Canton, Ohio—The Donald Trump who strode onto the stage here at the Canton Memorial Civic Center last night was a Trump this reporter hadn’t seen before. The Rolling Stones provided the usual tough-love soundtrack—“You Can’t Always Get What You Want,” followed by “Time Is on My Side.” And Trump ad-libbed a two-fer denigration of President Obama and Secretary Clinton: “Why isn’t he working—instead of campaigning for crooked Hillary?”
For the most part, though, the Republican nominee stuck to his teleprompter—and to a script that, thanks to the opening gifted him by Clinton’s condemnation of his supporters as a “basket of deplorables,” clung, awkwardly but mostly effectively, to the high ground. “Hillary Clinton calls people who aren’t supporting her deplorable and irredeemable. I call people who aren’t supporting me American citizens—who are entitled to the same respect as anyone else—and I will not stop campaigning for every last American vote, in every last American community, right up until November 8th.”
Sounding at times like the love child of Bill Clinton and Ben Grimm, Trump told the overwhelmingly white crowd—out of 6,000 people I was able to count African-Americans on one hand—that “nowhere has the pain been worse than in our inner cities.” Casting Clinton as an elitist divider—“the candidate of an arrogant ruling class in Washington”—Trump auditioned for the role of unifier: “I’m running to be the president of all Americans, to represent all Americans, and to liberate our poorest citizens from crime and poverty and violence.”
Was it credible? No more than his claim to have “put states in play that no Republican has ever come close to winning.” Massachusetts? The District of Columbia? Or has Trump consigned Nixon’s 1972 landslide to the memory hole?
There are few pursuits in politics as pointless as fact-checking Donald Trump. He lies so often, and so casually—as in last night’s claim that “vets are treated worse than illegal immigrants” or that Clinton “wants to increase refugees by 550 percent” (she’s actually just proposed increasing the number of refugees from Syria admitted to the US from 10,000 to 50,000, without saying anything about overall immigration)—that trying to hold him to the specifics on any proposal is a fool’s errand.
But last night, responding to Ford’s announcement yesterday morning that it would move all small-car production to Mexico, Trump also returned to a very specific proposal he’d floated during the primary campaign: a 35 percent tariff on all vehicles imported for sale in the United States.
Which is as good a time as any to point out the terms of Trump’s bargain with the Republican establishment, who presumably are not looking forward to paying more for their Range Rovers, Porsches, BMWs and Mercedes S class rides. Or, for that matter, sharing power with the pissed-off working men and women I saw wearing “Deplorables for Trump” T-shirts. And who are even more uncomfortable sharing a basket—or anything else—with the likes of David Duke or the over-the-hill Hitler youth on Stormfront. Yet they tolerate it all—the lies, the bullying, the crude misogyny, the attacks on a federal judge, the casual invocation of violent insurrection—not because of any deep policy differences with Hillary Clinton but precisely because they are, as Trump repeatedly pointed out during the primary debates, the corrupt tools of lobbyists and special interests who see no other way to hold on to their own privilege and power. The Republican establishment doesn’t trust Trump. But they need him, and are in the process of supplying the efficient field organization he’s never shown any interest in building.
Aside from a chance to hold on to power—no small consideration in a state where the GOP currently has a lock on the executive branch, as well as super-majorities in both houses of the legislature—what they may get in return is more of the kinder, gentler Trump we saw here last night.
The charge of racism, in particular, seems to hurt respectable white people’s feelings. And so Trump went to Flint—eight months after Hillary Clinton made the water crisis there a national issue, and seven months after Clinton herself visited the city. Trump’s anodyne comment that Flint’s malign neglect “ demonstrates failure at every single level of government” wasn’t designed to prompt any action—much less to discomfort the state’s Republican governor, Rick Snyder, whose political appointee hooked the city up to the tainted water.
Instead, Trump’s visit—and much of his speech last night—was merely an extended exercise in virtue signaling aimed at reassuring Republican women and working-class whites that, as Omarosa Manigault, the Apprentice veteran who now serves as “senior advisor for African-American outreach,” told the crowd, “my boss may not be politically correct,” but he is not a racist.
For months Trump and his followers have wanted to define their campaign as a culture war against overweening elites. Thanks to Clinton’s disparaging remarks, that effort has suddenly acquired a patina of plausibility. “Aren’t you sick and tired,” Manigault asked the crowd last night, “of these elites telling you what to do? What to say? What to think?” The Canton audience gave her the same resounding applause the folks in Cleveland gave to every African-American speaker at the Republican National Convention. Almost as if they were trying to prove something.
There is something deeply disturbing about the racial politics of the Trump rallies I’ve attended, with their at times belligerent white crowds entering through a gauntlet of overwhelmingly African-American sellers of Trump hats, T-shirts, and buttons. “Trump that bitch!” cried one vendor last night, while another man hawked “Hillary Sucks, But Not Like Monica” to the delight of the teen-age boys in attendance. This was clearly a buyers market, but to put Trump’s appeal down to overt racism is to miss his genius for identifying precisely the line between unvoiced racial resentment and open bigotry. Defusing the tangle of race and class beneath Trumpism would take a national teach-in covering not just the history of slavery and segregation, but also the reality of class stratification, economic exploitation, and the way both race and gender operate to reinforce and police those relationships. And that isn’t going to happen—certainly not before November 8.
Which means that Trump’s opponents are going to have to offer Ohio’s voters something to vote for, rather than merely someone to vote against. Talking to people, rather than down at them, might be a good place to start.