Florida Man Goes Undercover at a Trump Rally
Pretending to be a Trump Supporter Almost Broke my Brain
The first thing I saw of him was his hair. I was sitting three rows up from the floor, stage right, not too far from his official arena entrance, and all I could make out at first was that hay-bale of his as it lingered and floated around seemingly three feet above his body. He was loitering and moving to and fro in the entrance hall, shaking hands — once done he strutted confidently out on stage while the arena sound system blasted a bass-heavy tone at bone-rattling volume, a hell-found sound somewhere between the THX System Test and a 2010 dubstep drop.
I’d gone in to get to know people — my ordinary life just doesn’t give me much in the way of opportunity to engage with Trump supporters, much less to see how they interact with each other in a space specifically made for them. I got to learn a lot, much more than I bargained for and at an emotional price that I just wasn’t prepared to pay, and by the time Trump himself took the stage I had already reached my internal breaking point. As he paced the platform and smiled and waved the crowd leaped to its feet and roared, waving campaign-provided signs that said “The Silent Majority Stands With Trump”, a sign which given the deafening volume of screams that slammed into my ears made absolutely no sense to me. As the throng heaved and boomed I clapped and nodded but made no noise myself. To my right, Eugene, my best friend for the day, was hopping up and down and yelling so hard his voice cracked. Mid hop he grabbed my shoulder and shook me back and forth, addressing his yells directly to me — “That’s our next President! That’s our next President!”, and it was on the third repetition of that goddamned phrase that the light finally faded from my eyes.
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I’d spent the better part of the prior week helping organize the anti-Trump protest still going on outside. That morning, at dawn, the team leaders had broken bread together at a nearby IHOP, and it was a beautiful moment of unity. A full spectrum of political persuasion was sitting there together, sharing laughs and clinking coffee cups. Hillary-liberals and Rubio-conservatives, anarcho-capitalists and full-on Communists, you-name-it and you-name-it’s-opposite, all ready to stand together to show that we don’t need to Make America Great Again because it already is great, that We Make America Great, that diversity and solidarity are the very foundation of our nation. E Pluribus Unum.
We finished our meal and headed to the rally to set things up. I pitched in where I could for a bit before seeing the line for the rally itself filling up fast, so I jumped in a port-a-potty and changed my shirt and threw on a borrowed Trump hat and — after hugging a few of my fellow organizers-calmly walked across the street.
Here’s a picture that was taken of me:
This picture was taken by a reporter for the Orlando Sentinel who threw it online as their leading picture for their liveblog of the day. I guess I’d kind of asked for it — “Florida Man” is a fairly popular meme, the man himself being the generic and abstract subject of headlines such as “Florida Man throws a live gator through a Wendy’s drive-thru” or Florida Man breaks into house, poops on the floor, drinks contents of vacuum cleaner, masturbates.
You get the idea.
I found out that my face had gotten tossed online several hours after the fact — I jumped in the comments to explain myself but not everyone read what I had to say, so I was getting digital heat from Trump opponents who didn’t read what I’d said and from Trump supporters who did.
The other early press encounter to stick out in my memory was when I was approached in line by a young black woman with a microphone to ask me what my message was, what I wanted to say to the people of America. I whipped off the hat and leaned in close and explained in a very low voice what I was really up to, but what stuck with me since then was the look in her eye and overall vibe as she walked up to me — there was a glint of intimidation there, some mixture of repulsion and fear, a look I’d never seen anyone give me before. I’m a white guy of perfectly average wardrobe and build who hangs out in friendly academic/technology circles, I’ve never had someone look at me like I drag black people behind trucks and lynch them for sport. Along related lines, my whiteness has spared me the looks that white people in America give, well, almost everyone else — black men, for example, are looked at like they’re unstoppable criminal juggernauts who can and do absorb dozens of bullets while decapitating cop after cop with their bare hands, like they’ve got the intelligence and strength and emotional disposition of a shaved and rabid gorilla. An ambient atmosphere of racial violence was just something I’d never even *witnessed* before in my young and lucky life, much less something I’d gotten myself involved in.
So, great. My disguise worked, at least superficially, and in ways that I wasn’t exactly happy about. I didn’t know it yet but I wouldn’t be happy about the rest of it either. At the time, though, standing in line, I was anticipating the real test, the feat of talking to Trump supporters like I was one of their own and couldn’t wait for Trump to win.
