Note: This piece was originally published in a slightly different format in marie claire magazine. Readers who care about such things can find more details about this at the bottom of this page, following the article below.
It is not her beauty that will be questioned later, even by those who will quietly slide the whispering, long knives into the supple arc of her long, sinuous back.
As Melania Trump takes to the stage at the Republican National Convention, she radiates supermodel more than prospective First Lady. That elegant and dramatic Roksanda “Margot” that clings to her winsome curves isn’t just a white dress. It’s an actual mother-f**king wedding gown, the “most beautiful option for the Modern bride” according to the Net-A-Porter site where Mrs. Trump purchased it. For anyone else, the choice of wedding dress for a convention speech would be a scandal, a mockery. For Melania Trump, however, the choice is enchantingly glamorous. And make no mistake, she needs as much glamour as she can get. For unto her has been given perhaps the single most difficult and unenviable task at this convention: convincing independent women to support her husband, Donald J. Trump, to be President of the United States.
Purring in her sultry, Slovene accent to an audience of millions, Melania praises the family values her parents handed down to her, values she claims sculpted her into who she is today. Then, turning to the subject of things she loves most about her billionaire husband, she zeroes in on and delivers the one-line pitch directed to wives, girlfriends, and single women everywhere. “Donald,” insists Melania to the darkened sea of faces before her, “is intensely loyal.”
It’s the “loyal” bit that jars.
“Loyal” is a curious choice coming from the third wife of a man infamous for both his extramarital dalliances and his history of trading in slightly older wives for newer models. Even in the pro-Trump drinking hole across the street from the convention hall, where I’m watching Melania on the big-screen TV amidst a herd of binge-drinking GOP delegates, eyebrows raise. “Wow,” says one such delegate standing next to me to no one in particular, her eyes big as saucers in disbelief. “She really went there.”
Hours after her speech is over, Melania’s choice of the word “loyal” will seem, too, a cruel tempting of fate. Those well-crafted words about her family values? They will turn out to be plagiarized, inexplicably lifted from Michelle Obama’s convention speech eight years prior. Her husband’s staff will eschew the traditional political strategy of publicly firing a sacrificial low-rung staffer, murmuring instead to the press that it is Melania herself who is to blame for the colloquial fleecing. Watching his underlings throw his wife under the bus over the days to come, the “loyal” candidate and husband will remain silent on the matter, his staff’s collective Judas kiss upon the head of their boss’s gilded consort just one more campaign detail with which he frankly can’t be bothered.
Not that any of this will deter Melania. As she will note on Twitter, she plans on standing by her plea to those women who still distrust the Donald, a plea echoed by millions of other die-hard female Trump fans across America. A plea emphasized and underlined by every single unabashed member of the Women4Trump bandwagon I would speak with in the days leading up to, during, and after the convention.
Pay no attention to the things Donald Trump does, or says. Just love him, as I do, unconditionally and with all my heart.
I. Mr. Trump & the Maidens Fair
“Donate five dollars to put Crooked Hilary in jail?”
I glance up from my phone to see an earnest young man holding a mason jar full of bills inches from my face, and am momentarily confused. To be clear, I’m not confused by the young man’s wanting to put Hilary Clinton in jail. After all, I am at the Donald Trump American First Unity Rally at the Republican National Convention in Cleveland, Ohio. The convention’s main stage is a few blocks over, and though more prestigious it is being attended by those official delegates who are still a little unsure about their party’s nominee. The Unity Rally, however, is explicitly for die-hard Trump fans. It’s being held outdoors against the backdrop of the Cuyahoga River, which pundits who have never been to Cleveland have been using as a punchline. A few decades ago, the Cuyahoga was so polluted it sometimes caught on fire. It’s much cleaner now, however, and the setup for the rally — the green grass rolling up to a small stage just in front of the glistening river — is truly splendid.
“Five dollars?” repeats the earnest young man a hair louder, his voice sharp with impatience.
I put my phone away and ask the earnest young man how, exactly, my giving him five dollars will put Crooked Hilary in jail, because I truly am curious. But the earnest young man has no time for such questions. He rolls his eyes, mutters an f-bomb under his breath, and moves on to two men who are standing a few yards away. A moment later, I see both men reach for their wallets and stuff twenties into the jar.
There’s an electricity to the gathering crowd as it waits for the rally to begin. Indeed, there’s a bit of electricity running throughout the entire country. America has never seen a presidential candidate quite like Donald Trump before, so no one is entirely sure what this convention will bring. If Trump is reined in by party handlers he’ll likely give a traditionally boring convention speech. If, on the other hand, Trump decides to be… well, Trump, then all bets are off. He might make a sexist or racist comment on national television, or fantasize out loud about physically beating his political enemies, or toss up an off-the-top-of-his-head notion to drop nuclear bombs in Europe — all of which he’s done at various times in the primaries. With Donald Trump at the mic, the country has learned, anything is possible.
So far, however, the convention has been something of a letdown. Trump had promised a star-studded gala — a veritable who’s who of Hollywood, politics, and the wide, wide world of sports. Most of the country’s A, B, and C-list celebrities, however, are terrified of the effect that a public association with Trump could have on their personal brand, and are therefore treating the convention like a Zika outbreak. The celebs who have agreed to speak on the convention’s main stage are a ragtag group of D-listers with a whiff of twitchy desperation about them: the septuagenarian football player most famous (back when he was famous) for having never won a championship, the guy who was an underwear model thirty years ago, the gaggle of minor reality-TV stars, and Scott Baio, the 80s-era, direct-to-video star of low-budget stinkers like Zapped! and Baby Geniuses 2. And that’s who’s slated over on the RNC main stage. Here at the America First Unity Rally, the so-called celebrities are mostly stragglers whose sole claim to fame is having been interviewed by a Fox News anchor at one time or another.
