Donald Trump’s Pensacola Freedom Orgy

“It’s all about Mr. Trump making president so we can get America back, get pride back and keep the foreign countries out of here, the Third World countries out of here and get our pride back and show who we are. We are the freedom fighters of the world.”

This is an actual verbatim quote from the vaunted Donald Trump rally on January 13 in Pensacola, Florida now famous for introducing the world to the bizarre pre-adolescent gyrations of the USA Freedom Kids. These words were not the musings of a Wild Turkey drunk Trumper spouting off to the media in the arena parking lot beside his lifted truck. Neither were these utterances overheard in between sly toe taps in locked bathroom stalls. Nor did this iconic sound bite slither out from the earnest lips of a harsh seven-year-old audience member.

Instead we have Gary O’Neal to thank for this rummage sale of jumbled xenophobia and failed grammar. When he took the lectern about forty-five minutes into the event, O’Neal immediately touted his Rambo meets Lt. Dan credentials for preaching a rabid form of American exceptionalism. His ancestors, after all, had fought in every war since the Revolution. A hereditary obligation that apparently qualified O’Neal to remark,

“We’re the greatest country that ever walked the face of this earth. We’re the greatest fighters. I’ll fight anybody who says different. I’ve shed blood on seven continents.”

His words speak to me. And not just because he looks like a muscle bound Kenny Powers in his all black suit with requisite Stetson hat brim shadow masking his eyes. What’s compelling about Gary O’Neal’s moment of fame on stage at the Pensacola Bay Center is that the audience loved his machine gun staccato imagery. They were entirely on board with the idea of a rogue, Godzilla-like America stomping across the globe with Mr. O’Neal along to waste some penguins in Antarctica for the Star Spangled Banner.

Full disclosure: I was not on hand last Tuesday to witness the Trump circus rolling in to town. I have spent enough time in the perpetually air-conditioned Deep South to recognize the weary, long-suffering eyes of a heat battered people. I empathize with the audience on a sensory level. Public space in the South is perfumed with the familiar scent of musty flatulence and obsequious cleaning fluid that comes with unending humidity.

There, tucked away on the far Western expanse of the Florida panhandle, 51,000 people call Pensacola home with another 250,000 or so spread across Escambia County. Pensacola proudly refers to itself as the home of Navy aviation. The Naval Flight School and its regal crop of Blue Angels is located just southwest of the city itself. Eastwards across Backwater Bay and the Okaloosa County line, you’ll find Eglin Air Force Base. The relative strength of local military installations with their exchanges, commissaries and other post services as well as a local cost of living far below the national average makes the greater Pensacola metropolitan region a hot bed for military retirees.

Trump’s advance team is not stupid. A concentration of ready and willing military families, first amongst the disenfranchised demographics of American conservatism, is to the Trump machine what a vast pool of stagnant, warm water would be to the ordinary crop of blood sucking organisms that frequent Florida — mosquitos.

The folksy pomp and circumstance preceding Donald Trump’s “Eye of the Tiger” accompanied appearance played like a carefully calculated attempt to disinter the ghosts of the Vietnam War and rig them to shuck and jive on stage Weekend at Bernie’s style for the political benefit of a well-groomed, shit-slinging real estate mogul whose closest call with military service was a stint at the New York Military Academy.

Never mind that the Donald missed out on America’s decade long excursion to Southeast Asia due to a most fortuitous bone spur on one foot, the American military establishment showed up in force on Tuesday to wave the bloody shirt. Though no one could quite best Gary O’Neal’s poignant story about a pocket copy of the Constitution stopping a would-be lethal bullet meant for his heart somewhere on the Ho Chi Minh Trail in ’69, at least three other speakers invoked their personal relationships to the Vietnam War.

