“Are you sure we’ll get in?” A young girl next to me anxiously asks her father. Her mother notices my intrigued expression and chuckles, “she’s been looking forward to seeing him for weeks!”
Only one week earlier had I heard the GOP presidential candidate, Donald Trump, was visiting Austin. Now, surrounded by stars and stripes, “police lives matter” t-shirts and “Make America Great Again” posters, I feel underprepared for this experience. A small mountain of empty cans and bottles draws ever closer; “no beers allowed inside!” a man is assigned to shout near the door, much to the grumbling of the punters walking in. Nearing the entrance, I hear faint chants of “lock her up! Lock her up!” emerging from the doors.
After thorough – and reassuring – security checks by an army of guards, I find myself staring at a sea of red, white and blue. I soak up the atmosphere, listening to the ferocious roars of the crowd while taking in the smell of the burger stand in the far corner. I think how it feels more like a car show than a political rally for a future president.
Immediately, I am intimidated. I try not to lock eyes with people, in fear they can tell I’m a mere observer rather than a staunch supporter like most. A black man is on the podium, “all lives matter!” he shouts, “black, white, police!” My friend whispers in my ear, daring me to find a non-white person in the stadium.
We find a corner with a few empty benches, and move the piled-up campaign propaganda to one side. Two or three energetic speakers come and go, but the tension is palpable and mounting – we all know who the crowd is here for. A handful of protestors shout statements of disagreement but are quickly quietened by the crowd, shoved to the back, and thrown out the venue. No dissent is tolerated here.
After hours of waiting, murmurs swiftly ricochet through the crowd: there is a moment of silence before the man himself rips open the side-door curtains and strides through, waving one hand nonchalantly, the infamous smirk plastered on his face. Upon reaching the podium he basks in the adoration of his supporters, smiling and waving and shaking his head in mock-awe at the size of the crowd. Then, with one flick of his wrist, he quietens them.
Hearing him speak in person is vastly different to the soundbites heard on the news. His speech is nonsensical, arrhythmic and scattered. He repeats phrases over and over. He talks about one point, drifts off to something else before reconvening at the original notion, almost as if by accident. Buzzword after buzzword, with an almost unbelievable lack of explanations or actual policy proposals. Whenever he feels the crowd’s energy dip, he circles back to Hilary as quickly as possible – in Donald Trump’s world, a chant of “Lock her up! Lock her up!” never fails to excite. His other crowd-pleasing tactic is immigration. With waning audience concentration in duller parts of the speech – such as how to improve race inequality – the crowd erupts into spontaneous choruses of “build the wall! Build the wall!”. Trump would halt, mid-sentence, in order to shout “and who’s gonna pay for it?” “MEXICO!” the crowd roars back in response.
But, he pauses to remind the audience, he’s a “nice guy”. So he’s “gonna build safe zones in the Middle East, and cause the Gulf States are so rich, [he’s] gonna make them pay for it!” And on to the next topic. No further explanation. No demonstration of knowledge or understanding of this infamously complex region, let alone for diplomacy, the international system or – apparently – geography.
What struck me was how the crowd clings to every minute gesture, signal or sound that came from their seeming-deity. He smirks; they cheer. He frowns; they boo. A pantomime of expression, misunderstanding and lies. I had rarely seen such enthusiasm for a person, for an ideology.
Throughout the rally, I couldn’t shake the feeling that I had seen this sort of undying love before, in North Korea. When talking to a North Korean you can have a spectacularly normal conversation; you can talk about your mutual interests, share a joke, see eye to eye on many issues. But should politics arise, the human being you were talking to switches, turning the conversation into an unnatural recitation of propaganda. This, as well as Trump’s supporter’s fierce nationalism, unyielding loyalty, and physical displays of affection were all reminiscent of the authoritarian regime.
After he started bringing on mothers of men “murdered” by illegal immigrants – because the difference between manslaughter and murder apparently depends on one’s immigration status – we grabbed some stray “Make America Great Again” posters as souvenirs, and started towards the exit.
While walking out I tried to personalise the body of beings around me, attempting to understand why each individual had resorted to this far-right ideology. My friend nudged me back in to reality; “stop staring!” he muttered. Leaving half way through Trump’s speech, carrying posters and wearing shocked and confused expressions, had almost given us away, and people had started to notice. The alley to the exit had become a tunnel of stares and, in genuine fear, I began to cheer for Trump and smile at him, waving the posters in the air in order to guarantee my safe exit.
Far wiser people have written at lengths on the reasons behind Trump’s rise to fame; I can offer few novel reasons for this phenomenon. Yet, after witnessing the joy at such xenophobic, sexist and irrational rhetoric it is clear to me that this phenomena will not end on November 8. Trump is the symptom, not the cause, and the alt-right will not decline in parallel with him.
Image: Gage Skidmore