3/1/16, 15:15 EST, CORNER OF 4th AND JEFFERSON, LOUISVILLE, KY
There is a palpable hum in the air that hints at some kind of collusion between nature and the times. Skies are heavy and low and big walls of wind stampede down the grids made by Louisville’s only tall buildings. It is more dripping than raining. I’d expected long lines, but nothing quite like this. It’s 45 minutes before showtime and a chain of humanity has wrapped the Kentucky International Convention Center as if to hold it in place. KICC comprises two full city blocks and is architecturally blasé without being exactly ugly. It’s difficult to say what kind of undeniable multiculturalism necessitated including “international” in the name of this place, but everyone seems to have just gone with it.
I am here to see Donald Trump. Confession #1: I do not look out of place in this crowd. Yet my fellow Americans are giving me the once over with no small amount of suspicion. I am a 6’4”, 215 lb white male who is wearing a thrift-store trucker hat with a khaki Carhartt coat and old jeans. It’s the pen and Moleskin notebook that are a giveaway, I think. Their eyes go from my face to the notebook and then back and I make a point to stare right through them.
I have come here for the spectacle. Mostly I’ve come to learn. I do not like Donald Trump at all. To be more exact, I loathe Donald Trump. I respect him less than just about anyone I can think of right now, and because of that I also pity him. In the moments when this conflict of feelings seems especially misguided, I remind myself that this connection between pity and loathing is perhaps one of the most important things to separate me from the mob that’s gathered on this dark and gusty day.
15:23 EST, SOMEWHERE ON JEFFERSON ST.
I’ve seen Tibetan pilgrims kowtow faster than the line is moving. Figures standing in floor to ceiling office windows in adjacent buildings take videos of the line on their phones. Mostly people are quiet, keeping their heads down and doing their best to remain a distance behind the person in front of them which is respectful of personal space without suggesting inattention. The first really obnoxious Trumpeters are a group of college students that are without question members of the same fraternity. They are clean cut and dressed in Ralph Lauren and seem to be fairly intoxicated in spite of the time of day. They’re all wearing the same deck shoes or duck boots and are chanting BUILD THAT WALL! at the top of their lungs. The crowd approves. A few folks in the line turn to one another and smile, younger girls giggle and look on in admiration. The man in front of me stops to buy a shirt that reads “TRUMP: FINALLY SOMEONE WITH BALLS”.
It is Super Tuesday. No matter how the next several political months unfold, this day is important, possibly even historic in the sense of that word that implies italics. Basically, we will probably have a much clearer sense of the identity of the 2016 presidential candidates after today, and there’s a very good chance that Donald J. Trump is going to be one of them. I would say that this is shocking, but the reality has been moving towards us like a glacier, really. What we do about it is the only question now.
15:31, IN FRONT OF SECOND ST. STARBUCKS
As my section of the line turns the corner up Second Street the frat bros break out into chants of “RUBIO SWEATS” and “RUBIO’S A LIGHTWEIGHT.” They have looks on their faces that suggest aspirations to white collar crime. For them, this seems to be little more than a joke. Most people have made the same mistake over the past several months, to be fair. These are the same boys that were chanting “NO MEANS YES! YES MEANS ANAL!” on Greek row back in September, and they chant for Trump now with the same energy and the same basic motivation. When we have our public discussions about “what’s wrong with America,” kids like this often get overlooked, and I’ll give you two guesses as to why.
Have I mentioned just how incredibly well-heeled most of the folks I’m standing in line with seem to be? Maybe that’s the real reason I got the stares as I approached. This is not a group of Joe the Plumbers; these are country club members. Many of the men wear suits or are doing that sport coat and jeans thing that is so intolerable. The women at their sides are grimly tanned and adorned with all manner of bling. These are the kind of people that tailgate in football stadium parking lots around the Commonwealth with a devotion that approaches the religious. They own custom-made cornhole boards. They wear houndstooth and fancy hats to races at Churchill Downs and opt for Uber Select on weekends.
