segunda-feira, 7 de novembro de 2016
My year with Trump: covering a curiosity that became a dark phenomenon
My year with Trump: covering a curiosity that became a dark phenomenon
The Republican’s long road to election day took in insults, adulation, violence and outlandish claims as the press pack was progressively corralled and vilified
Ben Jacobs in Washington
Sunday 6 November 2016 14.00 GMT
In the beginning, Donald Trump simply wouldn’t allow the press to eat cold meats from the buffet.
Trump was holding a house party in suburban New Hampshire in late June 2015. The main event was around a backyard swimming pool under a fickle summer sky.
The family hosting the presidential candidate had a 22-year-old son who was a Trump superfan. He had somehow coaxed the candidate to appear at the backyard event. Before the speech, there would be a reception for invited guests with hors d’oeuvres stacked on the family’s dining room table. But this was for invited guests only. Reporters, let alone more plebeian Trump supporters, were not permitted to partake.
Otherwise, there were no press pens as reporters stood intermingled in the crowd with ardent Tea Partiers and curious onlookers there to see a television celebrity who had somehow ended up in Bedford, New Hampshire, for the evening.
Trump delivered a long, winding monologue of the sort that would later become his trademark as he veered from dire warnings about illegal immigrants to praise for executives at Comcast and an extended and impassioned anecdote about how professional politicians couldn’t recognize low-quality highway guardrails.
The event, with more than 200 people was one of the rare times that Trump attempted anything approaching traditional retail politics. As he soared in the polls, Trump became a phenomenon who packed arenas and stadiums across much of the south. By September 2015, even the gesture of a retail stop at a tailgate outside an Iowa v Iowa State football game turned into a mob scene. The candidate was swarmed by people chanting his name and reaching out to somehow touch him as a pack of bodyguards protected Trump from getting too close to the masses outside the stadium.
It was during this period that the Guardian interviewed Trump in a New Hampshire hotel conference room after he had addressed a non-partisan event designed to focus on “problem solving”. He was gracious and soft-spoken if vague on policy detail. He broadly endorsed several progressive priorities like federal funding for police body cameras and rail transit while striking his typical isolationist notes on foreign policy. The interview was filmed and it was noteworthy how keenly aware he was of the camera and how carefully he positioned himself for it.
Instead, Trump became a candidate of big venues and big speeches. Once or twice a day in high school gyms or a convention center in Iowa or New Hampshire, the Republican nominee would put on his show. By the autumn of 2015, Trump had acquired secret service protection and all the other accoutrements of a general election candidate, despite the fact that he was a political novice who had never appeared on a ballot. Reporters were caged in a press pen, unable to freely roam and mingle with voters once the nominee was in the vicinity.
Trump supporters jeer at protesters during a campaign rally in Burlington, Vermont, on 7 January. Photograph: Erin Siegal/Reuters
His campaign stops became must-see events, especially in states where visits from presidential candidates were rarities. Trump rallies seemed to resemble rock concerts more than anything previously seen in presidential politics. In a January 2016 rally in the Bernie Sanders heartland of Burlington, Vermont, lines stretched for blocks in the bitter cold as thousands of people congregated to see Trump in a downtown theater. Many were taking their minds off the weather by drinking steadily as they waited and the street was soon littered with empty beer cans.
The atmosphere was just as unusual inside the Trump rallies. The Republican candidate’s events became ground zero for protests over a variety of issues, ranging from his vehement anti-immigrant rhetoric to his advocacy of a ban on Muslims entering the United States. In Burlington, a liberal college town, Trump staffers were eagle-eyed at the door, requiring attendees to take loyalty pledges to enter. That wasn’t enough to stop the event from being repeatedly interrupted, with the candidate urging: “Take him out. Get him out of here. Don’t give him his coat!” as one heckler was ejected.
Repeated disruptions became routine, along with actual outbreaks of violence. The disturbing trend culminated in a cancelled rally in Chicago, which descended into chaos. The candidate didn’t take the stage as the venue in the heart of deep Democratic blue, ethnically diverse Chicago was filled with protesters. When the announcement came that Trump was not taking the stage, fights quickly broke out throughout the arena. Such scenes of political violence had not been seen in decades in the United States.
