On a cool Wednesday night in the panhandle of Northwest Florida, I prepared myself to attend the political rally of Donald J. Trump for research purposes (and, truly, morbid curiosity). I joined the long line of attendees; whether they were all devotees or merely looking for a bit of fun in this small town, I wasn’t sure. I knew I had to lay low and hide the anger and frustration I would surely feel in order to avoid some of the violent reactions I had seen from Trump crowds before.
A group of well-dressed young men behind me in line proclaimed that they had been drinking. They attempted to haggle with the slew of vendors who were hawking Trump buttons, Trump hats, Trump flags, and even original Trump artwork for sale to the slow-moving line.
“25 dollars for one hat?!” one be-speckled kid shouted incredulously. “How about two for ten?”
The group tittered.
The line inched closer to the door as I waited my turn to remove my coat and walk through the metal detector frame next to security officers who wore vests that said “TSA” and “Secret Service.”
I was miraculously allowed into the venue, despite the fact that they had to know I was an imposter, right? They know I wouldn’t really be here in earnest, right? No? As it turns out, I and the people around me all looked pretty much the same. They weren’t the hicks I had come to assume they would be. They were well-dressed, middle aged, young, old, women and men. They were just people who believed in the ideas of a dangerous man.
As I entered what can only be described as an arena, the authoritative voice of a minster was in the midst of praying. Thousands of heads bowed, hats on their heart. I needed to try to find a seat, but to move in this reverent moment would be akin to suicide. No, I would stay still for now.
Then a group of small children named the USA Freedom Kids began to sing, parroting strange lyrics inspired by Donald himself.
“Cowardice, are you serious? Apologies for freedom — I can’t handle this!”
A few other opening acts took their turn on stage until finally the main event was announced.
“Eye of the Tiger” blared over the sound system as Trump strutted along a runway to his podium. The crowd of 11,000 roared while an oversized black cowboy hat obstructed my view of the candidate.
Not wasting any time, Trump launched into a criticism of the media, causing the crowd to look toward the media “pen” and boo. Trump then moved onto his predictable talking points: Criticism of the media as a whole, criticism of specific media outlets, criticism of the government as a whole, criticism of specific candidates in his party, criticism of specific candidates in the other party; we all know the drill.
At one point, Trump addresses the race of the president, saying that he was glad that Obama is a black president, but that he has done “nothing for African Americans.” A large black man with a Trump sign stood up and pumped his fist, drawing the open-mouthed attention of the mostly-white crowd who then cheered enthusiastically.
“I didn’t pay him to do that,” Trump said.
Most of the rally went as one would expect. Trump did not say anything he hadn’t had five articles written about before, so I and many others in the crowd found ourselves yawning as the hour grew late.
I could hear every word from Trump’s mouth clearly, but apparently that was not the case for the entire 11,000 in attendance as several had to move to lower ground in order to hear their beloved candidate.
Surprisingly, Trump mostly avoided his most infamous talking points about criminal Mexicans and shifty, untrustworthy Muslims. He did not mention his proposed ban, but instead donned a pair of oversized glasses and read a creepy song about a snake biting a woman who thought she had earned its trust. It was clear that Syrians were the snake, and that if America accepted refugees, we would surely get “bit.”
When the rally was over, people quickly left. Whether they were invigorated or disappointed, it was hard to tell.
On my walk back to my car I strolled down the main street. There, a man lay on the ground, unmoving. An ambulance pulled up and I asked a man nearby,
“Did he pass out?”
“He’s homeless and usually sleeps there under that overhang,” he said. “But he’s not waking up.”
A few steps later, I was overcome with guilt for the event I had participated in and the loss of life I was witnessing all coming together in such a particular way. I pulled out a twenty dollar bill and handed it to a guitar-strumming man with stringy hair who was playing a few yards away.
If Donald Trump had known that just a few blocks away, while he talked about how rich he was and what he would do if he ran the world, a poor man was dying alone on the street, what would he have thought?
I can only imagine.