When Donald Trump comes to town, political chaos follows on his heels.
I attended the rally Trump held in downtown St. Louis at the Peabody Opera House on Friday, the same day that Chicago responded to his arrival with such a frenzy of dissent that he decided to cancel. In St. Louis, it was obvious why the candidate who has so carefully cultivated this environment might be afraid of it.
Trump supporters ranging from high school students to disabled vets and everything in between waited outside the venue; those at the front of the line had been there since 3 a.m.
They told me they believed in Trump’s promise to make America great again. They told me that they were there because of the economy, mostly. The crowd was mostly white, but still diverse in background and lifestyle. One young man looked like the image of a counterculture millennial, with an asymmetrical haircut and ear gauges. He wore a pin that said “bomb the hell out of ISIS” on a faux-leather jacket. He hadn’t decided yet if he would vote in the Democratic or Republican primary.
At the front of the line, a YouTube comedian led the crowd in a chant of “make America great again,” which they enthusiastically cheered for until they realized he had switched to “make America hate again”, leading to an awkward, muttering trailing-off. A supporter with a cowboy hat and guitar stepped in to take his place as the entertainment.
Meanwhile, a small group of protesters bearing signs ranging from earnestly anti-racist to cheap jokes, stood further down the sidewalk, making the anti-Trump case. One of them, face covered in a bandana, dragged an American flag under his feet. The two groups shouted competing chants, “KKK, go away” vying with “USA! USA!” Police officers dragged a metal barrier between them.
It was the kind of political spectacle that amounted to ordinary people squabbling in the street, over the insurmountable differences in their fundamental world views and what mattered most to them. It wasn’t the kind of thing that made headlines, but it was democracy, in an unglamorous microcosm.
It was the first event for which I had ever been a registered member of the press, and I filed into the section reserved for media with the rest of the reporters in attendance. We were not, as you might expect, near the stage. Instead, we were in the back of the room. It was clear that the candidate wanted the keep his distance from the media.
Trump was nearly 45 minutes late to the event, and we heard other speakers before he arrived. All three were women – a Latina immigration lawyer who seemed cynically chosen to make the point that not all Trump supporters are white, the vice chair of the Missouri Republican Party, who said that her grandchildren weren’t allowed to watch Trump dissenter Megyn Kelly on Fox News because “Southern girls are taught that women should be seen and not heard,” and 91-year-old conservative activist Phyllis Schlafly, the famous antifeminist.
When Trump took the stage, the crowd erupted into rapturous cheers. After a long morning of waiting and confronting those who didn’t agree with them, here was the man they’d all come to see, here to make America great again.
He didn’t speak in many unbroken sentences. Every few minutes, a protester in the audience would rise to their feet. They would unfurl a sign, usually with a message about Trump’s racism.
If they said anything, I couldn’t hear them. Far louder and more disruptive than the protestors was the audience response. The entire crowd would jeer at each protester; Trump himself joined in, running a scornful commentary on each of his critics as they were removed from the room by the police.
“Nobody’s being hurt, press,” Trump called back to us in the cheap seats. He wanted to make it understood that he was in no way encouraging the violence against protesters that had taken place at some of his events. Still, there could be little question that this was obfuscation. With more sincerity, he told the audience about how in the good old days, there were consequences for protesting.
I don’t know if this called to mind images of fire hoses and attack dogs for anyone else in the room, but it did for me.
There was, predictably, no debate or conversation in that room. Trump laughed at Democratic candidate Bernie Sanders for allowing protestors at one of his events to take the microphone, and it was clear why. No one came to see Donald Trump speak to hear ideas.
Trump’s brand of conservatism doesn’t require policy analysis, from either his fans or his ardent dissenters. Trump is a man who makes it incredibly easy to understand where you stand. There’s only one question you have to ask yourself to understand your position in the hierarchy of Trump America–are you with him, or are you against him?
The storm outside and within every recent Trump event is a look into a political future dominated by a faction which views all outsiders as enemies. That shouldn’t make a candidate electable in America. Trump’s ultimate fate will show us whether it does.