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Scenes From an American Rally

As Donald Trump’s campaign combusts amid one of the most discomfiting periods in recent American history, who are the supporters who refuse to leave his side?

It’s difficult to hear anything above the screams.

Sure, there are other noises here in Cincinnati’s U.S. Bank Arena. Lee Greenwood, for example, whose song "God Bless the USA" is playing over the arena’s loudspeakers. Perhaps somewhere in this building, someone is singing along. And then there are the signs, reading "TRUMP PENCE" and "MAKE AMERICA GREAT AGAIN," all waving through the air, presumably with a whooshing sound. One has to imagine that the reporters, all sectioned off in the press pen, are making a clacking noise as they type away on their laptops. A few babies are here. Maybe they’re crying. Perhaps they’re laughing. Or maybe, as Donald Trump walks to the stage, they’re joining the thousands of adults in this building by screaming too.

Trump steps to the microphone and, eventually, the screams subside. It’s Thursday night in one of the most outrageous and discomfiting weeks in the recent history of American politics, and the man who has given rise to the spectacle is preparing to speak. After a few platitudes, he begins, launching into talk of terror and immigration, manufacturing and trade.

"I love you, Donald Trump!" shouts someone from the arena’s floor.

Even now. Especially now. As Trump’s campaign combusts through October, these are the Americans riding along in the flames.

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Getty Images

"God Bless A-fucking-merica!"

Eighteen thousand people are here in Cincinnati to affirm their support for a man whose presidential campaign seems to be in a moment of historic crisis. They are here even though Trump was caught boasting on tape about assaulting women and a number of women came forward to allege that yes, his boasts were true. They are here even as Republican leaders unendorse Trump in droves, apparently willing to concede the White House to refocus their attention down the ballot.

I’m attending two Trump rallies in two days, in Cincinnati and Charlotte, not as a credentialed reporter, but as any other member of the crowd. In conversations, I’m identifying myself as a writer and am taking notes the entire time, but unless someone goes out of their way to tell me I can, I’m agreeing not to identify the people I speak to by name. This is done in hopes of finding honesty and candor, of learning, with less than a month until the election, about the people who refuse to leave Trump’s side.

On the stage, Trump continues a vague and winding monologue. He says he’ll build a wall. He rails against NAFTA. He says he’ll defeat ISIS. Mostly, though, he looks for reasons to elicit more screams. Eventually he turns to his easiest trick: saying the words "Hillary Clinton."

"Lock her the fuck up!" yells the man standing next to me, whom I’ll call Ed. Ed is short and muscular and middle-aged. He wears an oversize T-shirt that says "DONALD FUCKIN’ TRUMP." He scans the room, awed by the spectacle in a way that feels contagious. He can barely see anything onstage, but a few times he jumps up so that he can catch a fleeting glimpse. At one point, he hands me his phone, and he asks me to take a 360-degree panoramic photo of the room. When I oblige, he takes one look at the picture, and then he smiles up at me and says, with a certain reverence: "Fucking bad-ass, dude. Bad. Fucking. Ass." I look at the photo. He’s right. The scene is astonishing.

And yet it is also jarring in a way that, days later, I will still be unable to fully describe. I’m no stranger to red America. I’ve spent most of my life in the South, and I grew up attending evangelical Christian schools. I once voted for the reelection of George W. Bush. And beyond a life spent among people who are now Trump supporters, I’ve also worked for years as a sportswriter, sitting among crowds and listening to people scream. The boos in Philadelphia. The insults in Cleveland. The gleefully polite bile that pours forth from stadiums all across the SEC. And yet I’ve never experienced anything quite like tonight in Cincinnati. Ed hasn’t either. "This is unreal," he says.

Just to Ed’s right stands a young woman. She enjoys screaming. She has a favorite word: fuck. "Fuck Obama!" "Fuck Syrians!" And at one point, when Trump mentions Republicans who have not honored their pledge to support him, she offers a vague but menacing "Fuck them!" This is something of a moment, because right as she is screaming "Fuck them!" Ed is screaming "Goddamn pussies!" and after they each scream their respective epithets, for a second, their eyes meet. They laugh. Then they turn back toward Trump and ready for their next chance to scream.

