Donald Trump's fans and foes face off when his travelling circus comes to town.
No two Trump rallies are alike, but the same tribes seem to form at every one. There are the supporters, a varied assortment of locals who want Donald Trump to be president. There are the protesters, a varied assortment of locals who want Donald Trump to get lost. There are the cops, who are supposed to keep the supporters and the protesters from killing each other. There are the vendors, self-employed peddlers who follow the candidate from town to town, hawking T-shirts, buttons, playing cards, hats, and other Trump-themed products. There are the gawkers, curiosity-seekers who blend in with the supporters but sometimes give themselves away by making wry jokes about the carnival bustling around them. And there is the press, stumbling about with pens and cameras, awkwardly asking strangers if they'd be willing to answer a few questions. That's me.
By the time I arrived at my first Trump rally, at the Times Union Center in Albany eight days before the New York primary, the events had acquired a reputation as incubators of mob violence. At an October speech in Miami, some Trump fans had attacked a group of protesters as the latter were ejected from the venue, kicking one in the knee and slamming another on the back with a Trump sign. At a November rally in Birmingham, a demonstrator had been punched, kicked, and choked. There were a flurry of assaults in March: the Louisville Trump supporters who shoved a woman; the guy who sucker-punched a protester as he was being led out of a rally in Fayetteville, North Carolina; the Tucson man who snatched a sign from a heckler and started hitting and kicking him with abandon. In Chicago, brawls broke out between pro- and anti-Trump factions as they waited for the candidate to appear. Trump wound up cancelling the rally, citing safety concerns and claiming that police had advised him to pull the plug. (The Chicago police deny that any such advice was issued.)
So when the pundits discuss Trump rallies, the talk tends to take on an apocalyptic tone. Writing in New York magazine, Andrew Sullivan described the disorder as the "embryonic form" of fascistic "organized street violence." The Hartford Courant ran an op-ed under the headline "Hostile Trump Rallies Echo Days Of Mob Rule." Rachel Maddow declared on MSNBC that Trump was "inarguably" ginning up violence on purpose, the plan being then to present himself as the strongman who can stop it. The Trump team, for its part, argues that it's the protesters who are the really violent ones, a line that goes at least as far as the candidate's comment on March 10 that some demonstrators were "bad dudes" who "get in there and start hitting people." No one has been able to corroborate that claim, though some protesters have been violent since then—besides the fighting in Chicago, there were the anti-Trump militants in Costa Mesa, California, and Albuquerque, New Mexico, who threw rocks and beer bottles outside rallies. And at press time, protesters at a Trump event in San Jose randomly punched and threw eggs at the candidate's supporters. So there are just enough cherry-pickable facts for two rival narratives to emerge, one where the Trump fans are a mindless mob being incited by a demagogue and one where they're merely defending themselves from a mob on the other side.
Yet most of the people who come to these rallies are peaceful, whether they love Trump or hate him; any portrait that reduces either side to a feral gang isn't accurate. Crowds are not big Borgs that sap people of their individuality, and the culture of these particular crowds is complicated, especially when you start comparing one rally to another.
In Albany, most of the supporters and protesters I encountered took a fairly good-natured view of the opposite tribe. Jeering at each other outside the arena, they seemed more like the fans of rival hockey teams than like Red Guard factions preparing to pummel each other in the street. When a fight did start to break out on the floor of the arena, with an angry man slapping a protester in the face, the rest of the crowd didn't join in; they pulled him away, like Red Wings fans yanking their drunken buddy back from the guy in the Bruins jersey who just dissed his dad.
At my second Trump rally, on Maryland's Eastern Shore, things never came even that close to a brawl. But my third, in South Central Pennsylvania, did start to get ugly. Different crowds have different dynamics, even if they contain the same tribes.
Albany, April 11
Don Kriener has set up his stand on the sidewalk outside the Times Union Center, where thousands of Trump fans will pass it today. The Florida man's wares include buttons bearing the messages "Hot Chicks for Trump," "Hillary for Prison," "Bomb the Hell Out of ISIS," and "Stay Calm and Trump On." Behind him, two protesters in Guy Fawkes masks are cavorting with a flag.
