On August 28, loyal Trump supporters patiently waited in line for a seat in the Pro-Star Aviation hangar in Londonderry, N.H., a small town abutting its urban neighbor, Manchester. The president was set to deliver a speech at 6 p.m., just 24 hours after accepting the Republican nomination.
Back in early July, the Trump campaign tellingly canceled a rally in the same location due to weather, lockdown restrictions, and public-health concerns. Maybe this decision was motivated as much by fear of embarrassment as any fear of COVID spread or passing rain showers. The lackluster, poorly attended Tulsa rally in June was widely mocked by the media, while Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez touted its failure as a success for her Zoomer troll operatives. But two things were clear early Friday afternoon: This would not be a Tulsa repeat, and most Trump supporters in attendance gave zero hoots about New Hampshire’s mask mandate.
By around 4 p.m., the steady trickle through the metal detectors into the hangar had stopped: The hangar was filled to capacity. However, in the field outside the building, the spillover supporters continued gathering, slowly making their way to a large screen that could be viewed from the airport parking lots. They were no less enthusiastic now that they had been denied a spot inside — closer to the action and closer to their president. They quietly chatted among themselves, chowed down on hot dogs, smoked cigarettes, and passed around a cardboard cutout of the Donald. By a quarter to six, they took out their phones and craned their necks toward the sky. They were ready to capture the landing. Twenty or so minutes passed. A few people mistook the rumble of a Southwest Airlines plane for the real deal. Their man would be late to the party.
Before the Great Depression, Manchester, N.H., was home to one of the world’s largest cotton textile producers, the Amoskeag Manufacturing Company. Located on the Merrimack River, Amoskeag was the city’s economic lifeblood, at first processing cotton from the South and eventually producing fabric for Levi’s jeans. The mills quickly grew into factories, and the factories would become something close to a textile powerhouse, home to 17,000 employees at the company’s peak. Amoskeag shaped not only the physical layout of the city but also its culture: generally blue-collar, conservative, and down-to-earth.
After Amoskeag closed its doors, the city and its population would steadily recover from the downturn. The growth carried over into the 2000s despite a hit hard from the opioid epidemic in those early years and through the 2010s. In March, Manchester was home to approximately 112,000 citizens — the most populous city in northern New England — and boasted an unemployment rate of only 2.5 percent. Economic growth in the new year, nay, the new decade, looked certain. But as of June, the unemployment rate had stood at 12 percent having reached 17 percent at the end of April.
In 2020, public displays of bliss are scarce and fleeting in American cities, Manchester included. Urban areas felt like Petri dishes through March, April, and May, before degenerating into war zones in June, July, and August. But when Air Force One finally touched down around 6:30 p.m., the supporters had none of the “American carnage” rhetoric on their minds. As the wheels hit the tarmac, they erupted with glee. Chants of “U.S.A.!” and “Four more years!” shook the hangar. Outside in the field and on the nearby street running parallel to the hangar, it was no different.
It’s inaccurate, and rather silly, that the media portray the majority of Trump supporters, especially the men, as angry and bitter. Because throughout the evening, the “deplorables” seemed not just in good spirits: They were jubilant. Even if COVID-19 had taken its toll on the city’s economic activity and employment numbers, people still smiled, cheered, laughed, and took selfies with the cardboard cutout of the president. The crowd danced along to the ’70s and ’80s pop hits blaring from loudspeakers. “Macho Man” by the Village People was a favorite. Vendors sold tacky flags: Trump as Rambo or Rocky Balboa. Everything was drenched with Boomer nostalgia.
And that makes complete sense. Overall, the crowd skewed old. There were middle-aged Boomers, graying Boomers, veterans, and bikers with limps. People clutched their Pepsis with dirtied, callused hands. Their tattooed forearms were flecked with paint. Plumes of cigarette smoke made the air sour. Very few Millennials showed up, and the ones who did — many of whom were young men — clumped together in what appeared to be tight-knit social groups. They may have committed what amounts to social suicide in today’s youth culture. Nevertheless, they seemed happy to be out with friends on a Friday night, liberal co-workers on Snapchat be damned. If these young men harbored resentment at the rapidly changing world around them, it was very well hidden. Young women tended to be accompanied by a mother or a grandparent. However, one local teacher in her 30s, who had had both of her knees replaced before COVID, came to the event alone. For her, getting out of the stuffy, politically correct teachers’ lounge was nothing short of a blessing. She hobbled around on crutches, proudly displaying a picture of Trump signing her MAGA hat at rally back in 2016. Younger couples with rambunctious children brought fold-out chairs, snacks, games, and a great deal of patience. There was one mother who wore a QAnon T-shirt and had a QAnon flag draped over her shoulders much like a superhero cape. Her children were glued to their phones, as was the husband. It was an odd, even alarming, sight. But no one seemed to care about — nor did they even notice — the QAnon family. When one woman snaked through the crowd waving a cardboard letter “Q” and screaming at the top of her lungs, people ignored her antics. They were too busy grooving to the music, and before long, they were glued to the large screen above them, glued to the president, who had launched into his typical impromptu introduction at the podium.
At times, Friday’s event felt more like a fun outdoor concert with political elements than a political rally with elements of a music festival. And there were two songs, played only minutes before the president’s speech, that might reveal more about the energy behind Trump’s base than could any pundit’s analysis, monologue, or regurgitated talking point. People were particularly taken by REM’s “Everybody Hurts.” They quietly swayed and hummed along with the melancholic hit from the ’90s. Following that, rally-goers proudly belted the lyrics of “Fortunate Son,” the popular Vietnam-era protest song by Creedence Clearwater Revival: “It ain’t me, it ain’t me, I ain’t no senator’s son. It ain’t me, it ain’t me, I ain’t no fortunate one.” There is something about these songs and the emotions they elicit that gets to the heart of the partisan divide in America. It’s hard to articulate. It’s an energy. Not nostalgia; it’s something unique to this very unique year, 2020.