Outside, after the rally, I meet a protester named Tonja who holds a sign that says, "Don’t Grab My Pussy!" Young men parade past her, all making the same joke, aping the response that Trump has given at rallies all week. They say, "You don’t have to worry about anyone grabbing your pussy," or some variation thereof, one after another, laughing every time.

At one point Tonja fires back. She yells at two young men, named Clay and Owen. Clay is tall and skinny, wearing a backward Trump hat. Owen is short and stout, wearing a fedora adorned by a feather. Tonja calls them "rednecks." She makes a joke about them sleeping with their own mothers. They scream. She screams. Tonja takes a picture. Clay and Owen raise their middle fingers to her camera as it flashes.

The men take off jogging down the street, laughing the whole way. Eventually, Clay turns around. He shouts, at no one in particular, "God bless A-fucking-merica!"

This was among Trump’s tamest rallies all week.

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Getty Images

"Are Y’all on Reddit?"

The next day in Charlotte, a line forms in the bowels of the city’s convention center, a small crowd waiting for doors to open for another rally. The room feels like something between a hangar and a basement, a wide and gray open expanse.

"Do you think they’re gonna gas us?"

That’s a woman I’ll call Cynthia. She’s middle-aged, wearing a blue visor and expressing concern. "I think they might gas us because we’re Trump supporters." She is joking, she makes clear. In front of her is another woman I’ll call Anne, who wears a red "Make America Great Again" hat. As Anne takes in the growing crowd, she says, "Do you think Hillary’s rallies look like this?"

"I saw one on TV," says Cynthia. "They had to make everyone squeeze together, just so it looked like they had people there."

"Well," says Anne, chuckling, "you can’t get dead people to your rallies. You can get them to vote, but you can’t get them to your rallies."

She’s referencing voter fraud, a central talking point in the Trump campaign. It is, according to a number of academic studies, in-depth journalistic investigations, and government probes, a virtually nonexistent phenomenon, a conspiracy theory with very little evidence to back it up.

"Oh, I just loving reading conspiracy theories," says another woman I’ll call Pam. Fifties, blonde, wearing a dazzling red blouse and bright red lipstick. "Are y’all on Reddit? Y’all have got to get on Reddit."

Anne and Cynthia respond that yes, of course they’re on Reddit, corners of which serve as home to much of the Trumpian fringe. "Oh it’s just so good," says Pam, referring to a particular subreddit she enjoys. "Everything is anti-Hillary. And it’s all true. Oh, it’s so good. Every word. I just sit in bed, and I read it like it’s a good novel."

Pam continues. "These alt-right boys," she says, referring to the mostly young, mostly male coalition of nationalists who compose a core minority of Trump’s support, "I’m telling you, they keep coming out with all these conspiracies. Some of it’s out there, but I love it. And I swear to you — they ain’t been wrong yet!"

They start throwing out some of their favorite theories. A woman up ahead of them says that Obama is going to impose martial law, that he won’t leave office if Trump wins. "Oh, of course," someone says. "That’s been confirmed." Another woman says that everyone needs to be careful not to harass any of Trump’s accusers, because there’s a rumor that the Clinton campaign will murder one of them and make it look like a suicide. "Mmm," comes the response. "You know people would believe it, too." Anne says that Clinton has Stage 3 Parkinson’s. Not Stage 2. Not Stage 4. "Every neuro person knows it," she says. "They see it and they just know."

"Hmm," says Pam. "I don’t really know about that."

"Oh, I know it for a fact," says Anne. "It’s 100 percent true."

Cynthia chimes in: "I want her to die like that," she says. "I want her and Bill to die just sitting and staring at each other, drool coming out of their mouths." It’s quiet, for just a second, and then they laugh.

