Days before taking my two children to a Donald Trump rally I almost reconsidered, recalling the mood of seething grievance that weighs on many of the Republican nominee’s events. I imagined my 13-year-old son and his 12-year-old sister meeting the red-faced men who lurk near reporters in our fenced-in press pens, bellowing “Liars!” I considered the “Trump that Bitch” T-shirts and “Bomb the shit out of ISIS” badges worn by his supporters, and the primal yells that rise from some in his crowds when protesters break cover. Then I thought about how future historians will puzzle over this election, and decided that, in some small way, it was my civic duty to create two more eye-witnesses to the disaster.
I had not anticipated that just three minutes after arriving for a Trump rally in Kinston, North Carolina, my son would be explaining to his (appalled) sister what Bill Clinton did with an intern in the Oval Office, after they passed an itinerant salesman peddling T-shirts bearing the slogan: “Hillary Sucks, But Not Like Monica”. My daughter was further startled, moments later, by the sight of a middle-aged woman dressed for the rally in a replica jail uniform in orange cotton, complete with an image of prison bars and the words “Lock Her Up” on a sign round her neck. Extra dismay was prompted, it emerged, by her realisation that this Clinton-scorner was a mother, her expressionless school-age son in tow.
Their greatest shock, though, came almost an hour into the rally. Our closest neighbours in the crowd were a clutch of genial pensioners, or “nice old grannies” as my children later dubbed them. Yet once Trump had the crowd properly fired up with dystopian talk of American decline and the Clinton family’s perfidy, the pensioners joined in enthusiastically. They not only chanted “Lock Her Up” with the rest; one shouted “Yeah!” and “That’s right!” when a loud man called out, apropos of the Democratic nominee for president, “Burn her at the stake!” Quizzing the children later, this was the Trump effect that really shook them: that the rally had made boors of adults who should know better.
Though a proud parent, I had never expected my youngsters to play the role of the boy in “The Emperor’s New Clothes” and break new ground in Trump analysis. The fact that the Republican nominee is nakedly unfit to be president is no secret. As for the long-term electoral threat that he poses to the party that he has taken hostage, that has also been well reported. Instead my children brought a subtler skill to the Kinston rally: the teenagers’ rare ability to detect adult absurdity. When it comes to spotting when grown-ups are making fools of themselves, a 13-year-old has the sensitivity of an exquisitely tuned seismograph. And the fact that many Republicans – including many holders of high office – have abandoned not just their conservative principles but their dignity to support Donald Trump is a point that is both worth recording and surprisingly hard for working reporters to make, without sounding either too partisan or a bit rude.
Standing at the edge of a North Carolina airfield, watching members of Congress, grandees of the state Republican Party and a crowd of Trump fans scan the horizon for the businessman’s Boeing 757, my children had no such qualms. They heard the besuited activist next to us gasp, “Wow, what an entrance”, as the Trump plane finally rolled to a halt – and rolled their eyes. Loudspeakers played the swelling chords of the theme from “Air Force One”, the 1997 action film, at deafening volume. Asked later about the plane’s arrival, my 12-year-old declared it “a bit naff”, an unusually grave charge. They found it more tragic than sinister when the intense young man in front of us, clad in a blazer and “Make America Great Again” baseball cap, began surreptitiously filming us with his smartphone after we did not join in anti-Hillary chants.
Taken to a Democratic rally in Winston-Salem the following day, the children found the adults playing more familiar roles, combining dignity with an appropriate dose of dullness. As if describing a guest speaker at a school assembly, watching Clinton had been “good”, my daughter said, without wild enthusiasm. They liked an address by Michelle Obama more, though my son, it seemed, had been distracted by the orange jacket that Clinton was wearing on stage. Under interrogation from his sister, he admitted to sending a Snapchat to a schoolmate, captioning a photo of Clinton with the gleeful words: “She’s wearing a prison jumpsuit”. An adult was being mocked by a teenager, but undeservedly and without her knowledge. All was well with their world.