The one notable exception is Alex Jones. Jones is a syndicated talk show host and independent film maker. He is also crazier than a sack of hyenas on crank. Among the colorful theories put forth by Jones or his show’s regular guests is the belief that 9/11 was an inside job, that tornadoes are weapons created by the government, and that Barack Obama and Queen Elizabeth are alien lizards disguised as humans preparing to enslave us all. The Trump fans here love him. Most of the men I meet here list getting a chance to meet Alex Jones as the second biggest reason for traveling across the country to attend the Unity Rally.
Their first biggest reason for being here is to meet a #TrumpGirlsBreakTheInternet girl.
#TrumpGirlsBreakTheInternet is a social media strategy employed by the Trump camp. The people I have talked to referred to it as a “political movement,” which I suppose it sort of is, in the same way that Girls Gone Wild is sort of a documentary film. #TrumpGirlsBreakTheInternet eggs on young, attractive, scantily dressed women to take cleavage selfies of themselves while wearing Trump hats and other campaign paraphernalia and then Tweet them. If the girls are deemed “hot” enough, Trump supporters are encouraged to retweet their pics over and over.
“I have waited all summer to meet some real live, ‘Break the Internet’ Trump girls,” a 20-something man named Tom in a Hilary For Prison t-shirt tells me conspiratorially. Tom is from Indiana, and he and a few friends have driven all night to be here for the rally because they very much want to support Donald Trump, to hear Alex Jones, and to meet some nubile coeds in Make America Great Again hats and push-up bras — though not necessarily in that order. Say what you will about the Trump camp’s objectifying of comely young women for political gain, it’s certainly succeeded in motivating a lot of men like Tom to travel to today’s rally. Ironically, however, it also seems to have motivated most women to be nowhere in the vicinity when they arrive. With few exceptions, the crowd is almost entirely made up of white men. And therein lies the dilemma not just for the rally, but for the entire Trump campaign.
Not to put too fine a point on it, but Donald Trump has something of a “woman problem” when it comes to voters. More accurately, he has two such problems. The first is that women make up a majority of all registered voters. The second is that nearly three quarters of them have an unfavorable opinion of the Donald, a number that appears to be growing. And it isn’t exactly rocket science to figure out why.
Trump, after all, is a candidate who publicly refers to women as bimbos, pigs, dogs, and “disgusting animals.” When running against onetime Hewlett-Packard CEO Carly Fiorina this spring, Trump suggested she didn’t have what it takes to be a leader because she was a woman who was (to Trump’s eye) physically unattractive. Annoyed by a tough question tossed his way during a primary debate by Fox anchor Megan Kelly, he later suggested the reason she had been tough had been because she had “blood coming out of her — wherever.” He has repeatedly suggested the responsibility for male infidelity lies with women for not being attractive enough or not properly satisfying their husbands’ urges in the bedroom. He once walked out of a deposition after a female attorney asked to take a short break so she could be excused to breastfeed her three-month old daughter; Trump declared the very practice of breastfeeding “disgusting.” Earlier this year, he said in a television interview that if he were president, a woman getting an abortion would need to face “some form of punishment.” When being pitched an idea by a shapely blond underling on his reality TV show The Apprentice, he famously responded, “It must be a pretty picture, you dropping to your knees.” In his book The Art of the Comeback he reasoned that deep down all women are gold diggers, which likely explains why he was once quoted in New York magazine as saying the secret to communicating with women was “you have to treat ‘em like s**t.”
And the most amazing thing about the above list of sexist and misogynistic statements by Mr. Trump is that it is just a very small tip of a very large iceberg. In-between the time I write these words and this magazine turns up in your hands, the Republican nominee will likely have added at least a dozen more such slurs to his resume.
In fact, when you comb through the seemingly endless parade of Mr. Trump’s utterances regarding women, the real question isn’t why so many of them don’t appear to be willing to vote for him. It’s, why are any voting for him at all?
II. Muslim Free Ranges & Religion-Free Muslims
“I don’t care what Donald Trump thinks or says about women,” Trump supporter Jan Morgan says to me, with no small amount of disdain at the very idea that someone else might. “Frankly, I think it’s pathetic that any woman would care if he’s sexist or not.”
Morgan is a regular Fox Business News contributor and gun range owner who bills herself as the First Lady of the Second Amendment. Like all the women the Trump campaign allows to be their de facto media spokespeople, Morgan has the look of a professional model. (Her website features professional-quality glamour shots of her holding high high-powered rifles.) Today, as she takes to the stage as a featured speaker at the Unity Rally, she is dressed entirely in black and white. And when I say “entirely,” I really mean it. The pistol that pokes out of her belt, black-barreled and pearl handled, looks like it was purchased explicitly as an accessory to her outfit. Her pro-Donald message to the crowd is a simple one: “Hillary will take your guns away; Donald will let you keep them.”
Even if you’ve never watched Fox Business News, it’s possible you’ve heard of Morgan. She achieved some amount of social media fame two years ago, after penning a blog post titled, Why I Want My Range to Be a Muslim Free Zone. According to Morgan, the need for a Trump presidency transcends what she sees as women being “politically correct.”
