‘It’s Kind of Like an Addiction’: On the Road With Trump’s Rally Diehards

A small band of the president’s most devoted fans will do whatever it takes to attend his campaign rallies

Libby DePiero once drove her Ford Focus so far to attend a Trump campaign rally—about 1,000 miles from her home in Connecticut to Indiana—that when she lay in bed that night she thought the twitching in her driving leg was coming from an animal under the mattress.

The 64-year-old retiree, who prefers sparkly nail polish, leopard prints and selfies with Trump campaign officials, is almost always one of the first few people in line at the president’s campaign events, part of the self-described group of “Front Row Joes” who routinely travel to see the president perform. Several, like Ms. DePiero, have attended more than 50 Trump rallies.

She keeps going because she trusts only the president to deliver her the news. “How else would I know what’s going on?” she said.

Mr. Trump has hosted more than 550 ticketed campaign events since 2015, at least 70% of which include his trademark rallies, according to Republican officials. These rallies form the core of one of the most steadfast political movements in modern American political history, a dynamic that has reordered the Republican Party.

Randal Thom showing a ‘Front Row Joes’ bracelet and pin, as well as a Trump flag, in Cincinnati in late July.PHOTOS: LUKE SHARRETT FOR THE WALL STREET JOURNAL

Mr. Trump’s perpetual tour attracts a coterie of political pilgrims who travel across the country and encamp outside arenas for days at a time for the chance to stand in the front row and, for 90 minutes, cheer the man they say has changed the U.S. and, in many cases, their own lives. Somewhere between 5% to 10% of attendees have been to multiple events, the officials said.

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“You go to the rallies, and he basically tells you that you don’t have to put up with ‘the swamp’ and those kinds of people,” said Saundra Kiczenski, a 40-year-old Walmart worker from Michigan who has been to 29 rallies. “Because of him I decided not to pay for Obamacare, not pay the fine. And what happened? Nothing. Before, the quiet me would have paid the fine. But Donald Trump told me that we have a voice, and now I stand up for myself.”

Several of those with jobs live paycheck to paycheck, but constantly offer strangers a cold beverage, sandwiches or their last cigarette.

Some rely on disability payments, like Cynthia Barten, or cut lawns in Missouri, like her husband, Ken Barten. Others sell secondhand items in Kentucky like Jon French, or find odd jobs such as clearing rocks from farmland in Minnesota, like Randal Thom. Kevin Steele quit his job and plans to finance his travels to Trump rallies with the remaining $120,000 from an inheritance.

The group includes Trump aficionados, who have spent decades keeping tabs on his history of political flirtations, tabloid melodrama and star turns on reality television. A surprising number voted for Barack Obama at least once, caught up in the Democrat’s charisma and fed up with Republicans over foreign adventurism and growing national debt.

Ms. DePiero broke up a 700-mile drive to the Cincinnati rally on Aug. 1 by spending the night with Becky Gee, a northeast Ohio dairy farmer she met at a previous Trump rally. She stayed with Barbara Bienkowski in Maryland (they met at Trump Hotel in Washington earlier this year), on her way to the Greenville, N.C., rally on July 17 and stayed in Myrtle Beach, S.C., with Dale Ranney, another Front Row Joe, on the way home.

Two regular rallygoers have already married, and divorced.

All of them describe, in different ways, a euphoric flow of emotions between themselves and the president, a sort of adrenaline-fueled, psychic cleansing that follows 90 minutes of chanting and cheering with 15,000 other like-minded Trump junkies.

Once you start going, it’s kind of like an addiction, honestly,” said April Owens, a 49-year-old financial manager in Kingsport, Tenn., who has been to 11 rallies. “I love the energy. I wouldn’t stand in line for 26 hours to see any rock band. He’s the only person I would do this for, and I’ll be here as many times as I can.”

