Where do you go to celebrate you and your grown children not being indicted for directly colluding with Russia?
Donald Trump spent Thursday evening whooping it up at a reelection rally in Grand Rapids, Michigan, the second largest city in the state he won by the smallest margin in 2016, a mere 10,704 votes.
A crowd that police estimated at 15,000 gathered to hear Trump revive classics like “I have a better education than them. I’m smarter than them. I went to better schools than them. Much more beautiful house. Much more beautiful everything,” and perform his latest hit “The Democrats need to decide whether they will continue to defraud the public with ridiculous bullshit,” referring to the “the Russian hoax,” which he declared “finally dead.”
I drove the 130 miles from Ann Arbor to Grand Rapids to see for myself something that’s probably obvious from the moon — there’s nothing in American politics like a Trump rally.
There’s nothing like a stream of thousands of red-hated enthusiasts streaming into the center of a town, the giddiness resembling a college football game and the actual event resembling watching the mascot of the team preen and ramble for more than an hour. There’s nothing like the diversity of a Trump rally — mostly white men in the 40s, 50s and 60s. There’s nothing like the crowd of people who likely weren’t born the scions of a family fortune built on “suspect” interpretations of tax law roar with delight as a 72-year-old man, who has gotten pretty much every break America has to offer our richest kids, whines about what a victim he is.
And there’s nothing like watching a president of the United States holding a campaign rally more than 14 months before the next election where he brags about his innocence, as if the emoluments clause doesn’t exist, as six of his associates have been indicted for felonies like tax fraud, undisclosed foreign lobbying, or lies related to their contacts with Russia.
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But as I watched Trump relive the 2016 campaign at the site where he held the last rally of that campaign, I realized that what this crowd may love most about this man is that he gets away with it.
He got away with winning the presidency not despite “the deep state” but with at least some help from a letter from then FBI Director James Comey that seemed to reopen the investigation into Hillary Clinton’s emails. That letter focused him in the campaign’s closing days, according to Joshua Green author of Devil’s Bargain, convinced him to tweet far less and stick to the teleprompter, much as Trump did again Thursday in Grand Rapids.
Now he’s has gotten away with claiming “total exoneration” in the Russia probe though we’ve only seen less than 1 percent of the actual Mueller report and what we’ve seen comes entirely from the lens of an attorney general whose application for the job seemed to be a 2018 memo excusing the president from any obstruction of justice.
Maybe Trump gets away with it because he never gives up, shows any shame or admits any guilt. This is a man whose entire political career is built on insisting that the first black president was born in Africa. He is an expert in both activating people’s sourest instincts and finding convenient fault in anyone but himself.
The message in Grand Rapids is that he plans to get away with again.
Chants of “Four more years!” from the crowd were more common than the still common “Lock her up!” And the words “The Sequel” were plastered on the shirts and other swag that many if not most of his fans were sporting.
This time he is going to have vast political machinery behind him, his campaign manager Brad Parscale promised this week, while he was in the key swing state of Romania.
“In 2016, we had 700,000 volunteers help us,” he said. “In 2020, we’re gonna have 1.6 million volunteers. I had 3,000 team leaders across the United States. This time we’ll have 90,000 team leaders.”
Michigan is a state where Trump is going to need that manpower.
Despite the New Year’s Eve-at-the-gated-community-clubhouse vibe Trump enjoyed in Grand Rapids, this state has swung hard away from the Republican Party under Trump.
The state elected Democrats to all statewide offices in 2018 while also passing a set of voting reforms that could alleviate many of the voting problems that plagued Detroit in 2016, as Clinton got 76,402 fewer votes in Wayne County than Obama did in 2012.
“Data from the U.S. Commerce Department’s Bureau of Economic Analysis shows that personal income growth in Michigan during Trump’s presidency is among the lowest of any state,” Bloomberg reports.
Trump’s promises to workers turned to attack on autoworkers last week when a union leader in Ohio pointed out Trump’s tax cuts incentivized General Motors to send jobs oversees. This is the kind of telling rebuke, like Mitt Romney’s “Let Detroit Go Bankrupt” OpEd, that resounds around the Great Lakes.
But the lesson of this Trump rally is that we should never doubt that Trump still might get away with it. Because he already has.
Jason Sattler, a writer based in Ann Arbor, Michigan, is a member of USA TODAY’s Board of Contributors and host of “The GOTMFV Show” podcast. Follow him on Twitter: @LOLGOP