Linda Blackford

‘He’s a rock star.’ Amid sea of red in Rupp, Trump’s rally gives a preview of 2020.

Jonas Williams has been selling presidential merchandise since the 1990s, when Bill Clinton was president, and here’s what he knows about Donald Trump: “Business has never been better.”

He’s here with co-worker Nathan Quick, they’re at their 82nd rally for either Trump or Pence since Trump entered the political scene. They drove to Lexington from a Trump rally in Mississippi on Friday, and will turn around and head back south to Louisiana first thing Tuesday.

“Obama, he did good at his rallies, but you couldn’t just take to the streets and do what you do with Trump,” Williams said, seated behind a long table of hats, t-shirts, scarves and the most popular item, a red MAGA hat with a thatch of orange hair sticking out the front. “People are a whole lot more excited. I’ve never seen anything like it in politics.”

That’s hard to argue. As Williams spoke in the Rupp Arena parking lot four hours before Trump was scheduled to appear, a line of people snaked in a maze at least a mile long of people waiting to get into Rupp.

Trump came to Lexington to pull Gov. Matt Bevin over the finish line in a tight governor’s race, but Bevin seemed almost beside the point.

“I like Trump a lot better,” said Brad Hisel, a Lexingtonian who came to support his president. He’ll vote for Bevin, but somewhat reluctantly. “The teacher thing was uncalled for,” Hisel said. “But Beshear wants sanctuary cities so I won’t vote for him.”

Sam Brown chairs the Wayne County Republican Party, and he had no doubt that Bevin, and probably the entire Republican ticket, would prevail on Tuesday, but the real story, as always, was Trump.

“He’s a rock star, he’s totally unique,” Brown said. “No doubt he’ll win in 2020.”

Good question because the enthusiasm gap is real. Never has Rupp Arena been so red, maybe not even so loud as when the crowd was chanting “USA! or “Four More Years.” Even though we’ve all heard about Trump rallies, the reality of nearly 20,000 people dressed in Trump hats and t-shirts, jumping to their feet and screaming, chanting, stomping their feet is like no other political event I’ve ever seen on television or in real life.

To accentuate the main act, Bevin, Daniel Cameron and Rand Paul all spoke a good hour and half before Trump appeared. Bevin gave a rousing speech, evoking Winston Churchill, the Lion of England during World War II.

“We are the lion and we have elected one man, Donald J. Trump, to be the president of this country,” Bevin shouted. “We have asked this man to deliver the roar, to American and the world. We will not be silenced, we will not be apathetic.”

But such eloquence seemed wasted on a crowd waiting for just one man. When Trump finally appeared, it was easy to see how much energy he gets from the crowd, and what they get from him, the shared delight in his easy targets for the crowd: ISIS, Nancy Pelosi, Mueller, impeachment, the Fake News. “Even on a Monday night, is there anything cooler than a Trump rally?” Trump asked.

Trump talked about Bevin: “He’s such a pain in the ass, but that’s what you want,” he joked, referring to Bevin’s penchant for calling on Trump for help for Kentucky. But he always returned back to his favorite topic, himself, his successes and his perceived enemies, the “disgusting Washington Post, etc., the radical left.” The crowd cheered even when he said “we’re putting miners back to work,” two months after the Blackjewel strike ended and just a week after Murray Energy joined a host of other coal companies to declare bankruptcy.

We know truth of this kind no longer matters to Trump fans. And in a way, the cult of Trump doesn’t matter either, at least not here in a red state that will elect Republicans for the foreseeable future. Kentucky will be that first red check mark in the Trump column next Nov. 3. But the people on coasts, those who live outside flyover country, the ones who despise Trump as much as people love him here, they should remember that shock and surprise they felt Election Night 2016 and get a little better prepared.

Take heed of the words of one Luke Ritchie, University of Kentucky senior and Trump enthusiast.

“If you look at the sky and see it’s blue,” Ritchie said, “Trump is going to win.”

Linda Blackford writes columns and commentary for the Herald-Leader. She has covered K-12, higher education and other topics for the past 20 years at the Herald-Leader.
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