So I infiltrated a Donald Trump rally…
I went behind enemy lines. I attended a Donald Trump rally. It all started Wednesday morning when I was putting the finishing touches on my newspaper column. I received a text from my significantly better half, Cathi, that read: “Trump is in Sacramento today. You have to reserve seats at his website. And you need to get there several hours early. He’s speaking at 7 p.m.”
Now I’m obviously not a Trump supporter, but I’ve been wanting to catch the rallies of the candidates, if possible. It’s so rare that any presidential candidate campaigns in California since we’re the bluest of the blue states. I missed a Bernie Sanders rally last month because I was busy helping my grandson with a science project. Now, I would see the Donald live.
To be honest, I was an “Apprentice” fan. I watched every season. I thought Donald Trump was an arrogant blowhard, but the show was entertaining. And when Donald famously said that “the blacks” love him, there may be a kernel of truth to that. Back in the day, Trump was friends with Iron Mike Tyson and Tyson fought several times in Trump venues. Also, back in the 90s, Prince wrote a song for the Time called “Donald Trump (Black Version).” Some rappers have mentioned Trump in their lyrics. The Donald was a success icon for a lot of inner city blacks. But then again, so was movie gangster Tony Montana. Suffice it to say “the blacks” have since cooled to the Donald.
So I drove down to the Sacramento International Jet Center (after missing my exit twice — sometimes GPS sucks!) around 3:45, apprehensive about what kind of crowd I’d be encountering. Trump rallies in Albuquerque and San Diego ended in near riots between protesters and Trump supporters. Not to mention, it was just shy of 100 degrees and I didn’t relish the thought of waiting in the heat for hours to see someone I’d never vote for.
As soon as I pulled into the gravelly parking lot and parked, I was greeted by a group of protesters carrying signs about racism and other things chanting, “Fuck Donald Trump!” Trump supporters responded with shouts of “USA! USA!!!”
From the get-go, I wasn’t going there to protest. And I didn’t want to go there as a member of the press because I knew they kept the press in a little pen and Trump’s supporters hate the media. I wanted to go as a faux supporter to talk to people, listen to people and see what’s behind the Trump phenomenon. I also wanted to hear from Donald Trump. I’m not a fan of disrupting rallies because it’s important that the candidates be allowed to speak and state their positions.
I found a lot of nice people. In fact, a little old lady helped me get to the front of the line! Yes, the crowd was overwhelmingly white. While I was one of only three black folks that I counted, I wasn’t harassed or treated like I was there to protest. It was important for me to experience that because it’s been too easy to dismiss Trump supporters as bigots and idiots. The people I interacted with were friendly and engaging. I heard one man telling supporters to not yell at the demonstrators. I overheard people talking about wanting to be able to respectfully discuss issues with others instead of fighting.
We had to have our bags searched and then we walked through metal detectors. The TSA agent went through my murse thoroughly, turning on my phone and iPad Mini and inspecting my medication. It sure seemed like a more thorough check than I’ve gotten at the airport.
The rally was held in an open aircraft hangar. There was a fenced off area in the middle reserved for the media. Several video cameras were set up and pointing towards a small stage and podium at the front opening of the hangar. Metal barriers draped with red, white and blue bunting walled off a small area of about two dozen white folding chairs set up in front of the stage. I bellied up to the first row of barricades behind the two rows of chairs, about fifteen feet from the stage. An event staff member told everyone that the seats were reserved for military veterans.
By this time, it was five o’clock with the sun beating down on those of us gathered near the front of the hangar. Most people stayed back in the hangar in the shade but if you wanted the prime real estate of being a stone’s throw from Trump, you had to bear the blazing 95 degree heat with no shade and only intermittent breezes.
Two and a half hours of standing immobile in the sun waiting on a billionaire blowhard that I didn’t support wore on me. I’d long finished the tiny water bottle I’d brought. What worried me most is that I was no longer sweaty and was starting to have chills and heart palpitations. Some of the meds I’m on tell the user to stay out of direct sunlight. I felt faint. Was this worth it?
A cheer went up as the veterans were being escorted to their seats. It was wonderful seeing these elderly World War ll veterans slowly make their way to their seats while we applauded and whooped and hollered. I felt a second wind.
Former three term Congressman Doug Ose took to the stage to introduce the veterans and fire up the crowd. Next up was a woman who’s name escapes me who led the supporters in a prayer and the pledge. Then came former fighter pilot Scott O’Grady, whose F-16C was shot down over Bosnia in 1995, to endorse Trump and pump up the crowd. Given that Trump famously slammed war hero John McCain for getting captured and held as a POW (“I like people who weren’t captured.”) maybe it makes sense that he’d have O’Grady (who wasn’t captured) at his rally.