Kriener is willing to let commerce override his political preferences: In addition to his travelling Trump stand, he used to sell Hillary Clinton and Bernie Sanders gear, stopping only because there wasn't as much money to be made at their rallies. Still, he claims that he really does want Trump to be president. Indeed, every vendor I talk to says he's for Trump. Some of them might just be telling a prospective customer what they think he'd like to hear, but most sound sincere. Down at the other end of the vendors' row, the button salesman named Mark may not look like the stereotypical Trump backer—he's a black guy sporting a neck tattoo—but he tells me he's a registered Republican; he was for Romney last time, and this time he's voting for The Donald. "If he can make a billion dollars, why can't I?" he announces. I ask him what his top issue is. "Get that wall up! Get that damn wall up, man."
Across the street there's a sea of signs, or at least a small lake of them: "Dump Trump," "No Hate In Our State," "Embrace Refugees." (After dark, the crowd will be bigger and the signs more irreverent: "Trump Is a Dingle-Berry," "Small Hands Can't Drive This Bus.") I see a woman carrying a stack of fliers, and I assume she has some anti-Trump literature she might share. Bad assumption: They're actually leaflets for the Starlites, an elementary-school step team. They need some money to go to a competition in Harrisburg, Pennsylvania, and one of the coaches thought this might be a good place for fundraising. At first they were passing the hat on the Trump fans' side of the street, she tells me, but "they were kind of all looking at us like 'Why are you over here?'" So they crossed the road and joined the protesters.
The coach introduces me to four little girls, ages 6 to 12. They tell me that this is their first demonstration and that they're having fun. "We were just looking for donations," one tells me, "and then we just got into the protest." What do think they of Trump? "I don't like him." "He's just mean." "He said we had to go back to Africa or something." "He's against black people, and I'm black."
After the rally's over, there'll be some hollering between Trump's fans and foes outside the arena, but nobody seems really mad. At one point a man holding a Trump sign gets ready to yell something at some Bernie backers across the way, but then he thinks better of it. "They're young, they're dumb, they don't know any better," he mutters. He sounds less like an impassioned partisan than a parent cleaning his kids' doodles off the wall.
But it isn't the prospect of clashes outside the hall that's been electrifying the press. It's the possibility that someone will get hurt during the rally itself. Right before the candidate takes the stage, a voice booms over the P.A. system, instructing everyone in heckler-handling etiquette. "IF A PROTESTER STARTS DEMONSTRATING IN THE AREA AROUND YOU, PLEASE DO NOT TOUCH OR HARM THE PROTESTER," it says. "THIS IS A PEACEFUL RALLY. IN ORDER TO NOTIFY THE LAW ENFORCEMENT OFFICERS OF THE LOCATION OF THE PROTESTER, PLEASE HOLD A RALLY SIGN OVER YOUR HEAD AND START CHANTING 'TRUMP! TRUMP! TRUMP!' ASK THE PEOPLE AROUND YOU TO DO LIKEWISE UNTIL THE OFFICER REMOVES THE PROTESTER. THANK YOU FOR MAKING AMERICA GREAT AGAIN."
The Trump campaign has been playing this message since December. In Albany, it isn't long before the crowd gets a chance to try the system out. About 10 minutes into the speech, as the candidate is riffing about Bernie Sanders, a hooting begins on the floor. A smile spreads across Trump's face, and he points to the source of the disturbance. "Is there anything more fun than a Trump rally?" he asks. The audience roars its approval.
In March, The Atlantic's David Graham suggested that these interruptions "gave form to a stump speech that otherwise would have none"; to Graham's ears, Trump's "rambling often seemed just like a way to kill time before the next protester popped up." I don't entirely agree with that, for reasons that will become clear later, but it's certainly true that Trump has learned how to incorporate the protesters into his act. "Isn't it a shame?" he asks, basking in the crowd's devotion as one of the Albany hecklers is dragged away. "But it does make it exciting, right?" Some of the protest people seem to share his showbiz sensibility: As one leaves, he gives the audience a big, hearty wave.
There will be several more outbursts before the 50-minute speech is over. Trump treats them as a team-building exercise: "Not everybody loves us, but we love each other, right?" After one protester starts shouting, Dr. Love says: "See, he stands there smiling because he knows nobody's gonna touch him.…Our rallies are among the most safe rallies you could ever attend, because we protect each other." (Remember: This is the same speech where an angry fan hits a heckler in the face.)