“Woman like Donald Trump because safety and security is important to them,” she tells me later, after the convention. For Morgan, the true threat to America isn’t Muslim extremism, it’s Islam itself. “What do you say about a religion where, if you’re devout enough, you want to kill people? Islam isn’t a religion. It’s a theocracy, and it has no place in America.”
Like some other notable Trump supporters, Morgan hopes to use this “Islam is not a religion” argument as a Hail Mary legal strategy to thread the religious liberty needle. If the very act of being Muslim is cleaved from any notions of faith, they reason, then there can be no first amendment protections. If Islam is not a religion, then a Muslim family living in your neighborhood is no different than a crack house or strip club. They’re just a seductive, pernicious danger to be legislated away by the God-fearing. To most registered women voters, these views are beyond extreme. But to most of the women passionate about the Donald, Morgan is preaching to the choir.
“The women who support Donald Trump care first and foremost about their family’s safety,” Melissa Deckman explained to me the week before I left for Cleveland. Deckman is Chair of the Political Science Department at Washington College, and the author of the book Tea Party Women: Mama Grizzlies, Grassroots Leaders, and the Changing Face of the American Right. “They see immigrants and Muslims extremists as very real threats, and they’re looking for someone to protect them. What’s more, they correctly perceive that there their country is changing, and they see that as a threat.”
Deckman points to findings she published for the non-partisan think tank Presidential Gender Watch (PGW). This summer, PGW published statistics comparing the views of women who support Trump to those women who don’t, and the difference in attitudes toward non-white minorities is profound. The vast majority of women voters overall, for example, disagree that the government has paid “too much attention to Black Americans” or other people of color; they also say that they aren’t particular bothered when they come into contact with immigrants who speak little or no English. The majority of female Trump supporters, on the other hand, are deeply troubled by both. By contrast, on economic questions, such as whether or not they support increasing tax rates on wealthy Americans, Trump’s women actually fall into a more moderate space in-between the average conservative and liberal voter.
In other words, for all the hopeful talk at this convention of class-oriented Bernie supporters finding comfortable seating onboard the Trump Train, female Berners don’t actually have much in common with female Trumpers, economically speaking. At least as far as Deckman’s findings show, Trump women aren’t actually that motivated about taxes, tariffs, or trade deficits. They’re primarily motivated by their concerns about Others.
Deckman’s findings match perfectly my conversations with the small number of women attending the American First Unity Rally. For them, Trump’s promises to build walls and ban Muslims aren’t unsubtle and ill-conceived government overreach. They’re the common sense solutions that they believe stand between their children growing up in prosperity and falling victim to violence from some nearby enemy. In fact, not one of the women at the Unity Rally I spoke with could name a single Trump policy other than building a wall, mass deportation of immigrants, and a ban on Muslims entering the country. And to their credit, not one pretended to know how any of those three could possibly be legally, logistically, or financially realized. But there was not one among them that didn’t hold a diamond-hard certainty in their heart that Donald Trump would accomplish all three of them in his first 100 days in office.
For most of these women, their entire adult lives have been a case of “us against this brave new world,” and they’ve been losing more and more ground every year. Now, however — here in this eleventh hour, just as the clock is set to hit midnight — now it’s “us and Donald against the world.”
And for the first time in decades, they think they just might have a chance.
III. The Trump Babes Meet The Unwashed Masses
If there’s one thing that Sarah Hagmayer really wants me to know, it is this: she is having an absolute blast.
Hagmayer is the national spokesperson for the official Students For Trump organization, and she radiates joyous, youthful energy from her blond-haired, blue-eyed, perfectly-toned body by the megawatt. If Saved By the Bell had featured a female character whose playbill description read something like “Peppy, beautiful, the perkiest and most popular girl in school” (and it might have, for all I know), then Hagmayer would be that character made flesh. Prior to this gig, she was a “promotions model” for a high-end luxury car dealership in New Jersey. In a way, all of this this makes her appear a natural choice to carry the Make American Great Again banner on behalf of the newly-voting-age set. But in a different way it doesn’t, because it’s hard to imagine a time when America hasn’t been great for someone like Hagmayer.
There is also this: as campaign spokespeople go, Hagmayer doesn’t seem to know much at all about her candidate.
When I ask her baseline questions such as what she likes about Mr. Trump, her quick answers mirror the responses I have heard her give on Fox News and talk radio shows: she likes his policies. She appreciates that, unlike other politicians, Trump tells the truth about difficult things. However, when I ask the obvious follow-up question — What’s a Trump policy you that you like? — she can’t name any Trump policies. Not a single one. Moreover, I have the sense she’s surprised I even bothered to ask; certainly no one on Fox ever asked her anything this detailed.
It’s a startling thing to experience first hand. I cannot fathom a national spokesperson for Students for Clinton — or for that matter, Students for Romney, McCain, or Cruz — who would be at a total loss when asked to name a single policy position held by their contender. What Hagmayer does do better than any of those other poli-sci nerds, however, is wear a bikini like nobody’s business. She’s easily the most popular Trump model flashing skin on the Internet, and for Team Trump that is no small thing.
The Trump camp seems to go to great lengths to try to make sure that any female Trump supporters you find on social media double as eye-candy for their male supporters. In addition to #TrumpGirlsBreakTheInternet, social media is thick with organizations with names like Women4Trump, Babes4Trump, and TrumpHotties, and others, all of which revel in provocative, sexualized shots of comely young Trump supporters. (It is somehow both totally surprising and totally expected when, once you’ve looked into them, you learn that the people who started and run these organizations appear to all be men.) In a charged culture-war atmosphere where liberals declaring that men should respect women as careerists are pitted against conservatives declaring that men should respect women as homemakers, the Trump campaign is betting that the path to victory lies in asking men to respect women as pinups they’d like to schtup. It’s why Tom from Indiana and so many other men here at the Unity Rally really thought it would be liberally peppered with beautiful women, and are so disappointed to find instead people just like themselves.
