One thing Kruse had never done, however, was place himself in the cauldron of a Trump rally. That changed last month, when he found himself crowded into the press pen at Minges Coliseum in Greenville, North Carolina, on the night of July 17, listening to Trump continue his attacks on “The Squad” — four newly elected U.S. Congresswomen of color, all American citizens, all but one native-born. Kruse’s “Letter from Greenville” was posted online in Politico Magazine the next day — just 14 hours after the rally. It opened like this:
Whatever President Donald Trump was planning to do at his rally Wednesday night, the crowd outside Minges Coliseum was ready for it and ready to ramp it up.
Kruse then took us back a few minutes in time, to describe the scene just before the rally, where a hall was filled with vendors peddling T-shirts emblazoned with Trump’s anti-immigrant rhetoric.
“LOVE IT OR LEAVE IT.”
“LET ME HELP YOU PACK!”
“BUILD THE WALL DEPORT THEM ALL.”
And the hot-selling “FUCK OFF WE’RE FULL,” with the letters distorted to create a map of the U.S.
The messages on the T-shirts foreshadowed the frenzied rally to come, which Kruse set up in a single, declarative sentence:
Inside barely 15 minutes into his hour-and-a-half stemwinder, Trump gave the people what they wanted.
Kruse said he produced “Letter from Greenville” in a “a sweaty, panicky, fatigue-fighting sprint” — one which placed that searing event in the context of region and culture, and within the fierce national debate about whether Donald Trump is a racist.
Kruse’s piece, some 2,000 words long, is an impressive work of deadline narrative. It recreates, with granular detail, the incendiary atmosphere of the rally. But rather than rely on the event alone, Kruse spent time in Greenville before the rally, and devotes considerable story space the voices of locals, including members of the Latino community, who expressed fears for the future of America.The story reflects the shift in sensibility about the production schedules of journalism today. What once might have been considered a “daily” has morphed into a storytelling that feeds the relentless demands of the Internet where deadlines are counted down in nanoseconds.
Kruse was far from the only reporter covering the sweaty rally; dozens jostled for position in the venue or monitored it from the air-conditioned cloister of cable newsrooms. But he brought to it the sensibilities of a veteran narrative writer: an assured, knowing voice; careful attention to a three-part structure; a gift for cadence and sparkling language; and a novelist’s eye for speech and telling details.
He shares a snippet of dialog that lets us eavesdrop on his conversation with the “Fuck Off” T-shirt vendor:
“Four left,” he told me, “out of—I don’t know—a lot.”
He takes the reader with him to the Tropicana Supermarket in a Hispanic neighborhood:
Across the street from the local airport where Air Force One landed…
He put us in the store with a catalog of just three items:
Hojaldra cookies, chicharrones and the jerseys of the Mexico national soccer team.
He zooms out briefly to describe a community with:
Kruse joined Politico from the Tampa Bay Times, where as an enterprise writer he won the 2011 American Society of Newspaper Editors Award for non-deadline writing and the 2012 Paul Hansell Award for distinguished achievement in Florida Journalism.
…a sizeable population of Latino migrant workers, working seasonally in the fields in surrounding areas on cotton and tobacco and soybeans and sweet potatoes.
We caught up with Kruse as he faced another deadline, finishing up a deep-dive for Politico Magazine, this one on presidential candidate Sen. Kamala Harris. We wanted to know about the mechanics of his own sweat-drenched dash to make deadline after the rally, why he avoided the trap of focusing only on Trump supporters, and his thoughts about language and structure. Our interview has been edited for length and clarity.
How did this assignment come about? Why did you go to Greenville?
A few reasons. In spite of the fact that I’ve spent no small amount of my life these last four years reporting about, reading about, learning about, thinking about and writing about Donald Trump, I hadn’t gone to a Trump rally. It had started to feel like a hole. It was time. Initially, too, this rally was supposed to be the same day as (former special prosecutor Robert) Mueller’s testimony on Capitol Hill. Before that got pushed back a week, I was planning on playing with that juxtaposition.
Also, I live in North Carolina, and so I didn’t have to get on an airplane, which is always nice.
Was it planned as a daily from the get-go?
I’m not even sure what that means anymore. That day? The next day? Within 24 hours? Back when I worked in St. Pete, I thought in terms of dailies, or Sunday fronts, or longer stuff. Not anymore. The questions now, always: What news cycle is this going to be dropped into? What’s it going to have to fight for oxygen with? How will it be distinctive and not just another piece of content? Why would anybody read this, or even click on it, with all the other stuff bombarding everybody’s blinking, scrolling feeds? And anything ostensibly off the news these days has to be quick, quick, quick, right? Otherwise you just miss the window and nobody cares.
How tight was the deadline?
Well, this was an odd situation, because I had a flight to catch the next afternoon in Charlotte, to San Francisco, to spend a week or so working on a Kamala Harris piece. So I went back to the hotel after the rally and wrote the first two sections and sent it at 3:46 a.m. (I just checked) to Bill Duryea, my editor at Politico, who also was my editor in St. Pete, and then woke up at 6 and started driving the four or so hours I needed to drive. During that time, Bill edited those parts, and I wrote the third section, in my head first, then (carefully!) in scribble-scrabble in a notebook. I typed that at my home office and sent it to Bill at 12:10 p.m. (I just checked). I quickly re-packed. I was in an Uber on the way to the airport when it published.
Did you have any idea that the chant, “Send her back!” would become such a big deal? Did you have any inking beforehand that it would surface?
Maybe not those exact words, that exact chant — but that the sentiment in general became a big deal, at that rally, at that moment, given what had been going on in the three or four days (or years) of run-up, was … not surprising.