For many Front Row Joes, the Trump era marks their political awakening. Among the first Americans to identify the resonance and endurance of Mr. Trump’s political appeal, they are reveling in the victory. Like Mr. Trump on stage, each recounts the Election Night triumph without any prompting.

In Orlando, Fla., Trump fans sat in a field adjacent to Amway Center in June, about to get soaked by the second downpour in as many days. Still, they wore sunglasses and smiles as outdoor speakers pumped out “Sweet Home Alabama” and “Hurts So Good.” Head shakes and patronizing laughs greeted questions about which Democrat might beat Mr. Trump.

President Trump arriving at a rally in Manchester, N.H., in mid-August. PHOTO: CHERYL SENTER FOR THE WALL STREET JOURNAL

Michael Telesca, a middle-school teacher at the front of the line in Greenville, compared the experience to following Bruce Springsteen.

“You come to the show, and you know exactly what you’re going to get—all of the hits and maybe a few surprises, too,” said Mr. Telesca, whose bushy brown hair is graying at the temples.

The surprise in Greenville wasn’t from Mr. Trump, but the crowd as it debuted a “send her back” chant. The chant erupted as Mr. Trump was criticizing Rep. Ilhan Omar (D., Minn.). Three days earlier, Mr. Trump had tweeted that Ms. Omar and three other liberal congresswomen, all women of color, should “go back” to unspecified countries. The four women are American citizens and three of them were born in the U.S.

Before the rally, more than a dozen supporters said they would never use that racist language to denounce minorities. Inside Williams Arena, many participated in the chant that mirrored it. “It was like a tornado when ‘send her back’ started. I was looking around and people were loving it,” Ms. DePiero said.

The regulars who arrived early at rallies—often before campaign officials or local law enforcement—hurried to set up tents and organize their belongings. The Bartens, who drove their Dodge minivan seven hours from St. Louis to be first in line in Cincinnati, unfolded a table and set down a deep-cycle military battery, a camp stove for turkey melts, a string of LED festoon lights and a half-empty pack of Edgefield cigarettes.

They mingled until doors opened, then rushed to the front row on the arena floor. But not necessarily center-stage.

Libby DePiero and husband, Brian, head to the VIP section of President Trump’s campaign event at the SNHU Arena in Manchester, N.H. PHOTO: CHERYL SENTER FOR THE WALL STREET JOURNAL

Some, like, Shane Doyle, prefer the side where Mr. Trump first appears from behind the curtains. “Back in the primary, I used to like being the first one when he came out, because he would sign all my stuff,” said Mr. Doyle, a 24-year-old machinist from Buffalo, N.Y.

Just before midnight on the eve of the Cincinnati rally, about two dozen fans lounged in lawn chairs or leaned on metal bike racks, scrolling through their phones and sipping from cans of Coors Light. A soft brown blanket covered Ms. Barten and her 12-year-old granddaughter, who slept sitting up in her camp chair.

The 57-year-old Air Force veteran’s disability check is reduced by $5 every month by an automatic donation to the Trump campaign.

Why Trump Supporters Believe He Is Not Corrupt

What the president’s supporters fear most isn’t the corruption of American law, but the corruption of America’s traditional identity.

On Wednesday morning, the lead story on FoxNews.com was not Michael Cohen’s admission that Donald Trump had instructed him to violate campaign-finance laws by paying hush money to two of Trump’s mistresses. It was the alleged murder of a white Iowa woman, Mollie Tibbetts, by an undocumented Latino immigrant, Cristhian Rivera.

On their face, the two stories have little in common. Fox is simply covering the Iowa murder because it distracts attention from a revelation that makes Trump look bad. But dig deeper and the two stories are connected: They represent competing notions of what corruption is.

