Gonzo dispatches from the New Hampshire primary

“Passing” through Trump’s America

KEENE, N.H. — The young woman lies in wait as Ted Cruz exits his campaign bus — “CRUZIN’ TO VICTORY” embossed in fire and brimstone red against the matte black finish. He nods at us, his lips concealing a hint of a smile that looks more like a smirk with every passing second.

“Senator Cruz,” she calls out.

They’re now walking side by side.

“I’m undocumented. Will you deport me?”

Without skipping a beat, he meets her gaze. “I will enforce the law,” he says.

Then he’s gone, disappearing into the back entrance of Pedraza’s Mexican Restaurant in Keene, New Hampshire.

It’s Sunday, February 6th, and the primary is in two days.

Ted Cruz “will enforce the law”

The restaurant is packed as I squeeze my way in, closer and closer, until Cruz is less than twenty feet away. This is my second campaign event since arriving in the state earlier that morning.

Cruz’s smirk seems to be frozen on his face as he goes through his stump speech. “I like to say, regulators are like weeds and the only difference is that you can’t use pesticide on regulators.”

The mostly white, older crowd laughs, but Cruz is saving the best for last.

“Once I told that story to an audience in Texas, and a farmer came up to me afterwards and asked, ‘Are you sure about that?’” The audience eats it all up. A few minutes later, he jokes about gun control meaning “hitting what you aim at.”

The room is awash in laughter, and I join in, uncomfortably. Then the topic changes. “We will defeat radical Islamic terrorism,” Cruz says.

I never know how to behave at these things. “I’m a journalist, not a protester,” I tell myself. But part of me is afraid that by being here, my silence might be mistaken for agreement, that playing the gonzo journalist card is merely a form of passing.

Later that day, when I post a picture of myself with Cruz on Facebook, it’s met with instant revulsion by my friends. One of my graduate school classmates is especially charitable when she comments, “Only your presence could actually make the man look vaguely normal & less punchable than usual!” One of my libertarian friends is less kind, responding “He wants to deport you haha.”

As a Muslim American, my faith has become an unavoidable part of this election season. This is a big part of why I went to New Hampshire. It’s one to thing to hear on TV that Trump is winning. It’s another thing to drive through towns where 80% of the houses have lawn signs screaming TRUMP. Islamophobia is real, yes, but Islamophobes are real people. Is it naïve to think that I could understand them?

Back in Keene, the Ted Cruz event is over. Accompanying me is Dustin Wei, a physics prodigy and high school student from Chicago. We became friends earlier this year after a professor of mine who had been a mentor to Dustin passed away after a lengthy battle with cancer. When I told Dustin I was going to New Hampshire, he insisted on joining me and even convinced his social studies teacher to give him extra credit for missing school.

He tells me that when Cruz was talking about North Korea in the restaurant, he could feel people glaring at him. This will be a common experience during the next few days.

After the event, we’re walking back to our car when we spot a comic book shop — “Comic Boom.” Inside, we meet Gibson, 25, the store’s manager and a Bernie Sanders supporter.

I ask him if he’s surprised that Ted Cruz was able to gather over 100 supporters in his town.

“You see people driving around, a lot of them are high school kids, in trucks with confederate flags,” he tells me. I ask him if he’s worried a Trump or Cruz victory will tarnish New Hampshire’s reputation.

“What reputation?” he asks.

Rubio is “good looking but has no substance”

The next day, our first event is a Marco Rubio town hall in Goffstown. It’s snowing heavily by the time we arrive. We see his bus outside the restaurant and park down the street at the ACE Hardware store. We hear chants of “MARCO MARCO” as we squeeze past a few Rand Paul protesters into the venue. There he is: Marco.

It’s hard for me to concentrate on what he’s saying — the memory of his debate performance keeps playing in my head and I feel ridiculously sorry for the dude. He’s not a religious fanatic like Cruz. He’s not a grandfatherly policy wonk like Kasich. He’s just a good looking dude who wants to be president and likes dispelling notions.

Can’t a guy catch a break?