Once you heard the crowd start that chant, how did that affect how you structured and wrote the story? Did it change what you originally had in mind?
I had B-roll, if you want to call it that, from around town and from outside the rally, and some of that was going to be incorporated into the story, obviously. But the rally was the rally, the point of my presence, and so it was hard to think about the shape of the story without knowing how it was going to play out. So I just let it happen. The chant was on early on, but it was clearly and immediately important. Put it this way: It was going to take a lot to make it something other than the defining moment of the event.
How much did you report and write before the rally?
I did a decent amount of pre-reporting in the couple days before heading to Greenville. Some reading. Maybe a dozen phone calls. And then I reported in Greenville, mostly in Latino parts of town, for about six hours before having to head over to the rally, where I reported outside for a few hours before going inside.
How else did your editor help you besides editing on deadline as you sent in various sections?
I talked with Bill going into the reporting. I talked with him before the rally. I talked with him as I walked out of the rally and while driving back to the hotel — briefly jumping off the call to stop at a Starbucks just before closing time to order a large black Pike Place — and then I talked to him from the car the next morning. I’ve worked for Bill now for more than 10 years, and we’ve done a lot of stories together, and a lot of different sorts of stories, and the longevity of the relationship and this experience and that rapport — it’s never not helpful, but I’d say it’s particularly helpful in fast-paced, high-stress situations like this one was.
This was such a narrative high-wire act. What was the biggest challenge?
Your prose is smoking, the structure intricate. How did your work as a magazine writer influence the language and form of this story?
I usually just call myself a reporter. Terminology aside, I guess I’d just say this: One of the challenges of this kind of quick piece is that I’m not there to do what the people who are there to cover it for The New York Times or The Washington Post or CNN are there to do. I’m not filing practically instantaneously. But I am doing it fast. And I have to deliver something else.
What is that? One of those things is … me. Where have I put myself to report? What am I seeing and hearing? What am I feeling? License, I suppose. License (assuming of course the reporting and any general accrued expertise of mine justifies it) to just say stuff at certain points. A green light to just sort of let it rip. Own it.
Why did you spend so much time focusing on Latino members of the Greenville community?
Contrast. Which is to say tension.
The story is replete with rhetorical flourishes. Were these composed in the white heat of deadline? If so, where does that ability come from?
The math of time is harsh. And my concern in the wee hours of the morning after the rally frankly had nothing to do with “rhetorical flourishes” and everything to do with simply delivering to Bill, post-haste, some semblance of something he could work with.
I’m 41 now. This, for better or for worse, is the only thing I’ve ever done to make a living. In college, in high school, this is what I was doing, because this is what I wanted to do. I’ve been reporting and writing for money for a quarter-century.
Theoretically, the more you do it, the better you get at it, although it doesn’t always feel that way, because there are obviously ebbs and flows and good stretches and bad stretches, and there’s just nothing you can do about that. It gets easier, but actually no it doesn’t, you know? But you just have to keep doing it.
Good things come in threes more than once in the story. My personal favorite:
His proto-candidacy was birtherism. The crux of the announcement of his 2016 candidacy: Mexican rapists. The ongoing battle cry: “Build that wall!”
Is that structural technique a conscious part of your writing?
Lots of my stories have three sections. Lots of the sections in my stories are broken down into three parts (even if only in my head). Ditto for the paragraphs, and for the sentences. Three is a good, useful number. To wit: the chants that have made the backbone of a certain soundtrack of the Trump ascendancy. “Build the wall.” “Lock her up.” “Send her back.”
A “three-syllable shiv,” as I put it in the piece.
You write, “And he (Trump) had to hear what I heard, seated in the press pen.” Why insert yourself into the story there?
It’s more honest. The story, any story, is the product of an interaction between me and the material, and I’ve gotten more and more comfortable with that reality over the years. I’m in every sentence of every story, even if the actual letter I is not.
The piece is built around mini-scenes from your reporting. How do you choose them?
Quickly. Efficiently. Chronology is your friend. Pick the right people and the right details and leave the rest on the floor and don’t look back.
You don’t hold back. An example:
It was the extemporaneous product of an attention-seeking, room-reading savant, an instinctual gauger and tweaker and torquer of crowds, who understands the ebb and flow of their appetites, always aware of what line will get the biggest reaction.
What a bold take on Trump. Did you write that on deadline?
Yes and no. Yes in that I hadn’t written that sentence before going to Greenville. No in that over the last several years, I’ve had many, many conversations about Trump with many, many people who know him, to try to understand how he thinks and how he works, and this sentence is a result of all of those conversations, distilled, to try to help the reader do the same.
You return to “The Squad” at the end of the story? Why?
At its most basic level, the three-section structure of this story is at the rally, not at the rally, at the rally. This was in essence just a simple scene piece from a rally, which was the reason I was in Greenville, so it made sense to me, and to Bill, to start there, at the rally, and to finish there.
What has been the reaction to the story?
It did pretty good traffic, I think, or at least it felt that way, based on an uptick in Twitter mentions and whatnot, although I’m not totally sure because I had to shift my focus so quickly to getting out to San Francisco and checking into the next hotel and getting some sleep before getting back to Harris-related reporting that Friday morning. I was asked to go on CNN that night to talk about it, and so I stopped thinking about Harris long enough to go to the studio and perform hopefully satisfactorily for the consumers of cable news.
And then as always people moved on to whatever it was that came next.
You end the story with two one-line paragraphs, where Trump is drawing the clear distinction between himself and people represented by “The Squad:”
Vote for Trump next year, the president suggested, or vote for them.
“The choice for every American,” he said, “has never been more clear.”
Why did you give the President the last word in the story?
Because it’s something he said that’s true.