The doors opened up and I got inside after the predictable pat-down by heavily-armored secret service agents. I wanted to get really close to the stage so I ran up the stairs and went as far left as I could (it felt good given my real-life politics) and went on down to the front row of seats only to find that they’d been blocked off — the first two rows were for Trump’s VIP section, he’d be making his entrance from the corridor immediately to the left of where I was then sitting. I got one row behind them. Score. I sighed and settled in and looked around for sociable-looking people that I might get to talk to, but before I could make a move a man sat down next to me and smiled and introduced himself. Let’s call him Eugene.
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Eugene was a paunchy man in his mid-thirties with an all-white Trump hat and a raccoon-eye sunburn and a large white shirt with a bunch of different fish on it. He was missing his canine teeth, the rest were stained the kind of yellow that makes people hit the brakes at traffic lights. This was his third Trump rally and he was just as excited as he had been at his first.
My game plan had been to start off with a super-simple character to play, an excited but sort of clueless dude who just loved how Trump’s a real winner who tells it like it is. I was going to absorb the talking points and motivations of the people I met as I went along, hopefully walking out of the rally with some intuition for who they are as human beings. I wanted to be able to humanize them, to prevent myself and others from falling into the tempting trap of rejecting all opponents (especially these) as subhuman reprobates who don’t deserve to be reached out to to be persuaded and informed. On the flipside of that coin I also wanted to gain some insight into what anti-Trump tactics might actually be effective.
Recognition precedes persuasion.
Anyways, at that early point my Trump-guy character was a blank slate, driven by vacant enthusiasm yet eager to know more. I expressed as much to Eugene. I marveled at the size of the auditorium and how I couldn’t wait to see it filled, to hear the roar at full volume. I knew there had to be something to the guy if he was this popular and I couldn’t wait to see it with my own eyes, a stone’s throw away. I asked about Eugene, what he liked about Trump, what brought him here, why he stood in line so early to get these good seats.
I got the exact same thing in response.
My heart sank as I realized that my shallow idealized caricature of a Trump supporter was in fact exactly what was getting thrown right back at me. I wondered for a moment if this guy was fooling me too but his reactions later struck me as hideously sincere. No, that was it. The only new information I got was when I asked about his feelings towards Trump’s fraudulent and failed business past and other such stuff that should, I’d hoped, perforate the image of Trump as some kind of unstoppable success. “That’s just those people talkin’” he told me, pointing a finger at the press cameras in the middle of the room and then wagging the finger in a no-no way. “They’ll say whatever to stop him, but it won’t work. They can’t lie no more. Trump’s gonna give’m hell in a few hours, just you wait.” He whacked my arm and nodded at me with a dark excitement in his eyes.
He wound up getting to be pretty happy that I was there, excited that someone like me was on his team. I started to worry if I were really doing the right thing right now — it would be one thing if I were just a fly on the wall, but I was actually talking to people and making them feel recognized as Trump supporters. Eugene was going to walk away from the rally with more pro-Trump political energy than if I’d stayed with the protest or even just headed home.
I stayed resolved. I wanted to know Trump supporters and know the Trump movement on its own terms and that was what I was going to do.
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Pre-speakers started to come on. One woman was an evangelical pastor in bleached-blond hair and a skin-tight orange dress with orange high-heels to match, looking like a Fox News hostess wearing an Oompa Loompa that she’d shot on safari. She made some sort of case that Donald Trump was privately holy and a true man of God. Whatever. A few forgettable policy guys in suits came out to explain how Marco Rubio’s positions were disastrous for Florida and disastrous for the country, especially on immigration. One classically mom-dressed woman came out and described her teen son’s murder at the hands of an illegal Mexican immigrant, narrating the murder scene in graphic and gory detail, talking it up about how her son really put up a fight and took a long, long time to die.
The arena was filling up. During one of the boring policy guys I got hungry and asked Eugene to hold my seat, as I’d done for him at an earlier time when he’d hit up the bathroom. The CFE Arena lobby is glass from floor to ceiling at its front wall, the protest outside was growing larger and closer and impossible to miss. I picked the concession booth closest to the front with as clear a view of my friends outside as I could get, waiting in line and also seeing who nearby looked like they might talk to me. I wanted someone of a different demographic, which given the parameters of the event basically just meant someone of a different age and/or gender. I found an older man waiting in line behind me in a button-down white shirt and dress slacks and well-shined dress shoes. He had short grey hair and a Trump hat of his own. I’ll call him Frank.
Frank turned out to be a flat-out racist.
