Updated: Nov 28, 2018
I “Infiltrated” A Trump Rally, What I Learned Will Surprise you
Before I begin… I am a progressive. Like, disgustingly progressive…
That’s why I marched across the state of Missouri with the NAACP to protest the slaying of Michael Brown in the winter of 2014 and joined the NAACP for 300+ miles of their 1008-mile march from the Edmund Pettus Bridge to Washington DC in the summer of 2015.
That’s why I volunteer my time on political campaigns and organizations like Moms Demand Action. That’s why I joined the March to Confront White Supremacy in 2017 and interviewed organizers of the white supremacist rally in Shelbyville and Murfreesboro before attending as a protestor later that year.
I believe wholeheartedly in activism and enjoy it, but I end up preaching to (and with) the choir quite a bit. I encounter like-minded folk. I cheer on our side. I boo the other. Then I go home feeling I “at least did something.”
Last month, when I learned Donald Trump was holding a rally near Southern Illinois University where I got my Masters in Fine Arts, I was in town for a literary festival.
At first, I was appalled. My progressive blood urged me to protest. Then I reflected on my own disaffection with Tennessee US Senate hopeful Phil Bredesen, the Democrat I was knocking doors for in Tennessee, and wondered who loved Donald Trump so much they would wait all day to see him.
I saw an opportunity to learn what drives Trump and his supporters, particularly if I attended as a Trump support rather than a Trump protestor. The idea scared me, but once the seed was planted, I couldn't let go the tree, and quickly determined to pose as a Trump supporter to see what he and his supporters were all about.
When I informed people of my intention to attend the rally (I didn't mention my plan to pose as a Trump supporter), the response was predictable.
A text exchange with a liberal friend in Seattle:
On Facebook, people urged me to “be safe” because Trump rallies are notoriously violent, right? Even my mother who works with Moms Demand Action in Tennessee asked me not to go:
Again, my friend in Seattle:
Everyone I knew seemed to know exactly what to expect: Mayhem! Destruction! A basket of deplorables bent on being deplorable. You know, like this guy:
I feel that. I also expected a bunch of Nazis and KKK pro-lifers running around in their suits of human skin. “Unhinged haters,” as my mother put it.
What I discovered was the opposite.
The rally was shockingly diverse.
African American. Hispanic. Latinx. Asian. Women. Young people. Professors. All the people you don’t expect at a Trump rally showed up. Even really...nice people.
They were not fellow infiltrators. They were not there “for the show.” They were there to “see the man in the flesh,” as one supporter put it.
This was a HUGE rally, mind you, with lots of security.
I stood in line in that gross MAGA hat for over three hours, just to get into the event. I then waited another hour for Air Force One to land, then another 45 minutes for Trump to finally speak.
You had to want to be there to be there, and a surprising diversity of people showed up. Maybe this shouldn’t surprise me, but it does.
The narrative that Trump supporters are all Nazis and KKK members is naive.
Trump’s supporters, at this particular rally, were everyday Republicans. Working class farmers stood in line next to professors. White supporters mingled with non-white supporters. Young. Old. Interracial families. Groups of college kids... Trump interested all sorts of people, none of whom were outward fascists.
Of course I knew plenty of Trump supporters would be nice, everyday people. That’s just luck of the draw. But, like, all of them?
Conversation ranged from the weather to Fake News to jobs to taxes to immigration to education to Q-Anon—conversations nearly identical to the ones liberals have at their rallies, including the conspiracy talk, I’m sorry to say.
When I returned the pink MAGA hat a little girl attending the rally with her family left on the bus, I spoke at length with her step-father, a white SIUC Media Studies professor who met his immigrant Columbian wife and her two children, pictured below, online. They love Trump, he said, because he “doesn't beat around the bush” and “understands borders.”
The mother of an interracial family in line with us explained to me that she felt left behind by the Clintons, NAFTA, and other “bad deals” that had made it nearly impossible for jobs to stay in the United States. Donald Trump was already “bringing them back.” When I pressed her a little on why she believed Trump had brought jobs back to the area (I’m pretty sure he hasn’t…) she said the lack of jobs was “not his fault.”