The people at the Trump rally, male and female alike, have a hardened, weathered look about them, more beaten-down junkyard mutt than perfectly-coiffed show poodle. They are in a metropolitan city attending a national Presidential convention rally, yet many have hunting knives sheathed on their timeworn belts. They are society’s white downtrodden, backs bowed and teeth yellowed, the people who had hoped to capture a piece of the American Dream only to discover that the rest of the country had casually tossed them aside like so much unneeded weight. They are the discarded flotsam of the 21st century economy and its modern social mores, and to a person they believe they have found a savior in Donald J. Trump.
One man I speak with is a proud supporter of Trump because, like Sarah Hagmayer, he believes that “Donald tells the truth other politicians won’t.” When I ask him to give an example of such a truth, he explains that Trump isn’t afraid to recognize that Mexicans, blacks, Jews, and Muslims are ruining the country for decent, hardworking people. When he asked me what I do and I tell him I’m a reporter, he hastens to add that he doesn’t disapprove of Mexicans, blacks, Jews, or Muslims in any racist kind of way.
I ask another attendee about her Hilary for Prison t-shirt. Does she really want Trump to lock up Hilary Clinton? “Of course not,” she says as she shakes her head, “That’s just what the t-shirt said when I bought it.” We stand quietly watching the crowd for a moment before she adds, “I think she needs to be publicly hanged.” And then, before we can continue our conversation, the rally officially begins.
As the speeches at the Unity Rally get under way, the event security team takes up position around the stage. Instead of using police or private security, the Trump camp is using members of the group Bikers for Trump, a loose affiliation of motorcycle gangs who support the Donald. They are dressed like extras from a Sons of Anarchy episode, and they line up in front of the crowd, sunglasses on and burly arms crossed, scowling at the crowd as if daring someone— anyone — to approach the stage. Despite this oddly Easy Rider vibe, for the first several hours the rally itself is a surprisingly low-energy affair. The speakers and emcees attempt to rile up the troops, repeatedly trying to get the crowd to follow them in loud, angry chants. But it’s a hot and oppressively humid day, and most of the crowd is road weary. They gamely repeat the chants, but their voices are tepid, the chants half-mumbled. The effect is similar to watching a perky vice principal encouraging cheers from the slouching, bored student body at a mandatory pep rally. Besides, most of the men around me aren’t even pretending to pay attention to the speakers. They’re finally spotted three women who actually do look like the internet women they hoped to meet here, women they have dubbed the Trump Babes.
The Trump Babes are clearly models, and appear to have been imported by one of the rally’s sponsors. They stand to the side of the small stage, apart from but facing the audience, so that if someone was filming the whole thing for posterity from the back it would give the illusion that the women at Trump rallies are all young and beautiful. As the festivities get under way, the Trump Babes cheer wildly for whatever D-lister happens to be on stage, not unlike professional cheerleaders. Together, the Trump Babes consist of one blond, one brunette, and one redhead, because of course they do.
Later in the day, midway through the rally, an ordinary housewife will take the stage to give a heartfelt talk about the tragic loss of her son, a young man brutally tortured and murdered by an illegal alien. Whatever your thoughts on immigration, this woman’s story will be a truly gut-wrenching experience. What she lacks in public-speaking experience she will more than make up for in her steely resolve to get through what she has to say before the sobs welling up inside of her can break loose. For the first time all day, all of us in the crowd will truly be riveted, collectively holding back our own tears as we bear witness to this woman’s unspeakable tragedy. It will be one of the most moving and heart breaking things I will ever see on stage.
At one point during this woman’s devastating testimony, I will glance over at the Trump Babes. With no D-list celebs to cheer, they will no longer seem interested in what is happening on stage. They will look bored with this moment of less-attractive people grieving together. Instead, they will be leaning against a nearby railing, laughing and telling jokes to one another, texting friends or agents, occasionally taking smiling selfies of themselves to Tweet to the world.
The Trump Babes may be there for us, but make no mistake. They are not of us.
IV. To Be or Not To Be Trevor Noah
After a long cavalcade of speeches from “up and coming” pop-singers, pundits, and politicians we will never hear of again, Alex Jones arrives and takes the stage, and for the first time all day the crowd is truly energized. Part of Jones’ radio schtick is angrily shouting for long periods of time into a microphone. As it turns out, this is also Jones’ method for giving public speeches.
I try to follow along with what Jones is saying, but his thoughts are so erratically stream-of-consciousness and so disconnected from rational thought that it’s difficult. There’s something about an evil New World Order, something about how all of this is being controlled by Hilary Clinton with some illuminati-like shadow government, all capped with the pitch that Donald Trump will single-handedly save the world if we just vote for him in November. The whole thing is one long, hot, unintelligible mess, but to the people at the Unity Rally it might as well be the Gettysburg Address. If Donald Trump is people’s savior, then Alex Jones is their holy prophet, their John the Baptist.