The next day, Trump’s rally in Cleveland had about a dozen interruptions from protesters, something which would have been astonishing had it happened in any other year to any other candidate. Instead, there was no violence and no attempt by Trump to encourage violence and it just seemed like the new normal as he sneered at those who were escorted out, claiming that they were sent by “our communist friend”, Bernie Sanders.
But it wasn’t just the crowds at Trump’s events, which were unusual. It was the candidate’s rhetoric. On a daily basis, Trump made statements that were just astonishing by any traditional standard, comparing a rival to a child molester, or linking another’s father to a plot to kill President Kennedy. In the course of a single day on the campaign trail in South Carolina, Trump both attacked the pope and accused one of the most decorated American soldiers in history of committing war crimes. The statements had no effect on his standing in the polls and he won a commanding victory only a few days later in the South Carolina primary.
Trump finally clinched the Republican nomination in early May when Ted Cruz dropped out after the Indiana primary. His next event was a raucous rally in a grim brutalist arena in Charleston, West Virginia. It had been scheduled in advance of the state’s primary. Hours before it started, the crowd outside formed a disorderly horde in red and white Make America Great Again hats. Once Trump finally took the stage in the dank 60s-era construction in the dilapidated downtown, he strutted about the stage triumphantly, suggesting to attendees that they didn’t need to bother to vote in the primary any more as he boasted about his abiding love and affection for coal and coalminers.
In the weeks that followed, there was no pivot to a general election. Instead, Trump seemed nostalgic for the intra-Republican contest as he travelled the length of California in advance of the state’s June primary, as well as taking a bizarre trip to Scotland to see his golf course in the aftermath of the Brexit referendum.
When Trump officially became the nominee in July, it was at a convention in Cleveland that was more banal than anyone could have imagined. Although Trump had promised star-studded festivities and there were fears that protests in the surrounding streets would rival the dramatic scenes outside the 1968 Democratic convention in Chicago, it was instead a grim, depressing slog.
In lieu of celebrities, there was former Happy Days actor Scott Baio and, instead of graceful concession speeches, former rival Ted Cruz urged Republicans to “vote their conscience” in what was widely viewed as a snub to Trump. Much of the effort seemed to be focused on stopping anti-Trump rebels from forcing any vote or coming close to any open display of dissatisfaction. No one had any illusions that Trump could somehow be thwarted.
The nomination was secured after more than a week of grinding procedural warfare replete with the type of tactical chicanery that one would have expected from smoke- not iPhone-filled rooms. Anti-Trump petitions mysteriously disappeared, wavering delegates were subjected to intense pressure and every available scrap of procedure was put to good use. For a moment, he was just like any other candidate overseeing a political organization.
Paul Manafort, the shadowy veteran campaign aide who had finally elbowed out Trump’s longtime campaign manager, Corey Lewandowski, after an intense turf war, oversaw all of these efforts. For his reward, he was unceremoniously fired less than a month later after growing reports of his ties to Russia and acrimony within the highest ranks of the Trump campaign.
At that point, the campaign came under the control of Steve Bannon, the editor of the rightwing site Breitbart. Working in concert with veteran GOP pollster Kellyanne Conway, Trump abandoned his unscripted rallies and began using a teleprompter exclusively. He also hunkered down, avoiding the media outside of deeply conservative talk radio and Fox News.
In personal unguarded interactions, Trump was genial with the press. When the Guardian accompanied him on his personal plane in September as a pool reporter, he chatted freely with handful of journalists who accompanied him and went out of his way to be gracious. But these were few and far between as the Republican nominee became increasingly distant outside of his rallies and his omnipresent Twitter account.
The rallies began to take on darker tones. There was no more open violence or unruliness. Protesters had become rare. Instead, they became venues for Trump to share his rage over the “rigged system” and stir up an angry crowd – against the media, against Hillary Clinton, against “globalists” and a host of other villains.
Attendees showed up in bitter T-shirts proclaiming that they were “deplorable” and took up Trump’s invitation to deride reporters.
At one rally in Cincinnati in October, the traveling press was booed by a crowd of roughly 15,000 as it entered the arena.
Trump had stopped trying to be a normal candidate but he was no longer being Trump. It was a dark hybrid. He had lost much of the freewheeling joie de vivre that had taken him to strange, albeit controversial places. Instead, he had become a relatively coherent figure, articulating a clear world view – but one that was deeply paranoid and out of the mainstream, where the press was no longer a stalking horse but simply the enemy.