Author’s Note: Parts of President Trump’s speech have been rearranged and slightly edited for clarity and narrative. Considering 70 percent of his claims are false or misleading anyway, the liberty felt appropriate.
Evansville, Indiana — August 30, 2018
8:15 p.m., In Search of My People
About 30 minutes into the president’s speech, something inside me snapped. I’d been in Trumpworld for over eight hours, wholly submerged in the MAGAsphere, and I thought I’d acclimated. I thought I was immune to the headaches and nausea and screaming angry outbursts that are common when a liberal is exposed to Donald Trump and 12,000 of his rally-goers. No matter what I heard or saw from the president and his people, I could handle it, I thought—I could hold their world in my hand, curious, and observe it as closely as I wanted without putting myself in any danger. I was wrong.
Sweating and cursing uncontrollably, head on a swivel, I pushed my way out of the overflow crowd gathered outside the Ford Center in downtown Evansville, Indiana, where the president was inside rallying the base into a fever pitch. A massive video screen—a Jumbotron, really—had been placed on top of a white trailer outside the arena and was broadcasting the feed to the 2,000 or so supporters who hadn’t been able to fit inside.
The president’s words echoed from the P.A. system, and I picked up the pace, literally biting down on my tongue as I put as much distance between myself and a potential punch to the back of the head as possible. There was one place I knew I would be safe. There, on the other side of Martin Luther King Jr. Blvd., behind a wall of police officers: protesters. 500 of them, at least, holding signs, chanting, expressing all their pent-up frustration and anger while surrounded by a small army of like-minded liberals.
“My people,” I thought, as I approached the curb where a group of Trump supporters were still engaging in a back-and-forth with the protesters. Right as I walked up, however, they launched into a particularly accusatory chant:
“Go home, ra-cists!”
“Go home, ra-cists!”
“Go home, ra-cists!”
They were screaming, faces scrunched in anger, spittle flying from their lips, and they were pointing at us—at me. I wanted to yell out, “No, wait! I’m on your team,” but of course, in that moment, I wasn’t. It didn’t matter that I’d been yelling in the streets since Occupy or that I canvassed for Bernie, voted for Hillary, and currently have a “Donnelly for Senate” sign planted in my yard. Nothing I had ever done or said or believed mattered—I was no longer an individual person.
In that moment, the only thing that mattered was the side of the street I was standing on.
2:37 p.m., A Reckoning at the Liquor Locker
I encountered my first Trump supporters a few miles outside of downtown Evansville, in the parking lot of a liquor store. I’d made the 175-mile journey down I-69 in less than three hours, the vast rural nothingness between Indianapolis and Evansville blurring together into one never-ending unincorporated township, and I had some time to kill before checking into the hotel. I swung into the Liquor Locker off the expressway to pick up a post-rally sixer, and that’s when I saw them. Two white guys in their early twenties, sporting neon ’80s-style sunglasses, flip-flops, and matching American flag shorts. As if that didn’t give them away, they’d written TRUMP 2020 #MAGA on the dirty back window of their silver SUV. Watching them lugging beer out of the store, giddy and laughing, I was reminded of being in college and loading up the van before going to Panama City for spring break 2003 #SUYT. Which got me thinking about all the bad decisions I made when I was that age, which led to the inevitable question: Could I have been one of those dudes? If I’d been born in the late ’90s, and not the early ’80s, could I have been a Trump bro?
My initial reaction was to say, “Fuck no.” I might have made some bad decisions when I was that age, done some things I’m not proud of, brought shame to my parents, but in no way could I have ever been one of those guys, pregaming for a Donald Trump rally. Right? The more I thought on it, the less certain I became.
Having grown up in a privileged, whitewashed suburban community outside Indianapolis, and having attended a nearby college where I hung out exclusively with other privileged white suburbanites, I had a wildly skewed, totally ignorant perception of the world outside my own existence at that age. And while I certainly can’t imagine, at any age, finding appeal in Trump’s anti-immigrant, racist rhetoric, I couldn’t help but wonder, for instance, if maybe I could’ve been convinced his war against political correctness was a worthy one—that my constitutional right to say something offensive in casual conversation with friends, which I did all the time back then, outweighed the personal hurt and discomfort it caused in others who might hear me. I really don’t know. Maybe. Probably.
And could I have been led to believe, if all my frat brothers also believed it, that the white man was being unfairly targeted, discriminated against, even—that it was us who were the victims? I mean, I would fucking hope not. I would hope that my 21-year-old self, despite such a limited worldview, would have seen that for the utter bullshit it is. But honestly, I can’t say for certain.
What I know for sure is that 21-year-old me, like 36-year-old me, would have been a Bernie supporter, but that the younger version, unlike the older, would not have voted for Hillary, not after the DNC rigged the primary in her favor. I also know that I would have found candidate Trump amusing and probably totally harmless—I did, after all, host a weekly Thursday evening get-together during my junior year of college, not to play beer pong or deal poker, but to watch The Apprentice at nine o’clock on NBC. It cracked us up, the over-the-topness of it all, and we hollered, “You’re fired!” at each other for the better part of a year.
But would all that have been enough to earn my vote? Would his celebrity appeal and the male chauvinism and his decidedly non-political correctness have been enough to override the values my parents—both devoted Democrats—instilled in me? Well, in real life, back in 2000, my first ever vote was cast for Ralph Nader, who I thought was going to legalize marijuana. So, yeah, I’m pretty sure I would have sold my parents values out in a heartbeat, at that age.
“And once you’re on the Trump train,” I thought, with a shiver, as I walked into the Liquor Locker, “you’re only a stop away from pregaming in your American flag shorts.”
3:15 p.m., In the Pit of the “American Dream”
Originally, I had planned on staying in the DoubleTree hotel across the street from the Ford Center, but when I’d gone to book a room that morning, all 241 were sold out. They had been for three days, filled with Trumpworld support staff and rally personnel. Instead, I ended up at the only place downtown that had an available room, Le Merigot Hotel, which was connected to the Tropicana casino and billed as “Evansville’s first boutique hotel.”
In order to get from my room to the street, I first had to cross the casino floor, 200 yards of red-carpeted temptation. I made it past dangling cigarettes, trays of sweating cocktails, and a silver-haired woman in a pink Playboy bunny shirt, but I couldn’t escape the rows and rows of penny slots. I grabbed at my wallet, opening it to reveal a solitary dollar bill. Machines were plink-plinking all around me, bells were ringing, people were winning. I could feel my heart beat a little faster as I sat down next to a lady huffing a cigarette and aggressively smacking her machine’s spin button. I pumped in my last dollar, an act that gave me a tingle of shame mixed with adrenaline. I felt like a junky about to spike a vein. I hit spin.
This—right here on the floor of the Tropicana Evansville—this was the American dream. Forget the antiquated ideal of the 1950s, that nonsense about how anyone no matter who they were or where they came from (assuming they weren’t black or brown or female) could forge a better existence for themselves in this country through dedication, initiative, and a lifetime of hard work. Fuck that shit. Now it’s all about making the most amount of money in the shortest amount of time with the least amount of effort. The American dream of today is about going viral, becoming a YouTube influencer, a reality TV star, an Instagram endorser; it’s about buying a Powerball ticket, finding Boardwalk on a box of McDonald’s fries, meeting an angel investor on an elevator. The new American dream is pulling the lever for Donald Trump and making all your problems disappear.
A minute later, after only three spins, my dream was dead, and I was slinging my backpack over my shoulder and walking out onto the street, forced to go to work.
3:33 p.m., Lined Up Down Main Street
“Why are you doing this again?” My wife’s parting words bounced around my head as I made the short walk from the hotel to the Ford Center. It was a fair question. It’s not like anyone was paying me to be there. I hadn’t been contracted to write a story; George Soros hadn’t paid me to protest. Why in the hell was I attending a Donald Trump rally?