.. The Iowa murder, by contrast, signifies the inversion—the corruption—of that “traditional order.” Throughout American history, few notions have been as sacrosanct as the belief that white women must be protected from nonwhite men. By allegedly murdering Tibbetts, Rivera did not merely violate the law. He did something more subversive: He violated America’s traditional racial and sexual norms.
Once you grasp that for Trump and many of his supporters, corruption means less the violation of law than the violation of established hierarchies, their behavior makes more sense. Since 2014, Trump has employed the phrase rule of law nine times in tweets. Seven of them refer to illegal immigration.
.. Why were Trump’s supporters so convinced that Clinton was the more corrupt candidate even as reporters uncovered far more damning evidence about Trump’s foundation than they did about Clinton’s? Likely because Clinton’s candidacy threatened traditional gender roles. For many Americans, female ambition—especially in service of a feminist agenda—in and of itself represents a form of corruption. 
“When female politicians were described as power-seeking,” noted the Yale researchers Victoria Brescoll and Tyler Okimoto in a 2010 study, “participants experienced feelings of moral outrage (i.e., contempt, anger, and/or disgust).”
Cohen’s admission makes it harder for Republicans to claim that Trump didn’t violate the law. But it doesn’t really matter. For many Republicans, Trump remains uncorrupt—indeed, anticorrupt—because what they fear most isn’t the corruption of American law; it’s the corruption of America’s traditional identity. 

Michael Cohen Deals a Blow to His Former Boss

President Trump’s former, longtime personal lawyer directly implicated him in a federal crime

The conviction of his former campaign chairman Paul Manafort on tax evasion and bank fraud charges undercut Mr. Trump’s assertion that his was a campaign and a presidency that would “drain the swamp” of the unsavory professional political class.

Mr. Manafort was and is of precisely that political class. The actions for which he was convicted had nothing to do with his work for the president, yet the optics are, to say the least, unhelpful for Mr. Trump.

Mr. Trump can and will distance himself from both Mr. Manafort and the felonies of which he now has been convicted. Indeed, after landing in West Virginia for a campaign rally, Mr. Trump expressed sympathy for Mr. Manafort but said “this has nothing to do with Russian collusion.” He continued to describe the hunt for a Russian connection as a “witch hunt.”

It will be much harder to create distance from Mr. Cohen.

.. For Mr. Trump and his presidency, there are a few silver linings in that dark cloud. One is that Mr. Cohen apparently doesn’t have an agreement to cooperate with prosecutors or special counsel Robert Mueller. So his brief statement in court may be all that is heard on the matter.The second is that, by agreeing to a plea deal, Mr. Cohen guaranteed there won’t be a trial in which his assertion can be hashed out in detail and in full public view.

Finally, campaign-finance violations can seem to voters to be obscure and of concern mostly to the distant political class.

The Great Distractor

Donald Trump’s ‘look over there’ media strategy is a trap that keeps Democrats from focusing public attention on his bad policies.

We didn’t hear much about the administration’s secret plan to bypass Congress (and common sense) to give a giant tax break to Wall Street investors, a possible violation of the constitution and a betrayal of the president’s promises to stand up for the little guy. It’s the result of what I call the “Trump Trap.”

  • He pledged to clean up the D.C. swamp, but he made it swampier.
  • He said he would make health insurance better, but he actually asked a judge to strip it away from people with serious diseases like cancer and diabetes.
  • His tax cuts ballooned C.E.O. salaries and stock buybacks, but real wages are still frozen

.. But you wouldn’t know it from watching the news. That’s because his unnecessary insults and controversies create a constellation of outrages that deflect accountability for his actions.

.. A person you probably don’t remember is Cheryl Lankford, who also spoke at the convention. She lost her husband, Army Command Sgt. Maj. Jonathan Lankford, to a heart attack while he was serving in Iraq. Left alone to raise their son, Ms. Lankford used her survivor benefits to enroll in Trump University, hoping Mr. Trump’s advice could jump start her career. After paying more than $30,000 in tuition, she got no training. Like so many Americans, she thought Mr. Trump could improve her economic future, but he swindled her and thousands of others. Now the swindle is happening on an epic scale.