And then at one point, without warning, Jones stops mid-rant and points into the crowd. He has spotted an enemy agent, he tells us. Not just any enemy agent, but the clown prince of Satan’s own court: the African American host of The Daily Show, Trevor Noah. (Though it’s also clear that Jones can’t quite remember Noah’s name, as he keeps referring to him as “the Daily Show guy.”) Jones snarls at Noah from a distance, daring the comedian to face him mano-a-mano, and when the crowd roars its approval Jones sends security to bring Noah on stage. The sheer drama of the moment is quickly dampened, however, when the biker rent-a-cops bring Noah before Jones. Because it’s not actually Trevor Noah. It’s just some black guy in a suit. Who looks nothing like Trevor Noah.
Not-Trevor-Noah tries to explain to Jones that he isn’t the host of The Daily Show, that he’s there because he’s a fan of Jones, but Jones won’t listen. It’s only when Not-Trevor-Noah begins to spew back the shock jock’s own conspiracy theories that Jones begins to realize his error. Then, in the cautiously guarded manner of a best man handing the microphone to a groom’s drunk ex during wedding toasts, Jones asks Not-Trevor-Noah what brought him to today’s rally. Not missing a beat, Not-Trevor-Noah begins explaining that he and his wife are big fans, and also that he and his wife are swingers and want to have sex with Jones at their hotel later that evening. The bikers are there immediately, speedily carting the man off stage as a clearly shaken Jones attempts to pretend what clearly just happened did not in fact just happen.
At that very moment, my phone buzzes and I see a text from my editor, Daniela. She wants to know how I’m liking being at the convention. As Not-Trevor-Noah is being escorted from the stage, I type back what might well be the most purely honest thing I have ever texted in any moment of my entire life.
“I am having A LOT of fun.”
V. A Beauty, Beast, & Gray Lady Walk Into A Bar…
Here’s a different text I have recently received, this one from ex-swimsuit model and ex-Donald Trump girlfriend Rowanne Brewer Lane:
“Ready for my interview anytime, Mr. Kelly.”
The words of this text are actually quite mundane — it’s the selfie of Lane that accompanies it that momentarily takes me aback. It’s just so… sexual. Those big, gorgeous, brown eyes offset by the luxurious mane of auburn hair, the suggestive revelation of cleavage, the sultry, come-hither look staring back at me from my iPhone screen. I’ve received a ton of texts from people I am about to interview in my time, but this is a first. And in spite of myself I find myself wondering as I dial the phone to talk to her: Did Rowanne Brewer Lane just take this sexy selfie just now, for me, or this a pic she keeps on her phone to shoot over to whoever she’s about to talk to?
You’ve likely read about Lane, even if you don’t recognize her name. This past spring, she was at the heart of a She Said/They Said controversy with the New York Times. Lane was the narrative focal point by Times reporters Michael Barbaro and Megan Twohey in a feature article focusing on Donald Trump’s history with women. Barbaro and Twohey presented the relationship between Lane and Trump as a tawdry affair, a Beauty and the Beast tale for the tony Manhattan set. The piece painted a picture of a chauvinistic Trump putting Lane into a swimsuit upon their meeting, crassly objectifying her, and subjecting her to his 1-10 rating of her and other women’s bodies and appearance. As soon as the Times article was published, Lane took to the television airwaves to object to the story, for all intents and purposes accusing Barbaro and Twohey of lying about what she had told them when interviewed. Liberal pundits insisted that after the interview Lane was bribed by the Donald to lie about what she had said to embarrass the Times; their conservative counterparts were sure that the Grey Lady had fabricated the entire piece with the help of the Clinton camp.
Her bizarre selfie aside, Lane actually has something of a sweet innocence about her. She’s the only Trump associate I talked to who doesn’t seem to be in it for either a paycheck or 15 minutes of fame. There was a time when she sought out the celebrity lifestyle, but she’s moved past that now. Everyone else I talk to seems to be desperate for the media spotlight; Lane clearly wants it all to go away. For one thing, she’s come to the conclusion that anything she actually says to the press won’t ultimately matter, because they have a narrative they’re looking to push, facts be damned.
“No one in the press ever tells the stories of the amazing things Donald did for me,” Lane laments as we talk about her role as media touchstone this past year. “I tell every reporter who talks to me all these stories that show how great a guy he is, but no one ever mentions them when the stories come out. I guess they have a different story they want to tell about me.”
Lane, having dated Trump in between his first and second marriage in the early 90s, has many such stories. There’s the time Trump called up Lane’s mom, unprompted, to let her know that his intentions were honorable, and compliment her on raising such an amazing daughter. There’s the call that Lane got from a friend in Florida, whose dad had just had a stroke in New Jersey, and who couldn’t calm down long enough to figure out what to do. Trump was there when Lane got the call, and arranged for her friend to be flown to NYC that evening, be picked up by car, and brought to a Trump luxury hotel suite to sleep until the hospital allowed visitors the following morning. When the the sun broke the next day, Trump’s helicopter flew the friend directly to the hospital where her father was in recovery.
After spending some time talking with Lane, it’s pretty clear that, in the dust up between her and the Times, neither side ever lied, twisted the truth, or exaggerated. Despite the finger-pointing by both sides, what’s striking about Lane’s version and Barbaro/Twohey’s is that they aren’t actually different — they’re the exact same story. The only difference is the prism though which the story is viewed. To Barbaro and Twohey, Trump publicly rating Lane as a human being on a 1-10 scale based entirely on her looks was grotesque, an example of terrible caveman behavior they likely assumed Lane found reprehensible. But the point of that story for Lane is that her body got a higher score on Trump’s scale than did all the other women’s bodies he rated. For Rowanne Brewer Lane, telling the New York Times how Donald Trump rated women on their looks to their face wasn’t a complaint. It was a boast.
