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  • Writer's pictureThe San Juan Daily Star

What I found inside the MAGAverse on the eve of Trump’s trial

Former President Donald Trump during a rally at a fairgrounds in Schnecksville, Pa. on Saturday, April 13, 2024. (Michelle Gustafson/The New York Times)

By Michelle Cottle

On Saturday afternoon I drove out to eastern Pennsylvania, one of the big battlegrounds between President Joe Biden and Donald Trump in this election, to attend Trump’s final rally before his criminal trial starts Monday. I was curious about the mood of Trump voters as this historic case gets underway. Were they feeling angry? Worried? Frustrated? Ready to go all civil war?

Instead, I found young women in sequins, older ladies in tutus, men sporting all manner of red-white-and-blue combos and most everyone reveling in MAGA fellowship. It felt a little like the Whos down in Whoville gathering to sing after the Grinch stole Christmas. There was a vibe of unity, common purpose, faith and joy. I didn’t run across anyone sweating the trial. But I spoke with plenty of folks like Lauren Herzog — who was rocking pigtails, a MAGA hat and an American-flag pajama onesie — with her husband and a bunch of their friends, who were happy to field my questions about whether they were concerned that Trump would soon be in court.

There was much laughter and even more cross talk, but the bottom-line ruling from the group was, “Nah.” The more involved answer was that no one was troubled about Trump’s possible criminality, but all were outraged that the Democratic haters were trying to bring him down. Again.

One of the men joked that he was way more concerned his “Tourette’s would kick in” and he’d start yelling “‘Screw Biden’ a lot.” Only he went a shade bluer than “screw.” One of the women said she felt Trump was on trial only because he’s running for president. Pressed on the matter, she said she was concerned that most Americans were freaking “morons” these days. Except she went a shade bluer than “freaking.”

From person after person, I heard variations on this theme: Trump is the victim of a political witch hunt. The Democrats are panicked and desperate to take him out. He will nonetheless slip from their clutches. Again.

All of which speaks to a big part of the appeal of these gatherings. They aren’t merely opportunities to celebrate Trump, though Lord knows folks throw themselves into that with abandon. They are alternate-reality bubbles where his trials and tribulations are fake news and the self-affirming nature of community reigns supreme. No matter how unsettling things get in Joe Biden’s America, Trump rallies are the happy place where MAGA fans can be their authentic selves, comfortably surrounded by like minds and safe from the judgment and negativity of outsiders.

In here, Jan. 6 is no big deal — mostly peaceful and, anyway, not Trump’s fault. In here, the former president is the savior of democracy who will end wars and bring about economic prosperity with a snap of his fingers, which he would have already done by now if the 2020 election hadn’t been stolen, thank you very much. In here, all the chaos and troubles of the modern world can be laid at the feet of radical extremist Democrats, which means, by extension (and this point is important), fixing the mess is really as simple as replacing Biden with Trump.

By the time Trump took the stage, the wind was downright biblical, and some people were so swaddled in their hats, hoods and scarves you could barely see their faces. But everyone was whooping and chanting, basking in the warmth of his orange glow.

If the crowd wasn’t dwelling on the upcoming court case, the former president most definitely was: Not 10 minutes into his speech, he pivoted from bashing Biden as a “demented tyrant” to reminding everyone that “two days from now the entire world will witness the commencement of the very first Biden trial. They’re all Biden trials. You know that, right?”

From there, he headed straight down the rabbit hole we’ve come to expect. First, the assertion that his legal troubles aren’t about him but about his followers. “I’m proud to do it for you! Have a good time watching,” he urged, with the resolute air of a savior facing down a tiresome but necessary crucifixion. Then came the claims of outrageously unfair treatment, flavored with dishonesty: “On Monday in New York City I will be forced to sit fully gagged. I’m not allowed to talk! Can you believe it?” he said, as if he would be frog-marched into court with a rag stuffed in his mouth. To boos, he added, “They want to take away my constitutional right to talk.” (Um, not exactly. Trump has been instructed not to publicly attack the prosecutors, witnesses, jurors and court staff members involved in the case, not to mention their families and the families of the presiding judge and the district attorney.)

Trump took a swing at the judge — who is not covered by the gag order — calling him “highly conflicted and corrupt” and accusing him of suffering from Trump derangement syndrome. He dismissed the whole case as a plot by “the radical left Democrat Party” seeking “to do anything possible to keep me from running and winning in this election.” Then he went broader, insisting, “I did nothing wrong from Day 1.” And that, despite all the time and effort spent on “every hoax imaginable,” the opposition “found nothing — which makes me perhaps the most honest guy almost in the world.”

The crowd loved this. But it was his assertion that Monday’s proceedings are a “communist show trial” that really got people fired up. “We want Trump! We want Trump! We want Trump!” they chanted.

The guy really is an Olympic-caliber demagogue.

I spent most of Trump’s speech not far from the stage, sandwiched between two exceptionally kind older guys clad in camo, one with a matching hat that read “Ultra MAGA warrior.” One of them rustled me up a chair, offered to serve as a wind shield and even tried to lend me his gloves so my fingers wouldn’t freeze. I was comfortable enough, but after nearly an hour of listening to Trump’s usual ravings, I decided to call it a night.

Speed-walking toward the warmth of my car, I passed a stream of other early departers looking to beat the postspeech exodus. Walking along in pairs and small groups, some holding hands, people were quieter now, more subdued. Their Trump hats bobbing, their smartphones lighting the rocky path, they gingerly picked their way back out into the real world.

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