A New Darkness Falls on the Trump Movement
It was 6 a.m. in Cleveland. I had spent the night trying to sleep stretched out across three chairs in the baggage claim at the airport and was wearing the same sweaty, grass-stained sundress I’d worn at the Donald Trump rally from the night before, when a familiar face sat down next to me on the flight back to Washington, D.C.
There was Marjorie Taylor Greene sporting camo shorts and rhinestone bracelets, sipping a green Monster Energy drink. Hours earlier, the Georgia lawmaker and CrossFit devotee had delivered a stemwinder that made Trump’s own stream-of-consciousness remarks seem subdued in comparison.
“I saw you speak at the rally last night,” I said, my eyes bloodshot and my forehead leathery from baking in the June sun the day before.
“Oh?” Greene perked up, before quickly deflating when I informed her I was a reporter. “You [the media] don’t treat me very fairly.”
My days aren’t normally quite this … unusual. But it seemed oddly appropriate given the moment. Trump’s reemergence on the political scene is promising to spark a seismic disruption to America’s political system bigger than the one he caused when he came down his gilded escalator six years ago. Where once his supporters were hopeful, they now seemed aggrieved. The crowds are more frenzied, the conspiracies more fantastical, the cast of characters more outlandish.
That includes Greene, a freshman congresswoman from exurban Atlanta and self-described QAnon repentant who — just six months in office — has managed to get expelled from her committees and nearly censured for comparing mask-wearing to the Holocaust. A resume like that would, in past times, relegate her to the fringes of her party. But, on our chat home, she explained just how central she is set to become in the Trump comeback narrative.
The former president, she said, had personally invited her to the rally and, schedule permitting, she planned to attend his upcoming events across the country this summer.
Greene is an unapologetic type, which goes some way to explaining why she is appreciated by Trump — a man loath to ever admit fault or apologize. On stage, he praised her as “loved and respected, tough, smart and kind.”
During our flight home, she explained her penchant for making controversial statements as a byproduct of her northwest Georgia upbringing: that’s just how people talk back home. She said she felt the media has given her, a mom and businesswoman, an unfair shake, though the controversy that surrounds her is often of her own making — like the time she attracted headlines for agreeing with people who said the Parkland massacre was a “false-flag planned shooting.” She told me she continues to believe the 2020 election was stolen, though its validity has been proven time and again.
She never once asked to go off record as I sat there, in our row, half asleep and half awake. It had been a long 24 hours.
Earlier that day, I had traveled to the Lorain County fairgrounds in rural northeast Ohio to cover Trump’s first true post-presidential rally. The events tend to resemble a cross between a NASCAR tailgate and a traveling circus. Vendors from states far away come to sell their MAGA hats and Trump T-shirts. There are die-hard fans who camp out days before to get a prime position. Strangers give each other high-fives and honk their car horns as they pass houses flying Trump, or now, “F— Biden” flags.
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On Saturday evening, Trump had come to town to support congressional candidate Max Miller, a former White House aide who gained his endorsement partly because he was a loyal foot soldier willing to take on Rep. Anthony Gonzalez, one of the 10 House Republicans who voted to impeach Trump following the Jan. 6 Capitol riot.
But no one seemed to care about any of that. Few of the attendees registered any opinion on the congressional race. Two people I interviewed from the 16th District didn’t even know who Gonzalez or Miller were.
Instead, they wanted to hear from Trump; and, if not him, then the supporting cast of allies who have eagerly fed the fraud that the 2020 election was stolen, ripped from the hands of voters like them.
MyPillow CEO Mike Lindell, a Trump confidant and donor who has pushed conspiracy theories about the election so wild that he is now the defendant in a multimillion dollar defamation lawsuit by Dominion Voting Systems, was greeted like a veritable rock star. Wearing a suit and tie, sweat glistening off his face, he posed for selfies with fans, as they screamed out “hero!” at his mere passing by.
Lindell may have been one of the evening’s main actors, but the play itself was a fantasy about last November.
On stage, a math teacher from Cincinnati gave a bizarre PowerPoint presentation to a patient audience that squinted in the sun to see slides of squiggly lines he said amounted to evidence of widespread, coordinated election fraud. He used his fuzzy math to prove Trump actually won the election, and the audience nodded along.
When it was Greene’s turn to speak, she asked the audience, “Who is your president?” “Trump!,” they replied, even though the year is 2021 and Joe Biden occupies the White House.
Not that the crowd needed much convincing. I asked Richard Stachurski, a resident of Wellington, Ohio, if he wanted Trump to run in 2024.
“How do you run for president if you’re already president?” he replied.
When he finally took the stage, Trump attacked Biden’s policies and became animated when he pivoted to the past, talking about his negotiations with North Korean dictator Kim Jong Un and his plans for a border wall.
There was a familiarity to it all. The chants of “4 MORE YEARS!” and “LOCK HIM UP!” (this time, aimed at infectious disease expert Anthony Fauci instead of former campaign rival Hillary Clinton). The recitation of the sinister poem, “The Snake.”
And yet, there were signs this rally was different. During past rallies, Trump’s supporters applauded Trump as he trashed immigrants, demonized the media, and echoed his calls to lock up his opponents. But they also felt hopeful the real estate magnate was giving them a voice. There was a sense that this charismatic outsider would empower them to change Washington, and a joyfulness that came with being part of a movement. Now, they felt cheated. “WE THE PEOPLE ARE PISSED OFF,” one popular rally T-shirt read. Their champion was no longer in office, which means he had been stripped of any real power. It seemed to feed a sense of desperation, even from Trump himself.
“The subject matter is somewhat depressing,” he said of his own speech.
In all, Trump spoke for more than 95 minutes, and after the rally was over, supporters marched back to their cars. In the distance, the bright lights of the rally that read “SAVE AMERICA AGAIN” and a lit-up fairground french fries truck painted a dusky dreamscape redolent of Edward Hopper.
“Gloria,” the one-hit-wonder disco song about a woman driven to insanity because of a man, could be heard blaring from the speakers.
“Are the voices in your head calling, Gloria?”
People sang along.
It was time for us all to go home. And so I did, to the hotel I assumed I had booked. But when I arrived, the receptionist couldn’t find my reservation number. And after calling every hotel in the area, I resigned myself to the fact that a few hours in bed just wasn’t going to happen. To the airport I went.
“I think it’s because there was a Trump rally tonight,” one hotel receptionist said.
“Yes,” I replied, “Yes, there was.”