“Any woman who tells you she doesn’t love the idea of a wealthy, powerful, handsome man scoring the looks of women in the room if she gets the highest score is lying,” Lane insists to me. “Every woman wants to be rated on her looks if she’s told she’s the most beautiful.”
I know enough women to know that Lane is wrong about the “every woman” part, but it’s clearly true of Lane herself. Which is probably unsurprising. After all, Lane has spent all of her adult life not just being beautiful, but being judged as a person almost entirely on that beauty. As a swimsuit model, music video girl, and arm candy sought after by billionaires and rock stars alike, beauty is the very currency on which Lane has propelled herself though life.
When you think about it, it’s easy to see the existential threat Hilary Clinton’s America poses to the Rowanne Brewer Lanes and the Sarah Hagmayers of the world. After all, they’ve spent all of their lives being told that as women, it’s enough to simply be physically beautiful. But now the world is changing, and suddenly simply being good-looking isn’t enough. In order to be at the top of this new social hierarchy, you’re expected to be smart, or talented, or hard-working, or learned. To be only beautiful is a strike against you in this modern world.
After our interview, Lane sends me copious pictures of herself in her youth. She seems to want me to see — to know, deeply and unquestionably — that she was once one of the most beautiful women on the planet. And there’s no question, as I review the hodgepodge of shots she sends, that she absolutely was. She still is, really. For the Donald Trumps of the world, that alone makes her something special; for the Hilary Clintons, that alone leaves her somewhat lacking. To the people who want Clinton in the White house, she’s just a punchline.
Rowanne Brewer Lane never needed Donald Trump to bribe her to win her support. He was always her only possible choice.
IV. Fifteen Minutes of Trump Fame
I very much feel the need to tell you this: Scottie Nelson Hughes is very, very good at what she does.
There are two reasons why I feel this need. The first is that it’s quite possible that you feel the opposite about Hughes. If you’re not a political junkie, its likely that your sole impression of her comes from an unflattering Saturday Night Live sketch this past April, in which comedian Kate Bolduan portrayed Hughes as a “full-blown nut job.”
“I get that it’s part of the job,” Hughes told me in August as she reflected on her skewering by the classic satirical TV show. At the time it aired, Hughes complained that Boldoun’s portrayal of her was the “ultimate shaming [by] sexism.” Now, however, Hughes seems pretty OK with it all. “Besides,” she explained to me, “I’m big enough to admit it: it was funny.” Which was quite gracious of Hughes, because the SNL sketch was absolutely not funny. At all. It was one of those SNL skits you see where an audience that came prepared to laugh sits on its hands, cringingly quiet, patiently waiting in vain for something funny to happen so they can let loose.
In person, it turns out, Hughes is not a “full-blown nut job.” She’s pretty much the opposite. She’s sharp, empathetic, professional, calm, gracious, and well-informed on the issues her campaign is discussing at the moment. Which makes her stand out somewhat among her peers at Camp Trump, and which brings me to my second reason for needing to tell you that Hughes is good at her job: she might be the sole person in the entire Donald Trump for President organization who actually is.
The truth is that, despite everyone in America having spent the past year talking about the Trump campaign, I’m no longer certain that a “campaign” actually exists. At least, not in the traditional sense of that word. Presidential campaigns are organized, hierarchical machines, in which groups of professional operatives push a unified message at the behest and for the benefit of a candidate. That does not describe the Trump campaign.
Take something relatively simple, such as the campaign’s official schedule. Peruse Clinton’s website — or really, the website of pretty much anyone running for public office this year — and you will find a calendar that lays out where and when the candidate will be speaking in the coming weeks. On most days I checked, the calendar on the Trump website was a blank page. At best, it had just one upcoming event listed — and that event might or might not actually transpire. Trying to find out a simple detail such as the date of a scheduled campaign event by talking to Trump campaign representatives is like being a character in a Kafka novel. One representative might insist that in two days Trump will be in San Diego speaking to friends of weight-loss guru Jenny Craig, while another representative a few hours later will tell you that the person who you spoke with first was an idiot because the Craig gig was canceled last month ago, and a third might be pretty sure that Trump already did that Craig fundraiser a week ago.
There’s a similar pattern that follows the campaign which, if you’ve been watching over the past year, is likely familiar. A so-called official representative of the Trump campaign will say something ill-advised, off-message, offensive, or just bats**t crazy to the press. Later, when asked, another so-called official representative will claim that fist person isn’t with the campaign, and that the campaign has no idea who that person even is. Later, a different official representative will drop that supposedly disavowed name in a different context, suggesting that person is indeed with Team Trump. Before I covered the campaign myself, my assumption had always been that the reason the Trump camp always sounded unsure as to whether or not someone who had committed a gaffe was on staff, was that they were simply willing to say whatever was politically convenient at the time. Now, however, I suspect that the reason the Trump camp constantly contradicts itself about such simple things as staff, calendar, finances, and even Mr. Trump’s official positions on any particular issue is that no one inside the campaign actually knows. And unlike other presidential campaigns in the modern era, the so-called officials from the Trump campaign you see on television or quoted in the press might not actually be on the campaign payroll. Some are, of course, but many are hired as third-party contractors and consequently might have little or even no interaction with the campaign itself. Others claiming to be spokespeople are simply spotlight seekers who don’t seem to have even an informal relationship with the campaign. And it’s not clear that anyone inside the organization knows which are which.
It gets worse.
