Friday, June 17, 2016

‘Could He Actually Win?’ Scenes From a Trump Rally

I spent five hours at the Donald Trump rally in Sacramento, California, on 1 June. I spoke to and overheard dozens of the rally’s attendees, not as a journalist but as one ticketholder to another – I was dressed in jeans, workboots and wore a Nascar hat – and found every last one of the attendees to be genial, polite and, with a few notable exceptions, their opinions to be within the realm of reasonable. The rally was as peaceful and patriotic as a Fourth of July picnic.

And yet I came away with a host of new questions and concerns. Among them: why is it that the song Trump’s campaign uses to mark his arrival and departure is Elton John’s “Tiny Dancer?” Is it more troubling, or less troubling, knowing that no one in the audience really cares what he says? And could it be that because Trump’s supporters are not all drawn from the lunatic fringe, but in fact represent a broad cross-section of regular people, and far more women than would seem possible or rational, that he could actually win?

It was a sweltering 95 degrees, the sky blue and sun punishing, when I pulled off the highway and, guided by a well-planned and orderly array of cops and cones and sirens, made my way to a peripheral part of the Sacramento airport, where the Trump rally would be held, in an empty hangar.

It was just before four o’clock in the afternoon, and the rally wouldn’t start until seven, but already the lot was crowded with cars and trucks – not all of them American-made. When I parked, I glanced at the car next to me, and found that a young couple in casual business attire was engaged in casual amorous activity. Seeing my car arrive, the woman straightened her skirt and the man removed his hand from under her bra, but otherwise they continued undeterred.

It was the first, but not the last time, that it was clear that a good portion of the audience saw the rally as not purely a political event, but as something else, too – an entertainment, a curiosity, an opportunity to sell merchandise and refreshments, a chance to do some late-afternoon groping in the parking lot.

For a year now, I’ve been watching the Trump candidacy the same way the rest of the world and at least half of the American population has – first as a harmless sideshow, then as a worrisome sideshow, then as an increasingly surreal and dangerous sideshow, and finally as a terrifying looming nightmare with echoes of Mussolini, Joseph McCarthy, Kristallnacht and Hitler. News reports and isolated video clips have made Trump’s rallies seem like bacchanalian proto-fascist white power orgies, fuelled by bald racism, pseudo-Nazi salutes and the imminent threat of violence toward any detractors. For months now I’ve believed that Trump’s candidacy was the most dangerous presidential campaign in modern American history. But the reality of a Trump rally, or at least this Trump rally, was about as threatening as a Garth Brooks concert.

Tickets to all Trump rallies are free and are available to anyone; you simply print one from Trump’s website and bring it with you. I chose not to go to the rally as a card-carrying member of the media, given at this point – and this truth was borne out repeatedly over the course of the day – Trump supporters, like Trump himself, are exceedingly distrustful of the media. If I had a notebook or microphone out, asking questions, the answers would be guarded or rehearsed, if anyone spoke to me at all. Instead, I decided I’d stand in line with everyone else, knowing that the six or seven people around me would be my window into at least a small portion of the Trump supporter’s mentality. I took my place at the back of the orderly line.

“See that?” the man in front of me said. He was pointing to a jet’s white trail in the sky above us. “That’s the air force. They’re spraying shit in the sky.”

I’ll call this man Jim. He was about 6ft tall, beer-bellied, and wearing shorts and a yellow T-shirt with the words “Don’t Tread on Me” printed above a rattlesnake. His hair and moustache were rust-coloured, his eyes small and wary.

Over the next 90 minutes, as we stood and occasionally shuffled toward the hangar together, Jim offered his theories on a variety of government and corporate conspiracies. This first one involved the air force releasing a toxic mixture of chemicals into the atmosphere, which he claimed they had been doing for 30 years. “They’re manipulating the weather with technology,” he said, “and they call it climate change. But really they’re changing the climate with technology.” He pointed to a wash of cirrus clouds high in the western sky. “See those fake-ass clouds? They use them to block out the sun. That’s why we don’t have springtime any more.”

By quoting Jim, I realise I’ve made him sound nuts. But Jim wasn’t all that nuts. His theories were occasionally bizarre, but he expressed them calmly, and to everyone in line he was gregarious and kind. He laughed at appropriate moments. He was friendly and generous, repeatedly buying water for people around him, expressing interest in people, doing normal-people things. Later in this piece, I’ll quote Jim again, and again he’ll sound nuts, but all I can say here is that when you spend 90 minutes next to someone, you can gauge their level of loony, and Jim was merely a low-grade crank – not unlike that certain uncle in any family who’s fun to be around but who holds strange views about, say, water fluoridation.

Jim had strange views about water fluoridation. (...)

As we’d been waiting, about 500 more people had arrived to stand in line behind us. Vendors moved up and down the line, selling Trump T-shirts, buttons and towels. And all the while, the scene was exceedingly calm. It might have been the heat. It might have been the fluoridation Jim was talking about. But the attendees could have easily been confused with people in line for a Disney ride or a holiday sale at Walmart. They were amiable, polite, dressed in red, white and blue shorts and tank tops and sandals, and surprisingly diverse.

Yes, they were generally white, but there were also African-Americans and plenty of Latinos. A startling number of Asian-Americans, Pacific Islanders and South Asian-Americans. There were the expected Harley-Davidson riders in black vests, but there were also a remarkable number of people with disabilities. There were families, professional types, veterans and one Filipino-American navy officer in full dress whites. It was not the homogenous sea of angry white men that one might have expected. Instead, it appeared to be a skewed but not wholly unrepresentative cross-section of the people of northern California.

Which made some interactions with the protesters feel odd. The demonstrators had every reason to denounce Trump’s past statements, but there seemed to be a wide gulf between the extreme things Trump has said and the more moderate views of the people who came out to this rally. One young man walked by with a bullhorn, followed by a handful of photographers and videographers.

“Trump supporters are assholes and idiots,” the young man hissed.

“Don’t take the bait,” Jim said to Belinda. The young man with the bullhorn repeated his assessment for the next half an hour as he made his way through the parking lot.

“You come up with that all by yourself?” Jim yelled after him.

The line moved on. As we got closer to the hangar, the merchandise tables became more frequent and their purveyors more surprising. A woman speaking heavily accented English and wearing a Service Employees International Union cap sold bright green Trump T-shirts. An older African-American couple were stationed at a table featuring a dozen different Trump shirts, hats and buttons.

“You guys look like Trump voters!” Jim said to them. They laughed and nodded, and asked him if he wanted to buy anything. The T-shirts were $20.

by Dave Eggers, The Guardian |  Read more:
Image: Dave Eggers