Potentially most out of touch was former POW Capt. Allen C. Brady, (U.S.N. ret.). The former naval aviator spent over six years in the infamous Hanoi Hilton where he and his fellow prisoners took a mutual pledge to “return with honor.” Stumping for Trump, Brady decried President Obama’s lenient stance on this year’s Serial fetish, accused Army deserter Bowe Bergdahl. Calling on kindred spirit Donald Trump as a “great family man” and generously identifying the rally’s audience as “intelligent people like you,” Brady went on to inexplicably weave Trump into an ally for POWs. With no apparent nod to irony, Brady spat, “Donald Trump and I have very different ideas than Mr. Obama about what it really means to serve with distinction.” Brady was apparently in the midst of a deep flashback in July of last year when Mr. Trump trounced on Brady’s former fellow Hanoi Hilton POW, Sen. John McCain. “He’s not a war hero. He was a war hero because he was captured. I like people who weren’t captured.”

Vietnam veteran and Escambia County Utilities Authority honcho Terry Busby Sr. wore his service lightly. He instead chose to conjure a unifying sense of “redneck pride.” His appeal was geared towards an older generation of Dixiecrats who presumably needed the illuminating power of Busby’s wisdom to inform them that the Democratic Party was no longer in the business of representing America’s yokel districts. With the strength of his Veteran status, the comparably sage old Busby advised his fellow loyal Floridians to go on down and register as Republican so they could score some hits for Trump in the state primary.

Meanwhile, Kat Gates Skipper, the “first female Marine in combat,” eschewed her own military record to instead focus on her husband’s trials with the VA after his service in Vietnam. She was angry, darn it, that some vets had to drive hundreds of miles when it was the government’s responsibility to provide those services locally. The axe she took to whetstone sounded suspiciously like it belonged on the laundry list of government spending a GOP Congress refused to endorse. When dressed up with a little red, white and blue sparkle and a “yes to vets” ethos, Skipper’s call to arms for the Veterans of America fit right in as another seemingly natural plank in Trump’s omnibus anger machine.

Just when the profusion of jingoistic hate felt like it would boil through the slick coat of patriotic paint the Trump campaign shellacs on to their platform of cognitive dissonance, those packed into the Pensacola Ice Flyers’ home arena were treated to one of the most bizarre spectacles in recent political memory.

I have now watched the USA Freedom Kids video more times than the Zapruder Film and I can confirm that the trio of pint-sized girls recycling a re-imagined, bootleg beat box version of WWI propaganda ditty “Over There” fills my heart with as much foreboding for the future of America as the site of a dum dum round colliding with Jack’s head after a ginger trigger pull from a French assassin in hundred dollar shoes.

Watch it again with me. Three girls, age eight to eleven, dressed in white cowboy boots and red, white and blue sequined cheerleader outfits mount the stage. The beat swells. The girls light into a routine of carefully choreographed heartland dance steps that garnish a sloppy helping of propaganda platitudes plucked straight from the Donald’s playbook. “Apologies for freedom? I can’t handle this.” “Enemies of freedom face the music. Come on, boys. Take them down. President Donald Trump knows how to make America great. Deal from strength or get crushed down every time.” Finally the call to action, “we have to stand up tall and answer freedom’s call.”

Here it is: a living, breathing, singing, dancing metaphor for the entire Trump movement. A group of children who have had their collective innocence exploited by an ex-Dukes of Hazard stunt driver who has dressed them up in Branson, Missouri style American flag outfits and posed them in front of a camera where they can lip sync to a prerecorded track of platitudes that repetitively tout conservative moral authority bulwarked by black and white, right and wrong assessments grounded in a toxic waste pit of political reductionism and set to a routine of choreography that looks as if it belongs in a post-aneurysm rehabilitation program.

In the ensuing shit storm of commentary, the group’s lyricist, producer, choreographer and presumptive costumer Jeff Popick has stoutly defended the trio (which happens to include his eight-year-old daughter Alexis). “We have our supporters and those are the people we love. These girls and I are celebrating freedom. That’s what this is. So are you on the side of freedom or are you not?”