What I told my wife, and it was the truth, was that I wanted to experience a Trump rally as one of his followers experiences it. I wanted to get lost in the spectacle and forget about the politics of it all. I wanted, somehow, to humanize Trump supporters, turn them back into individuals in my mind. I’d been having a hard time breathing deep and staying calm about the future of our country as we careened toward midterms. I was hoping that by exposing myself to Trumpworld, by allowing myself to get swept up in the MAGAness of it all, I would come away with some valued insight, an understanding of his supporters that would make me feel not so certain that we were on a collision course toward civil war.
What I didn’t tell her was that when I’d received the text from Trump inviting me to the rally, my first thought had been: I have to go. Which is kind of a weird reaction, I must admit, from someone with so much disdain for the guy. But the truth is, I felt drawn to the rally, as if some greater gravitational force were pulling from my couch, out of my bubble, and into Trumpworld. I had to know what it was like.
I rounded the corner at Sycamore and Sixth, and there it was. My first Donald Trump rally. And, holy shit, I had not expected the line to be so long. It snaked from the entrance of the Ford Center, coiling down Main Street, around the Ford Center, and disappearing off into the distance. There were so many people spread out over such a long distance it was impossible to get an accurate count: I guessed somewhere north of 5,000, and south of 63 million.
A lot gets made of the “circus-like” atmosphere accompanying Trump rallies, but as I joined the tail end of the line, I was struck by how subdued the vibe was. Garth Brooks wasn’t blaring loudly from a handheld speaker, nobody was aggressively leading patriotic chants, a big-bellied shirtless man didn’t run up and down the street waving an American flag—people were just kind of standing around, listlessly, waiting for the line to start moving so they could all shuffle into an enclosed, air-conditioned space. It reminded me more of the end of the circus, when all the exhausted animals are herded onto the train bound for the next town. Then again, it was 90 degrees and hair-curlingly humid, and a lot of these people had been standing in line without shade for hours, prompting numerous heat-related ambulance runs. I don’t think I would have been much in the mood for a “Lock her up!” chant at that point either.
3:38 p.m., A Trumpian Sense of Fashion
The free tickets to the event had explicitly stated there was no dress code, and yet, I noticed that most everyone had come dressed uniformly anyway, depending on their generation. The older crowd, the grandparents, the baby boomers were the most overt and transparent in their devotion to the president, with many sporting 2020 campaign gear and other Trump-specific apparel.
The generation behind them, generation X, were much less politically expressive, probably because many looked to have just come from work. There were plenty of construction boots, flannel shirts, and nursing scrubs, but also people wearing khakis and polos, blouses and dress skirts. To signify their support, they wore buttons pinned to their chest or carried small American flags on tiny sticks.
Their kids, the grandchildren, the millennials, tended to shy away from anything Trump-specific, sticking exclusively to red-white-and-blue, stars-and-stripes, Fourth-of-July themed clothes. Almost as if they’d committed to the America First message, but still weren’t sure about the messenger.
The one thing that cut across generational lines were the MAGA hats. One out of every three supporters, it seemed, was wearing one, and I got the impression that, for some, particularly the kids—who wore them flat-billed or backward—putting on that red MAGA hat was their favorite part of being a Trump supporter.
There was only one person, out of all those thousands in line, whose attire appeared to represent an opposition viewpoint, and it sure as hell wasn’t me. I’d left my “Repeal and Go F$%K Yourself” shirt back home, instead going with a red IU basketball tee (Hoosier hoops being one of the last unifying symbols left in the state of Indiana).
Sandwiched between an old white guy with a plug of chewing tobacco in his cheek and a young white man in a button-up dress shirt and wraparound black glasses, stood a solitary woman dressed in a simple ankle-length red dress, with an attached red cloak that appeared to be made out of a bedsheet. Her head, bowed in silence, was obscured by a white bonnet, and her hands were folded in front of her stomach.
3:39 p.m., The Handmaid’s Tale, Part One
Karen B. Supak grew up the daughter of a historian in southern Mississippi. She used to get lessons on nonviolent resistance whenever the family crossed over the bridge in Selma on their way to visit her grandmother in Alabama. In high school, she was a punk rock kid who was refused service for the way she was dressed and eventually fled for California, to UC Berkeley, arriving on campus on the eve of the 30th anniversary of the free speech movement. She’s been peacefully protesting various civil-rights affronts since the Rodney King verdict back in ’91.
Never like this though. Never embedded with the opposition, dressed as a symbol of their oppression, and committed to a vow of silence (she had a brief statement written out on her phone explaining who she was and her purpose, in case anyone asked). The change in approach was out of necessity. Karen, who lives in Evansville, has a 16-year-old son, a budding Trump supporter, who wanted to see the president speak.
“He’s a 16-year-old white boy who lives in southwestern Indiana and comes from a family of privilege,” Karen would explain later, laughing at the irony of it all. “I can absolutely see the attraction if you were growing up in a privileged position in America these days, and seeing the president and going, ‘Oh, he can get away with acting however he wants to, and he looks a lot like me.’”
Besides, she acknowledged, she was at least partly to blame. Back in 2016, in an attempt to expose the then-14-year-old to both sides, she’d taken him to a Bernie Sanders rally in Bloomington and then to the Trump rally in Evansville. It was his choice from there.
Karen had no problem with her son cutting school to stand in line for the rally with a few of his friends, on one condition: She wanted to go with him. She wanted to hear what the president had to say to her teenage son. Which put her in a predicament. Under no circumstance was she willing to be mistaken as a Trump supporter, a hard thing to accomplish while standing in line for a Trump rally, as she discovered back in 2016 when she was heckled multiple times for not engaging in various chants. That was the other problem. Karen could be vocal in her opposition, especially when people were being rude or ugly. She’d only made it 20 minutes into Trump’s speech last time before her son had to pull her out of there. “You’re freaking out, Mom. Let’s go,” he told her, after she became agitated to the point of disturbing those around her by not-so-quietly muttering under her breath.
The homemade handmaid’s costume, then, was the perfect solution for both problems. Not only did it allow her to very clearly distinguish herself from the Trump supporters, but the vow of silence—meant to replicate the subjugation of women in Trump’s patriarchy—gave her an excuse to keep her mouth shut.
3:52 p.m., Them, the People
As I weaved in and out of the crowd, I noted a handful of reporters lurking across the street with their cameras or notepads, darting into the line to do a quick interview or shoot some b-roll. But the Right Side Broadcasting Network crew—a five-person outfit consisting of a cameraman, three young, red-clad female reporters, and a bearded guy in a seersucker suit—were right in the middle of it and had been the entire afternoon. The network rose to prominence in the summer of 2015 by live-streaming wall-to-wall coverage of Trump’s primary rallies, and in late October 2016, less than a month before the general election, the Trump campaign teamed up with RSBN to produce pre- and post-debate analysis shows that were then streamed on Trump’s Facebook page. The partnership prompted a New York Magazine headline to ask the following day: “Did Trump TV Premiere Last Night?”
But then Donald Trump won. There was no longer a need for Trump TV, not with Fox News handling those duties. The original content RSBN produced flopped—hiring a white nationalist to host the flagship show wasn’t a great idea—and a staff of 14 had dwindled to four. But they were still at it, still covering rallies like the state media they aspired to be. And while their pregame coverage—six hours of live, unedited interviews with Trump supporters—was rough and amateurish, striking in its lack of depth or neutrality, watching it offers perhaps the truest portrait of who those people standing in line really were. And so I offer a sample:
“We have so much in common with each person standing here,” said Randall, a dog breeder from southern Minnesota, pointing at his fellow “Front Row Joes,” a group of strangers who had met—and in some cases come together—over their love of attending Donald Trump rallies. Randall had been in line since the night before, and with his American flag cowboy hat and full-sized MAGA flag, he was the group’s de facto head cheerleader. His voice was hoarse as he spoke to the RSBN reporter. Informing her that his dog, Donald Trump, had knocked up one of his other dogs, Miss America, and that he was selling the puppies. He then explained why he was attending his 38th rally.