The whole thing feels more like a sports event than a political event, and not just because the building ordinarily hosts hockey and basketball games. Every time a protester gets dragged away, a guy a few feet to my left emits a little "Get 'im outta here!" He doesn't sound frenzied; he sounds like he's happy the other team's star player just fouled out. They even have concessions for sale in the concourse, and it's not hard to imagine a vendor walking up the steps and tossing people beers. The main difference is that no one—well, hardly anyone—goes to an Albany Devils game thinking the future of the country is at stake.
"I think there's a reason why so many people are not voting for a quote-unquote 'politician,'" comments Lillian Hord, a retiree who used to work at Albany Medical Center. "Years ago I thought the guy Lee Iacocca should've ran. He straightened out Chrysler. I remember thinking that years ago. So when Donald threw his hat in the ring, I was like, 'Yes! Absolutely! Absolutely.' I think we need a strong, strong personality with world affairs.…If he doesn't know how to get it done, he knows people who know how to get it done."
"For many, many years, big government has taken over our lives and doesn't really think of the middle class," says Hord's friend Mary Macherone. "They're helping the people who are impoverished or poor or whatever you want to call it, but for us, the middle class, they keep taking from us and taking from us, and how much more can we give?" A former beauty salon owner and onetime Republican county chairwoman, Macherone now works for the state.
Not everyone in the stadium is a Trump fan. Besides the hecklers, there's a sprinkling of people who just want to see Trump for themselves. Jill, a high school senior, tells me she showed up "to hear if everything that I've seen online is actually true." Her conclusion: "He really doesn't know what he's talking about, and"—she laughs—"my future will be ruined if he becomes president." Jill prefers Sanders. Indeed, she was at a Sanders rally earlier today. "It was smaller," she says. "But it was much more peaceful."
Still, this is a Trump crowd. "It boggles my mind how people have such a negative impression of him," says Pete, a Trump backer from Saratoga Springs. "I have Hispanic relatives, and I just can't for the life of me understand the points that they make.…They call him a racist and everything else, and I just don't see it." Pete looks pained. "I had a best man who's gay, and he just despises the guy. He thinks that he's a homophobe. But I don't see it. I don't hear it in his speeches and I don't see it in his policies. I don't see it on his web page. So it's just hard."
Berlin, April 20
"It's my birthday," Jackie Potter announces. We're in Berlin, Maryland, and the newly 66-year-old tax accountant is sitting on the floor of the cafeteria at Stephen Decatur High School. Trump is going to speak in the gym, but it was full by the time we got into the building so we've been shunted into the overflow room. A big screen has been set up in the corner, and soon we'll be watching Trump on that. But for now Potter, who's been a Trump fan since she saw him touring on the positive-thinking circuit with Tony Robbins in the '90s, is telling me why she likes the candidate.
"Twenty years ago on the Oprah show, I saw him speaking," she remembers. "He was warning America about what was going to happen to this country. And indeed, everything that he said has come true. Our economy's getting ready to crash. The immigrants that come into the country are forcing the wages lower. Jobs are being sold overseas. It's the billionaires that run the world; it's the billionaires that run our country. He predicted that America was going to be an oligarchy years ago, and that's what it is today." Potter has been a Republican for 48 years, including a recent stint on the Calvert County party's central committee. She says she left the committee in disgust at the "graft and lying" that she saw there, and she says she'll leave the GOP entirely if Trump isn't the nominee.
"We have got to get the money out of politics," Potter tells me. "The elite of the parties get their funding from the billionaires who run the world, and that's why we have open borders. It benefits them." She wants the Internal Revenue Service abolished, she wants the country's regulatory burden rolled back, and she doesn't consider herself a social conservative. (She doesn't want the government to fund abortions, but she wouldn't ban them either.) Bernie Sanders' attacks on the billionaire class resonate with her, but she thinks his solutions are communistic; she can't abide Ted Cruz or Hillary Clinton because she considers them the property of the banks. Trump, by contrast, she sees as "the only person who doesn't owe anyone any favors."
