Up to now, I’ve had a pretty good idea of what heaven will be like, if there is such a thing. It looks like a bluff over Lake Michigan just as the sun is beginning to set on a warm and perfect Michigan summer day. Behind me is a restaurant ready to set out a delicious meal, and everyone I’ve ever loved is with me. Inside the restaurant, if I care to go there, a victory party is going on for a campaign I’ve worked on. I could happily spend an eternity in this tableau.
As of today, I also have a vision of what hell would be, and it is this: being trapped forever in a Donald Trump rally at a loud and steamy venue with no ventilation, an incompetent sound system and a couple thousand of diehard Trumpsters endlessly chanting “lock her up!”
But let me back up a moment.
It was just a few short days ago that I heard that Cheeto Jesus was headed for my hometown. I came across the link to order free tickets, and on a lark, requested one. An instant later, the boarding pass to hell landed in my inbox. My mother tried to talk me out of going, fearing for my safety. My girlfriend simply wondered why I would waste a few hours out of my life just to see the spectacle.
And me? Even before I left the world of journalism five years ago, I promised that I would take advantage of my newfound nonjournalistic freedom by becoming politically active — maybe by loading up my front lawn with campaign signs. The universe called my bluff in spades by landing me a job offer with the Democratic Caucus of the Michigan House of Representatives, and it’s a job I love.
So I certainly wasn’t going to a Trump rally as a fellow traveler. And I wasn’t going as a protester, either. My girlfriend and I have done that already, at a rally in Tampa this spring. It was a circus — a glorious and frightening circus. And we got to see Donald Trump Jr.’s brokedown and vulgar limousine (it had dollar sign decals near the door handles, I’m serious).
Nope. This time I was going for the experience.
It didn’t take long before I started to question the wisdom of that. The rally was scheduled for 5 p.m. I arrived around 3:30, thinking I would be plenty early. I neglected to realize that the venue was particularly ill-suited for this sort of event, with only a nominal amount of available parking. So instead of parking near the venue, I was shunted off — along with throngs of other excited Trumpsters — to on-street parking a mile away.
We made our way to the rally site. A few wore suits — they stuck out in the crowd. Most donned jeans and t-shirts, many of which made a statement. “Hillary for Prison” was a mob favorite. So were standard “Make America Great Again” shirts and anything with an American flag — even a flag itself pinned around the neck of one fan.
I walked ahead of one family that had an elderly man. The heat and long walk was obviously getting to him, but he wouldn’t be deterred. “I’m not dead yet,” he said. Someone a generation younger told the guy that unless Trump is elected, Obamacare would “make you wish you were dead.” Strange family.
Another group of four young people skipped ahead of me. One of them excitedly babbled about seeing Trump a few months earlier in Grand Rapids. I gather she had sent The Donald an email asking for a free hotel room at a Trump property for her honeymoon. He hadn’t answered — yet. But hotel voucher or no, she was excited to vote for him.
The closer we got, the thicker the line of vendors became. T-shirts and hats and buttons were for sale. Some were pro-Trump. At least as many were venomously anti-Clinton. “Trump That Bitch,” yelled one t-shirt, along with the man hawking them. The women around me laughed. I did not. “If she can’t satisfy Bill, how can she satisfy America?” asked another. A woman wore it.
Curiously, at least half of the merchants we passed were black. I wondered if they actually believed in what they were selling, or if they were simply making the most of a free-market economy. I hope it was the latter, because I can’t make sense of the former.
By the time I reached the security check-point, I was already hot. The agent checking my bag found my can of Diet Vernors and asked if I would rather drink it or hand it over. I opted for drinking it, which quite possibly was the best choice I made all day. On the second pass through, they found my keychain, which was more of a problem.
