“Anybody ever hear of Hannibal Lecter?” former President Donald Trump asked last night. “He was a nice fellow. But that’s what’s coming into our country right now.”
The leader of the Republican Party—and quite likely the 2024 GOP nominee—was on an extended rant about mental institutions, prisons, and, to use his phrase, “empty insane asylums.” Speaking to thousands of die-hard supporters at a rally in South Florida, Trump lamented that, under President Joe Biden, the United States has become “the dumping ground of the world.” That he had casually praised one of the most infamous psychopathic serial killers in cinema history was but an aside, brushed over and forgotten.
This was a dystopian, at times gothic speech. It droned on for nearly 90 minutes. Trump attacked the “liars and leeches” who have been “sucking the life and blood” out of the country. Those unnamed people were similar to, yet different from, the “rotten, corrupt, and tyrannical establishment” of Washington, D.C.—a place Trump famously despises, and to which he nonetheless longs to return.
His candidacy is rife with a foreboding sense of inevitability. Trump senses it; we all do. Those 91 charges across four separate indictments? Mere inconveniences. Palm trees swayed as the 45th president peered out at the masses from atop a giant stage erected near the end zone of Ted Hendricks Stadium in Hialeah. He ceremoniously accepted an endorsement from Arkansas Governor Sarah Huckabee Sanders, his former press secretary. He basked in stadium-size adulation and yet still seemed sort of pissed off. He wants the whole thing to be over already. Eleven miles away, in downtown Miami, Trump’s remaining rivals were fighting for relevance at the November GOP primary debate. “I was watching these guys, and they’re not watchable,” Trump said. His son Donald Jr. referred to the neighboring event as “the dog-catcher debate.”
Though not a single vote has been cast in this election, Trump’s 44-point lead and refusal to participate in debates has made a mockery of the primary. And though many try to be, no other Republican is quite like Trump. No other candidate has legions of fans who will bake in the Florida sun for hours before gates open. No one else can draw enough people to even hold a rally this size, let alone spawn a traveling rally-adjacent road show, with a pop-up midway of vendors hawking T-shirts and buttons and ball caps and doormats and Christmas ornaments. Voters don’t fan themselves with cardboard cutouts of Chris Christie’s head.
Multiple merchandise vendors told me that the shirts featuring Trump’s mug shot have become their best sellers. Some other tees bore slogans: Ultra MAGA, Ultra MAGA and Proud, CANCEL ME, Trump Rallies Matter, 4 Time Indictment Champ, Super Duper Ultra MAGA, Fuck Biden. “Thank you and have a MAGA day!” one vendor called out with glee. As attendees poured into the stadium, some of the pre-rally songs were a little too on the nose: “The Devil Went Down to Georgia,” “Jailhouse Rock.” Kids darted up and down the aisles between the white folding chairs, popping out to the snack bar for ice cream and popcorn. The comedian Roseanne Barr, who a few years ago was forced out of her eponymous show’s reboot after posting a racist tweet, took the stage early and thanked the MAGA faithful for welcoming her in. “You saved my life,” she said. Feet rumbled on the metal bleachers. People danced and embraced. In the hours before the night’s headliner, this felt less like a political event and more like a revival.
I saw the GOP operative Roger Stone and his small entourage saunter past the food trucks to modest applause. Onstage, Trump complimented Stone’s political acumen. (Stone, who is sort of the Forrest Gump of modern American politics, has played a role in seemingly every major scandal from Watergate to January 6, not to mention the Brooks Brothers riot that helped deliver Florida to George W. Bush in the 2000 election.)
That afternoon, seeking air-conditioning at a nearby Wendy’s, I met Kurt Jantz, who told me he’s been to more than 100 Trump rallies. Jantz had driven down to Hialeah from his home in Tampa. His pickup truck is massive, raised, and wrapped in Trump iconography. (He has an image of Trump as Rambo with a bald eagle perched on one shoulder, surrounded by a tank, a helicopter, the Statue of Liberty, and the White House, plus a background of exploding fireworks. That’s only one side of the truck.) Jantz has found a niche as a pro-MAGA rapper—he performs under the name Forgiato Blow. Tattoos cover much of his body, including a 1776 on the left side of his face. He rolled up his basketball shorts to show me Trump’s face tattooed on his right thigh. “Trump’s a boss. Trump’s a businessman. Trump has the cars. Trump has the females. Trump’s getting the money. He’s a damn near walking rapper to the life of a rapper, right? I want a Mar-a-Lago.” Jantz said he’s met and spoken with Trump “numerous times,” as recently as a couple of months ago at a GOP fundraiser. Trump, he said, was aware of the work Jantz was doing to spread the president’s message, not only through his music. “I mean, that truck itself could change a lot of people’s ways,” he said.
