Charles Halton talks with people waiting for a Trump rally
A week or two ago I heard that Donald J. Trump was staging a rally in Louisville. I tried to put it out of my head, suppress that fact, shove it as deep into the repository of forgotten memories as I could. But this voice—angel or demon I couldn’t tell—kept whispering that as the managing editor of Marginalia I had a journalistic obligation, a moral imperative, even, to report on this event.
I came up with a series of excuses. A photographer from TIME was body-slammed and choked at a Trump rally. I have a family. Don’t be selfish, I told myself, you need to keep yourself safe for their sake. Even if I wasn’t physically manhandled, there’s no guarantee I’d be able to report on anything significant. Black students were removed from one of his events because they were, well, black students. Now, I realize I’m white which is a real asset in contexts like this, but I look fairly young and could easily be confused as a student with potential for agitation. And even though my last name is that of a town East of Liverpool where my great-great-great-great grandfather emigrated a couple hundred years ago, what if instead of reading Halton a security official saw Haltón and assumed I’m latino? What would happen to me then? I mean, should I bring my passport to prove I’m American? I don’t want to end up on the wrong side of a wall.
That voice wouldn’t leave me alone. Each time I thought I’d silenced it it’d chastise or cajole me. “You need to go.” “You must go.” “It might even be fun,” it whispered. Eventually I gave in. Yesterday morning, against my better judgment, I went online and printed out a ticket.
The event started at 4pm and the door opened at 1. I did some writing, fixed lunch, and hopped into the car at 12:30 and headed downtown. When I arrived at the convention center I discovered I had grossly underestimated the level of interest in Trump’s appearance. Every parking garage in the vicinity was full and the surface lots had messages scrawled on poster board that the prices were about three times what they normally are. It took me ten minutes to find an open meter. I swerved across three lanes of traffic and backed into the spot.
As I was paying it started to rain. That morning it had hailed. If I were Pat Robertson, I’d have concluded it was God’s judgment against the city for allowing Trump’s presence. I’m not Pat Robertson. I sighed at my bad luck and I swore at myself for wearing my good shoes into a rainstorm.
I walked four blocks to the convention center and saw a line hugging the building. Only one entrance was open and the line stretched from there around the entire perimeter of the block. The line started in the same place where it ended. And this was a convention center sized block, not a normal bank building one. I guessed there were about five thousand people already there waiting for the doors to open. I figured I’d do some interviews and wait for the queue to slim down.
I saw a group holding up #BlackLivesMatter signs and thought they were a good place to start. I identified myself and asked if they were willing to answer some questions.
“Sure,” said a woman struggling to take off a yellow poncho. I asked if I could help her and she handed me her sign. She pulled the poncho over her head and threw it on top of her backpack on the ground beside her.
“That’s better,” she said and took the sign back, “Now, what do want to know?”
“What brought you out here today?”
“I’m here because I don’t want hate to win. We have so much wrong with this country but we cannot give in to fear. Love must win; hate cannot.”
“We want peace in this violent world,” another person said.
“I don’t think Mr. Trump hears my voice. I don’t think he understands the issues that concern me,” said the woman who took off the poncho. “We work for people like him. They own us during business hours and pay us hardly enough to live. But that’s not enough for them. They want to control our bodies twenty-four-seven—tell us what we can and can’t do with them.”
“That’s right, it’s about control,” someone said.
We talked for a while longer and I asked if I could take their picture.
“Only if you take one for us too.”
I snapped a pic with my phone and then took one with a phone they provided.
I thanked them and walked under a bus stop shelter to write notes. It was a wonderful first encounter. The #BlackLivesMatter folks were tremendously kind and embodied the love they said they were working for. None of the Trump supporters were bothering them, the police weren’t shooing them off. It felt like society was working. People were out voicing their disagreement and supporting different issues but they respected each other.
I crossed the street and began talking with those in line. They were overwhelmingly white. Of the thousands of people I saw that afternoon I counted ten people of color.
None of the non-white people were alone. They were with a white friend or a white spouse or in one case a white bodyguard. I walked up to a group of six women wearing hijabs. As I did with everyone I spoke with, I identified myself and asked if I could speak with them. They smiled at each other and giggled.
“If you don’t want to talk, I totally understand,” I said.
“No, it’s okay, we’ll talk with you,” one of the women said.
