I arrived in North Carolina this Tuesday, traveling for work and to visit family. The presidential election has colonized all our minds for more than a year, but the intensity is almost unbearable in a swing state where the candidates are neck and neck. On Thursday I decided to go to a Donald Trump rally in a place named, of all things, Selma—a racially diverse, poor-working-class town of around 6,000 (30 percent of whom live below the poverty line). That afternoon Hillary Clinton had been in Raleigh with Bernie Sanders and Pharell; she’s been sticking to cosmopolitan urban areas. Trump has been staking out rural communities, former manufacturing towns, farming communities, and military bases where white Republicans predominate.
Early Thursday morning I was driving and listening to talk radio. A lady preacher tried to convince her listeners that God, ever vigilant against sin, wants Trump to win. On another station, Glenn Beck came on. He’s terrified of a Trump victory, convinced he’ll be on his enemies list: “Better the devil you know then the devil you don’t,” he said, practically endorsing Hillary. (I almost found myself nodding along until he launched into a rant against Trump’s secret plan to instate universal health care.) On NPR, a panel of scholars discussed voter suppression in the South—North Carolina officials have purged the rolls of thousands of black voters in recent weeks, a strategy that complements the unprecedented gerrymandering of the past few years—and the recent arson of a black church in Mississippi. The charred remains bore the graffitied phrase, vote trump.
Listing to the radio, the world seems so divided. I don’t know why, but I wanted to see Trump’s supporters in their element, to get a sense of whether and how the growing gulf might be bridged. After all, I believe their grievances against corporate Democrats, free trade, and a stagnating economy are completely legitimate, though I remain astonished that they latched onto a narcissistic plutocrat to express them. I checked Trump’s website and saw a rally was starting in two hours. I signed up to attend. Some of my liberal friends would be aghast at the mere thought of attending such an event, but I’ve always bristled at overblown Nazi analogies and references to fascism. I headed out alone.
I pulled up to a giant field, flanked by American flags held by cranes. A bizarre Rolling Stones soundtrack blared on loop: “You Can’t Always Get What You Want” (like the presidency, I prayed) and “Let’s Spend The Night Together” (OK, one night if we must, but please not four years). I went through the metal detectors.
Overhead the Jumbotrons scrolled through a series of infographics and slogans:
Don’t let establishment elites buy the election
Wall St. is with her
She got $48.5 million from Wall St. hedge funds
The Jumbotron messages hurt my head. I’m almost shocked they didn’t invoke the 1 percent. It was populism gone wrong, though historically it’s gone this way before—the rightwing version has always been more robust than its leftwing foil. A few months ago Trump had rallied in Wilmington, North Carolina, the site of America’s only and largely forgotten coup. In 1898, in the waning days of Reconstruction, rioting whi
I scanned the crowd. These were my family’s neighbors, the kind of people I went to high school with, people I’ve regularly encountered but never really known. I wandered around awkwardly, thinking about the left’s shortcomings, missed opportunities. Shouldn’t many of these folks have been with Bernie? Maybe some of them were, at one point.
When the speeches began, things shifted. Two teenagers in the audience—two of six people of color I saw in the crowd of over 10,000, none of them black—registered some discontent as Trump took the stage. Whatever they said wasn’t loud, dramatic, or disruptive enough for me to hear or see from fifteen feet away, but it was enough to transform the immediate crowd into a mob. The kids were violently attacked by a group of guys, and onlookers swarmed to join in or cheer from the sidelines. The man next to me gloated about how “the Mexicans” got beat, and his wife smiled approvingly.
They got the crap kicked out of them. The switch from families milling about to an apoplectic, racist horde was instantaneous. I can’t think of another word—it was chilling. Nothing you haven’t seen on YouTube, but depressing and scary and surreal to be in the midst of it.
That got people’s blood pumping. From there it was the usual chants of “build the wall” and “USA” and “lock her up” whenever missing emails got mentioned. They really, truly loved the riff against Syrian refugees: Did we know Syrians are being let in in droves? That Hillary wants to fling the doors open even wider than the Muslim-sympathizing Obama already has? No matter that only 10,000 refugees have been resettled, a minuscule number for a country with a population of more than 300 million; no matter that these people are overwhelmingly fleeing terrorism and ISIS, who Trump promised to get rid of “fast.” He paused to praise the military men seated on the stage behind him, but then made clear that while they were heroes, he was “financially brave.” Then he insulted the media, while the satellite trucks dotting the horizon beamed his image around the world, increasing his fame and amplifying his talking points. The guy selling posters of Hillary’s face for use as target practice winked at me. I decided to leave early to beat the traffic and save my sanity.
On the way home, I stopped at a health food store. Maybe I needed to bask in liberalness, in organic produce and probiotic beverages. But then I got into it with a guy who worked in the vitamin section, and that’s when I really began to feel we may be doomed.
Trump and Hilary are equally bad, he said. They are both bad I said, yes, but not equally, in my opinion. I described the scene I had just witnessed, the kids being mauled. He disagreed. Trump is racist and terrible in many ways—but he’s heard Hillary is gonna mandate vaccines.
After more than a year of electioneering torture, this is what we have to show for it: missing emails, mob violence, and imaginary vaccination conspiracies. The rage of the Trump crowd had rubbed off on me. I wanted to slap him with a bunch of locally grown kale. Instead I said good night and went home.