HERSHEY, Pa. – With the calendar reading December, even Donald Trump seemed surprised – well, almost surprised – by the packed house that came tonight to hear him yet again call out "the dishonest media," to rip "stupid politicians" who "sold us up the river" on trade, and drop the occasional lie about "the highest murder rate in 45 years" (not even close) or the alleged 8,000 people waiting outside in sub-zero wind chill (huh?).
The man who becomes America's 45th president in 36 days said he understood the "build the wall!" passion of the fall campaign but that "if somebody else – a normal person – came after the election you'd get maybe 15 people, because they're tired of politics," adding perhaps post-election his fans are "more laid back."
The election may have ended five-and-a-half weeks ago, but try telling that to the hundreds of folks who ringed Hershey's Giant Arena some three hours before the rally started as polar winds cascaded across the open farmlands of central Pennsylvania, or to the sea of red "Make America Great Hats" bobbing on the concrete floor of the hockey rink, and certainly not to the future president who seems intent on reliving November 9, again and again.
Indeed, I'd come to Hershey to immerse myself in what seems to be America's new normal, no matter how not normal it all still feels, and to seek an answer to a question: Is Donald Trump's unorthodox "Thank You Tour" of victory rallies in the key battleground states like Pennsylvania just one more national monument to the towering narcissism of the 45th president-to-be?
Or is it something darker, a rite of slow passage toward a more authoritarian United States, with a preening strongman at the head?
Hershey seemed like a good place for Trump to say thank you. After all, it was the unexpected surge in rural counties and the ring of rust-eaten, abandoned-factory towns in central Pennsylvania that gave the Republican upstart his 44,000-vote upset victory in the Keystone State, knocking down the supposed solid blue wall that was going to put Hillary Clinton in the White House. The looping whimsy of the Hersheypark roller coasters outside the arena stand in contrast to the saga of hundreds of factory jobs slashed in this chocolate-making town since 2000, some of them moved south to Mexico.
Like America's other problems, Trump told the crowd that the main solution to the jobs situation would be...Trump. "The era of economic surrendering is over," the president-elect said to cheers. "You are now going to have a champion that fights for you in the White House because from now on it's going to be America first!"
But few of the 7,000 or so folks who packed the arena appeared to have jobs and the economy on the top of their list. Instead, with Christmas just 10 days away, the rally was the political equivalent of Festivus – all about the airing of grievances and Trump boasting about his feats of strength. And aside from the occasional "Lock her up!" rants about Hillary, about 90 percent of his fans' grievances are against the news media.
"CNN Sucks!" people milling around the hockey floor blurted out from time to time, as casually as one might hear "Happy Holid…", excuse me, "Merry Christmas"…at the seasonal office party, while others scrawled that slogan across their Trump/Pence placards. "HE WON – GET OVER IT!" blared another sign, a photo of a bawling infant surrounded by the logos for CNN, MSNBC and some of the other news networks.
Near the stage, I had a pleasant conversation with 60-year-old Dave Delp, a social worker from nearby Harrisburg, a lifelong Republican who'd been turned away from two previous Trump rallies but got in to see Clinton a couple of times, to protest with his "Hillary for Prison" T-shirt. He said he was drawn to The Donald's firm position on immigration, but the two hand-scrawled signs at his feet told a different story, "Don't Believe the Liberal Media" and, of course, "CNN Sucks." (This despite the hours of free infomercial-style airtime that CNN gave to Trump pep rallies like this one, but I digress…)
Drill deeper and the Trump partisans will insist that the media spent too much time twisting Trump's words and giving Hillary – whose email problems received three times as much network airplay as all substantive issues combined – a free pass. That's from ones who will talk to a reporter, anyway.
I had to leave one section of the arena after a 30ish man who wouldn't give name but said he worked at a software company overheard that I wrote for the Daily News and then showed off his search-engine skills and pulled up, on his phone, our paper's notorious 2015 cover about Trump's proposed (and unconstitutional) Muslim ban, the one headlined "The New Furor."
"Don't talk to him – he thinks we all Nazis," the man interrupted the interview.
"Uh, he's right – I better not talk to you," said the young Trump voter I'd been speaking with. I guess in Trump's America, anyone's just a Google search away from some kind of blacklist. For the record, I don't think Trump voters are Nazis – well, except for the tiny handful who say that they are – but one can't sit through the ritualistic pageantry of a Trump rally and wonder where he plans to take this thing. The venue may be a red, white and blue hockey rink in the American heartland, but the rallies, the braggadocio, the unfettered grievance against journalists, professors and other despised elites all carry ugly echoes of the worst that the 20th Century had to offer.
Just this week, a report by John Broich of Public Radio International recalled how U.S. journalists in the 1930s largely missed Europe's turn toward authoritarianism until it was too late. He quoted one of them, Dorothy Thompson, who wrote that "(n)o people ever recognize their dictator in advance," adding: "When our dictator turns up you can depend on it that he will be one of the boys, and he will stand for everything traditionally American."
Trump certainly fulfilled the last part of the bargain tonight.
He declared that the election results showed that "the American people still run our country" – even as Clinton's lead in the popular vote tally extends to roughly 2.8 million votes and accusations swell that Russia's Vladimir Putin worked to tilt the election toward Trump. "I will never forget you. I will never stop fighting for you and I never will let you down."
There was no talk of building alliances or making friends in the new Congress or with other nations – other players aren't even an afterthought in Trump's brave new world. Besides, there was too much other stuff to talk about – the endless replay of the states that fell for Trump on November 8, and the various jibes at CNN and its reporters like Jon King, whose "hands were shaking," the president-elect insisted, as he announced that Trump was ahead.
The crowd ate that up, but you can't help but wonder when the future commander-in-chief will finally adapt the message on the sign that his fan brandished 100 feet from the stage.