Arnie Alpert is a retired activist, organizer, and community educator long involved in movements for social and economic justice. Arnie writes an occasional column Active with the Activists for InDepthNH.org.
By ARNIE ALPERT, Active with the Activists
Like a lot of other politics watchers, I thought at first that the Trump for President campaign was a joke, or just a publicity stunt.
Memories of its beginnings flooded back when President Trump, already in the waning days of his administration, appointed Corey Lewandowski and David Bossie to the Defense Business Board.
Lewandowski and Bossie, known for their fierce partisanship rather than the “sound judgement” called for in the Defense Business Board’s charter, met up with Trump at a political event they hosted in Manchester on April 13, 2014. I was in the audience.
The event, titled a “Freedom Summit,” was sponsored by Americans for Prosperity, whose NH operations were then led by Lewandowski, and Citizens United, the organization Bossie headed, best known as the group whose TV ads opposing Hilary Clinton led to a U.S. Supreme Court case dismantling campaign finance restriction.
The “summit,” held at the Executive Court, was something of an audition for potential GOP presidential candidates nearly two years before the 2016 NH Primary. Speakers included Senators Ted Cruz, Rand Paul, and Mike Lee, and Representative Louie Gohmert. Donald Trump, then primarily known as a real estate developer and a star on Reality TV, was there, too.
In an article posted on my blog, I wrote that the GOP office holders focused on reducing taxes and repealing Obamacare, all to tepid response from an audience consisting mostly of conservative activists.
“Trump was different,” I observed, after my first up-close view. “Speaking without notes – and criticizing politicians who depend on speech-writers and tele-prompters – Trump wandered from point to point, some of which departed from standard AFP scripts.
For example, he defended Social Security and Medicare in an apparent dig at proposals coming from Congressman Paul Ryan. He said we need ‘to come up with a humane solution’ to the country’s immigration system, but then drew applause for ridiculing Jeb Bush’s recent ‘act of love’ statement and said he could build a physical barrier that would keep immigrants out. Trump said we had spent $2 trillion on the Iraq war, “for what?” but then implied maybe it would have been worth it if we had taken over the country’s oil.
Trump was entertaining, but I left thinking I should keep my eyes on Mike Lee.
A year later, I still thought Trump was a joke, but not even significant enough to be in the punch line.
Writing on April Fool’s Day, 2015, I put words in the mouth of faux journalist Adam Baum, who explained that Americans were obsessed with celebrity and would vote for President the same way they voted for American Idol.
“The most important skill a modern politician can have is the ability to deal with the 24-hour news cycle,” Baum says. “Being president is more like starring in a reality TV show than any other job category.”
But even then, with the Primary only 10 months off, I still wasn’t taking Trump seriously. My article, in which Trump gets a bare mention, was titled, “Will Kim Kardashian Run for President?”
By then I was running the American Friends Service Committee’s project, “Governing Under the Influence,” which was mobilizing activists in New Hampshire and Iowa to challenge candidates in both parties to stand up to big corporations. When the candidates filed their candidacy papers, Donald Trump had to walk past our giant banners to enter and exit the State House.
By then, Trump was no longer a joke. After his call for “a total and complete shutdown of Muslims entering the United States” a few weeks later, the candidate’s first public event was in Portsmouth, where he was to accept the endorsement of a police union. With barely 48 hours lead time, we organized a demonstration outside the hotel, decrying Trump’s Islamophobic statements.
But perhaps, by then, it was too late. The Reality TV candidate was gaining supporters, especially among those for whom his blustery racism and misogyny had a magnetic appeal. As Adam Baum had predicted, Trump’s ability to command public and media attention propelled him to the White House and exemplified his approach to the presidency as a giant publicity stunt.
The joke was on us. And it wasn’t funny.
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