“The Great One” comes to Manassas

(Photo credit: Ben Cowlishaw)

A number of events in my life would have never come across my mind just prior to their occurrence – going to George Mason being one of them. I never would have considered the first political rally I attended would be for Donald Trump in Manassas, Virginia, but that is exactly what happened in a crowded barn on the soaked Prince William County Fairgrounds Wednesday night.

With the baggage that goes along with claiming to be a supporter of Mr. Trump, I find it necessary to say it now; I don’t like Trump, at all, and won’t be voting for him in a primary or general election. I think the damage he is doing to the GOP is irreparable, granted that a) might be intentional and b) might not necessarily be a bad thing, especially in the long run and from the point of view of a disaffected conservative. Nonetheless, I was not in attendance to support “The Great One,” as a few out of the herd referred to him, but because I wanted to witness and understand the Trump phenomenon first-hand.

Like many non-Trumpets, it took me a while to realize and accept that Trump was not a flash-in-the-pan fad as so many nontraditional candidates tend to be. He is here to stay. Some still contest that, and it’s open to debate, but if and when he starts winning primary states in the next few months I think it will become clear he is going to be among the last two or three candidates standing at the finish line.

The GOP is preparing for that, evidenced by a recent internal memo explaining how to react to a Trump nomination that begins like a prompt for an improv scene.

“The place is Cleveland, Ohio. The date is July 21, 2016 and Donald Trump has just accepted the nomination of the Republican Party to be its nominee for President of the United States,” writes NRSC (The National Republican Senatorial Committee) Executive Director Ward Baker to Senate staff. (OK, Colin, you’re Donald Trump, Ryan, you’re his running mate, and Wayne, you’re a protester heckling him during his acceptance speech. Go.)

The first point made in the seven-page document is why Trump has surged past the GOP’s crop of candidates, dubbed Trump lesson #1 by Ward.

“Trump has risen because voters see him as authentic, independent, direct, firm, — and believe he can’t be bought. These are the same character traits our candidates should be advancing in 2016…We should prepare for 2016, by understanding the environment and recognizing the Trump phenomenon.”

At the rally, I picked up on the point Ward emphasized — the popularity of the perception Trump is not a GOP “puppet” — during Trump’s ‘speech’ (a generous term for the hour-plus ramblings). Trump spent the night dogging on the other GOP candidates to varying degrees, with Kasich taking the brunt of Trump’s jabs, almost as much as he took shots at Hillary and liberals collectively. I was surprised his only mention of Democratic dark horse Bernie Sanders was a joke about the Senator’s recent hernia being from “carrying around his tax plan,” which he later clarified he “made up.”

After every one of those jabs at his competitors for the nomination, the jeers were no less grand than they were when he promised to replace Obamacare with “something great.” Trump repeatedly emphasized he “is not bought,” to which the crowd was equally enthusiastic in their woos and whistles. The crowd was not there to support a Republican. They were there to support Trump.

Is this really all there is to Trump? Just someone without traditional campaign funding that offers simple solutions to problems the “broken” and “stupid” federal government has avoided? Could Mark Cuban or Stephen Colbert do this?

The biggest surprise of the night did not come from Trump himself. It was who was standing next to me, behind me, in front of me. There was not one over-represented gender, race, or age group. There were veterans of seemingly every conflict of the last three generations, there were high school students who may not even be old enough to vote. There were women of all ages, and there were African Americans, Arabs, and Hispanics. All of them donned with the famous “MAKE AMERICA GREAT AGAIN” slogan hats, TRUMP buttons, or as one woman adorned herself, with a bumper sticker fixed to her forehead.

Ward says “Houston, we have a problem” when addressing Trump’s comments towards women, yet there was no shortage of women there to support Trump. Either his vision and ideas for the country are so appealing his fans are willing to set aside reservations about his controversial comments, or they love and embrace his crassness and verbal brutality as a protest to the perceived endless encroaching of the “political correctness” wave from the left. I am willing to bet it’s the latter.

What does Trump mean for the future? Has the GOP divided into even more factions, with a third of their voters now willing to throw overwhelming, enthusiastic support at someone who has never held public office, and has only been a Republican for less than a decade? Every bit of conventional wisdom has promised a downfall, but he is yet to show as much as a flinch from the top of the polls with the Iowa caucus less than two months away. Whether or not Trump receives the GOP nomination, the party is damaged, and probably changed for the long run in a way Republicans are not prepared for.

The 2016 election has become so much more than the expected Clinton vs. Bush ballot. While Senator Sanders is not by definition the outsider that Trump is, they both point to a disturbing reality for leaders of both parties. Voters across the political spectrum are flocking to candidates that do not just promise change, they exemplify it. There has been a widespread rejection of traditional candidates that seem to be nothing more than party politicians. Sanders has a tougher road than Trump at getting a nomination, though I still do not see either being announced as nominees at next summer’s conventions. I think Trump’s support will plateau around 40%, with Cruz or Rubio eventually taking the lead as the field consolidates.

I laughed a few times Wednesday night. Trump is a funny man, intentionally and otherwise. I met some really nice and seemingly genuine people who embrace Trump with every drop of jubilation as President Obama’s supporters did in 2008. I learned a few things as well: Trump supporters are indeed real; the man knows how to rally a crowd and to give them what they want. The GOP’s main focus right now is on how to deal with Trump in 2016, and how to keep him from running independently. That is not to say there won’t be more Trumps down the road. They will come back, and in greater numbers.

This article was originally published on LinkedIn’s Pulse.