That word again. “Freedom.” It is the golden tuning fork wielded by pied pipers and charlatans alike to realign a vast demographic of people who fundamentally crave simplicity. Since the birth of the steam engine and the rapid march of industrialism a ceaseless parade of phony advocacy has tried to wield the hate and frustration of an American underclass that has been zapped and eroded time and time again by future shock. The playbook is simple: play off of differences, vilify anyone who can be made to appear as other, stress moral purity, canonize simplicity, decry any sort of establishment within convenient hating distance, code power with subtle signs of sex, convert a foundation of fear to its stronger, more virile corollary — military power. When in doubt, capitalize on deeply ambiguous ideological symbols such as “freedom,” re-appropriate historical moments as examples of conservative triumph and constantly wave the red, white and blue.

On the shores of the Gulf of Mexico, Donald Trump found the perfect incarnation of the brash body politic he loves to leverage. In the face of an increasingly complex society with an education based service economy stocked to the brim with diminishing hopes, few things are as enchanting as a patriotic dress-up game to support a con man who promises nothing more than an abstract “freedom” that only seems logical and appealing to a segment who were thrown off the establishment bus years ago and whose only subsequent efforts to get back on board the relevance train involve clutching at a gun and taking pot shots at the passing Express. How’s that for an emblem?

Hyperbolic Hitler comparisons aside, it’s worth noting that the rise of fascism in Weimar Germany was built on the bedrock support of “freikorps,” paramilitary groups of ex-German soldiers who widely attributed their nation’s wartime failure to betrayal from categorical domestic enemies: Jews and Communists. Nowhere has this comparison been as lucidly illustrated than Pensacola where the Vietnam shibboleth stood as a reminder that liberal protestors, radicals, socialists and dissenters of all stripes robbed the invincible American military of a victory in Southeast Asia.

This same convenient reductionism is textbook Reagan. Tack on a few references to Nixon’s “silent majority” and you’ve got a Trump campaign playbook that reads like a best of conservative bull shit ticker tape parade stocked with empty signs, threadbare platitudes and potent patriotic imagery.

Are you a Christian fighting back against the war on Christmas? Event MC George Scarborough would like you to know that Mr. Trump “thumbs his nose to politically correct cultures (underline is mine because holy god, that use of the plural) and promotes Judeo-Christian values.” Worried that the horde of armed urban thugs is coming to a town near you? Firearm marketing luminary and spokeswoman for “Liberal Tears Gun Oil” Clover Lawson stands with Trump in saying that “all women and all Americans should have the ability to protect their families. Period.” Alarmed that God might have it out for your sinful country? Hickory Hammock Baptist Church Pastor Carl Gallups are on the same page. Without a trace of irony he dropped, “we long for a new birth of sanity and truth among our leaders” at a Trump rally of all places. Do you stay up at night worrying about global terror coming to American shores? Do you pronounce 9/11 as 9–1–1? Do you see the world purely in terms of us and them? Gary O’Neal would like to remind you, on behalf of the Donald, that “there are two types of people in the world: those who want to be Americans and those who want to destroy us.”

Never mind that the Donald’s first remarks upon hitting the stage were to call the press, his only fact checkers, “dishonest, bad people.” Forget his jibe that “we don’t win anymore.” Fuck the fact that he invoked Iran, the Paris attacks and an apparently deeply significant (if not audience resonating) trade deal with Vietnam.

Donald Trump is magnificently terrifying to reasonable Americans because his popularity, win or lose, illuminates a massive strata of voting, gun toting Americans who want desperately to be told that their binary values are valid. They want someone to annunciate for them what they know in their heart of hearts: that they and their prejudices and their lust for violence and their stalwart refusal to take part in a complex world of political moving parts puts them in league with the men who waited for the British, guns in hand at Concord Bridge.

Does The Donald actually believe the shit he says? Who knows. They believe him and that’s what matters.

God help America.