“When President Trump comes out onto that stage, he inspires us,” Randall said, his voice cracking with emotion. “And hopefully we inspire him back, to keep working, keep fighting for us, because the man is tough, and he’s doing it, but he needs us to inspire him back. It’s a two-way street.” Randall pointed again at his fellow Front Row Joes. “It’s beautiful.”
Casey, an unemployed laborer from southern Illinois, about two-and-a-half hours away, was attending his first ever Trump rally, but that hadn’t stopped the MAGA-hat-wearing newbie from joining Randall in waving the flag and leading cheers. “I’ve done it many times in my dreams,” he joked to the reporter, who followed up by asking what specifically had him so fired up.
“Well, I’ll tell you what’s firing me up is the fact that you can understand this President. He’s not shooting the bs,” Casey declared, in a loud, booming voice. “That’s it, that’s the bottom line.”
Ted, a farmer and mechanic from about two hours west of Evansville, had been in line since 11 a.m. He was also attending his first Trump rally, and while he was certainly a supporter of the president, it was his wife who was crossing something off her bucket list. He was a little hot, a little sticky in his blue jeans and plaid shirt, but otherwise enjoying the atmosphere.
“Our president has a lot of really fantastic qualities,” stated the reporter. “Do you have a favorite?”
Ted paused for a second, contemplating the question. “Well, I hope he’s for the farmers,” he said, a little carefully, adding that he wants more money for his grain. “We want to eat cheap in America,” he explained, “so you got to have support for the farmers. He’s looking out for us—I hope.” When asked what drew him to the president, Ted echoed the sentiments of Casey: “He shoots straight from the hip, you know. He’s not bs-ing around about it. Some people don’t like it, but you don’t play the fence. You’re either on one side or the other.”
Lorenz, an Indiana native, wasn’t as interested in policy. Sporting an oversized black Q-Anon shirt, he shifted nervously from one foot to the other, thumbs tucked into his balled fists, as the male RSBN reporter asked what he was most interested in hearing the president talk about. Lorenz gave a quick, uncomfortable glance at the camera and shifted his weight. “Basically,” he said, his eyes darting again to the camera, “let’s stop the Deep State from doing what they’re doing through the lamestream media.”
3:55 p.m., A Grandmother’s Love
There were plenty of women in attendance too—a lot of sweet Southern ladies who loved the president unconditionally and who were thrilled at the opportunity to be in his presence. “I feel like I’m going to the beach,” said one shockingly pale woman. “I’m just so excited to see him.”
One of the more unabashed and vocal female supporters was Carol from nearby Santa Claus, Indiana (it’s a real place: home of Holiday World and Jay Cutler). She was sitting in a folding chair up against the side of a building, a Diet Pepsi in the cup holder, when she was approached for an interview.
Carol was tired and hot, she admitted, and regretted wearing black. She wanted to wear her red Trump shirt, but her and her husband George had been in court earlier that morning (“We own rental property, and it’s been a bit of a problem,” she confided on camera, before George cut her off). Her grandson went to University of Evansville, and he had a huge Trump banner hanging in his dorm room that everyone kept telling him to take down.
“Wow, wow. Cool, cool,” the RSBN reporter said, jumping in. “So tell me, is this your first President Trump rally?”
Carol nodded, emphatically. “This is my first time, and I’m having a ball. I just love it!” She laughed, a crackling smoker laugh, and grabbed the reporter by the wrist pulling the mic closer toward her mouth. “Even though I’m 76 years old, had open-heart surgery, got steel in my hip, I’m here to support Trump!” She held out a Trump hat that had been sitting on her lap and pointed at the name on the front like a recent NBA draft pick, allowing the reporter to wrestle back control of the mic.
“And what are you hoping to hear him speak on?”
“Oh, I don’t care,” Carol answered, without hesitation. “He’s good. He’s done more in two years than our past president could do in eight years.” She looked at the camera and beamed. “I’m drinking to that!”
“Yes! Definitely!” the reporter exclaimed. “And what’s your favorite quality about President Trump?”
“He’s honest,” Carol answered, again without hesitation. “He tells the truth. He’s not a politician. He’s not all about money—I need this and that. He’s more about the American people, and I really and truly think if we give Trump a chance,” her hand was clenched into a fist, and her voice was rising, “he WILL make America great again.”
“I have no education,” Carol declared. “But we’re 100 percent for Mr. Trump!”
4:07 p.m., Backyard Pregaming
When I saw the crowd spilling out onto the patio of Kevin’s Backyard Grill, right across from the arena—not to mention the “$4 Domestic Drafts” scrawled on the chalkboard propped up on the sidewalk—I knew where I could kill some time. Narrow and dark, even with full sun outside, the place featured a long wooden bar to one side, a stage for rock bands to the other, and in between was filled with Trump supporters conversing, laughing, guzzling 32-ounce domestic drafts and chowing down on baskets of loaded tots and boats of buffalo chicken dip. I slid onto a stool at the bar, ordering up some tater tots and a Coors Light from the sweating, smiling bartender, who was quick on the draw. I took a big gulp, then another, and did a half-swivel, surveying the scene.
This all felt very familiar. The place was overflowing with Trump apparel and related paraphernalia, all of it in the home team’s colors of red, white, and blue. Even the servers and bartenders were dressed in matching dark-blue Trump/Pence 2020 T-shirts, although I wasn’t sure if they were true supporters or just looking for bigger tips. A group of college-age girls in American flag bandanas and jean shorts flirted with a couple of Trump bros in the corner. Next to me, an older gentleman in a “Don’t Tread on Me” hat argued with his Dale-Jr.-shirt-wearing buddy about those “SOB NFL players” who kneel during the national anthem.
It was exactly like being at a bar in downtown Indy before a Colts or Pacers game. People were crammed against the back of my stool, shouting out orders while the bartender paced the rail, pointing and pouring, the noise level ramping up incrementally with each shot thrown back. It was a joyful, anticipatory atmosphere, and when my loaded tater tots came, I ordered another beer and settled in with a smile on my face.
In that moment, dipping tots in ranch and sipping Coors, I have to admit that I felt one with the people in that bar. As long as I sat there watching Around the Horn on mute, bathing in the buzz of the place, I could forget what everyone was there for. For that hour, they ceased to be Trump supporters, and I was no longer a Trump hater. We were just a group of half-drunk, totally stuffed Americans headed to a big event. And I’d be lying if I said I didn’t share in their excitement. We were about to see the president of the United States speak in person. Did that not still mean anything? Had Trump so sullied the office that it no longer meant anything to be in its presence? I certainly didn’t feel that way. Right then I was thinking this would be something I’d tell my kids about someday.
The bartender, a friendly, goateed guy in his thirties, caught the attention of the man crammed next to me. The guy was a regular and they started chatting. The bartender wasn’t supposed to be in until that afternoon, but his manager had called him in at 10. The regular laughed and nodded as a guy with bowling ball shoulders caught the bartender’s attention with a $100 bill. “Hey man, can you make change for this?”
“Oh hell yeah,” the bartender said, wiping his hands on what was definitely a crisp new Trump shirt, reaching into his tip jar. “Been a good day!”
5:07 p.m., Miller Time!
