It was one of those moments last summer when it looked like the short-lived Trump train would be a train wreck. Asked about criticism he had received from former presidential candidate and POW hero John McCain, Trump replied, “He’s not a war hero. He was a war hero because he was captured. I like people who weren’t captured.”
This was at the “Family Leadership Summit” in Ames, Iowa, in the months leading to the Iowa caucus. Challenged later on his statement, he doubled down, insisting that McCain had done little for veterans, and was like all politicians, all talk and no action. The crowded Republican field unanimously denounced him, and most (myself included) saw him as a celebrity apprentice who was about to get fired.
One of those who denounced him was McCain’s close friend and senatorial colleague (and, at the time, candidate) Lindsey Graham, who tweeted, “If there was ever any doubt that @realDonaldTrump should not be our commander in chief, this stupid statement should end all doubt.”
What a difference a (presumptive) 10 months and a nomination makes (including for Graham, who reportedly told one group to “get behind” the nominee, although he did not specifically offer an endorsement). This Memorial Day weekend Trump appeared at the annual “Rolling Thunder” rally in Washington, D.C., an event organized initially in the late 1980s, and since the mid-1990s an incorporated organization which stages the annual motorcycle rally (at one point attracting 350,000 bikers). The organization advocates for the cause of veterans, although its initial (and still active) impetus, as The Economist magazine put it, was to advance a specific crackpot belief: that successive Republican and Democratic administrations have concealed evidence that American captives are being held alive in South-East Asia.”
Trump may have claimed to valorize those who “weren’t captured” just a year ago, but his appearance at the mall on behalf of those who supposedly have been captured and never released marks another milestone in the un-reality show of the campaign.
Aside from the compliments for the “beautiful” bikes and praise for the Hells Angels’-style protection they supposedly have given him at other events, the highlight here was Trump’s comparison of his appearance on the mall to that of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. in August 1963, delivering the “’I Have a Dream’ speech on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial.” This event would have been like that one, Trump averred, if only the masses of bikers had been allowed to enter the mall area:
“I thought this would be like Dr. Martin Luther King where people were lined up from here all the way to the Washington Monument,” he said. “But unfortunately they aren’t allowed to come in.”
One Trump organizer at the rally unfurled the banner featuring the American bald eagle with the Trump slogan “Make America Great Again.” When interviewed, the organizer said, “I just think he loves this country.” Others added that, his statement about McCain aside, he stood for the right policies on gun rights and other issues.
To be sure, the sentiment in the crowd was not universal. “I don’t want no fool up in the office, don’t have no agenda,” said one man of Trump’s candidacy, adding that he would not have come from Cincinnati if he had known of The Donald’s presence.
Nonetheless, this comic-opera episode suggests the ways in which Trump will capitalize on the civil religious ceremonies of the disaffected. And he took full opportunity to preach to the crowd, converted and unconverted alike, suggesting that illegal immigrants receive better treatment than did veterans. We can expect six months of that red meat of American racial nationalism as the Trump train rolls on, and nearly all (Mitt Romney and Bill Sasse excepted) of the Party get on board or at least wave as it passes by.