I asked what brought them out to the event. They were very non-committal. “We’re just here” is what they said.
“Are you here supporting the candidate or merely as observers?” I asked.
An enormous white guy cut in and said they were students at the University of Louisville and were here only to watch. When I say he was enormous I mean it. Dude was massive. One of the biggest human beings I’ve ever seen.
“So, you’re really big,” I said to him. “And you’re holding that golf umbrella with the pointy metal end on it. Are you here protecting them or something?”
“Who are you protecting them from?”
“There are many kinds of people here that could mean them harm. I’m here to make sure they stay safe.”
He didn’t want to say much more than that and I wasn’t about to make him uncomfortable. I asked permission to take their picture and they said yes.
I walked down the line and saw a guy in a camo jacket. He held a sign that read: Thank You Trump. I mentioned his jacket and asked if he had served. His wife beat him to a response.
“Absolutely he did, fifteen years, four deployments. I am so proud of him.”
“Where were you deployed?” I asked.
“All over,” he said. “To Iraq, a base in the Gulf of Aden, twice here at home.”
“Here at home?”
“I was National Guard. Overseas I was a gate guard. ‘May I see your ID?’ That kind of stuff. I’m a mechanic most days of the week.”
“I noticed your sign…” I said.
“Yeah, I’m here because all our jobs are going overseas. Did you hear about what happened at Disney? They brought in a bunch of foreigners with H-1 visas and made the Americans they fired train their replacements.”
“How do you think Trump will stop that?”
“He’ll change the tax code. Make it advantageous for companies to hire Americans. I’ll tell you what else. He’ll build that wall. We need border security.”
He went on about the wall for a while and pulled his son into the frame when I snapped his picture.
I followed the line back to the #BlackLivesMatter corner. Trump supporters were snickering at the protestors and muttering under their breath. “Oh, look protestors. How cute!” “Hmmm, social justice.” That sort of stuff. Nothing overtly ugly; just a healthy dose of condescension.
A really tall white guy walked down the line at a fast clip yelling “Sieg Heil!” over and over while thrusting his arm out in a Hitler salute. I’ve never heard someone scream that loud. At first I thought he was serious, that he was a genuine Neo-Nazi or something. Then he faced the line and clicked his heals and it was clear that he was mocking those waiting for Trump. The people in line groaned and responded with a very half-hearted “Shut up.” It felt like they’d heard it before, that the joke was old and threadbare to them.
I bumped into two people who said they were friends, an African-American man and a white guy wearing an American legion hat. I asked them what brought them out. The white guy answered for both of them, “They took our jobs. I used to work at a Ford plant before it was shut down. What are people like me supposed to do now?”
I asked his friend why he was there.
“I made it in life through hard work and determination. I want a president who believes in that and encourages that. That’s why I’m voting for Donald Trump.”
The three of us talked for a while. They told me about their families and how they were afraid for the economy and their ability to provide for their loved ones in the future. We joked around some. They smiled a lot and said they were excited about the event. They’d never been so enthusiastic for a presidential candidate before. We had a great time talking. It was like we were in my backyard cooking hot dogs or something.
I asked if I could take their picture.
“Only if you get my son in it too,” the white guy said.
Right after I snapped that pic a girl with a backpack knocked into me. She apologized and asked if I wanted a Red Bull.
“A Red Bull?” I said.
“Yeah, we’re giving them away for free.” She pointed to a tiny car with a huge Red Bull can glued on top.
“Is this advertising or is it implied support for Trump?”
A guy held his hand in front of the girl to silence her. “We do this at many diverse events,” he said. “Whenever people are gathered together we like to hand out some product. It’s not an endorsement.”
“Alright,” I responded.
“You want a Red Bull or not?” he asked.
I declined. They moved on passing out as many skinny cans as they could fish out of their backpacks.
A guy walked up to the crowd and stopped. “Shit. This the line to get in?”
“Yeah,” someone shouted, “the end is back there, around two corners.”
“That long?” the guy said.
“Yep,” another person responded, “worth it though.”
“Got that right.”
“Uh-huh,” the crowd murmured.
I wanted to see if I could document the security presence so I walked across the street to get a picture of the entrance. A police car barricaded the road that ran beneath the convention hall. That’s where they funneled everyone through metal detectors.
