There was the unmistakable sound of metal against metal as I stepped out of my car. As I looked into the street, I saw a side mirror lying in the road. Two women wearing clothing expressing support for Hillary Clinton for president ran into the street. “Did anyone get a license plate on that van?!” one of them asked as the Dodge Caravan disappeared in the distance. No one had. “He knocked the side mirror off our car on purpose!”, she shrieked. I noted the “Trump for President” sign hanging on the back of the van as it disappeared around a corner a few blocks away.
It wasn’t my idea to be there. Nor did it make any sense that I was in downtown Everett, WA. My friend thought it would be “entertaining” to see a Trump rally in person. “We see how crazy they are on TV, lets see the real thing” she said. I, however, didn’t think it would be entertaining. At one point I probably would have, but in the waning months of this campaign and after he’d taken to insulting everyone from prisoners of war to Mexican immigrants, and gold star families to menstruating women, I’d decided the hatefulness behind his campaign could no longer be accepted with a wink and a nod. But I was curious. For everything I’d see on TV and the internet and read in the news, I wondered if his rallies really were like they were portrayed to be. “Liberal media bias” is a phrase that is constantly thrown around and I wondered if perhaps the caricature of the foaming-at-the-mouth Trump supporter, to some degree, was a by-product of this. There was only one way to find out…
The plan was for my friend to finish work and meet me there. I found a place at the end of the line and scanned the crowd while I waited. There was not one person of color, and the gender gap was obvious (many more men than women). It also seemed to be primarily a blue-collar group. Vendors walked around selling stickers and clothing items that read things like “I don’t break for protesters” and “Hillary sucks but not like Monica”. I felt more out of place than Nickleback at the Grammys.
There were two rules that I set for myself going in to this experience; Rule #1 was to not indicate to anyone that I was anti-Trump. I was fearful that making this obvious would be offensive, and I knew I wasn’t going to change anyone’s mind. Rule #2 was to do my best to withhold personal judgement of the individuals that I met or observed.
After standing in line for an hour, we began to draw nearer to where the protesters had set-up. The exchanges were vile on both sides. There were no debates on policy in rationale tone, however there were protesters telling rally attendees that they were with racist and ignorant among other things. Not to be outdone, the rally attendees informed the protesters they were communists and baby killers among other things. Profanities, hand gestures, occasionally altercations that could have escalated to physical violence with little additional encouragement filled the sidewalks. I simply remained a spectator…a witness to the division that has gripped the US playing out on both sides. My nature is to throw myself in to any debate…but really there was no actual debate. It was all personal.
When I got inside I surveyed the sea of “make America great again” hats, and took my position on the floor of the events center. A guy standing next to me started a conversation. He’d driven 5 hours to be there. He was initially a supporter of Bernie Sanders in the primary, but was so disillusioned with how he perceived the DNC had treated Sanders that he was now firmly in Trump’s camp. I asked him how he could make such a huge leap in ideologies…his answer mostly related to NAFTA. When asked, I told him I was an undecided voter…I didn’t want to betray rule #1 by admitting my disdain for Trump, but I also couldn’t stomach lying and saying that I supported him. When I questioned him about Trump’s rhetoric and asked if it ever bothered him, he shrugged and said he was convinced that Trump would “moderate” once in office and that he just speaks before he thinks. I left it at that…I didn’t come to change anyone’s mind after all.
The first speaker of the night was Reince Preibus, the chair of the RNC. While only speaking for five minutes, he provided a full-throated endorsement of Trump’s candidacy. “So much for national republicans distancing themselves from their nominee, I thought”. Next was “America’s Mayor” Rudy Giuliani. He spent far more time attacking Clinton than boosting Trump. The crowd loved every word of it. Finally, it was time for the main event; the carnival barker himself. When he finally came out, people went nuts. A young woman in the bleachers passed out. A guy with tattoos of naked women covering both arms burst into sobs. It took 5 minutes for the crowd to quiet down enough for their man to begin speaking.
He began by addressing Hillary’s emails and how she couldn’t be trusted. People broke into chants of “lock her up”. He moved on to talking about how she would take away their guns and destroy their freedoms. The chants soon turned into “string her up”. I couldn’t believe what I was hearing…I’d expected to be disturbed by Trump, but the shouting from the crowd left me speechless. Even the well dressed guy that I’d spoken with earlier who was convinced that Trump would “moderate” after the election had fire in his eyes as he joined in the “string her up” chorus. This group didn’t just want her to be defeated in November…they were calling for her execution. It reminded me of the well documented work of Stanley Milgram in which he set up an observational study to measure the willingness of participants, men with different levels of education and incomes, to obey someone with authority who instructed them to do things conflicting with their personal conscious. The experiment found that a very high proportion of people were prepared to obey, although sometimes unwillingly, even if the result was serious injury and distress. I felt like I was witnessing something akin to the Milgram experiment unfolding at this rally; I assumed most of the people here were overall decent human beings but had become transfixed with the idea of Trump as a savior for everything that they felt ailed America. As a result, they were willing to suspend many of the laws of decency…either in their behavior at this rally or by giving him a pass on many of his outlandish claims.
I listened as Trump continued speaking. Often, although I was only 15-20 feet from the lectern, I could only hear half of what he was saying through the crowd noise. The setting felt much more like a monster truck rally than a political one. Eventually, Trump began speaking about Syrian refugees. He repeated his call to close our border to them. He compared them to snakes. The crowd cheered. I couldn’t take it anymore. I thought of the recently circulated image of a child who was pulled from his family’s home after it was destroyed in an airstrike, covered in blood and soot and sitting in the back of an ambulance. This kid was my niece’s age…and it enraged me that such innocence could be shattered. I felt my jaw clench. “This isn’t a joke,” I thought. These are people, families and communities just like we have here that are being systematically wiped out, and the people at this rally, led by this man, are treating it as if it shouldn’t concern us. Trump went on to mention Colin Kapernick of the San Francisco 49er’s. The booing was deafening. “Deport his ass!” yelled one woman. “Fuck him!” shouted the man standing with her. These people were OUTRAGED…not about the loss of life in Aleppo…but that a football player didn’t stand for the national anthem. I couldn’t stay…I’d only lasted about 20 minutes…but it was more than enough
I could hear cheering for another two blocks as I walked away from the arena. I’d succeeded at my first rule of not engaging others and being strictly observational, however I’d failed at keeping an open mind. I tend to be more liberal, but I never questioned if Romney or McCain or even Bush had good intentions even if I disagreed with them on many things. I couldn’t imagine the kind of vitriol that Trump uses being spewed by any of these men. I don’t care if someone decides to vote for Clinton, Jill Stein, Gary Johnson or Mickey Mouse. Frankly, I myself haven’t completely decided who amongst these will get my vote. But I do know it won’t be the hate-mongering xenophobe that I’d witnessed tonight; there was no chance I’d cast my lot with him or his brethren. I thought again of Milgram’s experiment and the idea of good people consenting to bad things when they are given permission to do so by authority. As I walked away from that arena that night, I could only hope that America chooses to also walk away before collectively going down a road that fulfills Trump’s vision for our country.
Oh, and my friend that was supposed to meet me at the rally? She didn’t get off work in time and didn’t even make it there. I’m sure she slept much better that night than I did.
Photo: Getty Images