What Goes on Outside Trump Rallies Is an American Nightmare
The real action at these events happens away from the stage, where protesters decry Trump and his supporters heap abuse on them.
A Donald Trump supporter in a Hillary Clinton mask at the Tampa rally on July 31. All photos by Jon Wolding
The coral of Tampa's Florida State Fairgrounds entrance arcs against an ominously graying Tuesday evening sky. Everyone waits for Donald Trump outside, even though it smells like rain. The Secret Service checkpoint doesn't help, choking admission to the 10,500-seat Expo Hall, but outside is where you want to be in any case. It's where the cameras aren't confined to a pen. It's where the enemy is. It's why we're here.
Trump knows this. He understands the value of outside. When he arrives, he mentions the thousands of people outside the gate for him (there aren't) watching giant-screen TVs (there are none). And, anyway, not much will happen inside. Everyone knows what the Trump show looks like at this point—grievance after formless grievance, with no policy agenda in sight. GOP gubernatorial aspirant Ron DeSantis is introduced as someone who likes Trump, takes the stage to demonstrate his approval of Trump, then slinks off before his speech becomes dangerously long or memorable. Then the most powerful man on the planet whines about everything unfair to him, an audience whose go-to insult is "snowflake" shares in his victimhood, and, if they're very lucky, go off to find those responsible outside.
The press knows the ticket lies outside too. The fact-checkers can do their jobs from a YouTube stream. Inside, people sit on bleachers, not free to move or rave or joke around. Colors wash out in the artificial light, and once the speech starts, the cameras and recorders are supposed to remain within the press pen. Besides, that way the audience always knows where to find the treasonous media on the way out.
Even the Trump fans understand that inside is boring. The rear corners of arena seating never fill; a standing room large enough to accommodate the crowd outside five times over remains empty. Fifteen minutes in, people start to exit, because this speech is like all the rest of them. A cheerful bearded man in a USA replica baseball jersey and Trump socks stops on the way out to explain to me why he's leaving and gives the same answer as everyone else:
"To beat the traffic."
Things were different in 2016, the last time I came to a Trump rally in Tampa. Even then, the show was old and repetitive; white boomers danced in their seats to piped-in classic rock beforehand—all elbows and overbites—then called out the greatest hits during the speech. ("Make Mexican Hillary lock up the wall!") If it was authoritarianism, it also sounded like an Eagles concert, only if Don Henley's voice had disappeared up an adenoid, and he had a piece of rebar in his brain, and Don Felder was Muslim. Still, the fans stayed inside the USF Sun Dome to the end, then streamed out to the parking lot. On the way in, heckling the protesters kept the lines from getting bored. On the way out, with nothing between you and your car, they didn't rate at all.
By February 2017, at Trump's first rally since the inauguration, the opportunity to confront the supposedly George Soros–funded protesters seemed like half the point. Fans began melting away after 20 minutes of Trumpian harangue. It was a free show, and they'd already got what they paid for. The new material was outside, the conflict all pre- and postgame.
In Tampa on Tuesday, that conflict comes courtesy of Democratic gubernatorial aspirant Jeff Greene's campaign bus and boosters, Tampa's Indivisibles, NextGen Florida, and a few people from Black Lives Matter and other assorted groups. In total, roughly 250 protesters await the Trump crowd lining up. Two women are dressed as Handmaids; someone plays "Back in the USSR" from a speaker. Jeers about a president bought and paid for mix with chants for gun control, voting rights, reproductive rights, and equal justice. After the rally, the number of protesters dwindles below 100, but they're still chanting.
When the chants don't go unheard or ignored, they serve as prompts or pretexts for the pro-Trump crowd, some of whom take the time to swing by the police cordon separating the protesters from the rally and shout whatever seems like it will hurt most.
A woman bearing a placard with the 2016 electoral college vote count screams, "You lost!" A line of seemingly interchangeable white guys under the legal drinking age spit out the current GDP growth figure at protesters.
The Indivisibles spokesperson is attacked on everything from her politics to her gender to her shape. A goateed twentysomething member of the neo-Nazi Patriot Front hurls a string of profanity at a reporter so vehemently that it becomes clear why so many people give Richard Spencer so much credit for being the white supremacist you can safely share an Uber with.
On social media, people often feel empowered to be more aggressive or transgressive than is acceptable in the real world; the firing line of Trump supporters facing off against Trump protesters is what social media looks like returned to the flesh. It is the comments section. It’s Twitter. It’s a 55-year-old man replying to a YouTube of a teen doing a majorette routine in an Obama shirt and telling her that, as a patriot, he will use his firearm.