When I was 12 years old, Reggie Miller pulled off one of the most miraculous comebacks in sports history. I remember exactly where I was when it happened: I’d been sitting in my parents Toyota Previa minivan, slowly strapping on my soccer shin guards, listening on the radio as the Pacers fell behind by six points with 18 seconds left to go against the New York Knicks, a playoff series that had been dubbed “Hicks versus Knicks” by the New York media.
When the Knicks pushed the lead to six, I’d slid open the Previa’s door so forcefully it shook the window glass and started trudging toward the soccer field, head down and kicking grass. I didn’t get far. “Oh my God! Aaahhh!” I heard my mom scream as I turned around in a panic. My dad was hanging out the driver’s side window, waving me to come back: “He did it! He did it! He did it!”
Eight points in nine seconds. That’s what Reggie Miller had done—and even 23 years later, it stands as one of the single greatest comebacks in the history of professional basketball. From that day until he retired a decade later, if there was time on the clock and #31 was on the court, the Pacers still had a chance. No subsequent failure to execute—and Miller had plenty of big misses—could ever shake that feeling.
I was reminded of all this in the moments after leaving the Backyard Grill. I’d exited at the corner of Main and Sixth Street, diagonal from the entrance to the Ford Center, stepping out into the sunlight with a hand shielding my eyes. The doors to the venue were finally open, and the line was moving, glacially, as Journey’s “Don’t Stop Believing” blared from the speakers. The side streets were packed with people milling about, shopping the row of tables and tents selling unofficial merch, and the smell of hot dogs hung in the air. I made my way over toward the huge videoboard that had been set up outside the arena, where on-screen a highlight reel of the president’s shocking election-night upset played on a loop, eliciting a cheer from those in line every time the Fox News desk called Pennsylvania for Donald J. Trump.
That’s when it hit me: Donald Trump was Reggie Miller. I tried to push the thought away, but the comparison was sitting there, too ripe to ignore. Like Miller, Donald Trump was from the coast, but not necessarily of the coast, and both men were mocked back home before being embraced by working-class underdogs in the Midwest. Both were loud and brash, hated by their opponents, and each came to embody the middle of the country’s resentment of all things big city and bright lights. They both also enjoyed, to great effect, using the media to lash out and provoke the very coastal establishment that had rejected them.
And, most importantly, both pulled off miracles so unbelievable that it earned them a lifetime’s worth of belief in their powers.
The night that the Fox News hosts announced the results of Pennsylvania, guaranteeing Trump one of the most improbable victories in the history of politics — it was the equivalent of Miller’s eight points in nine seconds in Madison Square Garden. It was confirmation that not everything was rigged against the average, mid-market Midwest American, that David’s stone could still fell the giant if there was enough momentum behind it.
5:27 p.m., In Defense of Joe
Journey had given way to Neil Young’s “Rockin’ in the Free World,” as I pushed through the crowd and out the other side, in search of the thousands of protesters the local paper had promised. Apparently there were two main groups gathering pre-rally, each getting hyped separately before marching toward the Ford Center and joining together as one unified protest. How perfectly symbolic, I thought, heading north of downtown in search of Memorial Baptist Church, searching for the group led by activists from the Sierra Club, Indivisible, Beyond Coal, Our Revolution, and the Tri-State LBGTQ Alliance.
Maybe it was the beers or just my unfamiliarity with the city, but I couldn’t find Memorial Baptist Church for the life of me. I was nearly a mile north of downtown before doubling back toward Locust and Ninth, where the other group, led by the Vanderburgh County Democratic Party, was meeting in a grassy area by a parking lot. There were maybe 75 people milling around in front of the parking lot, signs at their side, talking quietly. They were scattered and broken into mini groups of three or four, and as I made my way with ease through the crowd, I picked up bits and pieces of conversations, most of which centered around one prominent political figure: Joe Donnelly. And it wasn’t in a “we support Joe” sort of way. More like, as a kindly-looking woman with short silver hair put it: “What the hell is Donnelly doing?”
You have to feel for Joe Donnelly. After replacing Richard Lugar, a six-term senator and lodestar of moderate Republicanism, Donnelly spent his first four years in office crafting an image as a moderate, bipartisan compromiser, just like that of his predecessor. In fact, according to the Bipartisan Index, a lifetime ranking of senators conducted by none other than The Lugar Center, Joe Donnelly ranked as the second most bipartisan senator since 1993 (Lugar ranked #26, by the way). To put his bipartisanship in perspective, he voted with President Trump 62 percent of the time in 2017—more support than he gave Obama during his last year in office. Put another way, if Joe Donnelly were any more bipartisan, he’d be Todd Young.
And then along came Trump, smashing the middle ground like a one-legged drunk in a China shop, leaving Donnelly to flail his arms and kick his feet like Wile E. Coyote run off a cliff. One minute he’s voting to fund the wall and roll back Dodd-Frank and ban abortions after 20 weeks; the next, he’s saving health care and going against the tax bill and putting sanctions on Russia. The end result is that for the past two years, Donnelly has done nothing but piss people off. Those on the right can’t understand why he would ever vote against the president, while those on the left don’t get why he ever wouldn’t. Both sides hold the same thing against him.
The vibe I got from the protesters was that Trump supporters were a lost cause. Now that the president was openly supporting Donnelly’s opponent Mike Braun in the midterm, there was no hope in winning their vote. What Joe needed to be doing, as the Democrat sitting atop the state ticket, was turn out the base. Not reach across the aisle for a hand that wasn’t even extended. It was an angle I agreed with, prior to coming here. But standing in that mostly open field listening to a few scattered protesters arguing among themselves, and then comparing that to the line I’d seen winding through downtown, I was starting to see things a little differently.
I mean, what the hell were we going to do about it? Vote for Mike Braun?
6:30 p.m., A Message From the Neighborhood Bully
I’d stopped by the hotel to drop off my backpack and was now speed-walking down Main Street with my notebook and a pen tucked behind my ear, ready to finally enter the belly of the beast. It was still warm and humid out, but the sun was beginning to fade over the horizon, filling the sky with a burning red hue that was, depending on your perspective, either beautiful or ominous.
Just as I passed by Angelo’s, a quaint-looking Italian bistro with a “Make Angelo’s Great Again” sidewalk sign, two shirtless boys, maybe 10, 11 years old, came riding up the sidewalk on their bikes. The front one, the bigger of the two, his dirty blonde hair shaped into the beginnings of a mullet and blowing behind him, fixed me with a menacing squinty-eyed tough-guy look.
“Make America great again!” he spat, breezing past me on the shared sidewalk.
His friend, shorter, scrawny, buzz-headed, was trailing 10 yards behind and breathing heavily. “MAGA!” he huffed, standing up to pick up the pace as he passed.
I did a double take, not entirely sure what the hell just happened. It sorta felt like I’d been threatened. Like the neighborhood bully and his sidekick had just warned me to watch my back in these parts. I laughed, a little uneasily. Were the kids all right?
6:48 p.m., ¿Viva La Revolución?
Standing in line in front of the Ford Center, watching Lara Trump, wife of Eric, inform us from the videoboard that “President Trump supports the First Amendment as much as he does the Second” but that “some people have taken advantage of that,” word began to ripple through the crowd that the cops were shutting the doors. Nobody else was getting in. I looked around, and for the first time all day, people weren’t smiling.
A guy in his early thirties wearing a blue polo shirt wandered over to where I was standing in line, a couple hundred yards from the now-closed entrance. “Hey did you guys have tickets?!” he asked, a bit wild-eyed, to nobody in particular. When it was confirmed that everyone in the general vicinity did, he became agitated. “Me too!” he exclaimed, throwing his arms out wide. “What was the freakin’ point?!” The man had left work early and driven three hours from St. Louis to be there, he told us, speeding the whole way. Others voiced similar stories, joining what was becoming a chorus of complaint.
