What It’s Like on the Campaign Trail
WHY YOU SHOULD CARE
Because politics is about people, or at least it should be.
It’s mid-October, and Donald Trump doesn’t know that by tonight, his campaign will be in serious peril. Neither do I, for that matter. Outside Lakeland Regional Airport, trucks and Trumpeters clog the highway. I only just made it here, after wheeling my rental through a private community and flashing my press pass through a police blockade. Hoofing it the last half mile after ditching the car, I feel like a modern-day Zacchaeus climbing a tree to see … Christ?
While this is just another workday for me, for many, seeing Trump is exactly that kind of ecstatic experience. Under the Florida sun, the crowd’s multiple heat strokes (and at least one apparent heart attack) could almost be seen as religious fits, and sure enough, when Trump arrived to greet his sweltering supporters, he emerged from Trump Force One, which had descended from the heavens to deliver its deity right on the tarmac. Today, Trump is in rare form: promising to cut taxes, stop crime and unite the nation — while calling the fire marshal a Democrat for not letting more people in, and railing against Fox News for reporting he had drawn only “thousands” here. At least one woman is crying what she tells me are tears of joy; another faints. “She’ll be back,” Trump boasts as paramedics tend to her. And sure enough, like Lazarus, she returns.
It’s not the reality show circus that has troubled me most, but the dehumanization that is its inevitable result.
Later, I file an article from my car and then hit the road. The highway is lovely, dark and deep, but I have deadlines to keep. And a lot on my mind. The New York Times just released a bombshell with two women accusing Trump of sexual assault, a damning report considering his attempt to dismiss past innuendo as mere “locker room talk.” But to be honest, I’m thinking of other things. My dad, who in September told me he might be hospitalized, and to carry on “the Fouriezos family legacy” in a text that brought me to my knees — minutes before I was to meet with the Hillary Clinton brass in Brooklyn. My sibling, who had recently suffered a relapse, worrying our mom with the specter of becoming homeless. My grandpa, who had died the previous week, when I was thousands of miles away chasing stories in Colorado.
Lost in thought, I look up to see I’m barreling toward the trailer of an 18-wheeler. The gears groan as I slam on the brakes.
This wasn’t the original plan. Back in January, my editor called to say they were sending me on the trail for a month and a half — and giving me three days to pack. Those early primaries were especially hectic, and my two weeks in Iowa were spent at Demi Lovato concerts with Hillary, in backyard barns asking if Ted Cruz was likable, and in casinos wondering whether Marco Rubio had gambled too much with his candidacy. There was the time I walked in on a Bernie Sanders surrogate’s pleas to a nursing home— apparently I wasn’t invited, but they let me stay — and Ben Carson making his final pitch in the frozen plains of rural Iowa.
As I bounced through New Hampshire diners and Texas rodeo bars, Cuban socialist marches in Florida and the dusty armpit of California, it became clear that America was being shaken and reshaped by this election like few others before. Trump wasn’t just fracturing one of our two major parties, but rebuilding it in his own image — isolationist but familial, angst-ridden yet hopeful, anti-globalist and globally disdained. The Democratic Party has experienced its own growing pangs — based on uneasy feelings that a nation built by and for the people is no longer serving them.
More seasoned journalists tell me how strange this election is, but this new normal is the only one we first-cycle reporters know. There are strengths and weaknesses to that: We didn’t discount Trump as quickly as our peers who witnessed past (failed) insurgencies, but many of us are also more desensitized. In a season rife with gaffes and controversy, it’s not the reality show circus that has troubled me most, but the dehumanization that is its inevitable result.
When my car slammed into the trailer, my hood shot upward like the wing of a wounded bird. Oddly, the air bags never deployed. The collision was too high for the sensors. I was unharmed, though if I had hit the brakes any later, it could have been much worse. Three days later I flew home for my grandpa’s funeral, where the pastor delivered a sermon about how life is precious.
Election years can make the world spin in strange ways. Names become numbers; people become polling points. There’s the half-Mexican, half-Black husband who wants to vote for Trump but his white wife won’t let him, which some experts might lump into a block of African-American voters expected to support Democrats on Election Day. Then there’s the lifelong Republican who giddily sports a Clinton-Kaine button after attending his first-ever political event and joins the throng of GOPers who have switched parties this year. It’s hard not to feel that something important has been lost when protesters at the Democratic National Convention shout over a Black congresswoman touting her party for helping the voiceless be “heard louder and stronger than ever before.” And it was tragic to watch Republicans adopt the angry, unapologetic rhetoric of internet chat rooms, shouting at their convention, “Lock her up.” Still, I am hopeful for our future after Election Day … though I wonder if anything short of a near-death experience can restore our government’s promise to serve its people.