May 20, 2022

“Austin Loves President Trump” proclaimed the billboard, alongside a photograph of The Donald’s scowling mug. It was striking for two reasons. First, it wasn’t true: 72% of voters in Travis County, where the liberal capital of Texas is located, cast their ballot for Joe Biden in 2020; and second, the peculiar messaging. What was it advertising — our civic duty to give emotional support to a billionaire ex-president? Then I spotted the legend “American Freedom Tour”, and all became clear: the Donald J. Trump show was coming to town.

This, increasingly, is what ex-presidents do: they trade on their brand, milking their fanbase for cash. Obama has his media company, his tedious podcast with Bruce Springsteen, his paid appearances. The Clintons had their consultancy and speaking fees. After all, how can they continue to hobnob with their billionaire friends unless they, too, get filthy rich? Trump, I figured, was a little different: already wealthy, it was adoration he sought.

Freedom Tour tickets ran from the thousands for a seat close to the stage all the way down to $45 for those at the back. (There was a still lower level that got you a seat watching a video screen in an overflow hall.) Intrigued, I purchased a ticket for the cheap seats, wondering how the disgraced prophet would try to shore up the faith among his followers. Biden and his media stenographers would have it that these followers are an extremist, angry force active in the land, still fulminating over a thwarted coup attempt. His opposition researchers have already coined a new insult: “ultra MAGA”. And I wanted to know: what is happening to Trumpists during their period in the wilderness?

*

The Austin Exhibition Center is a massive space that’s right downtown: it is easy to reach, so I expected to see some protestors, especially given the role of Trump-appointed justices in the recently leaked Roe v Wade ruling. But there were none, just a dude selling car air fresheners shaped like prominent Democrats (because “Liberals Smell”).

Trump fans, on the other hand, had turned up en masse, and early. It took over an hour to clear security, which provided me with ample time to check for signs of the “multiracial whiteness” that The Washington Post warned us about. And indeed, I saw that Trump had attracted Asians, Hispanics and a small number of black people in addition to white people, although within each of these very broad categories there was great diversity.

Among the white people, for example, there were representatives of the big-beard-and-shaved-head cohort, older rural Republicans, preppy college kids and black T-shirt Infowars types. The gender split seemed close to 50/50. The vibe was good humoured despite the long line: people were expecting a good show. A Trump impersonator walked up and down, posing for pictures. The woman in front of me asked if she could touch his hair. “Go for it,” he said, adding: “It’s real, completely real.”

*

Dinesh D’Souza was wrapping up as I entered the hall. The Left had captured all the institutions, he said; nothing could be done. Conservatives needed to withdraw and create new ones, a culture within the culture. This got some applause, but the message struck me as defeatist and un-Trumpian.

D’Souza was followed by the author of a business book, who wanted to live in a world where you could still tell jokes without fretting about offending people. He then told a mild gag, about getting punched after “helpfully” fixing a lady’s skirt, which would have been suitable for broadcast pre-watershed any time in the past 50 years. The crowd laughed: this guy was definitely more entertaining than Dinesh D’Souza.

Next up came Kevin Sorbo. Democrats get Jay-Z and Beyonce, MAGA people get the star of Hercules: The Legendary Journeys. An outspoken Christian conservative with a penchant for trolling liberals (“If men can’t comment on abortion because they don’t have a uterus, why does the Left comment on gun control?”), Sorbo was dropped by his Hollywood agents and ejected from every social media platform bar Twitter. But he has fought back by forming his own production company and now makes successful films for the Christian market. I half-remembered a line from The Brothers Karamazov, describing Alyosha, the protagonist: “he had gone beyond the fear of appearing ridiculous.”

To me this has always sounded like the greatest of freedoms, although those who achieve it are not always likeable. Trump had done it; he could afford to. Sorbo had done it and paid a price, but he had survived. The audience, with fewer resources, were being encouraged to do the same, to own the MAGA-ness that earned them the contempt of the elites. “I’m not here to wake up the sheep,” said Sorbo. “I’m here to wake up the lions — and you guys are lions.”

This would emerge as a major theme of the day. There were barely any references to policy, to Roe v Wade, to Ukraine, or even to the Republican Party. Very little organising was going on. The American Freedom Tour was not a rally; it was a revival meeting bringing believers together so they could strengthen each other in the faith and return renewed to the world to tell the truth.

Sorbo, at least, did not attempt to lead the audience in prayer, though the MC who came on between the “acts” did. The Bible instructed us to pray for our leaders, he said, and that included Joe Biden, even if he was not the audience’s favourite person. He pulled it off: heads were bowed, and everybody went silent to join him in a prayer for the president.

*

By lunchtime it was clear that Trump had drawn a huge crowd: the number “8000” kept coming up. Yet the success in Austin appeared to have caught the organisers off guard: there was hardly any merch for sale, just a whiny-voiced snake oil salesman pitching membership of the “inner circle” for $30,000 a pop, an online system for investors that was supposed to be foolproof, and copies of Trump’s latest book, Our Journey Together, which you could get signed by his son.

Trump had missed an opportunity, as his followers loved T-shirts and hats. The variety was spectacular: a grinning Trump sprinkling stars that formed the word “America”; Trump as Theseus holding up the severed head of the Gorgon Medusa; and “God, Guns and Trump”, to name but a few. “Ultra MAGA” was already a T-shirt. Trump’s fans are serious about their beliefs, but they are also in on the joke.