A cheer went up on the right side of the crowd as the Donald’s Boeing 757-200 with Rolls Royce engines, 24 karat gold plated fixtures and the name TRUMP emblazoned on the side rolled into view with majestic music blaring in the background.
It wasn’t long before Donald Trump, wearing a blue suit, white shirt and no tie while carrying a red Make America Great Again cap emerged and walked down the stairs from his jet while the crowd of thousands roared.
Here was the billionaire TV star who had dispatched 16 opponents in the Republican primary and who can’t seem to go a day without making news, standing at a podium not 15 feet away.
It was downhill from there. The speech, cobbled together from notes in his hand, was nothing we haven’t heard before. “We don’t win anymore.” “We’re gonna bring back jobs!” “We’re gonna repeal Obamacare and replace it!” “We’re gonna make great trade deals!” “Crooked Hillary….” “We’re gonna build that wall and who’s going to pay for it?” The crowd yells “Mexico!” “America first!”
During the speech, which was often inaudible due to the cheering, members of the crowd yelled out things like “Obama sucks!” “Hillary’s a liar!” and of course, the ubiquitous, “USA! USA!” When protesters disrupted the event, Trump repeatedly barked, “Get ’em out!” Even the sweet, mild-mannered woman who’d stood beside me for over two hours chatting about the weather, her 30-year career in the federal government and volunteering for Trump turned into a wild-eyed banshee when Donald showed up. She blasted Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama as traitors.
A large percentage of the crowd was made up by young men. Sometimes the catcalls and shouting reminded me of a frat house party. The crowd response reminded me of the old Wally George show. If you’re not familiar with that cable access show, then it also reminded me of the “Morton Downey Jr. Show.” And if you’re too young for that reference, then it was like “Jerry Springer.”
I don’t say that as a put-down. I’m just describing what it was like. This wasn’t a political rally. It was political theater. Donald Trump stood on that stage and spoke for 40 minutes and said nothing of consequence or import. He never attempted to offer specifics or plans of how he’s going to make America great again. And the crowd seemed content with not knowing.
After standing in the sun for over three hours waiting, Donald Trump talked to us about how the polls say he won each of the Republican debates. He talked about how he loved being in the middle of the debate stage. He bragged about how many magazine covers he’s been on. I was left thinking how does a family barely getting by on minimum wage, parents trying to figure out how to send their children to college or unemployed workers benefit from Trump’s braggadocio?
But the crowd ate it up and asked for seconds.
I respect most of the people I interacted with because they were respectful and they weren’t easy to stereotype before the rally. But from the conversations I had and heard, their thinking is more black and white than I’m used to. And I heard things that were just factually wrong. Cutting foreign aid was mentioned by several people when, in fact, the amount of money we give in foreign aid is a tiny drop in a large bucket. Trump fed the crowd’s xenophobia by saying illegal immigrants get paid more welfare than Americans, a rectally-derived statement if I’ve ever heard one.
But from what I observed during the rally, these folks will never be dissuaded by the xenophobic, misogynistic and bullying tactics of Donald Trump. To them that’s just the politically correct liberal media trying to shut Trump up. When Trump famously said he could shoot somebody and never lose any voters, it wasn’t hyperbole. The sycophantic response I observed tells me that Trump really has tapped into the anger and frustration of a segment of the population. They don’t have any questions for Trump. They’re not interested in drilling down on these issues he raises. His simplistic call and response is all they need to feel energized, heard and motivated to vote. And I don’t believe there’s anything that could pry them away from a celebrity politician who stuffs them full of red meat and resentment.
After the event, Trump took his time greeting veterans, shaking hands and signing autographs. He understands his audience and treats them well. With the Donald, it’s always us against them and his supporters feel the condescension from their Democratic counterparts. Democrats underestimate Trump at their peril. He has an incredibly loyal following.
At one point during the rally a man in the crowd even shouted, “Jesus for Trump!”
Upon leaving the hangar I saw protesters arguing with Trump supporters in the parking lot.
At least it was a dialogue and not a shouting match. But as I walked out of there, I worried that my presence and the smattering of Latinos (one who even carried a “Latinos 4 Trump!” sign) and the women who were screaming for Trump might help these Trump supporters believe the Trump movement is more diverse and inclusive than it actually is. But no fig leaf is large enough to cover Trump’s xenophobia, scapegoating, misogyny and belligerence.
These people love America. The veterans who were in the two rows in front of me are American heroes and national treasures. It’s just a shame they all have thrown in their lot with an empty unpresidential vessel who is not worth their political investment.