Most of the people I have spoken with who are associated with the campaign do not seem to be concerned about whether or not Trump wins in November. Instead, they seem concerned only with what I have come to call their 15TF, or “15 Minutes of Trump Fame.” Think what you will of Jan Morgan, the Free-Range Muslim gun advocate, but she’s no dummy. She knows that having a Trump surrogate telling reporters that members of religions she doesn’t like should be shorn of their first amendment rights can only hurt her candidate. The same can be said of Trump spokesperson Katrina Pierson, who when referencing President Obama asked if there were “any purebreds left,” and who responded to concerns about American Muslims’ Constitutional rights being infringed by saying, “So what? They’re Muslims.” Or campaign advisor Roger Stone — the very man who organized the Unity Rally here in Cleveland —dismissing one female journalist as a “fat negro,” publicly wishing for the death of another, and insisting that Ted Cruz’s father was somehow responsible for the Kennedy assassination.
In fact, allow me to jump ahead in our Unity Rally narrative and share with you what is an absolutely 100% true story.
At the very end of the Unity Rally, famed alt-right Twitter provocateur Milo Yiannopoulos will make an unscheduled, surprise appearance. He will arrive with an entire entourage of young men dressed exactly like Yiannopoulos himself: black silk shirt, aviator sunglasses, hair slicked back. As Yiannopoulos takes the stage, his entourage will file into the front rows of the now-depleted crowd; as he speaks, they will sycophantically shout that they love him, laughing a little too loud at those one-liners that leave the rest of the crowd nonplussed. In addition to declaring his undying support for “Daddy,” his pet name for Trump, Yiannopoulos will talk wistfully — here, at a conservative Republican rally filled with family-values voters — of his love for having a black man’s cock in his mouth. Many hours after he leaves the rally, he will host a fundraiser which will attract several conservative luminaries as well as reporters. The fundraiser will feature large, artistically-lit photographs of what look to be underage boys — underage as in looking ten or eleven years old — all nude, in highly sexualized positions, wearing Make America Great Again hats.
Milo Yiannopoulos might be a clown, but like Morgan he isn’t stupid. He knows full well that associating Trump with child pornography hurts Team Trump. But he clearly doesn’t care, any more than anyone else that works for the Trump campaign seems to care when they make headlines at their candidate’s expense. If their words or actions make them briefly famous, then their work here is done. If that 15 minutes hurts their candidate, well, so what? He’s rich enough. Trump doesn’t need their help so much as they need his coattails.
Which is why Scottie Nelson Hughes is such a surprise.
A short while before we spoke, Hughes had made a gaffe on CNN defending Trump’s claim that by being rich and successful he had sacrificed as much for America as a family who had lost their son in combat. The CNN segment was like all cable-news Trump features, which is to say it was a useless mess of people from all sides of the fence shouting at one another until it was time for a commercial break. At one point while on camera, Hughes mentioned Trump’s divorces as a sacrifice he’d made. It was an especially terrible and Trump-esque thing to say, especially considering the Donald’s reputation of leaving wives for younger women. When I asked Hughes about what she had said that day, she admitted she’d fumbled the ball by being inartful in her phrasing, but then she went on to try to explain to me what she hadn’t been able to get anyone on CNN to hear.
“I’m pretty successful in my career right now,” she explained. “And while that’s good, there’s so much I miss out on because of it. I have to be away on Christmas and holidays, and whenever one of my kids has an important event in their lives, I’m absent. My husband’s great, don’t get me wrong, and my success is giving my kids opportunities they wouldn’t be able to have otherwise. But how does being absent not damage you, or them? I don’t know what the cost will be to this success, but I know there is a cost. So when I hear Donald Trump say that success brings sacrifices, well, I get it.” I can hear the pain in her voice; it’s a deeply vulnerable, sincere, and absolutely un-Trump moment.
Hughes got into politics later than most. She says that she was frustrated by the upper-middle class moms in her circle who, when the discussion turned to elections and policy, would politely demure their own opinions in favor of their husbands’. “They felt like it wasn’t their place as women to have an opinion,” she recalled. “And I felt like it was their place, and I wanted them to feel that way too.” When I tell Hughes, a life-long conservative Republican and Trump spokesperson, that what she’s telling me makes her sound like a feminist, she doesn’t blink. “Well of course it does. I am a feminist.”
Everyone else in the Trump circle I interview will attempt to find a way to say something so outrageous as to make them the lead of my story, in search of their 15TF. Hughes, on the other hand, goes out of her way to soften the edges of Trump’s crudeness. Her version of Trumpism sounds kinder, gentler, and more empathic not to just the white working class, but to Mexicans, Muslims, and people of color. This might be a function of who Hughes is, or then again it might be a function of who I am. Unlike everyone else I’ve spoken with, it’s clear that Hughes has done her homework on me, having read various pieces of mine and even watched a video of a talk I gave in Portland, Oregon. So it’s entirely possible that the message she’s laying out as we talk is one that’s been carefully crafted with me in mind. If so, it’s impressively on target.
Like I said, Scottie Nelson Hughes is really, really good at what she does.
When talking with Hughes, it’s hard not to imagine a bizarro-world Trump campaign, one which hired her to be in charge of the Manaforts, Stones, and Lewandowskis, rather than to be the person charged with constantly cleaning up their messes. One in which Trump defers to her instincts and expertise, where she mentors press secretary and political neophyte Hope Hicks and the rest of Trump’s inner-circle in how to effectively communicate with a press that is charged with covering them. And if you are a die-hard, blue-state, donkey-loving Democrat, you should get down on your knees and thank the Goddess almighty for the sheer impossibility of that scenario. Because that Donald Trump campaign would be absolutely crushing Hilary Clinton right now.