The tone, however, hardened in the afternoon. Introduced to us as “Donald Trump’s pastor”, Mark Burns, an ultra-energetic black preacher and Christian media entrepreneur, was the first speaker to really push evangelical conservative stances on abortion and gay marriage, but he also came out swinging against transgender athletes, Black Lives Matter and CRT.

And then he invoked the name of Rosa Parks. All American children are raised on the story of how she rejected an unjust law and refused to take her seat at the back of the bus. Burns offered a radical reinterpretation of the story: the second-class citizens of today are not black people but white Christian conservatives, and the time might come when they might have to follow Rosa Parks’ example and reject unjust laws.

*

“It seems from what the speakers are saying that Trump is thinking of running again,” said a middle-aged man, sitting behind me. “I thought he was going to hand over the baton. How old is he?”

His friend did a quick Google search. “It says here he’s 75. He’ll be 77 and a half at the next election.” There was a pause. “He’s still sharp, though.”

“I heard one of the speakers say he is the greatest president of our lifetimes,” said the first man. “Well maybe some of the young folk here don’t remember, but I was around for Reagan…”

The consensus was that Reagan was better than Trump. The conversation then switched to a discussion of Elon Musk’s tweets, the border situation and Disney’s declining stock price. These men were well-informed professionals who had arrived later in the day and were worried they had missed rock star Ted Nugent. Although he was never mentioned by name, Chris Rufo’s influence loomed large in their conversation — and at the Freedom Tour in general. Trumpian causes such as the border wall might get the occasional shout out, but Rufo’s, with his leaks and campaigns against woke institutions, were the driving force. But Rufo is aligned with Florida governor, Ron DeSantis, not Trump. Even at the ex-president’s own event, the centre of gravity seemed to have shifted: the agenda is no longer set by Trump.

The men behind me had not missed Ted Nugent. The rock star landed, playing the Star-Spangled banner on electric guitar, telling the audience that although he loved us “madly”, he would love us even more if we “went berserk on the skulls of the Democrats and the Marxists and the Communists”. This soundbite would briefly light up Twitter the next day, juxtaposed with the news of the racially motivated mass shooting in Buffalo. He did not receive boos, but Don Jr’s girlfriend, Kimberly Guilfoyle, de-escalated the rhetoric when she arrived on stage: she settled for sneering at Joe Biden’s cognitive decline and reciting his many failures (high price of gas, debacle in Afghanistan, no baby formula) against Trump’s many victories (low price of gas, victory over Isis, record low unemployment) while repeating the mantra: Trump was right.

In the morning Sorbo had made fun of Obama’s golfing skills; now the attacks on Biden, Big Tech and other bête noirs of the MAGA movement became relentless. I expected things to deteriorate further when Donald Trump Jr took to the stage. This scion of privilege, like his father before him, presents himself as a defender of the working class — with the energy and delivery of a stand-up comedian. Clearly revelling in his heretic status, he was willing to go much further than any of the previous speakers in terms of his selection of targets.

There had been little mention of Ukraine until this point, but Trump Jr attacked the senate for rushing through $40 billion worth of spending on a regime he described as second only to Russia in its corruption. Then he attacked Big Pharma, Big War, defence contractors and the Biden administration for doing nothing to stop the flow of fentanyl over the border from Mexico. The self-proclaimed “prince of MAGA” was leading the audience into territory that until very recently would have been the preserve of the Left. They followed him willingly, cheering at his comments.

And then, finally, eight and a half hours after the show had begun, the man himself took to the stage. Following the energetic and radical performance of the son, the father was content to perform a greatest hits routine — the wall, “fake news”, his successful renegotiations of NAFTA and the bill for Air Force 1, his victory over Isis. Yes, the election was stolen, but he didn’t bang on about it, and he didn’t mention January 6th at all. He was coy about his intentions for 2024, only saying that the audience would be very pleased.

And the audience was pleased, on the whole. Trump put on a show, and those who saw it were entertained, even if some people got up and left before he was finished (he was an hour late) and so missed the comedy dance moves at the end. Trump was the main draw, required to bring the show together, but he was no longer the main source of energy or ideas. He was, however, “still sharp” — a canny performer who knew how to keep his audience excited enough that they would tune in for the next episode.

I wondered if he has a twist in mind for us. Many a businessmen will pass the family corporation onto his son, and Gurbanguly Berdymukhamedov, erstwhile dictator of Turkmenistan, recently passed on the presidency to his son Serdar. The order of the show kept it in the family: the top three headliners were Trump, his son, and his son’s girlfriend, whose main claim to fame otherwise is years spent as a second tier talking head on Fox News. Suddenly the thought of Don Jr signing his dad’s books no longer seemed absurd but rather one of the rituals through which a patriarch might anoint a successor.

As the Democrats complete their transformation into a party representing the interests and values of the professional-managerial class — and so prove themselves unable to learn from 2016 — it’s worth noting that Trump Jr’s appropriation of hitherto leftist critiques of power drew some of the loudest cheers from the audience. Despite his immense wealth, he has, like his father, the same ability to articulate the concerns of people infinitely poorer than himself. His isn’t “classical” Trumpism; it is a new, more radical mutation.

MAGA isn’t finished, but nor is it fixed, and though the American Freedom Tour wasn’t pointing towards a particular end point, it did prove that something else is being born. But there were still no protestors outside the stadium when I left.