My keychain, I should point out, has a Harry Potter wand attached. The guards passed it among each other, and a secret service agent tapped it against his finger several times. “Wondering if it’s a weapon,” he said. I bit the inside of my cheek to keep from saying, “No such luck, I’m just a muggle,” But these guys aren’t known for having a sense of humor. They eventually decided that the wand wasn’t sharp enough to cut with, and only sharp enough to take out somebody’s eye. Which, apparently, was acceptable, because they waved me through.
I was now inside the belly of the beast. People were filing into the oversized gymnasium where Trump would soon speak, and I followed. Make America Great Again signs and Trump/Pence 2016 signs were offered, but I didn’t take them. I know what happened to Persephone when she took an offered gift in hell.
The venue itself was terrible. Only a few rows of risers framed an open floor area where people were already standing about aimlessly. There was no place left to sit. I pressed forward as far as I could, winding up behind a massive post that blocked any view of the stage. The air was thick and stifling, with no detectible circulation. A man offered me a newspaper — I was surprised that no one told him that the media was the enemy. I said no, and soon after regretted it because it may have made a lovely fan. I made it through a prayer, the Pledge of Allegiance and the national anthem before I checked my phone. It was only 4:15. There would be another 45 minutes of waiting.
As the sweat trickled down my back, I gave serious thought to turning back and going home. But mama didn’t raise no quitter. I gave up my prime spot behind the column and fell back to the far side of the gymnasium, where a line of old duffers leaned and sat against the wall. I felt no shame in joining them. It was a degree or two cooler here, and I was sitting. I don’t know that I’d be willing to stand and sweat for two hours for anyone.
From my more comfortable vantage point, I took stock of the crowd before me. It was white. So very white. I don’t think I’ve seen so much white since last winter’s whiteout. Aside from those who were with the working media or law enforcement, I could count the number of black people I saw in the audience on one hand. No joke.
It was pretty old, too. Not to say there weren’t young people around, because there were, but let’s just say there were more people in the room worried about missing out on the early bird special than there were people wondering who’d be willing to buy them alcohol later tonight.
Protesters? There really weren’t any. I only saw a handful of pro-Libertarians on the walk in, and aside from seeing one person holding a homemade Support Clean Energy sign being escorted away, I saw no other rabble rousers. In contrast, I saw three people being carted away on stretchers after presumably being overcome by heat. Did I mention it was hot? It was hot.
A voice came over the speakers exhorting the audience to not violently attack any protesters who might be there. Thanks? I can’t recall ever being at a gathering before where I was kindly requested to not beat the crap out of anyone I disagreed with.
But to be fair, there was nothing overtly scary about the audience. Obviously I disagreed with nearly all of them. I may have found some of them creepy and some of them distasteful, and a great many of them were very angry, but never at any point did I feel endangered. Not even when I failed to bow my head for their communal prayer or to put my hand over my heart for the national anthem.
A few speakers came out ahead of Trump. Ronna Romney McDaniel, the Republican National Committee Woman for Michigan, spoke. I know it’s not couth to say a woman’s voice is shrill, but I really don’t know how else to describe it. I barely made out a word she was saying, and I wasn’t sure I wanted to. I envied the old people around me whose ears were stoppered with foam earplugs. To be fair, the fault can’t be all hers — the sound system in the room was atrocious, blaring out angry voices that loudly bounced off the walls of the gym to create a cacophony of crud. I wondered why I was here if I wouldn’t even be able to hear anything.
Then came the music. I’ll give the DJ credit, there was nothing in that room as diverse in this play list. Some kind of mishmash between Mannheim Steamrolller and a Christian band was followed by classic rock, an operatic aria, “I’m Proud to Be an American” and Clarence Clearwater Revival’s “Born on a Bayou,” which I found hilarious, because I doubt if Trump has ever so much as even seen a bayou — even though he was flying to Michigan this day from Louisiana.
Then came what is apparently Trump’s favorite tune, the Rolling Stones’ “You Can’t Always Get What You Want.” Which was followed by the Rolling Stones’ “You Can’t Always Get What You Want.” Which was followed by the Rolling Stones’ “You Can’t Always Get What You Want.”
