The photographer was ready to kick someone’s ass.
We were sitting in our hotel room on the eve of his first Trump rally. I was watching Fox News while he processed some photos from the Biden event earlier that day. He couldn’t see the television, but he could hear it.
“How can you watch that shit?” he asked me from the desk at the back of the room.
“You’ve got to know what you’re getting into,” I said.
I turned the volume down. He fumed at the sight of Sean Hannity. Maybe he was nervous at the thought of running the gauntlet of a journo-bashing MAGA mob at the SNHU Arena in Manchester, New Hampshire. As a journalist, an arena of 10,000 screaming Trump supporters promised a level of tension. He reacted by preparing for an all-out brawl. In his mind, he would either hear something that would set him off, the same way Hannity was prodding at a raw nerve right then, or he would be the one to trigger a Trump supporter with his visible liberalism.
I’ve been going to Trump rallies since 2016, and I’ve never felt comfortable at one.
I’ve tried my best to avoid the press box so that I could speak to the red-blooded Americans who attend. The whole time I’ve been trying to understand my family and friends who support him.
Trump Is a Plane Crash; the Media Loves Him for It
I told to the photographer my plan. We would skip the press credentials and wait in line to enter through the same metal detectors like everyone else. We’d experience what it was like to go to a Trump rally rather than simply covering it. “Just take the photos,” I urged him. “You don’t have to talk to anyone. You’re not going to fight anyone.”
Journalists and progressives loathe Trump rallies because they aren’t the target audience. The ideas floated at random by the president are uncomfortable, the jokes are uncomfortable, the “fake news” chants and boos are uncomfortable.
You are uncomfortable and everyone around you can sense it.
As we stood in a line that zigged and zagged as though some wild ride awaited at the end, a man in a camouflage Keep America Great hat behind us marked us as nonbelievers. We were just about the only two in line not wearing our support on our heads or our backs. What’s worse, we were taking photos. He turned to his wife and said, “Who the fuck are these guys?” Then he turned to us and demanded to know if we were there to show our support or to stir up some shit.
At that moment, a fight would’ve been the best thing that could happen to me as a storyteller. I could picture the bold-faced headline: TRUMP SUPPORTERS ASSAULT JOURNALISTS AT RALLY IN NH. It would have given me something to write about, and it would have kept you, the reader, scrolling right down to the last word.
As journalists, we seek out these moments—which isn’t to say that we’re looking for a fight. But we’re always on the hunt for anything that might help us compete with everything else on the internet. We’re not just competing with other journalists—at the exact same rally with their cameras pointed at the exact same thing—but also with that “how to build a resin table” video you just scrolled past on your way here. We aim to inform, but we work to pay our bills, so more often than not, we also have to work to entertain.
It’s always the most outrageous moments that stand out because presidential campaigns, for the most part, still work the way they did before the internet—at least they did before COVID-19 threw a wrench in everything. Candidates would go from town to town delivering the exact same stump speech as though live streaming and social media didn’t exist. The press followed the program and waited for the candidate to slip up and give us something that breaks from the script that we can pounce on. We have an eye for these moments because our editors and producers demand it, but also because no one ever wrote about a plane that landed safely. That’s why Trump is constantly in the news. According to the rules of good politics, he’s a constant plane crash, but an endlessly watchable one.
My Secret to Covering Trump Rallies Is to Ignore How It’s Supposed to be Done
What’s unfortunate is that this game of spot-the-difference often forces us to focus on the most negative aspects of politics: the worst thing a candidate has ever said or done, the worst people who follow them. The loudest voice in the room is the only one that gets heard. Real life just isn’t as interesting as we want it to be. Most planes do land.
My first Trump rally was in Davenport, Iowa. I was working for an obscure magazine out of Toronto that wanted to send me to a Trump rally before we missed our chance and his reality TV carnival burnt out. The mood at the time was that the circus might be over soon, and we had to catch it before it packed up, left town and politics got boring again.
But Trump never lost, and his rallies became the place you might expect to see a fight. For a time that was true, especially in the summer of 2016, when rallies had to be canceled because the future president was encouraging people to punch journalists in the face.
As a writer for a small foreign publication, it was a lot more difficult to get into the press pen at a Trump event. That wasn’t unique to Trump—it was just the way it worked. Local news and the national press got priority because they reached voters. But rejection offered me opportunity, a chance to see the real chaos outside as state police formed the dividing line between seething protesters and the MAGA-capped overflow from an overbooked event.
It’s been a while since you could expect fisticuffs at a Trump rally. After he became president, a giant screen loomed over the entrance of each event listing all the prohibited items that would be confiscated at the door. Even if Trump hadn’t tempered himself or his tweets, his campaign team was lucidly aware of how bad it might look if anything outside of the ordinary happened at a rally. They don’t even sell beer at the concession stands anymore.
“If a protest starts near you,” an upbeat voice boomed over the crowd from a loudspeaker. “Please do not, in any way, touch or harm a protester.”