I opened by telling him that I was frustrated by my inability to convince my college-aged peers to vote for Trump and could he help me out, and he told me that they were all lost and not to even bother. See, it all went back to the events of 1954- are you paying attention? 1954, three events. Sputnik. The Highway Bill. And Brown vs. the Board of Education. Sputnik really put the flame under our ass and the government dumped money into schools like we’d never seen. The Highway Bill made it so that people could get in and out of cities like never before, which given how Brown mixed the races made the Coloreds run for the cities and the Whites run for the suburbs. The Coloreds kept chasing the Whites and the Whites kept trying to keep space of their own but of course the government wouldn’t have it. That’s why you had affirmative action tied in with all the new government money for education. That’s why you had this illusion that the races are equal in intelligence, because the government forced that upon us, taking our children from their families for 8 hours a day and choking them on that lie. Now let me ask you- those.. ‘people’ out there — here his lips curled a little and he cast a slow and dismissive backhand towards the mixed race protest going on outside, their chants dimly audible— do you really think any one of them would actually earn a degree if there weren’t these quotas? How many really? One in a thousand? One in a hundred thousand?
I squirmed and glanced at the ground.
Uh actually a lot of them are really smart, they work hard and do well and some are my fr-
Look at me and tell me that you really believe that.
He grabbed my upper arm.
God didn’t give you those blue eyes to make you blind.
“Sir, that’ll be $7.99. Cash or charge?”
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I took my nachos and imitation cheese-like substance and hurried away back to the stands, excusing myself from Frank and thanking him for his time, my blood running so cold it was practically causing the hot cheese-ooze to freeze and shatter in my hand. These Trump people are a grabby bunch. I rubbed my grabbed arm as I power-walked to the section entrance, less to ease any ambient pain as much to just replace the impression with something that felt relatable and kind.
I’d come close to actually expressing myself, to sticking up for the intelligence and humanity of my non-white friends, and had gotten an unkind touch in response. I despaired that I had gotten myself into this and that I still had hours of this to go.
I got back to the stands to the deafening boos of the crowd, now filling out the entire stadium. On stage were a handful of people holding up pictures of kids killed by immigrants and the crowd was going insane. Their violence could only be stopped by our violence and finally someone had the guts to say it.
I recovered my resolve as I ate. I was going to stick to the purpose that walked me in the door no matter what.
I shared some nachos with Eugene.
The preamble-acts wrapped up and according to Trump’s twitter feed he was still a fair ways away, so I figured I’d try and talk to at least one more person before the main act itself. Several full-crowd Waves were going around at surprising speed. I was curious to find a Trump family and especially to find a woman to talk to, and luckily enough I found what I wanted one row back and a few seats to my left. I offered the folks around me some nachos too and that’s how I introduced myself to (we’ll call her) Irene.
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Irene was a lean, hard-looking woman who looked to be in her late 40s with a gray pony tail and torn blue jeans and a Big Dogs graphic tee. In a crueler mood I’d guess that she’d spent the past two decades consuming nothing but Coors Lite and unfiltered cigarettes. She was sitting by two already-balding kids in matching camo t-shirts so I figured she’d be as good a person to ask about family as any.
After I said hi I said I was looking for help in persuading my family members to come around for Trump since some of them (truthfully! distant relatives) were voting for Cruz.
“Fuck your family. If they gave a shit about this country they’d be here too.” She gestured to her camo-clad sons. They looked like potatoes cross-bred with human thumbs.
She took two nachos and dipped them in the cheese. She had some burning look of angry victory in her yellowed eyes. She’d found someone lower than her.
I turned around and sat down hard, visibly deflated. I love my family. My mother and father made a big point to take my sister and I on international trips for as long as I can remember, trips which gave me an appreciation for multiculturalism from a very young age. I feel incredibly lucky to have the parents that I’ve had, incredibly appreciative of the hard work they’ve done to launch me into life in the direction I’m going, and I’d found the one vulnerability I really had at that rally. I’d felt like a coward for not defending my friends to a white supremacist, but that particular pain was internal — this woman had actually managed to poke a hole in me from the outside, and she was gloating over me for it.
Eugene bent down- “Hey man, you okay?”
I told him, partially. He did his best to console me. “Yeah I know, my family came with me to the last two, they couldn’t make it out to this’n’. Sucks to have folks who just won’t listen.”
It wasn’t that my family had been unjustly cursed-Eugene felt sorry for me because my family was frankly worthy of contempt.
I was not emotionally prepared for this. I am not a good person here.
I should leave. I can’t-
“LADIES AND GENTLEMEN, MR. DONALD J TRUMP!”
The hair, the bass tone, the cheers, the waves. A grab on my shoulder. One time, two times, three times, “That’s our next President!”.
Some deep part of me, some primordial and innocent part of me that I never knew was there until that very instant, closed its eyes and died.