“How the fuck are they printing more tickets than they have seats?”
“If this were Luke Bryan at 80 bucks a pop, you can bet they’d find some room!”
“Let’s charge the gates!” (said to a big laugh)
Elton John’s “Candle in the Wind” began playing over the PA system, and Lara Trump was replaced by another highlight reel of Trump’s election-night miracle. A deeply tanned, heavily-muscled man with a lumberjack beard who’d been listening to the growing discord tried to explain the issue away. He heard some people had made copies of the tickets and then passed them out to friends. That’s why there were thousands now left standing outside. It wasn’t Trump’s fault.
I desperately wanted to argue, to say of course the Trump campaign had given out more free tickets than they had room for. Why wouldn’t they? They had no clue how many people would actually show up. It’s one thing to download a free ticket, quite another to actually show up. But also: The Trump campaign wanted an overflow crowd. That’s why they’d set up the videoboard on top of the trailer. They wanted thousands of people left outside watching on the Jumbotron, so that Trump could then reference the thousands of people outside watching on the Jumbotron. It wasn’t nefarious. It was just Trump, the businessman and marketer, doing what he does best. And still they made excuses.
“Man,” said blue polo shirt, fully accepting Lumberjack’s explanation. “That’s bullshit.” Lumberjack nodded, and they both turned to look up at the Jumbotron.
7:04 p.m., The Other Side of the Street
Off in the distance came the faint echo of an angry chant, and for the briefest of seconds, I thought it was Trump supporters rising up in protest, demanding to be let in. “Let us in! Let us in!” I swear that’s what I heard, as I began moving in that direction. But as I got closer and the scene unfolded, I realized I’d been mistaken.
“Lock him up!”
“Lock him up!”
“Lock him up!”
It was the protesters. Hundreds of them. I’d written them off after the underwhelming showing at the Democratic party pre-rally, but apparently the group led by the activists had turned out. They were piled four and five deep the length of a city block down Martin Luther King Jr. Blvd., almost all of them with signs. It was heartening to see, and I smiled as I took in the volume and variety of signage. There were short signs (“TRE45ON”) and long signs (“SuperCallousFragileRacistSexistNaziPOTUS”). There were sincere signs (“God Bless Our Free Press”) and familiar signs (“Black Lives Matter”). There were signs that suggested a little oversight (“Someone Take Away His Phone!”) and others that demanded coarser action (“Eat My Ass, Trump!”). There was even a sign about all the signs (“Not Usually a Sign Guy, But Geez.”)
On the other side of the street, the side I was on, a growing crowd of Trump supporters had begun to gather. The protesters were chanting angrily and throwing expletive-laced invectives across the street, while the Trump supporters mostly just looked on in bemusement and laughed. To them, the whole thing was one big LOL. Here were hundreds of truly pissed-off liberals, forehead veins throbbing, calling them awful names from just 50 yards away, and the Trump supporters were laughing like they’d all just eaten a pot cookie and gone to the state fair.
In the middle of it all, forming a human barricade, were police officers from varying patrols: beat cops, bike cops, even mounted police, helmeted officers sitting high on their horses, hands on their batons. One serious-looking sniper, muscles bursting out of his flak jacket, rifle at the ready—it was filled with bean-bag bullets, I’m pretty sure—stood on the curb in front of the Trump supporters, his sunglass-covered eyes scanning the opposite side of the street.
Right in front of him, almost as if he were guarding it, protecting it from those on the left, was a splatter of horse shit.
7:16 p.m., Michael the Black Man
“You’re a fucking tool, bro!” One exchange toward the far end of the line caught my attention, and I moved closer to watch.
On the left side was a trio of older black guys, probably in their early forties. They were on the curb and yelling at a Trump supporter, also a black guy, who was wearing a red Trump-Pence 2020 shirt and laughing. In his hand he held a small sign reading: “Blacks for Trump.”
“And your boy, he’s the worst of the worst,” called out the ringleader of the protesters, sporting a white T-shirt with the message “F$#K RACIST TRUMP” handwritten on the front. A small smile jumped at the corners of his mouth, and he shot a glance at the line of officers. “I hope he leaves here and gets hit by a fucking car!”
I wasn’t sure exactly who he was referring to, but those sounded like fighting words to me. The Blacks for Trump supporter, however, just laughed and shook his head. “You know what he go home to?”
“What?” the ringleader fired back, mean-mugging.
The man paused for a second, suddenly unsure of himself. “He, uh,” the crowd was starting to close in, people had their phones out. “He go home to a two-million-dollar mansion—” The three protesters were howling before he could get the sentence out, smacking each other in the chest, clowning. The Blacks for Trump guy raised his voice to be heard. “And I go home to a three-million-dollar mansion! Got two or three Rolls Royces!”
The conversation devolved into unintelligible crosstalk at that point, and I was only able to make out the occasional insult through all the shouting:
“ … fucking idiot! …”
“ … don’t even have a dental plan! …”
At that point, the Blacks for Trump guy’s friend showed up, and holy shit, I recognized him. I’d seen him on TV at another rally, standing right behind the president and cheering wildly while wearing a white T-shirt that read… I moved around to the side to get a better angle, and yep, it was him. Same gold chain, same sunglasses perched on top of the same permed hair. And most definitely the same T-shirt proclaiming, in bold, black letters, “Trump & Republicans Are Not Racist.”
Now it all made sense.
Maurice Woodside aka Michael Symonette aka “Michael the Black Man” had been showing up at rallies from Lakeland to Phoenix, always with his “Blacks for Trump” sign and “Trump & Republicans Are Not Racist” T-shirt and always, somehow, with a prime spot behind the president. I’d done a deep-dive on him late one night after he was spotted at a rally in Tampa, part of the mob screaming at CNN’s Jim Acosta.
Turns out Symonette is a former member of the murderous Yahweh ben Yahweh cult, and in 1990, he was charged with two counts of conspiracy to commit murder. (Woodside, as he was known then, was accused by his brother in open court of sticking a sharpened stick into a man’s eyeball, though he wasn’t convicted.) Afterward, according to extensive reporting done by the Miami New Times, Woodside changed his last name, became a musician, started a radio station, and then reinvented himself as Michael the Black Man, “an anti-gay, anti-liberal preacher with a golden instinct for getting on TV at GOP events.”
As New Times reporter Jerry Iannelli put it: “Even among the rogue’s gallery of rodeo clowns and Bond villains who make up Trump’s core cadre of supporters, Symonette might legitimately be the weirdest person hovering around Trumpworld.”
His presence on the campaign has fueled plenty of speculation, mostly about who, exactly, is footing the bill for all his travel expenses. Because as it turns out, Michael the Black Man is broke. In fact, he’s declared bankruptcy three times in the past three years, most recently this past May, when federal court documents revealed he’s unemployed, generates no income, and has $0 in the bank. His only listed assets were clothing, watches, a pool table, and the $2,000 a month his live-in girlfriend provides him in rent.
And yet, here he was, a thousand miles from home, chatting and laughing with a police officer while his Blacks for Trump buddy continued to argue with protesters. “If y’all were so gangsta, you’d be over here,” he was yelling when Michael tapped him on the arm, indicating it was time to split. The protesters yelled a final insult, but Michael and his buddy just laughed and walked away, headed back toward the Ford Center. It was a bizarre, unsettling incident that makes you shake your head and ask, “What the fuck have we become?” And so it was only fitting that when I turned around I nearly ran into a man with a camera following a blonde woman in a blue dress holding a microphone emblazoned with “Infowars.” How perfectly fucking fitting.