Soon enough the doors open, and as we walk toward security, I talk with Cynthia and Anne in more depth. Cynthia has been a Republican since she met Ronald Reagan decades ago, but now she’s leaving the party out of disgust for the way it’s treated Trump. Anne speaks with precision and nuance about the failings of Obamacare, and she speaks with a bashful shrug about Trump’s comments regarding women and his alleged sexual assaults. "He’s from New Yoooooorrrrrk," she says, drawing out the second word in an exaggerated drawl. "I’ve been to New York. It’s just different up there. People are more aggressive. It’s not like the South. It’s not as polite. People just need to understand where he’s coming from."

They ask who I’m voting for. I tell them it will not be Trump. They needle me, just a little, but soon they start asking about my life. When I tell them I’m from the South, and that I went to a conservative Christian college, Cynthia stares at me, briefly open-jawed. "And you vote Democrat?" she says.

We pass through security and reconnect on the other side. Before we part ways, I ask Cynthia how she can continue to support Trump given the way he treats women. "I went into this with eyes wide open," she says. "I knew who he was. Everybody knew who he was. The hypocrites are the ones acting like they only know it now." She continues: "I’m 55 years old. I’ve had stuff like that" — referring to uninvited grabbing and kissing — "happen to me." She shrugs. "Life is long. Bad stuff happens."

"When it comes down to it," she finishes, "if I’m in a foxhole, I want Donald Trump down there with me. I don’t want Hillary Clinton." Now a crowd is forming around the stage, and Cynthia is worried about getting a good spot for the event. She has to go. "You’re a sweet boy," she says. "You could be my son if you’d stop voting Democrat." She squeezes my arm, and with that, she slips off into the crowd, out of sight.

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Getty Images

"SALAM Means PEACE"

Minutes later I spot a small woman darting through the crowd. She carries a bag. She wears a hijab. Every few seconds she approaches a man or woman and hands them a pen that’s been made to look like a rose. It is green and red with white lettering that says, "SALAM means PEACE."

Her name is Rose Hamid. She’s 56, born in Buffalo to a Colombian mother and a Palestinian father, and she now works as a flight attendant and lives in Charlotte. She works the room, handing out pen after pen, and each time she looks up with a round face and brown eyes, and she offers the same soft and buoyant smile as she says, "Have a nice day."

"Thaaaank youuuuu," says one woman, who takes the pen and then looks at her friend with frozen lips and wild eyes. "Cool," says a pot-bellied man in a Trump-Pence T-shirt, nodding with genuine warmth. "Very cool." Most people meet Hamid’s eyes as she approaches, and they accept her gifts politely. A few make a point to look away, and rather than bothering them, she just moves on.

This is not Hamid’s first Trump rally. She made news in January when she showed up at another one in Rock Hill, South Carolina. During his speech that day, Trump suggested some Syrian refugees had ties to the Islamic State, and at that moment Hamid stood up silently behind him, wearing a shirt that said, "SALAM I COME IN PEACE." The crowd booed and jeered. Police escorted her out of the rally. She came to another rally in August, and says she was booted from that one, too.

Now she’s back. "I think it’s really important to do this," she tells me. "Just to show people my face and allow them to actually encounter a Muslim and show them that we are peaceful, that we’re not terrorists. So many people have never even met a Muslim. They don’t know who we are." I tell her that it sounds like an incredible weight to carry, representing all of Islam to people whose candidate would like to keep Muslims from entering the country. She takes a quick, smiling breath, and she shakes her head kindly as she explains. "I already carry that weight. I carry it going to the grocery store, going about my day. Every time people see the hijab, they know what it means. They know what I represent. I don’t ever leave that behind."

She admits that she asked some Muslim friends to join her tonight, but that they were too nervous to come along. But, she says, so far tonight she’s encountered politeness from all and genuine curiosity from some. "One woman told me she was scared of me at first," she says. "But then she said she didn’t understand why she was scared. ‘You’re not that scary,’ she said. Moments like that make this a good thing to do."

As we’re talking, an older man walks up. He looks Hamid up and down and he grins, warm and a little confused. "Now haven’t I seen you on the news?" he asks.

