Manchester, New Hampshire When I told the friends I’d been staying with in Westchester that I was going to Donald Trump’s rally here last night, they had some advice: “Don’t get shot.”1

“It isn’t like that,” I tried to explain. Sure, there is a place in every Trump rally for the ritual denunciation of “the corrupt corporate media.” Anti-Trump protesters brave—or foolhardy—enough to try to disrupt the proceedings can expect an ugly time of it. And Trump’s message—his eagerness to blame foreigners for the heroin epidemic that continues to ravage so many New England towns, his open admiration for dictators (and his apparent belief that as president he could simply order his attorney general to investigate his political enemies), his assumption that corruption, rather than global capitalism, is at the cause of our decline as a manufacturing power, and above all his claim that “I alone” can fix America’s problems—is always disturbing.2

But the audience that comes out, as a young woman at a Trump rally in Tampa told me, “to see him shake and turn red,” are there at least as much for the carnival atmosphere as for the message. On that count, at least, last night in Manchester did not disappoint. The crowds streaming into the Southern New Hampshire University Arena were boisterous, curious, and cheerful—waiting patiently while their friends stopped to take selfies with a woman in striped pajamas wearing a Hillary Clinton mask and carrying a “Hillary for Prison” sign, and snapping up Trump hats and scarves (useful against the fall cold) for discount prices.3

Although I arrived two hours after the doors opened—and an hour before Trump was scheduled to speak—I had no difficulty finding a seat in the sixth row, having decided beforehand to forego the dubious distinction of the press pen for a chance to sniff the zeitgeist at close range. In my section, surrounded by millennials—the men sporting a dozen variations on the buzz cut, the women often wearing “Crooked Hillary” T-shirts—the atmosphere was closer to a high school pep rally than a political event.4

The young man next to me—flannel shirt, hoodie, work boots and a “Make America Great” cap—roared his approval when one of the warm-up acts, a loyal New Hampshire Republican, vowed “we will protect all human life, born and unborn.” And when Jim Lawrence, the African-American candidate for the 2nd Congressional District, took the stage he yelled “We love you, Jim!” (When Lawrence said he was a Republican for the sake of his eight children, my neighbor turned to his girlfriend and grinned, “That’s a lot of kids.”)5

This was supposed to be the final hurrah of Trump’s campaign, but at the last minute he added a midnight rally in Grand Rapids. So although the candidate was late—forcing the crowd to sit through not one, but two Mike Pence warm-up speeches, punctuated by barely coherent rant from Rudy Giuliani, who compared Clinton’s email scandal with Watergate and the Teapot Dome—when Trump did arrive he got straight to the point. Claiming he’d just been endorsed by New England Patriots Quarterback Tom Brady—a claim apparently disputed by Brady’s wife, model Gisele Bundchen—Trump also read out a letter backing him, purportedly by Pats coach Bill Belichick but written in a dialect that sounded suspiciously like Trumpese.6

Having fulfilled his celebrity quotient for the night, Trump did briefly turn, not just to politics but to class analysis. “Do you want America to be ruled by the corrupt political class? Or do you want America to be ruled by the people?” Remarkably enough, this New Hampshire crowd preferred to be ruled by the people—an indication of revolutionary potential reinforced moments later, when Trump’s prediction that “tomorrow the American working class will strike back” brought the arena to its feet.7

Only I couldn’t help noticing that, unlike every other Trump rally I’ve attended during the campaign, in this arena most of the seats in the upper tier stayed empty. According to Republican pollster Frank Luntz, the same was true yesterday in Raleigh. 8

What does it mean? I don’t know. Maybe it means that the “shy Trump voters”—the ones the pollsters can’t see, who’ve been haunting my dreams since Brexit—were sitting quietly at home, appearing just long enough today to derail our politics and destroy our self-image as the country of decent people who twice elected Barack Obama. Or maybe it means that Trump’s endless litany of lies—from the nonexistent “thousands” waiting outside his rallies to the equally imaginary prospect of a Republican “replacement” for Obamacare that cuts costs and provides quality health care to all Americans—has finally caught up with him, and that the terrifying prospect of waking up tomorrow in Trump’s America has finally begun to hit home.9

There’s a lot that’s been right about Trump’s analysis; as the woman he denigrated yesterday as “Pocahontas” has been saying for years, the system really is rigged. America’s political class really is corrupt. And though they tend to be whiter than their counterparts at Clinton rallies, I’ve found plenty of thoughtful, kind people in the cheap seats watching Trump. Who for all his manifest faults as a politician, and a human being, has always put on a good show.10

Last night that show finally closed on the road. And though I doubt we’ve seen, or heard, the last of Donald Trump, maybe—just maybe—those empty seats were the first signs of a country beginning to come to its senses.11