15:39 EST, CORNER OF SECOND AND LIBERTY
The wind is picking up, somehow. The weather is lending itself to all sorts of personification. My section of the line approaches the first little throng of protesters, of which I am secretly one. Confession #2: I am an ardent supporter of Bernie Sanders. To my mind, he is Drumpf’s antithesis in almost every way. Besides, he’s been on the side of justice longer than most Americans have been alive, and that’s not even an exaggeration. The protesters are across the street from the line, and most people on my side are taking video of them as if they’re all part of the show, which they are. In reality, Trump’s ability to attract protesters is one of his biggest strengths, and I think he knows it. An older woman is saying “PEACE, EQUALITY, INCLUSION” into a bullhorn and the others repeat it like a mantra. To my disappointment, a lot of the protesters’ signs stoop to Trump’s level in ways that only reinforce the Trumpeters’ preconceptions of them as lazy or irresponsible or just plain hopeless bums. One girl holds a poster that reads “Trump Has A Tiny Weiner,” which to be fair is something that Marco Rubio insinuated publicly just yesterday. Some of the signs are blatantly facetious, with messages like “Trump Thinks Arby’s Is Good”, “Trump = Butthole Water”, “Trump Eats Farts” and “Trump Has Sex To ISIS Music”. Your guess being as good as mine on that last one. It’s unclear to me what signs like this were actually trying to accomplish, but what they did succeed in doing was to reduce whatever justifiable objection they had to Trump’s presence to the level of the juvenile, the Will Ferrell punch line.
There is no shortage of Trump merchandise being peddled here. Some of it is not even Trump-specific exactly, Exhibit A being a black t-shirt featuring plummeting missiles that says “BOMB THE SHIT OUT OF ISIS”, which, now that I think of it, is a direct quote of his. Some buttons read “Hillary for Prison 2016” with a photoshopped image of Clinton behind bars. It’s impossible to tell if the people selling the merchandise are actual Trump supporters or just out to make an “honest” buck, but in any case they emanate the aura of seasoned merch pushers, huddled cozily under blankets in their camp chairs, many hundreds of state fairs and flea markets already under their heavy-buckled belts.
15:48 EST, JUST INSIDE KENTUCKY INTERNATIONAL CONVENTION CENTER
At long last, I’m in. Getting through the doors involved an actual TSA-type experience minus the glass case of radiation. People are shoving their wallets and phones back into their pockets and cramming onto the two escalators that go to the second floor. The hall in which Trump will be speaking is essentially an airplane hangar. Big trays of fluorescent bulbs hang in Morse code patterns overhead, HVAC outputs like gigantic spigots.
I make my way to the right side of the room, scouting a good vantage point. Being close to some exits seems like it can’t be a bad idea, so I put down roots about 10 feet from a long row of doors. Against all odds, the L.L Bean catalogue fraternity members set up camp on the exact edge of my right earlobe. Those huge speaker arrangements that look like caterpillar larvae hang by chains over the stage, and they do not want for decibels. The crowd is being more or less flattened by “Uptown Girl”. One of the bros in a pink plaid polo keeps bumping into me and not noticing. He’s far too lost in the spider-webbed screen of his iPhone 6s, the cracks almost certainly the result of a drunken fumble last semester. A cluster of cops are over my left shoulder, and I overhear one of them say “…and if they refuse to walk out under their own power, it’s game on”, which I jot down furiously word for word and look up to him staring me down like I’m a suspect in a recent crime.
“Time Is On My Side” by the Stones comes on. The chorus feels like a message of false hope for most of the people I can see, but I notice a few mouths singing along anyway. Bodies still packing together, filling every available space of the polished concrete floor. There is nothing joyful about this crowd. It is tense and it is angry. You’d expect a convivial element to any gathering of like-minds this large, but it’s absent. I’m getting long stares again as I take notes on what I’m hearing around me; these folks seem to sense skepticism the way dogs sense fear. Signs in the crowd say things like “Don’t Vote With Your Vagina” (interestingly, held by a man) and “Combover Over To The New America” (presumably in the hands of a Trump supporter, but kind of unclear.) A “WE WANT TRUMP” chant gains some tractions on the opposite side of the hangar. People are expectant, getting giddy but with too much reverence to be actually impatient.
Part Of The Day That Most Ruined Memories Of My Childhood: Trump comes out to the same song that used to introduce the Jordan-Era Chicago Bulls. I can still remember watching NBA on NBC Sunday afternoons and the little shivers that ran up my spine when the lights went down and that song came on. Now I’m getting chills for a different reason altogether. Don’t, Donald. Just DO NOT. Are we clear?
16:01 EST, INSIDE EXHIBIT HALL 2CD
And there, all at once, is the man of the hour. And yes, I’m referring to Chris Christie. It’s hard to make out facial expressions from this distance, but Christie’s voice betrays the enthusiasm of a kid who’s been forced by his parents to take advantage of a public speaking opportunity at the Rotary Club. I can only see Trump because he actually glows, even from this distance. The same people that would have booed Christie and called him a fat ass just days ago now cheer him on. The hug Trump and Christie exchange before the New Jersey governor exits stage right tells you everything you need to know about their power dynamic. Thousands of phones are being held aloft, and finally Drumpf is at the podium.