For all that, she didn't support Trump when he first entered the race, initially preferring Rand Paul. She credits her friend Steve Tilton with convincing her to join the movement. Tilton, who is sitting a few feet away, is an amiable salesman with an interest in Sufi philosophy and natural foods. He was enthusiastic about Ross Perot in the '90s, then fell into political apathy; his interest was reawakened in 2007, partly by reading John Perkins' book Confessions of an Economic Hit Man and partly by Ron Paul's presidential campaigns. ("I checked out Ron Paul, read his books, spent over 100 hours—I went crazy!") "After McGovern and Jimmy Carter got in, the Democrats said, 'We aren't going to let any outsiders get in again,' [and] they came up with the superdelegates," Tilton declares. "And the Republicans came up with all these rules. They want to keep any outsiders out.…There's no Democrats and Republicans. It's all one party." If the GOP manages to keep Trump off the ticket this time and he doesn't run independently, Tilton plans to write him in anyway—"same thing I did with Ron Paul."
Berlin is a small community about 15 minutes from the beach. As of today, the Trump campaign's website is no longer identifying Berlin as the city where the speech will take place, instead invoking the nearby resort town of Ocean City—maybe because Ocean City is better-known, maybe because someone suddenly realized that a smartass was liable to write the headline "Trump Followers Rally in Berlin on Hitler's Birthday." Thousands of people have shown up for the event, and the line stretches nearly two-tenths of a mile up the road. Across the street, in the parking lot of an abandoned Harley-Davidson dealership, there's a lively protest going—mostly locals, though a cadre of Leninists from the Peoples Power Assembly have made the nearly three-hour drive from Baltimore to be there too. One of them, a student at the Baltimore County branch of the University of Maryland, tells me his goal is "to confront Trump and those that believe in his fascist, right-wing policies that are spreading hate."
The Peoples Power group carries professionally made placards with conventional slogans ("SAY NO to Trump's Pro-rich, Racist, Anti-Immigrant Hate!"). The local protesters' signs are more colorful. "I Remember 9/11, Trump Remembers 7/11," declares one. (Two days earlier, Trump had accidentally referred to 9/11 as 7-Eleven.) One woman's sign features the words "Geeks for Peace" above a drawing of several aliens; below the E.T.s are the words "Because we can't have THEM meet HIM." A guy in an Iron Maiden T-shirt has turned his surfboard into a political statement: "Stop Hating Your Neighbor! WWJD?" An Italian immigrant who teaches at Salisbury University is holding a sign suggesting we "Build a Wall Around Trump and Make Him Pay for It."
I ask some onlookers what they think of the demonstration. "Well," one says with a sigh, "at least they're peaceful." In line to enter the school, one rally-goer says to another, "The protesters were cute. Gave it kind of a Woodstock feel."
The Trump fans on hand are a mixed bunch too. Here's a 13-year-old boy who likes the candidate because "he speaks the truth." There's a retired middle school teacher who preferred Jeb Bush before Trump won him over. Here's a fellow with a long white beard, who likes Trump because he's "tough on law and order" and "he doesn't want to be politically correct"—and who tells me he might vote for Hillary Clinton. Wait, what?
"Everyone I vote for always loses," he grins.
Before Trump talks, a singer performs "The Star-Spangled Banner"; the Orioles fans all chime in on the final "O," just like they're at Camden Yards. (Like I said: A Trump rally feels like a ballgame.) This time the Trump team skips the instructions about how to deal with protesters. It's just as well: Nobody disrupts the event. Contrary to what I read in The Atlantic, the speech doesn't feel aimless without the interruptions, or at least it's no more aimless than usual. (Trump's talks are heavily improvised, though there are recurring bits he tosses in each time, assisted by an audience that often knows them by heart. If he asks the crowd "But who's gonna pay for the wall?" he can count on them to respond with a high-decibel "Mexico!") The people in the overflow room cheer as heartily as they would if Trump were there with them; after his talk in the gym he stops by the cafeteria to say hi and sign a few fans' hats.
Outside, when the oration is done, the cops are decked out in riot gear, but the chances of a riot seem slim. One Trump fan taunts the protesters as he walks past them to his car: "I didn't even realize you were here! Terrible job!"
