President Donald Trump emerged from behind a blue curtain with a wave and a clap of his hands at the Pennsylvania Farm Show and Expo Center in Harrisburg on Saturday night, beneath a sign that read, “PROMISES MADE — PROMISES KEPT.”
He wanted, he said, to commemorate his first 100 days in office with the Pennsylvania voters who had helped put him there. But he also made clear that he intended to provide counterprogramming to the events taking place back in the swamp: the White House Correspondents’ Dinner and the constellation of related events wherein the fake-news media and the rest of the Washington elite dress up and schmooze, from cocktail hour on Friday until hangover brunch on Sunday.
“I hope they have a good dinner,” Trump told the press just before the rally. “But ours is going to be much more exciting, I think. We have a big crowd. We sold thousands and thousands of tickets.”
It was definitely something. Entering a Trump rally in the year 2017 would require you to suspend your critical faculties to a degree, since the people there (the president, most of all) seemed to be under the impression that the campaign was ongoing, that Hillary Clinton remained Trump’s most formidable foe, and that they were united against the creatures of a swamp controlled by … someone else. It’s not clear who. Several times Saturday night, the crowd chanted, “LOCK HER UP,” seemingly unaware that Clinton retreated long ago into the woods of Chappaqua.
In a less surreal time, the president of the United States would be at the dinner, which supports the White House Correspondents’ Association. He would deliver his own comedic monologue, and then he would endure a stand-up routine at his expense. Trump has attended this affair in the past; this includes, most memorably, the dinner in 2011 at which Barack Obama, having just released his birth certificate following a months-long campaign by Trump to imply that he was not born in America and thus not a legitimate president, roasted him — a night some say was the impetus for Trump’s 2016 campaign.
Not showing up, then, was both a fuck-you to the media that Trump publicly pretends to hate, and a thank-you to his fans who still believe he is a different sort of politician. One man walked around the floor of the stadium holding a sign that read, “MY PRESIDENT SKIPPED THE DINNER TO GIVE US OUR DESSERT.” He proudly stopped before the press pen to ensure the journalists all got a good look.
“As you may know, there’s another big gathering taking place tonight in Washington, D.C. — did you hear about that?” Trump asked the crowd. They booed in response, and he dramatically threw up his hands.
“A large group of Hollywood actors and Washington media are consoling each other in a hotel ballroom in our nation’s capital right now. They are gathered together for the White House Correspondents’ Dinner” — he lowered his voice mockingly — “without the president.”
As the crowd erupted in cheers and whistles, Trump smiled.
“And I could not possibly be more thrilled than to be more than 100 miles away from Washington’s swamp, spending my evening with all of you and with a much, much, larger crowd and much better people, right? Right?”
The Harrisburg space holds more than 7,000, but tickets for the event — as for all Trump rallies during his campaign — weren’t for sale. Instead, they were offered for free on DonaldJTrump.com, and they weren’t required for admission. And while the crowd was substantial, it didn’t fill the room. Seats remained open in the stands, and space remained available on the floor.
But the people who were in attendance were excited. One man, sporting a long ponytail and a leather vest, turned to the person next to him when Trump started talking; “I love him,” he said. And they provided a stark contrast to the scene back in Washington, where people were dressed in gowns and tuxes and pretending to like each other. Studding the crowd were rather menacing-looking members of Keystone United (previously KSS, or Keystone State Skinheads), which the Southern Poverty Law Center characterizes as a white-supremacist hate group. Bald and heavily tattooed, they wore black T-shirts that read “Keystone State Central PA” and featured their logo, a black-and-white rendering of a dog. (The White House press office didn’t respond when asked to comment on the skinheads at the rally.) Outside, a man who said he was named Jeff Thomas wore a green Pepe the Frog mask — a symbol of the alt-right — and waved the fictitious flag of the “People’s Republic of Kekistan.” He was there, he told me, “because the normies took my meme.”
And while the crowd was animated by Trump’s claims about his accomplishments — executive orders he’s signed, the Supreme Court justice he got confirmed — they seemed to take the most delight in feeling, finally, a sense of superiority. (They also chanted “build the wall!” although there is no concrete plan to do so.) “Look at the media back there!” Trump said, “They would actually rather be here, I have to tell you. That’s right.” The crowd booed, and then broke into a chant: “CNN sucks! CNN sucks!”
“Media outlets like CNN and MSNBC are fake news, fake news,” Trump continued. “And they’re sitting and they’re wishing in Washington — they’re watching right now, they’re watching, they’re watching — and they would love to be with us, right here, tonight. But they’re trapped at the dinner which will be very, very boring.”