Love him or loathe him Donald Trump is far exceeding most pundits’ wildest expectations. He has the GOP establishment terrified and appears to have struck a chord with a specific section of society deeply upset by business as usual, gridlocked Washington politics.
One Friday in February, Trump held a rally at the University of South Florida Sun Dome Arena. After living in San Luis Obispo and Santa Barbara for the past 12 years but now a citizen of Tampa, I felt I owed it to myself to attend. I wanted to experience and see for myself what it was like and more importantly what his supporters were like.
The first thing I noticed were food trucks. With a large crowd of people standing patiently in line going nowhere fast and getting hungry, it was the perfect opportunity for these small businesses to make some money. Similarly, the same was true for street vendors, selling a collection of Trump memorabilia and merchandise in a way similar to those creepy rose-selling ladies who randomly appear in bars and nightclubs. Like any carnival, these vendors, and self professed Trump supporters, follow Trump all over the country selling their knickknacks, no doubt made in China, to anyone that will buy.
The USF Sun Dome has a typical capacity of approximately 10,000 with another couple of thousand thrown into a mosh pit. Trump did indeed “sell out” the venue. It must be noted that tickets were free to anyone, and the event took place on a warm, sunny Friday evening on a university campus. Some supporters had arrived as many as 10 hours early in the hopes of being first through the doors. Many had traveled from all over Florida. The most ardent of these fans/supporters tended to be of the older, white female persuasion. All happy to share their thoughts, all smiling, and all convinced the bombastic billionaire businessman would be the 45th president.
By 5 p.m. the line was growing, snaking its way all over campus. I wandered along, stopping frequently to talk with people.
I approached a group of early-twenties white girls, inquiring if they were Trump supporters? “Err, not exactly. We just came to have a look,” they responded while drinking red wine out of plastic cups. Their jovial spirit was repeated throughout the crowd that felt as much like a rock concert as it did a political rally.
I next approached a rather large burly white guy holding a “Build the Wall” sign and asked him what his key issue was. “Immigration,” he replied, telling me it was time to “build the wall,” a popular chant among many that evening. When I asked the gentleman’s name, he told me his first name willingly, but when asked his last he paused and responded, “I’d rather not say.” I got the sense the big fella realized his last name of “Fitzgerald” or “Schmidt,” or whatever other historically immigrant last name he may have, would not jive well with his anti-immigration stance.
After running into a Trump lookalike “performing” for a jubilant crowd, I came across a group of young men with “Muslims for Trump” emblazoned across their shirts. “Trump is just telling it like it is,” one of them told me. “We should all [Muslims] have to wear badges,” another added as they clashed with a group of protesters that had assembled in front of the crowd.
The protesters, complete with a Trump piñata they were smashing to bits, had a megaphone their “leader” used to shout out the ills of Trump as the rest of his cohort chanted “Dump the Trump” while waving banners: “No Person Is Illegal,” “No to Racism,” “Feel the Bern,” and more. Trump supporters yelled, “Get a job,” and “Go home, hippies,” in what was the most intense encounter of the evening.
I encountered many young white men, the kinds that wear boat shoes, shorts, and blazers. They completed their look with red Make America Great Again Trump baseball caps; many had Build the Wall banners. All were eager to pose for the camera.
Security was tight as I made my way inside. Secret Service agents, many in suits and many in full combat gear armed to the teeth with a wide array of guns, checked my bag and waved me through the metal detector.
I noticed every seat was decorated with a Trump banner, giving the crowd something to wave as they hooted, hollered, and swooned over their messiah.
As showtime approached, the rest of the assembled media and I were cajoled into a pen where, upon orders from the SS, we had to remain for the duration of the rally. Elton John, the Beatles, the Rolling Stones and “Nessun Dorma” blasted out from the loudspeakers, seemingly on loop before the warm-up acts arrived on stage.
Among them a conservative radio host whipped the crowd into a frenzy with his impression of Obama. He was accompanied by the mother of a deceased veteran, detailing how her son would still be alive if Trump were president.
Finally the moment we’d all been waiting for arrived. The Donald entered the arena, the crowd went wild, free banners were waved, and young children were hoisted onto shoulders.
I would love to describe how Trump spoke eloquently, with poise and consideration, detailing with specifics how he was going to improve on what already makes America great. Alas, he instead proceeded to bash the Mexican president, pontificate about how if only more French people had guns “the Paris shootings would have been different.” He criticized the media, slighted Hillary and Bush, and described, anecdotally, how he would use his considerable business acumen and brash style to “deal with” Iran and China. He chastised and belittled President Obama at every opportunity.
He did all this in synchronization with the crowd, encouraging them to chant, boo and wail, on cue, whenever he said key words such as Hispanics, Obama, Hilary, Iran, and Muslims.
No specifics, no tangible details, and no concrete plans. Just Trump doing what he does best, working the crowd, and appealing to his people saying whatever they want to hear.
As quickly as he appeared, he was gone. His rallying call about “winning” and “making America great again” got one last roar from the crowd before he stepped down from his stump and into the first row of mosh-pit attendees. He spent the next 20 minutes shaking hands and kissing babies, or old ladies, I assume.
I made my way from the arena and outside where I asked a middle-aged white guy about his thoughts on the rally? “Awesome” was his reply. “But what about his lack of any specifics?” I countered “Look man it was awesome. ‘Merica,” and he walked off.
Already a celebrity before his presidential campaign, arguably people would have lined up to see Trump hold a rally about anything. Many were here simply for the spectacle. Many believe he is some sort of American savior. They don’t care about specifics or consequences, it seems all they care about is wearing pins and waving banners at a guy they believe represents the best of themselves, even if that is possibly the worst of America.