Harrisburg, April 21
The winding row of vendors extends at least 400 feet outside the Pennsylvania Farm Show Complex and Expo Center, far longer than in Albany or Berlin. You can buy shirts here featuring Trump as a boxer, as a Jedi, as Captain America. One stand advertises its Trump Force One merchandise with a giant inflatable Trump airplane. A salesman wheels his goods up and down the line of people waiting to get in, repeating a couplet over and over: "Don't be shy/Come see the Trump guy!" Another keeps bellowing the slogans printed on his T-shirts: "Trump That Bitch!" and "Hillary Sucks—But Not Like Monica." He pronounces it Mon-ih-caaaaaaaaaaah!
I'm in Harrisburg, the same town the Albany step team had been raising money to visit. I don't see any Starlites here today.
The shirt salesman annoys Bob Hirsch, a retired cable installer who drove over from Carlisle in a truck he has covered with the word "Trump," hand-painted in multiple colors. Hirsch, who's drawn to the businessman's stances on trade and abortion, actually plans to vote for Sanders—not because he likes the guy, but just to make some extra trouble for Clinton. "People need to realize, if you get Hillary, you're not getting Bill!" he exclaims.
Up ahead, some amps are blasting a song. "Listen up!" a deep voice growls over an electric guitar. "It's time to make America great again!" A martial chant kicks in—"Trump! Trump! Trump! Trump!"—and then, after about 23 seconds of that, "The Trump Card Song" is underway. A sample verse:
What's a country gone to hell comin' to?
The cards are stacked against us, and we all know it's true
Well it's time to stop corruption, the trump card's overdue
What's a country gone to hell comin' to?
The singer/composer is Kenny Lee, and he's standing right there by the speakers, decked out in black shirt, black jacket, and black cowboy hat, with a golden "KL" dangling from a chain around his neck. He lives in Nashville, calls everybody "Brother," speaks in a bass tone even lower than his singing voice, and is selling CDs. His song belongs to a long-lived tradition of apocalyptic country records, from John D. Loudermilk's "Going to Hell on a Sled" to Iris DeMent's "Wasteland of the Free," where virtually every line invokes another real or imagined social problem—"Ball of Confusion" with a twang. Usually these are ideological mish-moshes, but Lee's litany of complaints hews close to the tropes of Trumpism:
We got riots on our streets, and when the cops are called in
They can't even do their jobs because of Ferguson
Racial leaders run their mouth, the stories they do tell
What's a country comin' to that's gone to hell?
Other verses invoke immigration, Benghazi, the Clinton email scandal, ISIS, jobs moving overseas, and "courts passing laws that let the devil rule." The CD features two versions of the song—a radio edit that does not include the "Trump!" incantation and an "event song chant mix" that does—and if you buy it today, Lee will also sign a photo of himself with Donald Trump.
The line to enter the arena keeps getting longer, and I realize I'd better find a spot soon if I want to get inside before the speech starts. Don Pawlowski, standing behind me, hasn't seen a would-be president in the flesh since George Wallace passed through Pennsylvania in 1968. (He wasn't a Wallace man, just a high school kid who wanted to witness the spectacle.) He has a friend with him who can outdo that: The last time he went to a rally like this, the candidate onstage was named John F. Kennedy. A crew from NBC asks Don for an interview, so he disappears for a while to offer a Trump fan's perspective on the world; when he comes back, he's amused that the reporter wanted his opinion on transgender bathrooms. "It's such a minor issue," he complains.
When we pass by the designated Free Speech Zone, only two protesters are present. One man's sign is accurate but misspelled: "Just becaue Trump says it dosen't make it true." The other placard declares, "Trumpism, Crony Capitalism, Corporate Welfare, National Socialism—It's All the Same." Later I hear that other demonstrators have gathered by the side of a nearby road, waving their signs at traffic, but for now the day feels like it may pass without much dissent.
Yet inside the arena, the protesters are plentiful. As one heckler is hauled away, the candidate rhapsodizes about how quickly the cops reacted: "Boy, they were running him out! That's beautiful!" Another interruption inspires an extended aside devoted to one of Trump's favorite conspiracy theories, in which the demonstrations against him are filled with paid fakers. At one point he starts to say a protester can stay, since "you can't even hear the guy," then interrupts himself: "But the police are there already! Look at that!" The crowd screams its approval. This audience has an angrier edge than the others, and some of them look like they wouldn't be unhappy to get into a fight.
