I took my 13-year-old son to the Donald Trump rally in Bangor, Maine. Though neither of us supports Trump, we couldn't pass up an opportunity to experience history in our hometown. Simon and I had seen the frenzied crowds on television, and we stayed up late watching the presidential debates. We were excited to witness the media circus. And we looked forward to understanding more about both Donald Trump and his followers.
It was nothing like we expected.
Our first surprise occurred in the parking lot. We arrived at the Cross Insurance Center less than an hour before Trump was scheduled to take the stage, and yet plenty of good parking spots remained open. That seemed odd. I had worried we wouldn't even be able to get in.
Then we walked right in. There was no wait at the security checkpoint, where we emptied our pockets and strolled through metal detectors. Entering the arena, we were surprised by its vast emptiness (it can seat more than 8,000 for a concert or speech). Local politicians were revving up the crowd directly in front of the stage while entire seating sections remained vacant. Simon and I had a whole section to ourselves near the risers holding the national and local media. We then wandered down to the floor to check out the media area.
We were especially interested in the media, for Simon's grandfather, Sanford Socolow, had spent his long career in broadcast journalism battling politicians like Trump. My father was the executive producer of CBS Evening News With Walter Cronkite at the apex of its influence in the late 1970s. Earlier that decade, he and his CBS News colleagues were forced to respond to barbed invective spewed by Spiro Agnew and Richard Nixon's henchmen. Like Agnew, Trump threatens messengers to distract and misdirect news coverage. I know Agnew's criticism stung my father deeply, but as bad as Nixon's trolls acted, none whipped mass rallies into media-hating frenzies. Simon and I were concerned about threats against reporters, and we especially worried about the prospect of violence.
But we saw nothing like that. Local security patrolled the media area, yet we could walk right up to the rail. I spotted a former student of mine (I have taught at the University of Maine for the past 10 years) now working for the Bangor Daily News. The crowd seemed so small that I asked him if Trump were perhaps delayed in New Hampshire. "No, he's already landed at the [Bangor] airport," he told me.
We wandered back to our seats and a few minutes later Sen. Jeff Sessions came out to the stage as "Sweet Home Alabama" blasted from loudspeakers. The Skynyrd anthem and Sessions' Southern accent seemed incongruous in Maine, where our state's biggest hero (Joshua Chamberlain) won the Congressional Medal of Honor for his effort to kill off the Confederacy. Sessions spoke quickly and introduced Rudy Giuliani. "America's Mayor" then recited his stock lines attacking Obama. Though seeming tired, he livened up when urging the crowd to yell "radical Islamic terrorism!" It didn't quite catch on. Giuliani concluded with the story of Tom Dewey taking it easy - "resting at home" - while Harry Truman stayed out on the campaign trail working hard in 1948. He said this election was going to be like that one.
"But Dad, wasn't Harry Truman a Democrat?" Simon asked.
By now Simon was a bit bewildered. This was nothing like the insanity we expected. While "Deplorables" and "Hillary for Prison" T-shirts abounded, and red "Make America Great Again" hats were ubiquitous, in general, the arena seemed less threatening - and less vibrant - than we anticipated.
Then the lights went out. The sound system blasted a triumphant anthem and the Great Man entered from stage left. The spotlight caught him as he walked slowly towards center stage, soaking in the adulation. For the first time, the crowd truly awakened. He smiled, waved and shook the hands of a few people onstage. Finally, he approached the lectern.
Over the next 30 minutes, Trump completely phoned it in. Once or twice he mentioned something about Maine, but the majority of his time was spent on deleted e-mails, repealing Obamacare, bringing back manufacturing jobs and renegotiating trade deals. I did learn something new - I had no idea the State Department accidently granted U.S. citizenship to 1,800 people ordered deported (an assertion Politifact judged "mostly true"), and that once made U.S. citizens "our" court system could do nothing to properly expel these accidental Americans. At least I think that's the story - it's a bit difficult to piece together coherence from Trump's rambling narrative. At one point, Trump did mention that we in Maine had "a tremendous drug problem" (true) and just today he announced he had a plan to solve it.
My son reminded me that "demagogue" had been one of his recently assigned vocabulary words.
A few minutes before the rally climaxed, with Trump rambling on about "making history" and reminding us we'll "remember this moment for the rest of [our] lives," I spied reporters sweeping up their laptops and running for the exit. He would make America great again, Trump reminded us before turning and stalking off stage.
My son and I didn't see any specific threats directed at the media, though one nearby lady yelled, "The media sucks!" during a lull. And despite the occasional "Bill Clinton's a rapist!" outburst and "Lock her up!" chant, the whole event seemed oddly dispirited. Frustration and resignation - and even some despair - was evident.
Maine is one of only two states - Nebraska is the other - that permits the splitting of its electoral votes. At this point, Hillary Clinton is almost guaranteed to win three of Maine's four electoral votes. The last one - the vote from Maine's 2nd Congressional District - is up for grabs. That's why Bernie Sanders visited two weeks ago, and last Thursday Chelsea Clinton stopped by. Trump returned to reclaim an electoral vote that as recently as two weeks ago seemed in the bag. This part of Maine should contain Trump's most ardent supporters because the manufacturing jobs in paper mills and shoe factories have all fled to Mexico and China, and the population remains very white, rural and elderly. The troubling fact that he's now wasting time in Northern Maine, where he once enjoyed a solid lead, can't be lost on him - or his fans.
As we walked out the door, the mood seemed more somber than celebratory. "Hillary Clinton belongs in the Big House!" somebody yelled out. "The Big House?" my son asked. "No worries - I think she'll end up in a big house," I assured him.
Michael J. Socolow teaches in the Department of Communication and Journalism at the University of Maine.