His remarks are short, maybe 5 minutes tops, then it’s a mad rush of groupies wanting to take pictures and ask questions. I blend in with a gaggle of photographers. One of his staffers turns to me and asks, “How did you hear about this?” I have no idea she’s a staffer so I start telling her about the New Hampshire candidate tracker website. She’s not happy.

“This was supposed to be open to pool only. Who are you with?”

“I freelance for The Huffington Post,” I tell her, although I haven’t written for HuffPo in almost five years. “Yeah, you guys have a pool person,” she tells me.

I pretend I have no idea what she’s talking about and try to change the topic.

“How long have you been working on the campaign?” I ask. “Since December,” she says.

“What are you going to do when he drops out?” I ask. Her mouth opens in shock, either at my impertinence, or because she actually thinks the dude has a chance of winning.

“When he drops out??” The conversation is over. Unfortunately, she’s still standing in front of me and Marco is only ten feet away.

I grab Dustin and step around her to position myself right next to Marco. His body man is not happy and looks at me suspiciously. “Excuse me, Senator” I call out. Marco turns around and we make eye contact but a family approaches him from the other side asking for a picture.

“Hang on,” the body man says, “he’ll get to everyone, just be patient.” The family is done and Marco looks back to me. I extend my hand and introduce Dustin.

“Dustin is in high school, Senator. He wants to be a reporter.” Marco is a natural and his charm is overflowing. “Oh, haha, you should be a blogger, they make a lot more.” We take a picture. I ask him why Dustin shouldn’t be a senator and he laughs and shakes his head in mock horror. “Don’t be a senator.”

Dustin and I are grinning ear to ear as we walk away. Oh shit, it’s staffer girl again.

“So you asked me when he’s dropping out and then you took a picture with him??” She seems genuinely confused. “It’s called gonzo journalism,” I tell her. She shakes her head and walks away.

The crowd is thinning and I spot a dark-skinned girl standing idly by the entrance while clutching a bottle of Dasani. “Have you decided who you’re voting for?” I ask. She smiles and shakes her head, telling me she’s with the French version of CNN. Her name is Mounira and she lives in France and is of Algerian-Saudi descent.

I ask her to give me a quote. “Rubio is good looking but he has no substance,” she says. Did she really need to come 3,000 miles to figure that out, I wonder to myself. She’s been going to all of the events and tells me the Trump campaign has been especially hostile to foreign press. I tell her I just walk in wherever I want to go. “It’s different when you have a camera,” she says. I show her my picture with Rubio and her eyes light up.

“I always want to do that but I don’t want to get in trouble. What does the code of ethics say?”

“Just do what feels right,” I tell her.

Trump: “the only one who’s not bought and paid for”

We walk out and find the snow has gotten more intense. We cross the street to get coffee only to find that the cafe has closed early due to the storm. As we’re walking away, I make eye contact with a 30-something dude who looks familiar. We greet each other and I ask him if he was at the Rubio event. He tells me his name is Kevin and he owns a chimney company and is just picking up supplies from the hardware store.

I ask him where I can get coffee and he mentions there’s a Dunkin Donuts just up the road (by which he means, it’s 3–4 miles away.) I ask him who he’s voting for and he tells me he’s undecided.

“But you’re Republican, right?” I ask. He laughs — “isn’t everyone up here?”

We’re walking towards the ACE parking lot where we’ve both parked. Kevin tells me that four of five houses on his block have skeet shooting ranges and his neighbor even has an underground bunker. I’m not sure how we started talking about guns but I think this is his way of explaining to me how Republican this area is.

I ask Kevin again who he’s leaning towards supporting. “I like Trump,” he admits and then, perhaps noticing my expression and my brown skin, he proceeds to tell me why. “The remarks he made [about Muslim immigration], you have to understand, that was right after someone walked up and shot a police officer in the face, and he had just been back from the Middle East, and they asked him “are you a terrorist?” and he said no, and all Trump is saying is that we should have more of a process to keep us safe.”

“But he’s not even a real Republican!” I protest, pointing out that Donald was a Democrat for much of his life. “But at least he’s not bought and paid for,” Kevin responds. “Everyone else is.”