You’ve probably figured this out by now, but Donald Trump lives by the sound byte. If I attempted to type his verbatim statements into this document they’d all get that green squiggly line that means “Fragment (consider revising).” He’s oscillating between amazement at the turnout and making everyone pinky swear they’re going to caucus on Saturday. “Everybody promise? Will you promise? Good. That’s great. That’s just great.” There is evidently no specific script here, he seems to be winging it, and any real flow or train of thought is impossible to follow. If you’ve ventured beyond the confines of a rock’s underside over the past few months you’ve heard most of his talking points by now: “We don’t have victories anymore.” “It takes a lot of guts to run for president.” “Importantly, I’m self-funding my campaign, which is something no one has done for a VERY long time.” “This is really a big crowd.” Then, out of nowhere, “Is this a good mic system or what?”
The loudest applause Trump gets for something he actually says about his policies comes from a sort of call and answer he has with the crowd about his infamous plans to build a wall along the border with Mexico. “What are we gonna build?!?!?” “A WALL!” “Who’s gonna pay for it?!?!?” “MEX-UH-COOOOO!!!” “…and after Fox said that disgusting word I told them, ‘It just got 10 feet higher.’ Can you believe that?” Honestly, I can’t believe that, but these questions seem rhetorical anyway.
The rest of the biggest applause points are from protesters being thrown out. As someone who very much sympathizes with the people that protest at his rallies, I have what may seem like a strange suggestion: maybe stop protesting at his rallies. What becomes clear to me is that without protesters being thrown out, Trump has very little to say, and what’s more, the things he has to say that are of anything approaching substance seem to either really confuse his supporters, or bore them, or both. These mob-driven oustings are the only thread of any coherence running through his show. He feeds off of the energy they produce, and everyone else does, too, either by extension or direct involvement. This is, of course, utterly disgusting. It is impossible to attend this rally with any objectivity and not recognize that white supremacy, or more specifically, harking back to the glory days when the ideology of white supremacy was unfettered by the shackles of decency and equality, is fueling this whole misguided ride. It is the central, uniting belief that every cue and impulse is but thinly veiled euphemism for. Tolerance, love, and respect for one another are seen as roadblocks to this bunch, civility a kind of pussified blasphemy. At one point, Donny scoffs at Clinton’s assertion that we need to be made whole, not great, and it’s evident that the dominating view in the room is that these concepts are mutually exclusive.
None of the above is meant to lessen the real courage required to speak out in the middle of such a hateful mob or to diminish the importance of the messages of groups like Love Trumps Hate and Black Lives Matter. The now viral videos of the ways protesters have been abused at these gatherings are important in that they reveal the true identity and intent of most Trumpeters. I’m just convinced that without these sacrificial lambs a few things would happen: a) Trump would be forced to talk more, and probably to say even more outrageous things just to keep his rabble worked up, b) people would get bored, and c) there would be no villains for his spectacle. Gross as it sounds, a lot of the people in the crowd today have just come to be entertained, and Donald the Carnival Barker knows nothing if not how to turn an antagonist into an asset. If you want any further proof of this, just find his WWE appearances on YouTube. I would not be at all surprised if he demands to shave Ted Cruz’s head on live television after taking the nomination.
Part Of The Rally That Made Me Laugh Out Loud When No One Else Did: Trump started into his bit about the percentages of real unemployment. “They’re saying 5%, it’s not 5%. Okay, it’s not 5%. I’m hearing it’s more like 25%, closer to 30%, even.” People cheer and applaud, somewhat inexplicably. Then more: “I’ll tell you this, if unemployment numbers were only 5%, we would definitely not have the turnout that we’re seeing here today.” And that’s when I lost it. People sort of looked around at one another, unsure how to feel about what’s being implied here. Their faces screamed, “Is he saying none of us have jobs? Is he saying that we’re discontent because no one else has a job? Because, you know, I have a job. And most of my friends do, too. I mean, it’s possible to both have a mullet and wear a suit, and I’m proving that here today. I just left the office early and walked two blocks from the Aegon Building for this thing!” It was the only highlight as far as I’m concerned.