Though people travel great distances to experience Trump in the flesh—I spoke with one supporter who had come down from Michigan—many attendees at last night’s event were local. Dalia Julia Gomez, 61, has lived in Hialeah for decades. She told me she fled Cuba in 1993 and supports Trump because she believes he loves “the American tradition.” Hialeah is more than 90 percent Hispanic and overwhelmingly Republican. Onstage last night, Trump warned that “Democrats are turning the United States into Communist Cuba.” People booed. Some hooted. He quickly followed up, seemingly unsure of what to say next: “And you know, because we have a lot of great Cubans here!”
Trump won Florida in 2016 and 2020. His closest rival, Florida Governor Ron DeSantis, has just been endorsed by Iowa Governor Kim Reynolds, but has otherwise been struggling to connect with voters for months. Trump has already secured many key Florida endorsements, including from Senator Rick Scott. (Senator Marco Rubio has yet to endorse.)
The night was heavy on psychological projection. “We are here tonight to declare that Crooked Joe Biden’s banana republic ends on November 5, 2024,” Trump said. Later, he vowed to “start by exposing every last crime committed by Crooked Joe Biden. Because now that he indicted me, we’re allowed to look at him. But he did real bad things,” Trump said. “We will restore law and order to our communities. And I will direct a completely overhauled DOJ to investigate every Marxist prosecutor in America for their illegal, racist, and reverse enforcement of the law on day one.”
He seemed to tiptoe around the idea of January 6, though he did not mention the day, specifically. Instead, he said: “We inherit the legacy of generations of American patriots who gave their blood, sweat, and tears to defend our country and defend our freedom.” Earlier in the day, I spoke with Todd Gerhart, who was selling Trump-shaped bottles of honey, with a portion of the profits going to January 6 defendants (Give the “Donald” a Squeeze: $20). Gerhart lives in Charleston, South Carolina, and is among the vendors who follow the Trump show around the country. He told me that Mike Lindell, the MyPillow guy, is a fan of his product, as is General Michael Flynn. He introduced me to a woman from Tennessee named Sarah McAbee, whose husband, Ronald, was convicted on five felony charges related to January 6 and is currently awaiting sentencing. She told me she’s able to speak with him by phone once a day. Yesterday she informed him she was going to the Trump rally. “It’s a one-day-at-a-time sort of thing,” she said.
About 100 yards away, people were lining up to meet Donald Trump Jr., who was scheduled to sign copies of his father’s photography book, Our Journey Together. Junior smiled and scribbled as his fiancée, Kimberly Guilfoyle, snapped selfies with fans. Walking around yesterday afternoon, I heard a rumor: Not only had Trump already picked his next vice president, but there was no one it could conceivably be besides his loyal namesake, Don Jr.
A little while later, I saw Jason Miller, a senior adviser to the Trump campaign, milling about. I asked him about this rumor explicitly. He gave me an inquisitive look. “President Trump’s not ready to announce his VP pick yet,” he said. “Can you even have someone from the same family? I know you can’t have two people from the same state. So that rules it out right there.”
Family remains a confounding part of the Trump story. His daughter Ivanka spent the day in Manhattan testifying in the case that could demolish what’s left of the family’s real-estate empire. Trump himself had taken the witness stand on Monday. The occasion seemed to still be weighing on him, and at the rally, yielded a microscopic moment of familial self-reflection. “Can you believe—my father and mother are looking down: ‘Son, how did that happen?’” (For this he did an impression of a parental voice.) He quickly pivoted. “‘We’re so proud of you, son,’” he said (in the voice again). It didn’t make much sense. He rambled his way to the end of the thought. “But every time I’m indicted, I consider it a great badge of honor, because I’m being indicted for you,” Trump told the crowd. “Thanks a lot, everybody.”
During my conversation with Miller, I asked him if the campaign had discussed the logistics—or practicalities—of Trump getting convicted and having to theoretically run the country from prison. “There’s nothing that the deep state can throw at us that we’re not going to be ready for,” he said. “We have a plane, we have a social-media following of over 100 million people. We have the greatest candidate that’s ever lived. There’s nothing they can do. Nothing is going to stop Donald Trump.”
What about something like a house arrest at Mar-a-Lago?
“Nothing is going to stop Donald Trump.”