She turns toward him and smiles. "Maybe," she says.

"Yeah," he says. "I think I seen you on there."

Awkward silence. Mutual nods. Then he asks, "You having a good time tonight?"

"I am."

He registers this for a moment. He looks down, as if processing the weight of her words. "Good," he says. "That’s good to hear. You have a nice night."

He walks away. As he leaves, Hamid turns back to me and smiles. "See?" she says. "Most people are really nice." Now another man approaches, this one in a gray suit. He appears to be a campaign staffer. He is less curious. He is less nice. "Come with me, please," he says, and she follows. He leads her toward the exit, and as she walks, she keeps smiling, pulling out pens and handing them to men and women on her way to the back of the room. She knows what this is. She’s been through this before. Finally they reach the exit and disappear.

Minutes later, the man returns. She does not. I ask him what happened. "That’s confidential," he says. I ask if Hamid had been asked to leave, and he says, "I believe so." He won’t say anything more, not even his name.

A few minutes later, Hamid says by phone that once she left the room, the man told her, "This is a private event. You are not welcome here."

She says she got in her car. She drove home.

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Getty Images

"Fuck Donald Trump!"

An hour passes. Then two. Omarosa, perhaps the most famous former Apprentice contestant, speaks. Rudy Giuliani speaks. A few local politicians and a televangelist, James Robison, all rise to the stage. The crowd yelps and chants and cheers. Speakers branch out into territory that was left unexplored in Cincinnati. There is more talk of God, some bashing of liberals offended by North Carolina’s antitransgender bathroom law. Mostly, though, the speakers play the hits. By my second night on the trail, the rhythm is familiar and almost monotonous. People scream if someone says Donald Trump should be president. They chant if they say that Hillary Clinton should go to jail.

A few feet ahead of me in the crowd, I see a little boy, perhaps 5, sitting atop what I assume are his dad’s shoulders. His feet dangle on his father’s chest. He wears lines of red, white, and blue paint on his face and a pair of glasses in the shape of two stars, and they’re so big that he has to hold them in place to keep them from falling off his head. At one moment during the speech, he looks down at his dad and smiles, big and wide, adorable. Then he pumps his fist and chants, "Lock her up!"

When Trump appears, the crowd squeals. For a moment, he basks in their adoration. Then he speaks, long and rambling, without a teleprompter. He calls himself "a victim of one of the great political smear campaigns in the history of our country." Several men, infiltrating protesters, start yelling for him to keep his hands off women. They hold signs: "GOP Hands Off Women" and "End White Male Silence." The crowd boos and security escorts them out, and on their way to the back their signs — written on fabric so that they could be folded and snuck in — are grabbed and ripped, left as shreds on the convention floor. As the protesters reach the exit, they walk alongside a number of Trump supporters who are already on their way out the door.

I join them. I head through the doors and up to the plaza just outside the convention center’s entrance. Here is downtown Charlotte, dark and cool, busy and alive. The Trump supporters are filtering out the building and toward their cars, past a group of perhaps three dozen protesters, standing and holding signs. "No Predators 4 President." "America, Women, We Deserve Better." And finally, a sign with multicolored lettering that says, "GOP, Hands Off Me," just above a sketch of an anthropomorphic vulva, complete with a scowling face and two middle fingers raised to the sky.

The protesters chant. "No justice! No peace! No justice! No peace!" That one is familiar here in Charlotte, chanted throughout the city after Keith Lamont Scott, a black man, was killed by police last month. "The whole damn system / Is guilty as hell!" Trump supporters continue to filter out of the convention center, and as they reach the protesters many stop and linger. For a while they stand on the edges, giggling at the scene. Bodies continue pouring out of the building and the crowd of Trump supporters continues to swell, until there is a small crowd of largely black and brown protesters surrounded by a massive crowd of nearly all-white rallygoers.

At some point, the Trump supporters decide they’ve had enough. I hear one shout, "Go back where you came from!" Another yells, "Your mom’s on welfare!" As the number of Trump supporters continues to grow, the group of protesters becomes more compact, squeezing together in a tight formation. As tensions rise they move to their most effective chant, and it booms crisply all over downtown.