16:27 EST, STILL STAYING CLOSE TO EMERGENCY EXITS
Two grown men to my left assault a teenager to tear an anti-Trump sign from his hands and rip it apart before stomping on it. Police intervene and form a wall around some young Latino protesters, and for a while it seems like they may be allowed to stay, but they’re eventually escorted out. Confession #3: For most of the rally I feel weirdly numb to the general bloodthirstiness surrounding me. Maybe it’s just that I expected nothing less. Maybe it’s that I came into this knowing that it was important to stay removed from the emotions involved in watching other people being pushed and hit and bullied in order to stay attentive and keep taking notes. I feel myself getting angry after a young black woman is pushed out by what feels like 10 different white men. No one intervenes on her behalf. No one even seems to feel a shred of sympathy. I, admittedly, am also guilty of not coming to her aid. People jeer and scream, it’s like everyone’s ugliest tendencies are being revealed at the same time. Another scuffle breaks out 50 feet in front of me and police officers descend on the scene, eventually dragging out a black male that looks to be in his early 20s. In an act of rare bravery, aforementioned brosef wearing the pink polo looks up from his phone long enough to take an actual swing at this protester whose arms are pinned behind his back by the cop. He misses. Even if this is not prosecutable assault, it is without question a violation of every rule of gentlemanly engagement ever written. What a badass. One of his buddies gets in the protester’s face and yells, “Go get on the TARC, bitch!”, referring to our fair city’s public transport system.
It turns out that being next to all these doors means I get a front row seat for more than half of the protesters that are tossed. After the first few incidents I stop seeing many police officers and most of the removal is left up to Trump supporters, which is a disastrous idea for a lot of reasons that are probably immediately obvious. I feel like I’m going to need to take two showers to wash off all this vitriol. One young black woman almost certainly in her teens is essentially carried out by a bearded man in a camouflage-hunting cap. She’s holding a cardboard sign that says “A vote for Trump is a vote for racism”, to which a young man in front of me, probably close to her age, displays both his middle fingers and screams, “Then I’ll vote twice!”
At some point, all of the furor begins to run together. Trump goes on his tirade about Carrier air conditioning units and the Ford Motor Company moving jobs to Mexico. He praises Patton and MacArthur and moans about how they must be “spinning in their graves” at the way our armed forces are being dismantled. I notice someone holding the top part of the box for “Trump: The Game” instead of a sign. He takes almost 30 seconds to have a piece of poster board passed to the stage from deep in the crowd, and at first I think it’s a protesters sign that he wants to deride, but it says “LATINOS 4 TRUMP”. A noticeable dearth of applause here. A few guys close to me look at each other and laugh as if to say, “Don’t they know?” Trump: “Latinos love me, they really do. They really do.”
In the rare moments that something mildly substantial is conveyed the room noticeably loses interest. This is not what they stood in line for. When he talks about healthcare there is some hearty applause about plans to dismantle Obamacare, and there is the typical cheering that follows a promise to deliver services that are “bigger and better and cheaper”, but that’s as specific as he’s willing to be. (Spoiler Alert: He wants a single-payer system, which is Donald J. Trump’s own version of a blind squirrel finding a nut every now and then.) He attacks common core and centralized systems of education, but receives a few groans and mostly silence when he suggests the US is 28th in the world when it comes to the strength of our public schools. The truth, in the brief moments it comes to light, is not much of a crowd-pleaser.
Confession #4: I am generally an apologist for the Midwest and the South, and for Kentucky in particular. This is where I’m from. It’s where my family and friends are, and where I currently call home. It brings me no pleasure to write things that will only reinforce preconceptions many of you reading from afar are likely to hold: that Kentucky, and states like Kentucky, are backward and racist. Some of this is undeniable, and I’m certainly not here to defend anyone who flirts with views that even border on bigotry. But something else should also be made clear: this is not a problem unique to flyover country. If Trump’s popularity were limited to the relative backwaters of the nation it would easier to dismiss. But it isn’t, so it isn’t. Just like everywhere else, the people of the Bluegrass State are mostly kind, generous, and hospitable citizens, and they care deeply about the places they call home. If I believed that the people I’m currently embedded with were the majority I would surely despair. But they are not. And another thing: not everyone here attending this event is a hateful bigot. I have no doubt that many good-natured and well-meaning people who have been drawn to this campaign by the magnetism of perceived power and pizzazz. It happens all the time, and has happened throughout history, and is the only reason demagoguery ever gets off the ground in the first place.
16:40 EST, STILL IN GINORMOUS HALL
Trump confesses undying love for everyone in the audience and the speakers are revved back up to the first strains of “You Can’t Always Get What You Want”, which seems an odd choice for a campaign built mostly on outlandish and unconstitutional promises, but maybe Donald’s just a big fan of Jagger. Most people make for the exits, but at least a quarter actually push in closer to the stage, hoping for an autograph. I want to see this guy closer up, so I lean in with them. I don’t want to focus too much on the man’s appearance, but let me just say that he is absolutely bizarre-looking in person. He looks like a photo that’s been cross-processed. The color scheme is askew; we simply don’t find those tones in nature. People jockey to get their hats and shirts and posters signed for another 15 minutes while “Rocket Man” and “Tiny Dancer” echo through the rafters. Secret Service agents jostle with people so hell-bent on getting their copy of The Art of the Deal signed that they’re willing to trample others in the process. I guess most celebrity situations are like this, though.