For whatever reason, Trump has made this is signature song. I don’t know why. I’m not sure what message he’s trying to send people by entering the stage as the song tells fans they can’t get what they want. It’s a bold choice for a campaign theme song, just like Beck’s “Loser” or Cee-Lo’s “Fuck You” would be a bold (and bizarre) choice.
Finally, the man of the hour arrived to thunderous applause. I got up from my comfortable place along the wall and entered the maddening crowd. To my surprise, I could see Trump. Kind of. I could see a baseball cap and a fleshtone blur beneath it standing behind a podium, but I was far, far back in the crowd.
Before the rally, I’d wondered which Trump I’d see today? Would it be the carefully crafted TelePrompTer Trump who’s taken the forefront lately? The off-the-leash crazy Trump we’ve come to know? The one from last night who said he had regrets? Would he mention the new leadership in his campaign, or the resignation of his campaign manager Paul Manafort, who became a liability when his illicit payments from a pro-Russian Ukrainian party became known?
In the end, it was TelePrmopTer Trump all the way. So, what did he have to say? Here are some highlights:
- Trump loves the African-Americans. L-O-V-E-S them. No really. And they should all vote for him because why not? What do they have to lose (beside civil rights)? In fact, he loves black people so much that when he runs for re-election in 2020, 95 percent of them will be converted to Trumpsterism. He loves them! What a gesture, and I’m sure the two black people in the audience really appreciated it.
- Trump is going to be great for the auto industry. Trump said Michigan’s auto industry had suffered under Obama, but he will bring those jobs back from Mexico and China. He said over and over again that he is going to save Michigan’s economy, and that to make the economy better, we need a change in leadership. That’s quite strange, given that the overarching theme of the Michigan Republican Party this year is that Michigan’s Republican regime has turned things around and everything here is going great! And Michigan is the comeback state! And we need more of what we have right now! I honestly don’t understand how these messages can coexist, and I’m thrilled I’m not a Republican who has to go through the mental gymnastics required to make sense of that.
- Trade deals are bad. When he’s president, he’s going to make it so that companies won’t be able to afford sending American production and American jobs overseas. No word yet on whether that includes the companies that make Trump ties, Trump suits and Trump furniture.
- Trade deals are bad, but Hillary is worse, and something about email. She set loose ISIS on the world. Ben Ghazi’s still a big draw for this crowd. I guess the old favorites never really go away.
As the speech wore on for 45 minutes, I saw several people leave early. Who could blame them. My back was now slick with sweat. The place reeked of sweat and warm bodies, and I couldn’t tell at any moment if I was smelling myself, someone else, or — more likely — all the above. I grew envious of the people who had passed out and got a free stretcher ride to fresh air. I wondered if I could fake a fainting.
Finally, it was over. As the high-pitched tones of a boys choir sang “You Can’t Always Get What You Want” (again), I made for the doors. Outside, t-shirt hawkers were trying to grab attention with vulgar shirts.
“Hillary Sucks … But Not Like Monica,” one shirt said. A man who may have been the one who offered me a newspaper earlier approached the vendor. “Hey, there are a lot of kids here, that sets a bad example.” Finally, I thought. Some decency. “Get a sense of humor,” the merchant said. I wasn’t laughing, either.
On the long walk back to my car, I fell in line behind a group of Mennonites. One of them carried a Trump sign. I wondered how in the world they could blend their culture of modesty and simplicity with a gold-plated braggart like Trump? But that’s the miracle of America, I guess.
By the time I got to my car, all I wanted was air conditioning and to get away. What had I learned? Honestly, nothing. There was no revelation here, not about Trump, his policies or his followers. If I came hoping to gain some sort of insight, I was leaving empty-handed.
You can’t always get what you want. That’s the goddamned truth.
(One of very, very few black Trumpsters I saw. He looks ready for a fight)