Trump's internet fan base includes a vocal battalion of overt bigots, but before tonight I hadn't encountered many signs of them in the candidate's offline world. If any members of the radical right came to the Albany rally, I didn't spot them. In Berlin, a small group of counterdemonstrators stood quietly near the protesters holding Confederate flags, but they kept out of the way and did not, as best as I could tell, actually enter the school where Trump was talking. But here on the floor of the Farm Show Complex, not that many yards from the stage, I see about half a dozen skinheads from Keystone United, a racist group headquartered in Harrisburg; they're wearing pitbull patches on their sleeves, and one has a swastika tattooed on his finger. Whenever the police eject a protester, the skins start buzzing among themselves. Standing nearby, a more clean-cut white nationalist has managed to smuggle a homemade sign into the room: "The Alt-Right Is Rising—Trump."
Meanwhile, the protest crowd in the Free Speech Zone outside has grown from just two to more than 100, and the police have called in reinforcements. As the crowd files out of the rally, the pro- and anti-Trump tribes shout insults at each other, with none of the tolerant vibe of the Albany gathering. One team chants "Black lives matter!"; the other responds with "Blue lives matter!" One team chants "Build that wall!"; the other responds with "Fuck that wall!" PennLive will later report that a "young Trump supporter who admitted to being drunk was heard telling a cop that he wanted to fight the protesters" and that a "man on the opposing side welcomed that suggestion." The cops led them away before any fists started flying, but it's not for nothing that a worker at the venue called the night a "near riot."
The Mythical Madness of Crowds
It's tempting to blame what nearly happened in Harrisburg on a small group of drunks or radicals. But Michael Bond, author of The Power of Others: Peer Pressure, Groupthink, and How the People Around Us Shape Everything We Do, warns that it isn't that simple. "The trigger for violence is hardly ever a bunch of hotheads who want a fight, since if they are in the minority they will usually be sidelined by the rest of the crowd," he explains. If a peaceful rally turns violent, Bond says it's usually because the larger crowd "feels threatened"—maybe by the police, maybe by "a large group of rival fans or protestors." In Albany, the crowd wanted to rein in the hotheads. In Harrisburg, the fear of an encroaching Other was much stronger.
When the rest of us react to the turbulence at Trump's rallies, it's important that we not be misled by our own fears of the Other. Stephen Reicher, a social psychologist at the University of St. Andrews who has spent years studying crowd behavior, cautions against stereotyping either Trump supporters or Trump protesters as innately violent—not just because it's unfair but because it's self-defeating. "The dynamic we have observed many times is that when a few people are violent, as a result the crowd as a whole is seen as violent," he observes. "This leads to hostility being shown toward people who were not themselves initially violent." That can set off a vicious cycle, with that hostility making them "more sympathetic to those violent elements they might initially have avoid or shunned. Hence they get dragged into the conflict."
Fortunately, the dynamics don't have to go in that direction. Reicher points to a study that Clifford Stott, a social psychologist at Keele University, did of English and Scottish soccer fans. While "there are violent thugs in both groups," Reicher explains, "English fans are seen as dangerous. They are treated with hostility and even violence. This leads 'ordinary' fans to draw nearer and nearer to the thugs and ultimately join them in conflict." The Scots have a friendlier reputation, which they want to maintain—"not least to distinguish themselves from the English." So when one of them becomes aggressive, other fans are likely to step in and stop him.
On the Trump tour, those identities are still in flux. When the Trump backers in Albany pulled a man away from the heckler he was hitting, they acted like Scottish soccer fans. The brawlers at the cancelled Chicago rally were closer to the English stereotype.
I mention to Reicher that I think Trump speeches feel more like sports events than conventional political rallies. "I think that is a very telling observation," he replies. "The thing about sporting crowds is that they are inherently adversarial. They are structured around defeating the other. And that is also the structure of Trump's politics. He sets up a very clear us and them locked into a zero-sum struggle. Our gain is their loss, their gain is our loss."
Perhaps that's the final secret of these circuses. From Fayetteville to Costa Mesa, Trump's traveling carnival just might be a preview of Trump's America: a land of resentments, tensions, team loyalties, and entertainment, all surrounded by a ring of kitsch.