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Trump took the stage for an energetic and apparently unscripted hour and a half. The first protester-disruption happened about ten minutes in, and Trump handled it like he handled the nine more disruptions over the course of the event — he’d calmly stop talking and walk to the edge of the stage closest to the disruption and stand there, staring right at them as they were grabbed and dragged away and thrown into the street. Sometimes he’d say “get ’em outta here” but he didn’t have to say it, people knew what to do. People wanted to do it. Then he’d pick right back up where he left off without missing a beat. It was a compelling display of power — Trump just standing there and watching as a dissenting voice grew dimmer with distance and got drowned out by jeers.
If you were with Trump every single suppressed disruption made you feel like a winner.
At the third disruption Trump called attention to the press — he said he loved his protesters because those moments were the only times when the cameras would pan out to show the whole crowd. He commanded the cameras at the press island to zoom out and turn around to show the crowd, right now. The men and women behind the cameras exchanged wide-eyed looks and shrugs and did nothing. Trump called them liars, cowards, snakes. The whole amphitheater turned to them and booed, cursing them, throwing up double middle-fingers. Trump said the press, those people right there, were one of the biggest things opposing him, they were aligned against him and would never allow the truth to get out as long as people like them were in charge. But we knew the truth.
He made a few gestures here and there towards saying ‘conservative’, saying ‘christian’, saying ‘repeal and replace Obamacare’, but those words didn’t really mean anything to the people there. They were vacant terms of in-group endearment, Trump could throw them around however he wanted as long as he won, since when he wins we win with him. All he had to do was push the correct right-wing word-buttons and the audience would know he was on their side, that he would annihilate their enemies on a scale that they could never imagine.
ISIS doesn’t play by the laws, so we’re gonna have to change the laws. These people lying about me don’t play by the rules, so we’re gonna have to change the rules. There used to be consequences and there will be consequences again. Muslim terrorists, Mexican rapists, spoiled college protesters and the lying press that supports them are all going to get what’s coming to them.
The deepest irony of the whole thing was being surrounded by people who mock underprivileged minorities for seeking autonomous ‘safe spaces’ while crying for the government to build a literal wall around them all and kill every single person they’re afraid of.
I was there the first time Trump pulled out his “raise your right hand and make an oath” trick, and as soon as he said that I took off the hat, took off the pin on my shirt, put down the campaign-provided sign, standing there with my arms crossed. I’d just been unreactively standing there the whole time but I couldn’t even wear the costume anymore. The oath wasn’t super-smooth in its execution for the rally— Trump had people raise their right hand and repeat after him, then he’d go too fast or say things that were too long for people to really repeat accurately. You could see some subtle satisfaction on Trump’s face as he did this — nobody in the world has more contempt for Trump supporters than Donald J. Trump himself.
My phone died and the only friends I recognized in the audience got fed up and left and then I was left alone, more alone than I’d ever really felt before in my life, as deep as I could get in enemy territory and unable to express what I really felt or thought or else I’d get my ass kicked in spectacular fashion in front of a roaring crowd. The throng morphed into a half boa constrictor half Human Centipede, each cheer tightening the room’s silent grip on my lungs until I couldn’t even imagine screaming.
The show ended. Trump had spend most of his time trashing Marco Rubio — “Little Marco” — and the crowd was more amped than ever to see that trashing through. Trump is a showman, exceptional at getting people excited about what he says. Getting through it while pretending to partially enjoy it and then without shrieking in protest was one of the most emotionally exhausting things I’d done in my entire life, and as soon as he took his first step offstage I bolted past Eugene (“hey man, you good?” — “naw, just feelin’ sick” I responded, meaning it) and I slithered between people and rushed outside as fast as I could, collapsing to my knees and clutching the astroturf immediately outside the arena. After all of that the astroturf itself felt refreshingly stable and real. The protesters were still there, holding signs and chanting, and Trump supporters raised their signs and yelled right back as they walked by.
I went in to find humanity and common ground with people who openly support the violent domination of lesser human beings. I witnessed the violent domination of (to them) lesser human beings in real time and the exhilaration the crowd felt that it could finally openly happen. I felt how everyone around me grew emboldened in a primordial way to carry forth their violent agenda both at the polls and not, and after the rally I felt defeated and afraid.
The whole thing made me physically sick, I spent the better part of a week coughing up greed-green phlegm and not wanting to talk to anybody.
My lungs have since cleared, life has happened, and my spirits have lifted — nevertheless there’s some hole in me now that can only be filled by bringing three simple words to life: