How Attending A Trump Rally Reignited My Faith In Politics

“Want to go see Trump?” my husband emailed me last week.

“HELL. NO.” I immediately typed back.

The Donald was coming to my small New Hampshire town (population: 13,000), but I wasn’t going to take part. Even for the sake of journalism, I didn’t think I could stomach the egregiously racist comments and emptiest of empty promises.

Eventually, though, my journalistic curiosity got the best of me. Three days after my initial frank refusal, I pitched my editors, writing, “While I don’t know exactly what the story will be, I know there will be a story tonight.”

And just like that, I was on my way to the town’s high school, feeling something like amusement. Whether it was Trump providing more cringe-worthy comments, or fans following with blind admiration, I was prepared to do a case study on what seemed like a far-flung culture: the Trump machine.

Instead, the story ending up being something I never would have guessed — something even, dare I say, positive: going to a Donald Trump rally reinstilled my faith in our country.

***

My husband and I arrived an hour before the rally started (an hour after doors had opened). Already, the line was around the block. Despite the single-digit temperatures, 1,500 people were waiting for over an hour to get into the gym.

My husband held our spot, as I set off to find the radicals. I figured they’d be easy to spot — if I couldn’t viserally feel the overt bigotry, surely the signs, hats, and pins would give them away. But as I followed the line snaking around the building, I was surprised to see how, well, normal everyone was. There were no loud protesters. No one decked out head to toe in Trump paraphernalia. And, most importantly, no one who personified the voter that Trump seemingly caters to: an overt, spiteful bigot.

The severity of Trump’s views are what make them so newsworthy — but at this rally, at least, I discovered that his followers aren’t nearly as extreme.

“None of us are bigots. We’re not anti-immigration. We’re not against whole groups of people,” said George Sandmann, who was waiting in line with his 14-year-old son Jack. “I think there’s a lot of quiet enthusiasm. A lot of people hear things he’s saying and they’re things that they’ve said in their heads. That’s why there’s a lot of people standing in line.”

Sandmann, a first-generation immigrant, said that much of what Trump says resonates with him, despite the things that he disagrees with. “You’re not going to deport 12 million people. That’s not wise and it doesn’t work.” Sandmann’s views in part fell in line with Trump — “having a porous border is a failure of the government,” he said — but they lacked the hate-stoking rhetoric that’s become Trump’s trademark.

When I asked why he had brought his son to see Trump, Sandmann laughed. “He dragged me out.”

“In my class I’m probably the only kid who doesn’t think that Bernie Sanders is the second coming,” Jack said.

“Those are views he’s formed himself,” his father added. “We have raging heated debates in the house.”

This exchange highlighted another aspect of the rally that I found surprising — families using it as an opportunity to engage in meaningful political discourse. “I actually think that has been one of the great things Trump has done for our country. Whether people like what he says or not, he is getting people interested and off the couch,” said Christina Johnson, whose 14-year-old and 11 year-old children asked her to bring them to the rally. For a mom who has worked to teach her children the importance of being politically involved, it was a proud moment, no matter the candidate.

“I want them to understand how important it is to participate in elections,” she said. “I want to expose them to all of the possibilities and allow them to make educated decisions for themselves. I am now seeing the payoff of having them come with me right into the voting booth over the years.”

After the rally, I asked Johnson if she had any reservations about bringing her children to see such a controversial candidate, known for his off-color remarks. She said that her kids expected to hear comments about Muslims and other minority groups, but that they didn’t share those views. . . not that she didn’t have her fears about the power of Trump’s words:

“As a parent, that part bothers me. I want my kids to judge people based on individual actions and not make generalizations about a group of people. I have raised my kids to be open-minded, thoughtful, and accepting, so I believe they are able to look past the comments and see the main point, but I don’t want them desensitized to these types of comments. Again, the controversy gives parents the opportunity to address these issues with our children, which I see as the positive. These conversations are preparing them for how to deal with these issues in the real world as adults, and even now as children.”

As I moved up the line, a documentary film crew pulled out a group of high school students, who jumped and screamed wildly.

“Thank god I do print journalism,” I muttered to my husband as we watched the producers try to quell the chaos. But after their initial excitement, the teens in the group talked eloquently about the issues that they were concerned about, and why they had thrown their support behind certain candidates. There was a Trump supporter, a Bernie supporter, and a Rand Paul fan in the group, and each answered the filmmaker’s questions with intelligence and poise.

As I moved up in line, two young women holding homemade Trump signs caught my eye. They had driven an hour and a half to be at the rally, but despite their signs, they said they are open-minded and undecided politically.

“We only have signs because we got carried away with crafting last night,” said one 19-year-old, who asked that I not use her name. “We’re so young, we want to know what the landscape will be when we get out of school. Like, if we’ll have jobs.”

Both college students said that tax reform and economic issues were the most important issue to them during the 2016 election. I asked them how they feel about Trump’s social stances.

“We’re here to hear different ideas,” said the second student, also 19. “Maybe there’s a grand idea that makes it okay that he hates women,” she said — and it wasn’t entirely clear whether she was joking or not. She paused. “I’m really reaching here. Hypothetically, there could be strong suits to balance his less appealing stance on social issues,” she explained, noting that the president has less control over social issues than people would like to believe.

Such nuanced opinions and beliefs stood in stark contrast to Trump himself, who, when he took the stage, once again discussed politics in the crudest of terms. Despite my attempts to be neutral, there were times during his speech when I physically cringed. Like when he said he used to think the press was just incompetent, “but there’s a better word . . . they’re stupid.” Or when he encouraged an audience member who joked about Hillary being missing from the campaign trail because she’s in the bathroom (after all, that’s all us women folk do). Or when he got a little too comfortable with his poll numbers:

“Nobody’s ever leaving me,” he said, waving a piece of paper with the polls on it. “I can be the worst person and they’ll never leave. If I was up here and — well, I won’t say it because they’ll report it,” he said, gesturing to the press area. “Let’s just say I was up here and did some really inappropriate things, [people would] never leave.”

After the rally, the second student emailed me. “We were angry at Trump and his vague policies but very clear aversion to women and Muslims.”

This kind of response exemplified my experience at the rally, which ultimately made me less afraid of the Trump machine. The nightmare vision of America Trump has invoked — one in which millions of people share his fervently sexist and racist beliefs — was not reflected back at this rally.

Instead, I found an electorate that was engaged, families that were challenging each other politically, and young people debating the issues that will shape their future with far more compassion and nuance than what Trump himself has come to embody.

As the rally emptied out, I spotted Trish Killay, who had come to the event wearing her Bernie Sanders shirt.

“I came with an open mind, despite the shirt,” she told me. “If I have the opportunity to hear any candidate speak, I should take it. I came to be informed without the media filter. I was really hoping to be surprised.”

And was she?

“Honestly, it was worse. He didn’t answer questions. He kept saying we’re going to do this, but he wasn’t saying how. This was a lot of wasted time.”

However, the night wasn’t a complete wash. Before the event, Killay said, she was at a bar in town, and walked to the high school with two Trump campaign organizers. “I had a really good conversation with them. That’s how this should be.”

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