clinton. It’s a low blow which deftly succeeds in unsettling Mrs Clinton’s composure.
Since the actual debate is restricted to an invited audience, I want to see how it goes down with Republicans and head up the road to watch it at Claudia’s Pub. The crowd ranges from truck drivers and pensioners to a former member of the state senate.
Their spirits rise as the debate unfolds, particularly when Trump announces that, if elected, he will appoint a federal prosecutor to pursue Hillary’s email discrepancies.
She responds that it’s a good thing ‘Donald Trump is not in control of the country’. Back comes his killer retort: ‘Because you’d be in jail.’ The whole of Claudia’s is on its feet, punching the air.
Afterwards, even the most anti-Trump pundits have to concede that he is still in the race. Pro-Trumpers are cock-a-hoop, among them former Ukip leader Nigel Farage, in town as a guest of Mr Trump. He admits that this was vicious stuff.
‘The whole of America must have been shifting very uncomfortably for the first 20 minutes, but Trump dominated,’ he says.
What about all the scandals? ‘Look, he’s like an alpha male silver-backed gorilla. He’s not running for Pope.’
Over the same weekend, I drive out of town and head 100 miles west to Boone County, one of the most marginal parts of this marginal state. Here 30,000 people have packed into a tiny farming town for the annual Hartsburg Pumpkin Festival.
Business is brisk at the stall run by the Boone County Republicans (the Democrats are nowhere to be seen). People come flocking for Trump bumper stickers and posters, and more than half are women. Local party chairman Mike Zweifel tells me he has not received a single complaint following Mr Trump’s lewd remarks about grabbing women with impunity.
‘Trump is sometimes too vocal for my liking but he says what he means and he isn’t afraid,’ says civil servant Lisa Rupard, 40.
‘He speaks his mind and he’s not a lifetime politician,’ says retired teacher Janice Guyer. Student nurse Taylor Dey, 18, tells me all her college friends are voting Trump: ‘He’s the only hope we have.’
Whatever the result on November 8, this disturbing, toxic mood now so viciously dividing American society will not disappear. It is, I predict, going to get even worse.