Crossing the Line in Battleground America
To cover any conflict properly you’ve got to see it from both (or all) sides if possible. Battleground America is no different, even though we’re supposedly under the same flag the more time you spend time at these events the more tribal and fractured things seem. The reasons for this are complicated so I’ll just try to describe what it’s like to experience it.
After shooting three Trump rallies in a row, last week I was able to go to three Clinton events, one Hillary and two Bill. The lack of overlap is troubling. We’re not just having disagreements on policies: capital gains taxes, limits on carbon emissions, social security retirement age, these sort of things. Trop quaint. We’re in a situation where both candidates have completely delegitimized the other.
Trump has gone a step further, he’s crossed a line where he is delegitimizing the institutions of democracy and the process . You saw the debates, have been absorbing the news. I don’t need to elaborate.
In person, the enthusiasm for Trump is at rock-star levels. The energy of the crowd may be angry and/or fearful at what they think is the state of the nation, but they believe he speaks for them, has the answers and most here are very excited to be at the event. I’ve seen him at least ten times and he has never failed to keep the crowd engaged and emotional. Love him or hate him, you can’t deny he is a talented public speaker.
The message you get at his rallies is that we’re living in dangerous, conspiratorial times, that the American way of life is under siege and the mainstream media (CNN, The New York Times, The Washington Post etc.) are not just left-biased, but part of the assault. Trump and the warm-up speakers, often including Rudi Giuliani, promote the idea is that this election may be the last chance to save America.
Still, most people I speak with are friendly to me, from the look of the credential they think I might be associated with the campaign somehow. Just like at the Clinton rallies, they ask what outlet I’m from (Redux Pictures) and usually stay friendly when I explain my photographs can wind up pretty much anywhere. At the last Trump rally however, a few female senior citizens called me “deplorable” and yelled “go back to where you (me) came from.” “Where exactly did they mean?” I wondered, “The parking lot…California?”
In Ambridge, Ohio on Monday I had a conversation with a pleasant couple in their 60’s. The man is convinced that the mother of Huma Abedin, Hillary Clinton’s close aide, is in the Muslim Brotherhood, and that if Clinton becomes president Islamists will have a direct channel to the White House to impose Sharia law throughout the United States.
You might assume the man is paranoid and closed-minded, but it’s worth noting that he told me he voted for Obama in 2008. Maybe he’s just paranoid. I hadn’t heard the Abedin thing before but I know that many believe the Sharia law thing is already happening, that Christianity, patriotism, U.S. military and economic strength, the rule of law and the Constitution are under siege by the government.
Before your head explodes, let me talk about the music for a second. If you’re an attendee at one of these rallies, Trump or Clinton, you’re likely to be standing in the venue for at least an hour before it starts. There will be warm-up speakers but also a lot of dead time, when the only thing going on is music being played over the PA.
At Trump you get The Donald’s preferred playlist: lots of Rolling Stones, Credence Clearwater Rival, John “Cougar” Mellencamp. It’s mostly muscular, 70’s rock but also, weirdly, Elton John’s “Tiny Dancer.” For the most part, the crowd pays little attention to the music although you can occasionally see some subtle head nods when Fogerty belts out “Born on the Bayou.” The Stones’ “You Can’t Always Get What You Want” is played, as far as I can tell, without irony.
Head over to Hillary and you’re getting lots of catchy 70’s and 80’s dance stuff: Stevie Wonder, Prince, Cool and the Gang. People are up and moving around. Unlike at Trump events, you see many people of color, and even the middle-aged white people are clapping on the backbeat.
In stark contrast to the angry mood at the Trump rallies, the vibe here is upbeat. After all, Clinton is ahead in the polls, her party has been in the White House for eight years and most people there think things are generally going in the right direction. Just like at Trump rallies, the economy and jobs are stressed, but the overall theme is one of diversity and inclusion, rather than fear of outsiders.
In Akron, Ohio, Hillary Clinton spoke without a teleprompter and the delivery was concise, organized and relaxed. At the two Bill Clinton events, he used notes also, but sparingly, and even though I heard the same jokes twice, his Uncle Hound Dog delivery style made them sound spontaneous.
In Canton, Ohio, the second Bill event I attended, Clinton spoke in a ironwork training center on the edge of downtown. It was a small venue and not everyone could get in. Some people stood outside to watch and listen through the large, industrial door.
The neighborhood was working class, at best. This is a town that has been hit hard in recent times. Demographically and superficially, the people looked not unlike what I’d seen at Trump rallies, although there were more minorities.
The tribes here were maybe not that far apart from the ones at the Trump rallies, they shared many of the same concerns, practical ones, jobs, fairness in the system. The difference perhaps was this was a union crowd and the people were probably more used to diverse workplaces and neighborhoods.
Canton is a city, but not a big one. Trump rallies tend to happen on the outskirts of cities. There are many rural people who attend and when you drive around back roads in Indiana, Michigan and Ohio you see Trump signs but almost none for Hillary. In Pittsburgh yesterday, in the neighborhood around Carnegie Mellon University and the University of Pittsburgh I saw many Hillary signs but not a single one for Trump.
To cross the line is to move from rural areas to the cities; from country towns to college towns; from all-white, to white, black and brown. We can break it all down and consider the various groups and their priorities, but in the big picture, when you converse with people in the crowds and understand how they are forming their opinions and getting their information from such balkanized sources, you get the sense of not just different priorities, but two very different realities forming. The U.S. is in need of a Demilitarized Zone, but the dynamic is going in the opposite direction, and it’s troubling.