For a master class in manufacturing “fake news” of the sort Donald Trump routinely accuses the media of creating, one need look no further than his “2020 campaign rally” held Saturday at the Orlando-Melbourne International Airport. The hastily convened event saw a president who’d been in office a mere four weeks campaigning for his second term against no named opponent. People queued in 80-degree sun for upwards of four hours before being crammed into an airport hanger—some 9,000 of them, according to local police estimates. A half hour behind schedule, at 5:30, the crowd roared with delight at the sight of Air Force One gliding alongside the hangar to the dramatic orchestral theme of the 1997 Harrison Ford action-adventure Air Force One.
The most overt “fake news” aspect of the event wasn’t the Hollywood entrance. It was the president summoning to the stage a supporter who’d waited in line since 4 a.m. After Trump’s No. 1 fan, a wild-eyed fellow, passed a cursory Secret Service check, the president gave him the mic to utter a few fawning, incoherent words. Within minutes, the man was identified as West Palm Beach native Gene Huber and immediately vaulted into the pantheon of American celebrities who are famous for being famous. The very media Trump repeatedly blasts as “dishonest” and as “fake news”—among them CNN—scrambled to interview Huber, who reported that he salutes and prays to a life-size cardboard replica of Trump every day. “Somewhere in Florida a meth lab is going unattended,” one man commented in response on Twitter.
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What went down in Bevard County, Fla. on Saturday night couldn’t, by traditional measures, be considered “fake news,” of course. Anything involving the U.S. president, no matter how staged, is treated, and normalized, as “true news” or “news news.”
And, in itself, the Trump “fake news”— what we used to call propaganda—was newsworthy, a continuation of his bid to quell the deluge of leaks and criticism of the past weeks. The event was carefully staged. A fleet of buses, 12 by one count, brought people in. Signs were handed out—fuschia “Women for Trump” and red “Let’s make America’s airports great again.” Behind the stage, a wall of “Blacks for Trump 2020” signs were positioned for the cameras (behind the non-racist optics, however, the group has been linked to conspiracy theorists.) The hangar setting offered a symbolically defiant Top Gun backdrop after Trump’s travel ban, now on hold, saw mass protests at airports. Trump campaigned here in September 2016, on an even hotter day. “People were dropping like flies,” a man who was there told me. A few fainted on Saturday; others needed to be lead out. Some people used their placards to fan those in distress.
The crowd—predominantly white, with many veterans present—went wild at the announcement first lady Melania Trump was with her husband. Melania, wearing a dress of the exact red of the sea of “Make America Great” hats in the crowd, lead a recitation of the Lord’s Prayer, reading it as one not familiar with the verse. During, Trump tried to keep his eyes closed but they darted about the audience. He mumbled a few words, rallying at the “power and glory” line. At the podium, the president suggested the religious moment, a clear pander to his Christian base, was impromptu: “I didn’t know that Melania was going to be saying the Lord’s Prayer,” he said. Not that he disapproved: “I thought that was very beautiful, thank you, thank you.”
There’s support—and great hope—for the Trump presidency in Melbourne, a central Florida town that’s 80 percent white; unemployment, at 4.9 percent, is slightly higher than the national average. People believe the avowed billionaire is a caring, working-class defender. A cab driver who once caddied for Trump described him as “down to earth.” “He’s a good person,” the driver said, adding, “I only wish that he’d act more presidential.” An airport-shuttle driver who served in Vietnam spoke of many people scraping by on $8 to $9 an hour. “People are working two, three jobs.” Obama was good for the world, but not America, he said. “It’s bad here, not just the economy. There’s a lot of fear.” He trusts Trump will reform health care, lower taxes and increase the mininimum wage. “He has a lot on his plate,” he says. “But we need change.”
The locale was also geographically convenient for Trump; it’s less than 200 kilometres from his members-only resort, Mar-a-Lago, dubbed “the southern White House.” The weekend was the third in a row the president spent there. Media coverage of that fact thus doubles as free marketing for his properties. That was evident the morning of the rally, when it was news that the president played golf at a Trump course.
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Anyone who’d attended a Trump campaign event during the presidential would have experiencing déjà vu Saturday. There was the recycled campaign playlist clearly tailored to a Boomer crowd—a mix of AC/DC, Elton John, Credence Clearwater Revival, along with the Beatles “Revolution.” Frank Sinatra’s “My Way,” something of a Trump anthem, was met with cheers. As always, Trump exited the stage to a song choice seemingly made by a Trump critic: the Rolling Stone’s “You Can’t Always Get What You Want.”
The mainstays of Trump’s stump speeches also got another airing: his focus on law and order and strict borders; his promises to destroy ISIS, to create “jobs, jobs, jobs,” to “drain the swamp” and to “Make America Great Again.” Post-presidency, a few tweaks have been added: Trump’s newfound grievance that he “inherited a mess;” his likening of his “America First” credo to international movements like Brexit; his description of himself a “NATO fan” who plans to carve out bilateral trade deals.
Being in front of an adoring, cheering crowd clearly fed a primal Trump need, the way a photosynthesizing plant needs sunlight, or a leech requires blood. Certainly forum offered a reprieve from the chaos and bureaucratic responsibilities of Washington. It provided an opportunity to deliver a script that would be embraced, unquestioned, no matter how false. “The White House is running so smoothly,” the president declared at one point, as if the well-documented dysfunction of the past three weeks hadn’t happened. The crowd roared.