7:25 p.m., And So It Begins
Word spread fast through the crowd of Trump supporters. It was time. Instinctively, I followed the herd back to the Jumbotron, leaving the protesters on the other side of the street to scream at the pile of horse shit. The gathered crowd, a sea of red hats and white faces, was packed 15, 20 rows deep; it was a few thousand people easily, which the president later referenced. I settled in next to a small, gray-haired woman in a pink Trump/Pence shirt as the president emerged from the bowels of the arena through the tunnel typically reserved for members of the Evansville Purple Aces men’s and women’s basketball teams.
Lee Greenwood’s “God Bless the USA” blared from the speakers. Both rings of the bowl, plus the entire floor surrounding the stage were filled with people waving their arms, screaming and swaying as they sung along (“And I’m proud to be an American…”). Trump soaked it all in and, ever the showman, strutted and preened from one side of the stage to the other. He was carrying a pair of green MAGA hats—meant to represent “cash”—and was pointing at various sections of the crowd, holding the hats out in a who-wants-it gesture. Basically he was a cross between a WWE wrestler pumping up the crowd before a title match and an NBA mascot with a T-shirt cannon during a timeout.
Eventually Trump tossed the hats to a couple lucky fans and began clapping along to the beat, pointing, winking, urging the crowd on until the final stanza (“God Bless the USAAAAA”). It was, I had to admit, pretty fucking impressive. Here was one man—just a regular human being who puts his pants on one leg at a time and takes stinky shits like the rest of us—and he was commanding a room of 12,000 people, the largest crowd ever assembled at the Ford Center. He didn’t need a musical instrument or a basketball to do it either. President Trump didn’t need anything other than his sheer presence to generate the energy that I could almost, but not quite, feel outside watching on the big screen. In that moment, what I actually felt was a pang of regret at not having stood in line all afternoon to make sure I had a seat inside. I wanted to feel that juice, that heat, that current of electricity radiating from the stage out into the crowd.
And then the president began to talk. It seems ridiculous to say, seeing how large Trump’s presence had loomed over every aspect of my day, but up until the words started coming out of his mouth, I’d thought very little about whether I was prepared to hear what he had to say.
Trump began by thanking the “very very special people” of Evansville. “I know you well,” he told the adoring throng staring back at him. “You love our country. You’re proud of our history. And you always respect our great American flag!” That prompted a “USA!” chant inside the arena, where it appeared to be near-pandemonium (eye-witness accounts would later report beach balls, the wave, and a decibel level so loud it was nearly impossible to hear the president’s speech from the back).
Outside, the reaction was more subdued. Someone yelled out “’Merica,” and there was some applause and a few cheers, mostly coming from the front five rows. It was as if the closer you were to Trump’s vortex, the easier it was to get sucked into his black hole. I took a step back.
Trump started in on tariffs, and how we “love” Canada, but how Canada’s screwing us on dairy—when he was interrupted. There was a commotion and shouts coming from stage left. A protester. Outside, the people around me began to stir and cheer; they knew what was coming. On the screen, Trump paused and pointed at the protester in the crowd, who by then had thousands of boos raining down upon them — and, with a smirking, white-toothed grin, gave the hook. He then stepped back from the podium and watched as the protester was escorted out and the crowd roared itself into a frenzy (“Trump! Trump! Trump!”). The president stepped back up to the microphone, paused again for dramatics, and smiled: “Where the hell did she come from?”
7:33 p.m., The Handmaid’s Tale, Part Two
After standing in line for three hours, sweating under her bedsheet cloak and enduring the occasional laugh and point—“It reminded me of being in middle school,” Karen cracked, dryly—the handmaid was passed through security without a single question. Once inside, several people approached her, curious, and she would watch their face as they read her statement. Some would laugh, others would look at her quizzically or concerned. A few kept reading.
“Looking back on that [2016 rally], I recognized I should have been a better example,” Karen said, voicing a familiar regret among many good-hearted people, on both sides, who get a little too worked up in protest. “I owed it to my son to teach him how to be a good audience member, whether I agreed with the person speaking or not. If I’d gotten to stay,” she added, “I was going to glue myself to that seat.”
But she didn’t get to stay, not for long anyway (by the time Trump was pausing his speech to kick out a different, less conspicuously dressed female protester, Karen had long been banished from the premises and dumped on the other side of MLK). It happened about 10 minutes after passing through security, as she started down the steps of Section 102, head down, making sure she didn’t trip. A man in a dark suit with body armor and a head piece approached and informed her that she was not to take her seat, that she would be leaving. She tried to ask why, but the man in the dark suit wouldn’t tell her, only indicated that she needed to follow another man in a dark suit. Together, they flanked the handmaid down the steps, across the floor, and into a shielded hallway by the VIP entrance. There they finally answered her question.
“The organizers of the rally don’t want you here,” the agents informed her.
Karen tried to explain that she had a ticket that very explicitly stated there was no dress code, and she hadn’t done or said a thing that would warrant her being kicked out. “My minor son is inside,” she told the dark-suited men, offering to take off her cloak and bonnet. “I would like to stay and hear the president speak.”
“The organizers,” they repeated, “don’t want you here. You need to leave now.”
It was a frustrating end to the experience, Karen said afterward, but overall, she came away with an optimistic feel. The majority of Trump supporters she interacted with throughout the day had been perfectly tolerant, if not downright nice. The only person who’d been disturbed by her presence had been Trump. “By and large, I found the people to be kinder and less judgmental than I anticipated, and that encouraged me,” she said. “And, frankly, it taught me a huge lesson personally about how I need to approach people, in order for them to be able to hear me in the first place.”
Staying silent, in other words, had allowed her message to be heard.
7:39 p.m., A Brauny Man
About 13 minutes into his speech, Donald Trump did something I didn’t expect—he gave up the mic. Trump had been doing his thing, bashing the media (while bragging about how many cameras there were), spreading Page Six gossip about the head of NBC News, and pointing out all the Republican politicians who’d come to grovel at his feet, a group that included Indiana Governor Eric Holcomb. When Trump got around to Mike Braun, the Republican challenger to Joe Donnelly, and the ostensible reason for the president’s visit, I figured he’d do a little spiel about how Braun was a millionaire businessman and a special guy, and then move on to something more fun, like bashing “Sleepin’ Joe.”
Instead, after emphasizing Braun’s background and calling him “special” multiple times, Trump brought the wealthy auto-parts distributor and timber magnate up to the mic, and let him get a little taste.
Now, I don’t know if it’s possible to pleasure someone to orgasm using words alone, but Mike Braun sure gave it the old college try during his roughly three minutes on stage, which included, for no discernible reason, a 30-second “Lock her up!” chant. In his subdued, southern Indiana accent—there was a noted disconnect between Braun’s energy level and that of the crowd—the former state rep heaped praise on the president for all he’s accomplished, and all that he will accomplish, with the help of Mike Braun.
“I’m not going [to Washington] for the pay or the perks or the pensions that they get, like none of the rest of us do,” Braun assured the crowd, forgetting that he was worth upward of $100 million.
I thought he’d at least follow-up by saying that he was going to Washington to represent Hoosier interests, as the job description required, but instead, as Trump hovered over his shoulder with a smug smirk on his face, Braun said: “I’m going there to make this man have an ally you can count on every time.”
Here’s all you really need to know about Mike Braun: As a private citizen, he voted as a Democrat for over a decade before switching sides in 2012 (meaning he voted for either Hillary or Obama in 2008, and against the Tea Party in 2010). Now, the way I see it, there are two potential reasons he might have done this. First, Braun may have simply been swept off his feet by Mitt Romney and at age 58 decided to convert to Republicanism. That’s possible, I guess. Or the other possibility is that the Republican party of Indiana, which holds a gerrymandered super-majority at the statehouse, requires that any potential candidate seeking office within their party to have voted Republican in the previous election.