As it is, however, Hughes continues to plug away, doing what she can with the tools she’s given, dutifully showing up to cable-TV shout-fests, and just generally being under-recognized and underutilized by the alpha-male, frat-boy menagerie who truly run the Trump campaign.
“The more people throw hate,
The more you need to ed-u-cate!
So vote for Trump the business man,
He’s the one with the Master Plan!”
It is mid-afternoon at the Donald Trump American First Unity Rally at the Republican National Convention in Cleveland, Ohio. The crowd has been restless since the departure of Alex Jones, and many have been looking for an excuse to leave. By the looks of it, most are using the announcement that two African American women will be on stage shortly as that excuse. All day long, speakers here have been announcing to the world that despite what the Liberal Media might say, Trump supporters listen to and support people of color. Based on the mini-exodus currently occurring, however, it appears that a fair number of these supporters are more on board with listening to white people explaining that they will listen to black people than actually, well, listening to black people.
The few hundred that don’t leave take advantage of their vacating peers, and are now pushing toward the stage and craning their necks, all the better see the two short, round, black women who are about to play the remaining rally-goers like a well-tuned, blue-grass fiddle.
The two African American women, Lynette and Rochelle Richardson, are sisters from North Carolina who go by the nom de YouTube of “Diamond and Silk.” Last fall they posted some online videos of themselves raving about Donald Trump, and before they knew it the campaign was flying them out to do the occasional warmup for its mogul-turned-candidate. It’s easy to see why. The people who have stayed are lo-o-o-ving the Diamond and Silk show. Their rehearsed patter, full of rhythm, rhymes, and call-and-answers, is a verbal lovechild born of a hot, August-night tryst between Martin Luther King’s “I Have a Dream,” Barry White’s “I’m Just Gonna Love You a Little,” and Johnnie Cochran’s “If the glove don’t fit, you must acquit.”
When I interviewed Diamond and Silk over the phone a week earlier, they answered all of my questions as if on stage, with one pre-rehearsed, rhyming string of lines after another — almost none of which corresponded to the actual questions I was asking. I’m not going to lie: it was really weird, and a more than a little annoying. Here, however, on stage and in front of the crowd, Diamond and Silk’s carefully crafted shtick makes sense. Within minutes, the sisters have the crowd swooning and swaying as if to music. Diamond and Silk entertain, they cajole, they feed the soul, and to some members of this almost all-white crowd, perhaps, their very presence grants some small measure of clemency to past and future accusations of racism.
Still, there has to be one downer in every crowd.
Cheryl is a white, worn-looking grandmother in her mid-forties, and she’s standing just to my side as the Tarheel-state sisters do their magic. Cheryl is one of those people who, just by sitting there saying nothing, seems to bear witness to a lifetime of being beaten down. I’d seen her cheering loudly earlier in the day, but as Diamond and Silk exit the stage, I hear her let out a soft, bitter expletive directed at the sisters.
It’s not that she’s racist, she explains to me later as the rally is ending, when I ask about her cursing Diamond and Silk. It’s important to her that I understand this point — that she’s absolutely, definitely, positively not racist.
It’s just that she used to be near the bottom rung in society, but not on the bottom rung, and did I know what that meant? When I tell her I think I might, she wonders aloud if this election is going to mean anything if everyone but her gets to step up a rung. I nod solemnly, but stay silent, because I can’t tell for sure exactly how close to tears she is now, just that she’s pretty damn close.
I know who she means by “everyone” who might overtake her on this ladder she’s envisioning, of course, and she knows that I know, and while that might well be shameful, what can either of us say? Nothing, of course. And so we don’t. We just stand there, together, watching the workers begin to break down the stage against the backdrop of the once-again pristine Cuyahoga, saying nothing.
For some — for the Diamonds and Silks, the Jan Morgans, the Melanias, and the Rowanne Brewer Lanes of this great land — the the promise of Donald Trump is the promise to make America (and them) great again. For the Cheryls of the world, though, Trump’s promise is the slowly dying hope of being able to still be “next to last”, for just a little while longer.
That’s not much, admittedly. But it’s something.
A Note to Readers: This summer, I was commissioned by marie claire magazine to do a piece on one of the oddest and most elusive demographics of this election: the women who love Donald Trump. The pieces I write for mc-mag are long-form features, and as such are not usually published online. (They’re hoping people will buy the magazine.) However, the editors there have graciously allowed me to reprint this article in its entirely — including some of our favorite parts that were necessarily cut for space in the print edition. Most of the photography for the in-print piece was supplied via lease through Getty Images, however. Because of that, those accompanying images do not appear here. Instead, I’ve used a few public domain pictures from Wiki Commons YouTube, as well as some obviously not-professional iPhone pictures I took myself at campaign-trail rallies.
I would be remiss, after their generosity in letting me post what is after all their intellectual property, were I not to thank marie claire, its fantastic editors, and its amazing staff. I’ve worked with them a bunch over the past year (I think it’s five features we’ve partnered on now?) and each time they have provided a perfect mix of challenging material, openness to my desire to approach stories in non-conventional fashions, and just plain being fantastic people.
An especially big thanks to Features Editor-at-Large Daniela Elser, who not only puts up with me, but does so despite the fact that being located out of Sydney she’s literally on the opposite side of the planet. Because of this, working with me has to be a huge logistical pain in the ass, and I’m pretty sure that some of our phone meetings require her to set her alarm at unGodly times, but I’ve never once heard her complain.