On Thursday evening, thousands of Donald Trump supporters snaked around the fringes of the Pacific Amphitheatre in Costa Mesa, California, anxious to witness firsthand the spectacle of a Donald J. Trump production, live from the campaign trail. Dozens of young, brown protesters were there too, turning out to chant and scream "Fuck Donald Trump!" in the faces of people who bought tickets. It was the first Trump rally to hit Orange County this election cycle, and even before the doors opened, it seemed likely to make national headlines before the last bottle was hurled.
With more than an hour to go before the rally was scheduled to begin, the crowd had already started to get antsy. About halfway down the line, eight mounted officers with the Orange County Sheriff's Department suddenly turned in unison and began slowly making their way toward the entrance. The Trump fans burst into applause, shouting random encouragements at the departing cops. "Go get 'em!" one man yelled after them; somewhere else, a lady shouted, "Send them back!"
An officer in front, riding a caramel-colored Irish Draught, called back the plan: "We're gonna split 'em!" The rest of the crowd started whipping out cellphones, pointing at the horses, and the officers who had, by now, come to a standstill between the two factions—the ones desperate for Trump's new America, and the ones fighting what they see as the racist groundswell driving his presidential campaign.
All photos by Julie Leopo
By 7 PM, around 8,500 Trump fans had finally crammed inside Pacific Amphitheatre, pledging allegiance to a giant American flag hanging onstage, behind the podium bearing Trump's name. A group of local policemen had come in to watch over the crowd from the lawn, vigilantly scanning the sea of red "Make America Great Again" caps, American flag bandannas, and newly purchased cotton T-shirts portraying Trump as Rosie the Riveter. One kid, a young white male, had taped Trump's face to a cardboard cutout of Captain America, and he made his way around the entire arena, posing for photos. Meanwhile, at least four choppers circled above.
Then, an eerie, robotic voice came over the PA system with the usual instructions on how to deal with protesters inside the venue. "If a protestor starts demonstrating in the area around you, please do not touch or harm the protestor," the voice warned. "In order notify the law enforcement officers of the location of the protestor, please hold a rally sign over your head and start chanting 'TRUMP! TRUMP! TRUMP!' Ask the people around you to do likewise until the officer removes the protestor. Thank you for helping us make America great again." The warning was, inexplicably, followed by Elton John's "Tiny Dancer."
Trump was late, so his warm-up acts—a local Orange County mayor and a Republican state representative from Idaho—fluffed the crowd with platitudes about "disillusioned" voters and something about something America. The audience applauded occasionally, but mostly looked bored; they hadn't come for the politics—they wanted a show.
Finally, the Rolling Stones came blasting through the speaker system, and on cue, the lights above the stage brightened. The crowd was suddenly on its feet, wildly chanting Trump's name as the candidate made his way out from behind the curtain. Slowly, he crept across the stage to the podium, pausing on occasion to give a thumbs-up, or point randomly at supporters, who had, by now, lost their minds. Nearby, a little boy holding a campaign sign quickly lost his voice yelling at the stage.
Trump's speech, if you can call it that, was predictable—an ever-so-slight variation on the stump speech he's been giving for months. It is, nevertheless, a performance, one that at some point seemed explicitly aimed at inciting protesters in a city and county with a huge Hispanic population. Off the bat, he pointed out a "LATINOS FOR TRUMP" sign in the audience, reading the sign aloud and adding: "It's true, too." Later, he noted that his guests at the rally included members of a group whose goal is to "remember victims killed by illegal aliens."
After about 30 minutes of sound bites, though, I was bored as hell. Plus, a faint smell of burning rubber had started to waft in the arena. I wondered if the real action might actually be going down outside this teeming bowl of right-wingers, willing to risk a lungful of tear gas if it meant escaping the ramblings of that bloated, orange head.
Having made my escape, I started toward the blue and red flashing lights and smoke hovering in front of the entrance to the fairgrounds. Hundreds of demonstrators had gathered around the venue, and several large Mexican flags waved over the crowd. People were beating drums, leading the crowd in a call-and-response of "WHO'S STREETS? OUR STREETS!"
One group of mostly young and Latino protesters had taken the northeast corner of the intersection, and already left their mark in black spray-paint on the glowing orange OC Fair & Event Center sign: "Fuck TRUMP" on one side, and the more succinct "FDT"—as in "Fuck Donald Trump"—on the other. Across the street, about a half dozen protesters had perched themselves on top of a gas station marquee and were calmly watching the crowd like iguanas on a hot rock.
Under the fluorescent light of the police choppers above, I watched one skinny kid scale a streetlight; someone below tossed him a can of paint, and he managed to scrawl an upside-down "Fuck Trump" before the crowd advised him to climb back down before the cops saw him. The commitment, coupled with the heavy aroma of paint chemicals and weed hanging in the air, somehow made the whole thing seem legit. These kids were going to stay put until the weed ran out, or their asses got beat.
The protests went on like that for a while, undeterred by crackling orders from police megaphones. Eventually, though, the sheriff's department arrived on horseback, slowly closing in on the unruly mob, pushing them toward one end of the street. It was an effective tactical move, and the beginning of the end for the protesters, who failed to come up with any way to retaliate against the heavily armed police presence, besides shouting at the horses.
But rather than disperse, or try to find a new way to get their message across, the protesters just started partying. Somewhere, a car blasted the YG & Nipsey Hussle hip-hop song "FDT," and people in the crowd started dancing. Eventually, that got old, and they turned their aggression on a Costa Mesa Police Department squad car—but not before someone came up with the brilliant idea of orchestrating a street performance to El Caballo Dorado, which is basically the Mexican equivalent of what white people like to call "line dancing."
In the end, the protests didn't result in much, except a couple of arrests and some extra cleanup work for the city of Costa Mesa. But they did hint at the kind of hatred and divisiveness Trump might stir up if he wins his party's nomination and is forced to take his presidential campaign to an audience beyond the angry, white people who vote in Republican primaries. But while the kickoff of his California campaign last night was undoubtedly a circus, it's hard not to think that maybe that's the way Trump wanted it all along.