The shout came after the first mention of Hillary Clinton’s name at Tuesday night’s Donald Trump rally in North Carolina: An opening speaker had called her “Crooked Hillary.” There was a smattering of laughs inside the Greensboro Coliseum. Many of the attendees were boozy-eyed. Many had turned to their neighbors and rolled their eyes, while a few people clapped in the stands.
But now it was Trump making the case that Clinton wouldn’t help the LGBT community because of her ties to countries that openly discriminated against women and gays, all the while belaboring the shooter’s Muslim immigrant parents from Afghanistan, the words spit out like they tasted foul.
“And she’s no friend of L … G … B … T Americans. She’s no friend. Believe me.”
“The gays had it coming!” a man shouted and gazed back at the guy who’d called Hillary a bitch. They met eyes, shared a smile, a look of recognition.
As if it were some kind of joke.
As if 49 of his fellow Americans—49 living, breathing human beings—hadn’t just been mowed down.
I’ve spent a good deal of my time on the 2016 campaign trail trying to empathize with the Donald Trump supporter. As the product of Linton, Indiana, a Midwestern town gutted by NAFTA and the son of a working-class family the American Dream left behind, I can, with some effort, put myself in a Trump voter’s shoes.
They have, after all, been manipulated for at least the past 50 years to vote against their interests, as wedge issues and social crusades have persuaded them to forget their checkbooks and pledge support to a Republican Party that has promised to protect them from The Other, whether that’s been African-Americans, homosexuals, or feminists.
They have, after all, suffered the depletion of their work in the wake of globalism and free-trade initiatives, of which the Democrats have played a part.
They have, after all, been betrayed time and again by both parties in a system that rewards money and power and special interests.
They have, after all, been told incessantly in every medium how the country is being taken over by radicals intent on shredding the Constitution, and a lie can only be told so long before it sounds like a truth.
They have, after all, watched a very real and seismic shift in both demographics and social attitudes, the combination of which has upset the only thing they had: a consistent reality.
When I look at it in those terms, I can understand. Not necessarily condone, but at least understand. Trump, as they say, “speaks his mind.” He’s the megaphone through which their visceral and terrorizing nightmares could be given voice. It’s unreasonable but fathomable. And it explains why his rallies are themselves visceral and terrorizing nightmares.
In the parking lot of the Greensboro Coliseum there were vendors hawking everything from cheap pins of the GOP’s elephant mascot wearing Donald Trump’s hair-helmet to knock-off “Make America Great Again” hats in red, black, white, and camo. The coveted item for the day, however, were screen-printed anti-Hillary T-shirts.
“Hillary For Prison ’16.”
“Trump That Bitch.”
And the real star, a shirt you could hear vendors peddling from a hundred yards away: “Hillary Sucks, But Not Like Monica.”
They were everywhere. People inside were finding their fellow Trumpers wearing it and posing for pictures. Flashing big thumbs up and cheesy grins.
After the rally the vendors were back at it, barking like carnies.
“Hillary sucks, but not like Monica!”
“Come on, now! Hillary sucks, but not like Monica!”
I walked behind a father explaining the shirt to his ten-year-old son by saying the former secretary of the state, the first female presidential nominee of a major political party, had “let her husband have all kinds of oral sex in the White House.”
The “Hillary Sucks, But Not Like Monica” shirt wasn’t the worst one I saw. I caught a few glimpses of another take on “Hillary For Prison ’16,” this one featuring a caricature of Clinton. Her waist and thighs were ballooned for effect, trapped in what I have to assume was supposed to be a jail cell but more resembled a cage. Like she was an animal that needed to be tamed.
By the end of Trump’s speech, everything had been touched: His successes in the polls. ISIS and illegal immigrants in the same breath. Elizabeth “Pocahontas” Warren. The “dishonest” media and Trump’s revocation of the Washington Post’s press credentials, during which my section chanted “Kill them all / kill them all.”
He’d rambled until he couldn’t ramble anymore and seemed spent. He’d exhausted yelling “Shut up, you SILLY WOMAN!” during an odd, misplaced poem that compared immigrants to snakes. At another point, a boy interrupted with “We all bleed red” and was dragged out by security as Trump sarcastically called, “Don’t hurt him! Please don’t hurt that person!” and the crowd replied, “Hurt him! / Hurt him!” As he was led to the doors, a small pack of supporters broke off from the throng and followed as if they meant to pummel him just past the exit.
Outside, the lot was filled with more vendors and beyond them cars and trucks with Confederate Flag bumper stickers, decals, license plates, and actual Confederate Flags. In the shadow of one I watched a dad spank his child heatedly, as if the man needed somewhere to focus all his anger.
On everybody’s lips were strange non-sequiturs of hate.
“You can’t trust Latinos. Some maybe, but not most.”
“Immigrants aren’t people, honey.”
“You know them crazy black girls, how they are.”
Sickened, I got in my car and watched in the rearview as a group of college boys tailgated out of their pickup. They’d just finished their beers and were taking turns slamming them on the ground, one of them flinging it at the bumper of a passing car. Next to them another group of college boys wearing the telltale uniform of Southern preppiedom: gingham shirts tucked into thigh-length khaki shorts with braided belts and sockless loafers. Their wavy helmets of Bieberish hair tucked under those generic hats.
That’s when I realized what had been there all along. This campaign, whose success has long been attributed to the forgotten working and middle classes, the so-called Silent Majority, has been, and always will be, an unholy alliance between the Hateful and the Privileged, the former always on a never-ending search for new venues for their poison and the latter enjoying, for the first time since Reagan’s ’80s, an opportunity to get out and step on some necks in public.
I considered the odd pairing and its implications as I left the lot and turned onto Coliseum Boulevard. Trump can be defeated, and most likely he will be, but elections cannot cure this disease. It’s always been here and perhaps it always will be. Trump’s narcissistic quest to “Make America Great Again” has only drawn the insects to the surface, and there’s plenty of room to wonder whether he’s driving the movement or if it’s driving him.
There wasn’t much time to mull it over. Parallel to the traffic crawling down US-220 was a green and white sedan, the driver hanging a Mexican flag from his window. “Fuck Trump!” he yelled, succeeding in gaining the ire but failing to earn the attention of the shiny new SUV clogging the lane next to mine. At mind-numbing levels these college boys were playing “I Am a Real American,” the theme music of professional wrestling hero-turned-bigot Hulk Hogan, all while flipping off pedestrians with one hand and flashing Trump yard signs with the other.