If You Want to Cover a Trump Rally as a Journalist, You Shouldn’t Act Like One
At a Trump rally, having credentials is the worst thing that can happen to a journalist. After the first 6 a.m. email from the campaign team urging you to stay in the designated press area to the moment the headliner leaves the stage, there’s no fun to be had as a credentialed member of Trump’s traveling press. Reporters who enter a Trump rally from an arena’s loading bay—to be frisked by the Secret Service for a lanyard that allows them to enter the cage at the back of the room—might as well be watching from home. After four years, we know exactly what he’s going to say.
Any real experience to be had at a Trump rally comes by waiting in lines that wrap around the block. Where Elton John’s “Goodbye Yellow Brick Road” blares through loudspeakers as you inch your way toward the front doors alongside folks carrying signs that read “Help Destroy America, Vote Democrat” and wearing shirts that say “TRUMP 2020: Make Liberals Cry Again.”
A typical political rally is meant to keep its audience awake long enough to introduce them to the candidate. Trump rallies are a movable circus that orbits three blocks around their center of gravity, sometimes graced by a flyover from Air Force One and always surrounded with merchandise vendors screaming at one another for setting the price of a hat too low. It’s a one-ride state fair and a storyteller’s wet dream.
I still remember the man who sat behind me at the Adler Theatre in Davenport in 2016, laughing into his phone. “You’ll never believe what I’m doing with my Saturday night,” he said. “Yeah, no, I’m at the Trump rally. No, I’m serious. I’m there.”
At his rallies, Trump is a showman first and a president second. I’ve met head-to-toe MAGA mannequins who profess their love for Trump shortly after laughing at him for mispronouncing the name of their town. They can forgive the slight, they say, because, “He’s done more than any other president.” Trump rallies are something short of a professional standup gig where the characters created by journalists are paraded on stage to sell their books. Trump rallies are the real-world equivalent of shitposted memes to trigger progressives, a cathartic release of ideas that are no longer acceptable in polite society. They’re a political Gathering of the Juggalos for self-identified social outcasts who return to the real world to sell us cars or build our homes or bag our groceries, and to shrug when someone says, “I can’t believe you’re one of them.”
Trump supporters are not fringe wackos. There were certainly enough of them to elect a president. They’re often identified with the worst things they believe, and when you hear them say things that make your head reel, you can forget that they’re schoolteachers and football coaches and business owners and millwrights. Instead, you’re left to wonder how such monsters could exist.
You Can’t Understand Trump Without Trying to Understand the People Who Back Him
I could take my time to list all of the worst things I’ve heard at Trump rallies.
“We're ready for war. We’re not scared. Our side has the guns.”
“She a cunt! A cunt! She’s a bitch! A fugly bitch!”
“We have boys in the girl’s bathrooms now and they’re putting it all in our faces.”
I could also write about the time I spent an entire night having drinks with a Trump-supporting family just after a game at Wrigley Field. How close we came to understanding each other as they listened to a Balkan immigrant explain why America is great because it allows us to protest its flag. They disagreed. But six beers in, they heard me out.
The past five years of covering America has made me realize that Americans are too far gone to believe anything an outsider tells them about their sworn enemies: other Americans. I’ve also learned it might be worth our time to try to understand why people believe the things they do.
Trump supporters see a changing world because we are living in profoundly transformative times that none of us are fully equipped to handle. They’re not just defending racism or jokes made in poor taste. Most Trump supporters see declining marriage rates, young folks who aren’t having children, a growing number of Americans who are “spiritual but not religious” and manufacturing jobs disappearing. Until recently, America was built to be most comfortable for the Christian nuclear, middle-class family. That’s changing, and change isn’t easy for everyone.
Altering your entire outlook on life—everything you’ve been brought up to believe—takes time and a whole lot of help along the way. When it seems like everything you know is changing all at once, it’s deeply human to dig your heels into nostalgia.
Change is what Trump, in defiance of reality, is sheltering his supporters from. A Trump rally is the one place where the liberals aren’t “putting it all in our faces.” At least not all at once. It’s where you don’t have to feel uncomfortable as a conservative in a changing world. A Trump rally is where conservatives aren’t made to feel stupid for the things they believe. It’s the opposite of the internet, where our headlines remind them how uncomfortable they make the rest of us.
Far too many of us who feel perfectly comfortable in a changing world think it’s not worth our time to help a Trump supporter accept change, to concede that they can still have their family, they can still have their religion, although they’ve got to give a little too. It’s exhausting to change someone’s mind. It seems that it’s not worth our effort. Fights make one hell of a headline, but they also force schoolteachers and football coaches and business owners and millwrights to dig further into nostalgia and seek out the static past Trump is selling.
Americans, at the moment, are willing to expect the worst of each other. The photographer certainly expected it. But there was no fight that day. He sat next to a hockey mom. They talked about their daughters.