"Fuck Donald Trump! Fuck Donald Trump! Fuck Donald Trump!"

Standing near the front of the group of Trump supporters, a young man in a "Make America Great Again" hat shakes his head. He turns around to the rest of his throng, and he whips his arms in the air as he leads a counterchant. "Trump! Trump! Trump! Trump!" Now fists pump and grins turn downward into scowls. The Trump supporters inch closer and closer to the protesters until there is only an imaginary line, a sliver of concrete separating the two groups. On each side, the same name.

"Trump!"

"Fuck Donald Trump!

"Trump!"

"Fuck Donald Trump!"

Standing among them is a protester named Giselle. While everyone around her screams, she stands, silent and blank-faced, rocking back and forth and holding a sign. Giselle was born in Brazil but moved to the United States at 13. She earned her citizenship just after President Obama won reelection in 2012. Next month, she will vote in her first presidential election.

Later, when Giselle and I speak, she shares something. This week, she says, has been "really, really rough." When she first saw the video of Trump’s comments to Billy Bush, she felt a numbing anger, some shrugging rage. But later that day, she began to feel the spaces around her closing in. Her heartbeat raced against her breath. All week, as women came forward accusing Trump of sexual assault, these feelings returned. Trembling. Sweat. A seizing and confounding fear.

She realized then that those women’s stories reminded her of her own. She thought of the older boy who she says raped her at 13. She thought of the way others excused her attacker. He was popular and powerful. Surely he wouldn’t need rape for sex. If they’d slept together, she says people told her, then she must have wanted it too.

Now here she stands, rocking back and forth, silently holding her sign. The top half of it says, "My 1st Election As A Queer, Rape Survivor, Latina Immigrant, and American Citizen." The bottom half shows drawings of two middle fingers held high.

She continues rocking to the rhythm of the chants around her. She is nervous, she tells me later, about the possibility of violence from Trump supporters. She feels, she says, actual fear. But in this moment she steels herself as she rocks. Finally, she joins the chant.

"Fuck Donald Trump! Fuck Donald Trump! Fuck Donald Trump!"

She screams and screams and screams.

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Getty Images

"USA! USA! USA! USA!"

The two sides continue like this, chanting and counterchanting, pausing to shuffle around among themselves or to hurl scattered insults back at each other. Finally, as the protesters begin another round of anti-Trump chants, the Republican nominee’s supporters shift tracks.

"USA! USA! USA! USA!"

As soon as it starts it spreads, grabbing lingerers and bystanders. All across the plaza, more and more mouths open and fists raise to the sky. As the chant spreads, the anti-Trump protesters go silent for just a second. They gather themselves, as if figuring out what to do next. Finally, they join.

"USA! USA! USA! USA!"

On both sides, the same chant, full-throated. This might read like a moment of solidarity, two poles of American politics finding three letters on which they can all agree. But at the center of the scrum, just across each side of the imaginary line, they stare at each other, faces twisted into anger, yelling to drown each other out with the exact same thing.

"USA! USA! USA! USA!"

Soon the chant morphs. Again, it starts on the Trump side. "I pledge allegiance to the flag …" Immediately, the protesters join. "… of the United States of America …" The volume rises, and hands pound against hearts. "… and to the republic for which it stands …" They are screaming, all of them. "One nation!" "Under God!" The words sound different now, violent somehow, and as the screaming reaches its end, the protesters back into themselves, away from the Trump supporters, who are bigger in number and volume and at least equal in rage.

The air is cool. Somewhere a few blocks from here, the night is pleasant and the streets are at peace. In three weeks, most of these people will go to the polls. The day after the election, all will be left wondering what the hell comes next. For now, the protest nears its end. Everyone joins together in yelling the familiar refrain. But the words themselves are empty casings, vessels for warring ideas of what this country means.

"Indivisible!"

This is not a pledge. This is a threat.

"With liberty!"

"And justice!"

"For all!"

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