Either way, in 2014, the election cycle following Braun’s conversion from Democrat to Republican at the polls. He ran for the Indiana House of Representatives, District 63, as a staunch conservative and won by 43 points. And now here he was, just four years later, on his knees and kissing the ring at a MAGA rally, the transition complete.
7:48 p.m., It Can’t Happen Here
In the days following the 2016 election, in an attempt to understand what had just gone down, I picked up a copy of Sinclair Lewis’ dystopian novel It Can’t Happen Here. Published in 1935, the book details the fictional rise of a fascist president in the United States. Reading it in the aftermath of Donald Trump’s election, I was struck, and frankly frightened, with the prescience with which Lewis nailed things.
The protagonist, a small-town liberal newspaper editor named Doremus Jessup, spends the first third of the book contemplating the candidacy of one Berzelius “Buzz” Windrip, a power-hungry demagogue who runs on an economically populist platform that’s heavy on misogyny, nativism, and white power. Windrip promises a return to “traditional values” and is backed by bloviating religious leaders with far-reaching radio programs, as well as a legion of supporters known as the “The League of Forgotten Men” and a citizen-led paramilitary force (gulp).
I can’t really tell you what happens in the second half of the book, after Windrip wins, because quite frankly, I couldn’t finish it. It was like the victim of a shark attack trying to watch Jaws from the hospital bed. Too soon. One scene early on, however, in which Jessup attends his first Windrip rally in an attempt to “explain his power of bewitching large audiences” stuck with me. In that moment, watching as Trump bounced from his new 2020 campaign slogan (“It’s called ‘Keep America Great,’ exclamation point,”) to warning that a vote for Joe Donnelly was “a vote for Maxine Waters,” I was reminded of it:
“Windrip was vulgar, almost illiterate, a public liar easily detected, and in his ‘ideas’ almost idiotic,” observed Jessup, from the crowd of the rally. “Certainly there was nothing exhilarating in the actual words of his speeches, nor anything convincing in his philosophy.”
But there was something undeniably mesmerizing, Jessup had to admit, about the soon-to-be-president’s “orgasm of oratory,” and by the end, the candidate had the reporter wondering, “What if Buzz is right? What if—in spite of all the demagogic pap he has to feed the boobs—he’s right?” The feeling is short-lived, of course. A half-hour later, on the drive home, Jessup comes out of the trance to note: “Under his spell, you thought Windrip was Plato, but on the way home, you could not remember anything he had said.”
That’s about as perfect a summation of a Donald Trump rally speech as I’ve ever read, and it was written 83 years ago. Everything was there. The vulgarity, the near illiteracy, the obvious lying, the idiocy—and yet whatever he said, be it claiming that U.S. Steel was opening six new plants in 2018 (they’re opening none) or that he was “beating Honest Abe” in the polls (polling didn’t exist until 1936), the people around just clapped and cheered and accepted it all. According to a recent Washington Post study, over 70 percent of the claims the president makes during a rally speech are “false, misleading, or lacking evidence.” And yet when asked the one thing they love about the president, his supporters cite his honesty. If that’s not a sure sign they’re blacked-out in a trance during his speeches, I don’t know what it is.
“[The Democrats] want to raid Medicare to pay for socialism!” Trump announced, and on cue, as if by Pavlovian response, the crowd started to boo. “Somehow, I don’t see Indiana being the next Venezuela. I just don’t see it, right? We don’t see it.” Trump pulled his chin back in a look of mock disbelief. “That’s what would happen too.”
8:00 p.m., The Winning of Bobby Knight
“Trump, this is Bobby Knight, and you got to run for president. Our country needs you.” The president had launched into his Bobby Knight story, about how the legendary IU basketball coach had been one his earliest and most ardent supporters. It was a popular B-side to his greatest hits collection, one he played every time he was in Indiana. I looked over at the gray-haired woman next to me. Her hands were clasped in front of her chest, and she was swaying slightly to the president’s rhythms.
On the surface, the Bobby Knight story seems to serve no purpose other than to stroke Trump’s ego, a way for him to connect himself to a winner. But the more I thought on it, the more I came to see the reasoning behind the story as dramatically darker, something far more base and guttural.
See, there’s no cultural figure alive, other than Donald Trump himself, who can divide Hoosiers as effectively as Bobby Knight. In fact, that whole “Trump before Trump” moniker—only Bobby Knight has a legitimate claim. This is a guy who punched a Puerto Rican cop, assaulted fans, threw a chair across the floor, and once told a reporter that “if rape is inevitable, relax and enjoy it.” He berated the media, disrespected his assistants, frightened his secretaries, and kicked, head-butted, and choked various players on camera. One time he took a dump in a pizza box and placed it at midcourt during a practice. “You play like shit, you play with shit” was the message.
But, at the same time, Bobby Knight won three NCAA championships, 11 Big 10 titles, four National Coach of the Year awards, and led the 1984 U.S. Olympic team to a gold medal. He graduated his players, never cheated, and by all accounts, turned “boys” into “men.” He is the last coach to captain a team to a perfect record. His 902 career wins sit second on the all-time list.
For nearly three decades, the ends justified the means. The winning made everything else okay. Knight was beloved, ruling over the IU campus in Bloomington like he was Colonel Kurtz lording over a jungle fiefdom. His influence wasn’t only confined to Bloomington either. IU basketball is a religion in Indiana, and Bob Knight was the pope. At the height of his powers, there wasn’t a more powerful or popular man in the state. If he’d run for governor back in 1988, a year after winning his third NCAA title, there is little doubt Bobby Knight would have wiped the floor with Democrat Evan Bayh, whose running mate was Frank O’Bannon, a former IU basketball player.
But Knight refused to change. Players began to transfer, the team was losing in the tournament, journalists started looking into the whispers, and suddenly Hoosier Nation had to reckon with a question they’d been avoiding for the past decade: How much winning would justify Coach Knight’s behavior?
When former player Neil Reed finally went public with an accusation that Knight choked him, and then video surfaced corroborating it, the question was finally answered (turns out, missing the Sweet 16 for seven straight seasons was the threshold for the university). The decision nearly ripped the state in half. Sports talk radio erupted in outrage, death threats were leveled against those in opposition, and protesters took to the streets of Bloomington, tearing down goal posts, pulling up lampposts, burning president Myles Brand in effigy.
I remember believing wholeheartedly that Knight had been railroaded. His motion offense still flowed, his man-to-man defense still harassed, and his disciplinary tactics had worked just fine for the unbeaten 1976 Indiana Hoosiers. It wasn’t his fault the modern player couldn’t handle it. Knight wasn’t a bully; Neil Reed was a wuss. I was 18 years old.
Now 18 years later, I find myself wholly in the other camp, my attitude toward power and control and what it means to be tough having evolved. Now, I think Neil Reed may have been the toughest goddamned kid who ever played for Coach Knight.
It‘s important to note there are still two camps, however; both very much entrenched in their beliefs about what should have happened back then. The only reason IU basketball is still seen as a unifying symbol across the state, to be perfectly honest, is because we don’t talk about Bobby Knight.
Which is exactly why the president was invoking him now, I thought to myself—noting the big smile on the face of the lady next to me as Trump talked about how big Knight’s heart was. This is what he does. This was the true genius of Donald Trump. His ability to find the deepest wound within us, the one we long ago stitched closed in order to peacefully coexist among each other, and he rips it open with his teeth, like a mad dog lusting for blood.
“We love winners,” Trump said, wrapping up his story as the gray-haired woman unclasped her hands and raised her arms to the heavens, fingers wiggling with the spirit. “Winners are winners. Our country is becoming a winner, and our country is respected again. You see that.”