.. we tried to get out of the way of the negative coverage of Mr. Trump and his outrageous comments about Mr. Khan.

But the result was that people heard his message, not ours. So much so that after the election, some people thought Mrs. Clinton never talked about people’s economic lives. But she did. It just went into the black hole of the Trump Trap.

.. Mr. Trump never attacked Cheryl Lankford or the other people suing Trump University. Instead, he disparaged the Latino judge in the case, so we spent a week talking about how racist he is, not about how he had cheated working people.

.. Mr. Trump will say and do things that demand a response from anyone who values decency and morality. The result is that he decides what gets attention — and he’s not held accountable.

.. Third, we Democrats have to pick fights that highlight Mr. Trump’s malfeasance. When the president seeks to take away health insurance from seniors or people with cancer, we can’t let that go unnoticed.

.. Candidates: Beware the Trump Trap. The president has promised to spend a majority of his time campaigning this fall. He will call you names. He will come at you with outrage after outrage. It will be very tempting to wear this as a badge of honor to reap the rewards of social media attention and campaign donations. You will think he is drowning in backlash. But

Candidates: Beware the Trump Trap. The president has promised to spend a majority of his time campaigning this fall. He will call you names. He will come at you with outrage after outrage. It will be very tempting to wear this as a badge of honor to reap the rewards of social media attention and campaign donations. You will think he is drowning in backlash. But he will really just be making the debate about anything other than his own failings or the lives of the voters you wish to represent. Your vision and motivations will be obscured and vulnerable to subterfuge.

Before you give Mr. Trump more rope, make sure the debate is on your terms, not his.

This Is the World Mitch McConnell Gave Us

it is, essentially, a kind of shrine to the political career of Mr. McConnell, not unlike the exhibits on Babe Ruth or Hank Aaron you’d find at the Baseball Hall of Fame.

.. it memorializes a politician who shows no sign of leaving the stage any time soon.

.. What’s most unusual, though, is what it chooses to highlight. There are a few artifacts from Mr. McConnell’s youth — his baseball glove, his honorary fraternity paddle — but most of the exhibits are devoted to the elections Mr. McConnell won, starting with high school and on up through Jefferson County executive and the Senate.

.. When I visited the room while researching my 2014 biography on Mr. McConnell, I was struck by what was missing: exhibits on actual governing accomplishments from the Senate majority leader’s four decades in elected office.

That absence confirmed my thesis that Mr. McConnell, far more even than other politicians, was motivated by the game of politics — winning elections and rising in the leadership ranks, achieving power for power’s sake — more than by any lasting policy goals.

.. it is becoming increasingly clear that Mitch McConnell is creating a legacy for himself, and it’s a mighty grand one.

.. Mr. McConnell has created the world in which we are now living. Donald Trump dominates our universe — and now has the power to fill the second Supreme Court seat in two years. Mitch McConnell, who has promised a vote on whomever the president nominates “this fall,” is the figure who was quietly making it all possible

.. First, there was Mr. McConnell’s vigorous defense, going back to the early 1990s, of the role of big money in American politics

..  helping shape the conditions for his appeal.

.. he was well aware that he, as someone lacking in natural campaign talents, and the rest of the Republican Party, as more business-oriented than the Democrats, would need to maintain the flow of large contributions to be able to win elections. “I will always be well financed, and I’ll be well financed early,” he declared after winning his first race for county executive, in 1977.

.. culminated in the Supreme Court’s 2010 Citizens United ruling eliminating limits on corporate spending on elections, which Mr. McConnell followed up by blocking legislation to disclose the identity of large donors.

.. the spread of big money in politics had done so much to sour the public on government, creating a ripe target for the Tea Party and, later, for a billionaire populist running against “the swamp.”

.. laid the groundwork for the right-wing insurgency of 2009 and 2010

.. his decision to withhold Republican support for any major Democratic initiatives in the Obama years. This meant that Republicans had less influence on the final shape of legislation such as the Affordable Care Act than they would have had as fully willing negotiators.