A lot of this rage is obviously performative. The people heckling the protesters can't deliver their burns without turning around and seeing who's laughing and which one is a winner. Few insults are so good that they can be issued without a follow-up glance over the shoulder. Guys want to be not the class clown but the class punisher—and they want to be egged on. It is like being in a crowd made up of the one guy in a line who keeps complaining about the line louder and louder, forcing everyone else to overhear his impromptu stand-up about how much it sucks, because only he can rescue everyone from the injustice.
It is, above all, a deeply self-conscious performance of animus. Two beefy and pink young men in their late teens, both in the vague Columbine chic of dark jeans and dark Trump T-shirts and moody bangs separately turn tail and nearly jog away after I ask their names following their shouts of "dumb bitch" at a cluster of women near the Handmaids.
The attitude seeps into even those who would normally reject it. Anthony Konan, a 30-year-old Carrollwood resident with a background in marketing and management, walks up and down the line of protesters holding his phone in landscape mode and narrating about how he's never seen so many snowflakes in Florida in July. But one on one, that scornful energy dissipates. He's making the video for a sister who couldn't attend, he tells me, and his catholic media diet and appreciation for activist energy on both sides show a savvy skepticism of the current moment. He belongs in a brewpub splitting chiccarrónes with and yelling at a socialist he goes bowling with; instead, he's here.
A few feet away, Brian Canfield, a 45-year-old Minnesota expat and insurance adjuster from Wimauma, stands atop a concrete Jersey barrier and shouts, "Ask Kate Steinle's dad if he wants to abolish ICE!" He repeats it several times, turning each time to look at the people below him. Once he steps down, he's as much a diagnostician of the fracture of our current politics as any Meet the Press panelist. He stresses that he is a former Democrat—he grew up reading Al Franken and having family dinners with Paul Wellstone—sees value in both sides, and respects the energy of protesters' activism. Like Konan, he rejects the conspiracism of many of those around him and, should it happen, is ready to greet a November blue wave as the fair play of those who out-hustled the Republicans.
By nightfall and rally's end, the Konan and Canfield types are long gone. A thin white twentysomething leaning over like he's standing on an invisible Sea-Doo shouts, "You just do what the media tells you. You're a Snapchat retard!" then repeats the last line portentously, like someone replaying a Snap.
The Patriot Front is more aggressive now, using the cordon of cops and the cops' pushback as props for feints at aggression that might look good on a phone-filmed video. They're taunting a 22-year-old woman named Carly who's wearing a T-shirt from Bears Ears National Monument and has her hair buzzed at the sides and the top parted over like a man's. They assume she's a lesbian.
"I got a nice summer camp for you," says the goateed member of the Patriot Front, "with a nice shower." After she jeers back, he points to a lamppost behind her and implies that hanging her from it would suffice if she doesn't want to wait for America's future.
In 2018, the chain of screaming is all that’s left for many rally attendees. It's what you have when you voted to drain the swamp but elected a contender for the most corrupt administration in history; when you're the balanced-budget free-trade party papering over the economic holes from your tariffs with a $12 billion giveaway; when the family values party has to explain the payoff to this mistress during the marriage to wife number three; when email protocol outrage nets you the president with the unsecured cell phone; when President Deals gives North Korea's chief bellhop what he wants and gets ashes in return. You got taken for a ride, and someone—anyone besides you—had to be driving.
A moment and movement so devoid of moral meaning cries out for any interpretation that doesn't blame the people who asked for it. The existence of a conspiracy theory as insane as QAnon thus explains itself. When you get fooled that hard, the only non-humiliating explanation is that everyone pointing out your credulity is getting fooled even harder.
The result is the kind of Meathead Holocaust that can be built on a political foundation of "fuck your feelings" as an ethos and "anything to own the libs" as a strategy. And while only a small fraction of people might really want the country to turn into one giant shouting match outside a Trump rally, everyone streaming by in the background of these exchanges is already practicing the art of not noticing what's going on.
Trump might bring a hateful big game when he travels the country for his rallies, but these confrontations are both the pregame swerve and the postgame energy release. Drop by on the way out, cut loose and make a stranger afraid. And if there's someone there who's going a little too far, who's talking about helping to build America a big beautiful graveyard, then just whistle past it.
Jeb Lund is a former political columnist for the Guardian and Rolling Stone. He has a podcast about Hallmark original movies.
Jon Wolding is a photographer and cinematographer from Tampa. More of his work can be found here
This article originally appeared on VICE US.