Trump’s focus, as ever, was on “winning,” and, by extension, making his supporters feel like winners too: “This was a great movement, a movement like has never been seen before in our country or before anywhere else, this was a truly great movement and I want to be here with you and I will always be with you,” the president said, somewhat ominously.
The return to the hustings, if only theoretically, also served as a reminder that Trump is all about making the deal, not managing its consequences. On stage Saturday, the president highlighted this alleged skill a few times, including claiming he made Boeing and Lockheed Martin compete to cut costs on the problem-plagued F-35 fighter-jet. Similarly, his rush to “campaign” again suggests restlessness. Trump filed paperwork for reelection on Jan. 20, the day he was sworn in, and the earliest a president has done so (Obama filed after two years in office, George Bush almost a year and a half into his first term). The move allows him to fund-raise and other freedoms. The campaign also trademarked “Keep America Great,” a slogan that presumes he’ll make it so.
The event also fuelled Trump’s ongoing attack on the media. His solo press conference on Thursday, a 75-minute press lambasting, set the stage. On Twitter the next day, Trump declared “fake news” outlets, among them major networks and outlets like CNN and NBC, “the enemy of the American people.” The “enemy of the people” phrase has dark antecedents: it harks to Stalin’s purges that saw tens of millions killed. As Mitchell Orenstein, professor of Russian and East European studies at the University of Pennsylvania, defined the term in an interview: “What it basically meant was a death sentence.”
In targeting “fake news” and its purveyors, Trump has created a new foe to vanquish, now that Hillary Clinton’s out of the picture. A critical media has become part of that “swamp” Trump promised to drain; like Clinton, it’s to be demonized, even locked up. Trump hammered at these themes on Saturday. “When the media lies to the people, I will never let them get away with it,” he said. “They have their own agenda and their agenda is not your agenda.” Trump even attempted to align himself with Thomas Jefferson and Abraham Lincoln, who he said “fought with the media and called them out,” a comment that distorts history. Jefferson, in fact, said: “Where the press is free, and every man able to read, all is safe.”
As in pre-election Trump rallies, the crowd turned to boo the media pen. Post Trump victory, a menacing shift is evident: supporters now feel emboldened to be aggressive toward the press up close. Waiting in line outside, supporters routinely asked reporters who they were affiliated with, then harassed them if they didn’t like the answer. (Fox Tampa was given the green light, an NPR reporter was given a hard time.) Contempt for any criticism of Trump was a repeated theme: “Trump has done 14 great things, but all the media focuses on is Russia,” one women gripped. Many talked as if the press should function like the Trump PR department— like a propaganda machine. Trump’s mega-fan Gene Huber used his CNN appearance to school the CNN host: “Let’s just be a little, little nicer to our president,” he instructed.
Speaking to people in line, I heard many express anger that their concerns have not been represented by the media, a reality exacerbated by widespread closure of small-town papers. One man said he’d been frustrated with press coverage for years before Trump’s declared his presidential intentions. The result is an a ugly, hardening schism dividing America. Hardcore Trump fans repeatedly referred to Liberals as “libtards,” with “deplorable” is a badge of pride and bonding. One supporter called out “Heil Trump,” with no one seeming to care. Those opposing Trump are “the real racists,” several people said. The 50 or so people who showed up to protest Trump, many women in pink pussy hats, were mocked. “Come get the hug your parents never gave you—not a rapey hug, a real hug,”one man yelled.
There’s agreement with Trump that the press lies and makes things up. People liked Trump’s pledge to speak directly to them, “unfiltered.” The suggestion that a president who was found to utter 17 lies during his Thursday press conference needed fact-checking was rejected by Trump fans. They believe him. (Trump’s penchant for falsehoods, overblown superlatives and ridiculous statements was also evident in Melbourne on Saturday.)
A sea change toward the press by the Trump campaign was also evident post-election. Information for Saturday’s rally was limited. Maclean’s inquiries went unanswered. Requests for media accreditation sent to the email address provided by a voice recording bounced back “undeliverable.” To obtain a ticket, one had to supply a U.S. phone number and email. Yet the tickets weren’t required for entry. Attendees walked through a metal detectors, their bags were searched, and they were in.
The event also showcased something else: for all of Trump’s “fake news” claims, he’s co-dependent on the media, with whom he’s engaged in a symbiotic danse macabre. Huber was reportedly chosen from the crowd because Trump saw him while watching TV coverage about himself. Throughout the rally, Trump repeatedly claimed the media wouldn’t honestly report on crowd size. “This is where they keep the big planes,” he said, as if to reassure himself.
As Huber was making his cable debut, “fake news” was vying with “real news” in the form of more reports about Trump’s alleged ties to Russia, with Reuters reporting “U.S. inquiries into Russian election hacking include three FBI probes.” Against such a headline, the Trump campaign’s choice of the Air Force One soundtrack can be read as comic or ominous or a terrifying hybrid of both. The movie’s plot centred around Russian terrorists taking over the US president’s plane, with America prevailing at the end, as it does in Hollywood movies. In choosing it, was the Trump campaign trolling America? Or was it oblivious to the nuance? At Saturday’s “real news”-“fake news” rally, either could be true.