I lifted my phone and snapped a pic but wasn’t too happy with it. I repositioned and noticed a guy staring at me. He was dressed in black, had a pistol on each hip, and wore a chunky flak jacket with SECRET SERVICE written in all-caps across his chest. I slowly brought my phone down and got really nervous. Just that morning I watched the video of a Secret Service agent body slam and choke a photographer for TIME. That was inside an event, right near the stage. What on earth would this guy do to me on a street corner. I looked around to see if there were witnesses. Not many. The main crowd was on the opposite side of the building so it was just me and him.
I toggled my phone from photo to video so I’d have a record in case things got dicey. What if he slapped my phone to the pavement? What would I do then? Say he dragged me off to some detention center to interrogate me, what would I say? That I’m here as part of the press covering this event? I’m not a real reporter. I edit a channel of a literary magazine. What am I going to do, call up LARB’s editor-in-chief, Tom Lutz, and tell him I’m rotting in jail and he needs to fly out to Kentucky and bail me out? And let’s even say he does that. What’s he going to do, quote Dickens to the federales who are waterboarding me?
The Secret Service guy squared up to me and looked down the street. He brought his eyes back and stepped forward. “Say, there a fast food joint nearby? I need something to take in there with me.”
“Uh, I think there’s a Jimmy John’s a few blocks that way,” I stammered.
“Hmm, I think I’ll pop in here and see if they’ll box something up.”
He walked past me and into a Spaghetti Warehouse. I leaned against a light post and exhaled.
I collected myself as best I could and walked back to the crowd.
I saw a couple, their jeans tucked into matching cowboy boots that had American flags running up the shafts.
“We were just in Pensacola for his rally there,” the man said, “and we drove up here to be at this one. Wherever he goes next, we’ll be there too. You see, I’m a Trump supporter. People try to say that I’m a fan. I’m not a fan. Trump is not a celebrity. People say that to cheapen him. He’s a serious candidate and I’m one of his supporters.”
“Let me tell you something else,” he continued. “He’s not a racist. You can ask her.” He pointed to his African-American wife.
“Trump is not a racist, he’s not sexist, and he loves Muslims.” She said those exact words.
The husband tapped my shoulder. “The US gave Iran 150 million dollars. Iran! And there are veterans in the streets. Why are we giving money to Iran!?”
“And we need that wall,” his wife said.
“Yes we do.”
“He can’t be bought,” she said.
“That’s right, honey.”
“No lobbyist is going to be telling him what to do. We need someone like that in the White House.”
I thanked them for their time and asked if I could take their picture. The husband cocked his head and asked me for credentials.
“Never mind,” he said, “No pictures. You move along now.”
A guy in a cowboy hat was playing a guitar. I went over to listen. He sang a song titled “Don’t Forget to Vote for Trump for President.” It doesn’t sound very elegant but the way he intoned it was actually quite catchy. Two years ago his son died of a heroin overdose. That’s why he was out there singing. He was doing his best to smile and be an entertainer but there was a deep sadness behind his eyes. I asked if he thought Trump would help people who have drug addictions. He said yes but couldn’t offer a reason why he thought that. I didn’t press him. If I lost my daughter, I’d do crazy stuff too.
He opened his jacket and revealed a stash of CDs. He wasn’t the only one selling things. Vendors were everywhere. They hawked hats, bumper stickers, buttons, pins, anything that could hold the letters T-R-U-M-P.
I checked the time. My daughter’s school was about to let out and I needed to pick her up. I had hoped to get inside the event but there were so many people it was impossible. I decided to talk to one more group before heading out.
I walked up to man and a woman who looked to be together.
“I’m here because it’s a significant event, a historical moment,” the guy said.
His girlfriend gave him a sideways glance. “I’m here only because of him,” she pointed to her boyfriend. “I’m not voting for Trump.”
“Who are you voting for?” I asked.
“Sanders,” both of them said.
“He probably won’t win,” the boyfriend added.
“Yeah, but whoever does win—Trump or Hillary—things will change for the better. They have to.”
“Trump would bring positive change?” I asked.
“I don’t know exactly. But people are fed up. Look at Trump, he really gets people riled up, brings things out of people.”
“You think he brings out the best in us?”
“He brings out the good, the bad, the in-between. It’s a spectacle. This many people here,” he took a drag on his cigarette and gave it a flick, “man, it’s kinda messed up.”
All photos courtesy the author.