A white couple told me all about their son, a college graduate, who had just completed boot camp for the US Army and would soon be deployed to Afghanistan as an infantryman. “He chose infantry when he could have been an officer,” his mother and father told me, worry stitched across their brows. “I support Trump because he believes in the military and my son.”
When I asked Chuck Griffith why he was in attendance, the first words out of his mouth were, “I love him. I think he is the best thing to happen to this country in a long time.”
Griffith went on. “I’d given up on this country…with that Obama and…the way things were going. Immigration and how people come into this country. Muslims? Well they don't have to go through the same…jumps and leaps that my ancestors had to to get into this country, you know?”
“Trump is not a politician,” Eddie Santiago added. “He's a guy who doesn't owe anybody any favors and he’s not afraid to challenge politician correctness. Sometimes what is important is truth, and there is no easy way of saying thing sometimes. Some things have to be brutally honest.”
All extremely obvious counter-arguments aside, I heard this sentiment over and over: I love him. He's not a politician. He says it how it is. And that was about...it.
I walked up and down the nearly mile-long line of people waiting to get into the rally. I spoke with all sorts of people while we waited for Air Force One outside the filled-to-capacity hanger in which Trump spoke. I assure you. I didn’t hear a single racist slur all day. There were no swastikas or white hoods. No one denigrated women or said anything anti-Semitic or made jokes about gay people. Not a shred of hate speech. No fear mongering. No…nothing…
Don’t take it from me alone:
At one point, protestors were allowed to confront the line outside the rally. Some middle fingers flew. Some cuss words were slung. Instead of spouting hate speech, the line broke out into a patriotic tune:
And, sure, they all watch Fox News and listen to conservative talk radio and talked about “fake news,” but that’s been a Republican strategy for…how long now?
Even Trump himself was shockingly PC. I was expecting all sorts of crazy shit and got, sure, a whole lot of bull shit, but nothing decidedly cray-cray.
He condemned the “anti-Semitic slaughter in Pittsburgh.” He said all he wanted from the caravan was for them to enter legally. He even said something about wanting immigrants from other countries, only the good ones.
Yes, at one point, the crowd chanted “Lock her up” for about ten seconds. Trump talked for about five minutes about “Pocahontas” (that’s Elizabeth Warren) and her lack of “Indiana blood” (“I don’t have any Indian blood, and I’ve got more than she does!”), which is racist and a complete lie and beside the point, but I expected a lot more than that.
I expected a fear mongering war lord and, instead, got a…cherub?
No, really, the man looks and walks and talks like an angel baby sent from heaven.
Maybe this side-by-side will help:
The resemblance is:
I’m telling you…when Trump came out on that stage, he might as well have fluttered out on angel’s wings.
And when he spoke with that elongated style of his about all the great things his administration has done for Southern Illinois (all of which, so far as I can tell, is total bullshit), his supporters nearly floated after his words into the sunset.
Donald Trump Has IT.
Listen, y’all: DONALD TRUMP HAS IT.
He has IT IT IT. Like, a LOT of IT. It being that charisma you must have to be a successful politician, and Trump has IT IT IT.
I’ve never encountered anything like Donald Trump’s IT, and I've spent an inordinate amount of time around people running for high political office.
The buzz in the crowd and, I hate to say it, within my own, oh-so-progressive bones was palpable. No surprise his name is on the side of so many buildings. No surprise he is a TV star. No surprise, I now understand, he is President of the United States.
Southern Illinois was devastated by the recession. When industry left the region, it never came back, and the community has seen little of the recovery. There are few jobs. The housing market is severely depressed. There is little access to government aid, and the community’s resources are drying up with the population. Government is not popular here—unless it’s Donald Trump.
Southern Illinois is not alone. If you are paying any attention at all to the state of the nation, you know this. Trump feeds off anti-Government sentiment, and his supporters love him for it, regardless of whether it makes any sense or not.
He is going to be near-impossible to beat come November 2020.
He is Acquisitions Editor for Upper Rubber Boot Books, Founder and Editor of PoemoftheWeek.com, Founder and Editor of The Floodgate Poetry Series, and professor of creative writing at Colorado Community College.