16:56 EST, LEAVING THE CIRCUS
The floor is an abstract work of flattened popcorn and sticky soda spills. With God as my witness, a soaring operatic piece fills the hall as I’m walking out. Over my shoulder the milling tide of autograph seekers still lap at the barriers surrounding the stage, the crown of the GOP frontrunner’s head distinguishable from 80 yards as if highlighted. Downstairs, security personnel are dismantling the pop-up metal detectors, and the tunnel where Third Street runs beneath the convention center is painted with swirling red and blue light. The sirens are shattering. People being shoved, and seemingly everyone screaming the single syllable “Back!” There’s been an altercation, and I see it’s some of the same kids that were tossed out earlier being escorted away again. Police, probably wisely, are encouraging everyone to just clear out and call it a day.
It feels noticeably colder. I follow the Black Lives Matter protesters out and am there to witness close-up what is maybe the most disturbing interaction of the afternoon. One of the Trump vendors, a black man in his 20s, gets in an argument with the protesters, who are questioning his motives in profiting from a man who just refused to denounce an endorsement from David Duke. There’s almost another fight, and it’s probably best that I not recount the exact words that were exchanged, but I’ll say that they involved a misguided and time-worn etymological distinction between the terms “black” and “n*gger” on the part of the vendor, and ended with him waving wads of dollar bills in their faces and shouting about how he can pay for his own college. Ironically, he was quickly surrounded and congratulated by white Trump supporters, and my last mental image of him is one of a seemingly genuine embrace between the vendor and an overweight white guy in red flannel. It was the only such embrace I saw all day. Trump loves hate.
3/3/16, 12:54 EST, STANDING IN MY BEDROOM, PORTLAND NEIGHBORHOOD OF LOUISVILLE, KY
Warning: In lieu of other creative solutions, this little journalistic endeavor is going to end on an incredibly didactic and sappy note. I’ve been thinking a lot about Tuesday afternoon, and none of it feels any less disappointing. Donald J. Drumpf himself is not so much my concern; he’s still the same insecure, poorly adjusted, and irrevocably spoiled kid he’s always been. But he’s also not without intelligence, and right now he’s masterfully tapping into as aspect of America that is not going away anytime soon. At their core, what the citizens that turned out to the rally are yearning for is authoritarianism, the hollow promise that sacrificing personal freedom for a figure of power will assuage their deepest fears. Fear, we all know, is a powerful emotion indeed.
Bouffant notwithstanding, it would be a mistake to call Trump the first canary in the coalmine for American politics. We’ve had plenty of warnings, and almost all of them have fallen on deaf ears. The good news is that it’s still early March, and we have almost exactly 8 months to ensure that that we elect a president that will do whatever it takes to begin pulling us out of this spiral towards baseness.
To that end, I have some suggestions: At this point, there is really no other choice than to become political, even if that word makes you squeamish. We have to be willing to engage in fact-filled and respectful conversations with people we believe are wrong. We have to educate ourselves about elections and then actually go out and vote in them (and this goes for local politics, too). We have to overcome cynicism, both within ourselves and in others. The state of our democracy is not only a failure of imagination; it’s also a failure of civics, a failure of understanding that being a member of a democratic society is not without its responsibilities. We have to be willing to be bored sometimes. Insofar as our modern entertainments have largely replaced religion as Marx’s infamous opiate, we have to be willing to do things that don’t necessarily make our nucleus accumbens light up like the Vegas strip.
But maybe more than anything else, we have to love one another. It’s the emotion that was so lacking in that otherwise crowded hall, the absence that made it feel so empty. This is not always easy, especially not in times like these, but I know nothing if it is not that every second of our lives not motivated by love are an abject waste. Even our most righteous anger must emanate from this center and must eventually return to it. It’s the only remedy for fear, and it’s our only hope as we continue to plummet through space and time together. It’s by our capacity for love that we’ll all be defined, and it’s the only real metric by which to measure America’s greatness. Let’s be great, maybe for the first time.
Caleb Brooks is a Kentucky native who spends a lot of his time collecting passport stamps. He likes hammocks, Jack Gilbert poems, and pretty much anything that fits under the broad umbrella of athletic competition. You can check out where he is in the world via his Instagram @seebroox.