ROCHESTER, Minn. — At the heart of President Trump’s political movement is this paradox: A wealthy reality television star who lived in a gold-encrusted Manhattan penthouse was able to gather a dedicated following of the less privileged and launch a war against his own social class.
Brett M. Kavanaugh — who has lived most of his life in the Washington area, attended elite schools and worked in George W. Bush’s administration — was exactly the type of “political elite” whose swamp Trump and those supporters once said they wanted to drain.
Yet Trump and his rally crowds are now firmly behind Kavanaugh, to the point where audiences sometimes chant “Kav-a-naugh” in addition to “Drain the swamp,” two ideas that would seem to be in forceful opposition to one another.
It’s an alliance formed around a common cause and, increasingly, against a common enemy: Democrats, or anyone who tries to stand in the way of Trump notching wins. Although Kellyanne Conway, Trump’s former campaign manager and current White House counselor, once described the Trump movement as “us vs. the elite,” it has since become them versus everybody else.
They are not embracing populism, though it once seemed so. They are embracing anything touched by Trump.
Trump, Kavanaugh and their now-fierce band of supporters merge on multiple fronts.
Kavanaugh adopted Trump’s angry tone of grievance and raw emotion as he testified that he did not sexually assault Christine Blasey Ford when they were in high school. He snapped at Democrats and alleged that the accusations against him were “a calculated and orchestrated political hit, fueled with apparent pent-up anger about President Trump.”
Besides the attitudinal similarity, there was the political one: Kavanaugh’s known beliefs square with those of both Trump and his supporters. And, on a lighter note, his avowed fondness for beer struck the same everyman note as Trump’s affinity for cheap fast food.
Several Trump supporters who gathered for his rally in southern Minnesota on Thursday night said they don’t really care about Kavanaugh’s past — his comfortable upbringing, political experience or alleged transgressions in high school or college — and wanted to see him quickly confirmed.
“I know that some people would stop at nothing — absolutely nothing — to prevent him from getting in, and I think that’s where the country has made such a turn,” said Karina Van Meekeren, 41, who proudly describes herself as “Christian right-wing” and lives in the Rochester area. “Instead of being respectful and being honest and coming up with things that truly are in somebody’s past, it’s turned into a witch-hunt with people creating and fabricating stories to keep people out.”
On the campaign trail, Trump presented himself as someone who lived in the world of the elites and despised them — even if it appeared that he had spent his whole life trying to be one of them.
“The media and the political elite don’t know the pain and the suffering these people are living under. But I figured it out a long time ago and that’s why I’m here,” Trump said at a rally in Iowa two days before the 2016 election. “I’m with you, rather than where I was. . . . I was on the other side. I understand it well. I understand the other side well.”
For years, Trump’s followers have said that he seems like the sort of guy they would want to have a beer with (even though he doesn’t drink). Those who did meet him often gushed about how Trump made them feel like the most important person in the world during their short interaction. Ahead of Thursday night’s rally in southern Minnesota — held in a congressional district where seven counties flipped from voting for Barack Obama to Trump — GOP gubernatorial candidate Jeff Johnson said that meeting with Trump “was like talking to my dad.”
“He’s a billionaire, he’s never had to struggle but somehow he gets it. He understands what we’re all going through,” said Pete Klinghagen, a 52-year-old railroad worker from Willmar, Minn., who voted for Barack Obama twice but is now a firm Trump supporter. “Has any other president done this many rallies? He goes out, he’s everywhere, he’s listening.”
Anthony Scaramucci, who briefly served as Trump’s White House communications director, grappled with the question of Trump’s relationship with the elite during a July 2017 BBC interview.
“He knows how to operate in an elitist world, and he has unbelievable empathy for the common struggle that’s going on with the middle-class people and the lower-middle-class people,” Scaramucci said, after a tiff with the reporter over whether eating cheeseburgers cast Trump out of elite circles.
A few weeks later, at a rally in Phoenix, Trump wondered aloud what it really means to be elite: “I always hear about the elite. . . . They’re elite? I went to better schools than they did. I was a better student than they were. I live in a bigger, more beautiful apartment, and I live in the White House, too, which is really great. . . . I think we’re the elites. They’re not the elites.”
Trump didn’t mention the idea again for nearly 10 months. Then in June, at a rally in northern Minnesota, Trump praised his supporters for being “smarter than anybody and the hardest working.” He wondered again why “the elite” get to be called “the elite.”
Two and a half weeks later, Trump announced Kavanaugh’s nomination and declared “there is no one in America more qualified for this position and no one more deserving.”
Rick Santorum, a former GOP senator and presidential candidate, accused the president of having “just bowed to the elite in Washington” and said this of Kavanaugh: “He is from Washington. He is the establishment pick. He is the Bush pick.”
But many of Trump’s supporters didn’t seem to care. Just as Trump has endorsed likely-to-win congressional candidates who once criticized him, many of his supporters were simply pleased to have a nominee who Democrats would find difficult to block.
“I’m not a fan of George Bush, but [Kavanaugh’s] reputation — what I hear on the news — it sounds like he’s pretty solid,” said Michael Bantle, 35, who lives in Minneapolis, owns a contracting company and attended the Trump rally on Thursday. “I think if you’re going to nominate someone to the Supreme Court, you can’t bring in an outsider. . . . And the Supreme Court, it’s not supposed to be political.”
Bantle said that he often clashes with liberal activists in Minneapolis who are offended by his political stances, saying that these days “if you say Trump’s name in a bar, they will kick you out because they say that’s ‘hate speech.’” Bantle said he saw as similar the effort by outraged Democrats to unfairly attack Kavanaugh and “weaponize sexual assault” to stall a vote.
Trump has continued to talk about how he and his supporters are the new elite — even coining the term “super elites” at a rally in South Carolina. It’s not a label that the president’s supporters have eagerly embraced, unlike “deplorables,” the moniker coined by Hillary Clinton which is still worn with pride. None of the vendors outside Trump’s rally in Rochester were selling “Super Elite” gear, nor anything else mentioning Kavanaugh or the Supreme Court.
Instead, one booth sold T-shirts with an image that looked like a beer label but instead read: “reelect Donald Trump for President 2020.” Another sold women’s shirts proclaiming “Adorable deplorable.” And one booth featured black T-shirts with this manifesto: “I support Donald Trump. I love freedom. I drink beer. I turn wrenches. I protect my family. I eat meat & I own guns. If you don’t like it, MOVE.”
Barry Thompson, a 58-year-old Trump supporter from the Minneapolis suburb of Cottage Grove, said he hadn’t heard the president’s riff on the “super elite,” but he likes it. A woman standing in line behind him shook her head and disagreed: “He’s not an elite. He’s a billionaire, but he talks on our level. He talks to us.”
Thompson agreed with that, saying that Trump is the rare politician who knows “what it’s like to come out here and wait in line,” even if he hasn’t had to wait in a line himself.
“He just promoted everybody in this line,” Thompson said during his second hour of waiting to get into Trump’s rally. “His supporters are ‘super elite,’ and I couldn’t agree more.”
The woman behind him chimed in again: “I don’t view myself as elite.”