8:12 p.m., Man Freaking Out
A bearded white guy in his mid-thirties, wearing an ill-fitting red IU basketball shirt, started freaking out about a half-hour into the president’s speech. He was staring up at the screen, an unsettling look in his eye, talking to himself in a hissed whisper, and gesturing in a forceful, unstable way. At first, many of those nearby mistook him for an overexcited supporter, dressed as he was, being where he was, but it soon became apparent the man was not who he was portraying himself to be. People started to shuffle away.
“Today’s Democratic Party is held hostage,” Trump’s voice boomed down from the screen, “by left-wing haters, angry mobs, deep state radicals, establishment cronies, and their fake news allies. “
The man hissed something that I couldn’t quiet catch, threw his head back and made a noise—half laugh, half shriek—that sounded not unlike a coyote caught in a bear trap. An elderly woman to the man’s right shot him a disgusted glare and moved to the other side of her husband.
“Our biggest obstacle, and their greatest ally, is actually the media,” Trump continued. “You can believe it. We’ve got stories that are so big, and the media doesn’t pick them up!”
The man threw his arms out wide. “Oh yeah? Yeah?” I could hear him say, in a threatening, ominous voice, like a man who was about to do something real stupid and knew it. “You mean like Pizzagate, huh? Obama’s birth certificate, ya dumb piece of shit? How ‘bout Vince fucking Foster?”
I heard him loud and clear that time, and so did everyone else in the near vicinity. People were whispering, pointing, and one guy was staring directly at him, arms crossed, brow scrunched in anger.
Trump continued: “You can have the biggest story about Hillary Clinton. I mean, look at what she’s getting away with. But let’s see if she gets away with it.” Trump smirked. “Let’s see.” On cue, the crowd erupted into yet another “Lock her up” chant, which seemed to be the trigger that finally set the man off.
“Oh yeah, yeaaaah!” he yelled, his voice verging on hysterical. “Lock that woman up! Lock her up for running for president! Yeaaahh!”
It was at that point, just as the man nearby was unfolding his arms and making what looked to be a move toward the yelling man, that I realized it was me. I was the guy freaking out. Sensing I had about three seconds before I would be curled on the ground taking kicks to the ribs, I put my head down and broke into a near sprint through the crowd and back out to the street, in the hopes of rejoining, permanently, my people.
8:27 p.m., In Search of My People
“Go home, racists!”
“Go home, racists!”
“Go home, racists!”
8:35 p.m., “Don’t Be a Democrat. Get Yourself a MAGA Hat”
I was walking back from the front line of the protest, dazed and confused, when a street vendor tried hawking me some Trump gear: “Don’t be a Democrat. Get yourself a MAGA hat,” he called out from behind me. I spun around, not exactly sure what I intended, and came nearly face to face with a black guy wearing a red MAGA bucket hat, a Trump/Pence 2020 shirt, and bright white pair of Jordans. He had a gym bag filled with hats slung over his shoulder and was holding one out to me.
I was emotionally frayed at that point, not exactly in control of all my faculties, and without thinking, I leaned in close to the man and in an aggressive whisper asked, “Hey, are you really a Trump supporter?”
It was wrong of me, I knew that, an invasion on multiple levels, but I had to know. The vendor leaned back at the shoulders, his eyes bulging out in disbelief, and I thought I’d offended him. But then he smiled. “Man, I’m just selling this shit,” he said with a laugh, as I joined in, relieved.
He put the hat he was holding into his bag and leaned toward me, close enough I could feel his breath on my ear, but far enough that what he said must have been obscured by all the surrounding noise. Because what I heard was, “You want to see a picture of Trump and that Russian guy naked?”
8:42 p.m., Round and Round and Round
Shaken and confused, I collapsed onto a bench across the street from the Jumbotron, a safe distance away from the crowd. I sat there with my elbows on my knees, head in hands, trying not to ingest the actual words coming out of the president’s mouth. I felt trapped, like I was in a funhouse mirror—right was left, left was wrong, a black guy selling MAGA hats just tried to show me nude pics of Trump and Putin. What in the fuck?
I had come here in search of a connection, to learn something about Trump supporters that couldn’t be discovered back home in my bubble. I thought that if I met them on their terms, without an agenda, I would be shown the light so to speak. That I’d leave the experience with a greater understanding of who these people were and why they were supporting him. And that, in turn, would make me feel better and not so horrified about the possibility of our shared future. But that didn’t happen.
“One thing people love, because they said it would be impossible to do: We have gotten rid of the estate tax, also known as the death tax.”
As much as I tried to ignore him, Trump’s rhetoric seeped through. How was it that he was able to convince a group of working-class people that getting rid of the estate tax benefited them? Did they not understand that the tax only applied to estate’s worth more than $5.4 million, which is something like 0.2 percent of the population? Did they know they just cheered because the two wealthiest families in their small town just got a tax break? Of course not.
I thought maybe the sports connection was something I could hold onto. Like them, I knew what it felt like to root for the underdog, to experience the euphoria of watching your favorite player pull off a shocking upset over an unbeatable opponent. I knew all about idolizing a man who was capable of the impossible. But the comparison was wrong. Politics aren’t sports. The stakes aren’t anywhere close to the same. When the Pacers beat the Knicks, they weren’t forced to bring John Starks and Patrick Ewing and Charles Oakley into the locker room; the organization didn’t have to make a courtside seat available at Market Square Arena for Spike Lee. And, likewise, when Trump defeated Hillary Clinton in 2016, there was no midcourt handshake to say “good game.” Trump didn’t advance to the next round to battle the next opponent. Elections are not meant to be zero-sum.
“We are canceling President Obama’s illegal, anti-coal, so-called clean power plan,” Trump said, pausing for an applause break as I rose to my feet, unconsciously, my head still down, trying to stay lost in thought.
The only real insight I gained from this experience was that Trump fans hate my team as fiercely and irrationally as I once hated the New York Knicks. Which isn’t exactly a revelation that makes me feel better about what’s going to happen after midterms.
What I knew for sure, and maybe this is what I’ll hold onto, was that prior to Trump opening his mouth, I had felt something close to a kinship with his supporters. Minus the mouthpiece, they were a group of individuals who I would happily coexist with—and in fact do. I recognized them as friends and family members, co-workers, people I engaged with on a daily basis without thinking twice. It was only when Trump opened his mouth, that things changed. Was that Trump’s fault? Or mine? Who was the cause and who was the symptom?
“The environmentalists say, ‘We like windmills.’” Trump made a face like he’d just smelled a sour diaper. “Oh really? What about the thousands of birds they’re killing?”
That snapped me from my reverie. What did he say? I could see people in front of me smiling, nudging each other with elbows. Trump was way off-prompter, and nobody knew where he was headed. This is what they had come for.
“They want to have windmills all over the place, right? When the wind doesn’t blow, what do we do? Uh, we got problems.” There was more laughter, and the president smiled, leaning into the bit. “When there’s thousands of birds laying at the base of the windmill, what do we do? Try going to the bottom of a windmill someday,” Trump implored. “It’s not a pretty picture.”
I found myself laughing along with the rest of the crowd. It was such a silly, nonsensical digression, and I was looking up at the screen, pacing the outskirts of the crowd, moving closer and closer with each pass, trying to fight the urge to re-engage.
“But really, when the wind doesn’t blow, you got problems. If your house is staring at a windmill, not good.” Trump’s voice was loud, beckoning, and I felt myself start to drift toward the soft glow of the Jumbotron, like a moth to a flame. “And then you’re living with that noise, and you hear it going round and round and round,” Trump was making a circular motion with his finger to simulate the constant spinning, and I felt myself being mesmerized, like the fictional Jessup, floating into the crowd toward the front, eyes glued to Trump but no longer comprehending his words, aware only of the feeling being conveyed.
“And then you go crazy after a couple years,” Trump concluded, grabbing his head in mock agony. “Not good.”