.. fueled the rise of the Tea Party, which was motivated substantially by the notion that Mr. Obama was “ramming things down our throats”
.. his refusal to hold a confirmation hearing, let alone a vote on Merrick Garland, Mr. Obama’s nominee to replace Antonin Scalia on the Supreme Court, despite the fact that the nomination was made a full 10 months before the end of Mr. Obama’s term. This refusal exploded norms and dismayed Beltway arbiters who had long accepted Mr. McConnell’s claim to be a guardian of Washington institutions. It also provided crucial motivation to Republicans who had grave qualms about Mr. Trump but were able to justify voting for him as “saving Scalia’s seat.”
.. Mr. Obama had been prepared that September to go public with a C.I.A. assessment laying bare the extent of Russian intervention in the election. But he was largely dissuaded by a threat from Mr. McConnell.
.. During a secret briefing for congressional leaders, The Post reported, Mr. McConnell “raised doubts about the underlying intelligence and made clear to the administration that he would consider any effort by the White House to challenge the Russians publicly an act of partisan politics.”
.. Mr. McConnell’s doing away last year with the 60-vote requirement for Senate confirmation, to get Neil Gorsuch seated
.. In the 1970s, when he ran for county executive in Louisville, he secured the pivotal endorsement of the A.F.L.-C.I.O. by pledging to back collective bargaining for public employees (a promise that went unfulfilled), and while in office he worked effectively behind the scenes to protect abortion rights locally.
.. Mr. McConnell saw the rightward swing of the Reagan revolution and decided to hop on board for his own political preservation as a Southern Republican. These days, Mr. McConnell has made explicit, with taunting tweets among other things, that he views long-term conservative control of the Supreme Court as his crowning achievement.
.. Holding a long-term majority on the court greatly aids his highest cause — Republican victories in future elections — as recent rulings on voting rights and gerrymandering demonstrated once again.
Whether Mr. McConnell decides to add an exhibit in the Civic Education Gallery documenting his role in the rise of Donald Trump is another matter. The final historical judgment on that score will not rest with him, in any case.

Madeleine Albright Is Worried. We Should Be, Too.

“If we think of fascism as a wound from the past that had almost healed, putting Trump in the White House was like ripping off the bandage and picking at the scab,”

.. Albright has long been an optimistic exponent of American exceptionalism, a consummate establishment figure not given to alarmist diatribes. It should be shocking that she feels the need to warn us not just about fascism abroad, but also at home.

.. Albright is not accusing Trump of being a full-blown fascist. He has yet to resort to extrajudicial violence — except, of course, for encouraging his acolytes to beat up protesters at rallies — and his efforts to undermine the rule of law have had only mixed success, in part due to his own fecklessness.

.. “The herd mentality is powerful in international affairs. Leaders around the globe observe, learn from, and mimic one another.”

.. “What they do have in common,” she said, “is this assumption, or decision, that they embody the spirit of the nation and that they have the answers and that their instincts are good, that they are smarter than everybody else and can do things by themselves.”

.. I hadn’t realized that Mussolini had promised to “drenare la palude,” or “drain the swamp,” and that his crowds jeered and booed clusters of reporters at his rallies.

.. Mussolini, like Trump, thought it unsanitary to shake hands.

.. Of Chávez, Albright writes, his “communications strategy was to light rhetorical fireworks and toss them in all directions.” He gloried in dominating the media, “boasting about his accomplishments and deriding — in the crudest terms — real and suspected foes.

.. Albright is well known for her collection of brooches, which she uses like shiny emojis to send subtle diplomatic messages and make wry jokes.

.. she found out that Russia had bugged a conference room near her State Department office; at her next meeting with Russian diplomats, she wore an insect pin. When I spoke to her, she was wearing a silver brooch of a winged figure. I asked her what it was. “It is Mercury,” she said. “The messenger.”