What a day in America when we have such low expectations of our politicians. “But the dude is crazy!” I protest. “He’ll literally say the craziest shit just so he can be on TV all day.” Kevin is nodding excitedly. “I know, isn’t it brilliant?! He’s figured out the best way to game the system.”

Kevin insists that Trump is not nearly as extreme as he pretends to be, but rather that he takes radical positions to gently nudge the dialogue in a more reasonable direction. (For example, when Trump proposes deporting 11 million undocumented immigrants, Kevin thinks this is just Trump’s way of saying we need to find a reasonable solution.)

I really like Kevin. I don’t drink, but if I did, I feel like I could have a beer with him. “Do you go to the rallies?” I ask him. “I work 85 hours a week,” he tells me. He has 3 kids. He doesn’t have time for that shit. We stand in the snow in Goffstown, my fingers numb by now. He points me in the direction of the Dunkin Donuts. We shake hands and say goodbye.

Election Day: “All our problems are due to sin”

On Election Day, I want to talk to actual voters at polling sites so I head to the Beech Street Elementary School in downtown Manchester. Outside the school are two women holding Bernie signs, one man with a Hillary sign, and off to the corner, a man with a Ben Carson sign. His name is Norm and he’s in his early 60s and he identifies himself as an evangelical Christian and a Vietnam veteran. I remind him that Ben Carson is polling at 2 percent and ask him what he’s doing out here.

“We need a good moral person in the White House,” he tells me. He’s not satisfied with the character of any of the other candidates. “But what if he knows nothing about policy?” I counter. “All of our problems are due to sin,” Norm tells me. “As long as we have a good Christian in the White House, God will take care of all of our country’s problems.”

We’re interrupted by an older woman who approaches us along with her husband. She, too, is drawn to the Ben Carson sign. Barbara Haines, 60, tells me she has her own ministry — Glory of the Lord Ministry — and I ask her how her faith informs her politics.

The question takes her by surprise. She turns to Norm: “Carson, is he the only one without exceptions?!” I don’t know what this means. She clarifies that she’ll only support a candidate who opposes abortion without exceptions. Norm isn’t sure.

I press her again on what other issues matter to her. “Our problem is we have no more men in the Republican Party,” she tells me. “Scripture says women should not rule over men. When women got the vote, that’s when our country got turned around.” She tells me that she’s disappointed in the Republican candidates for not telling Carly to stay home. Norm has gone silent by now and I think he’s also taken aback.

At this point, I realize that her husband, Robert, is actually running for president and she was intending on voting for him. But now she’s not so sure. She ends up not voting at all and they walk home.

I thank Norm for his time and as I turn to leave, I impulsively close with “God Bless You,” as I often do in Republican settings. He’s surprised for a moment but he quickly recovers.

“Listen,” he tells me. “Aren’t there times when you feel alone, when you feel hopeless, when you feel darkness all around you?”

His voice is imploring me and speaks to some deep part of my soul. “Yes,” I respond, “all the time.”

He proceeds to tell me that feeling this emptiness is normal and that Jesus loves me. Faith is the solution to my problems, he tells me. I’m at a loss for words and am not sure whether to be deeply touched or offended.

I decide I’m touched.

Author’s Note: In February of this year, I took three days off from work and drove up to New Hampshire to cover the primary. I had worked on Ron Paul’s campaign in 2012 and knew how exhilarating election season could be. Now, at a time when Muslim Americans were front and center in the national dialogue, this was my chance to provide a critical perspective.

Once I got back, I briefly flirted with the idea of becoming a traveling campaign correspondent. However, the discourse quickly became much more radical than I had imagined. I began to reevaluate the role of the media in creating the Trump phenomenon and “gonzo journalism” no longer seemed as ethically unblemished as I had previously thought. Now that the primary contests are all but over, here is the article I would have published about my New Hampshire experiences.

Hamdan Azhar is a writer and data scientist based in New York. His writings on drone culture, hipsters, and Islam in America have been published in The Washington Post, The Christian Science Monitor, and over a dozen other outlets. Read more of his writing at hamdanazhar.com.