CLEVELAND — On the first day of the Republican National Convention, some of Donald Trump’s most die-hard fans gathered together at an America First rally to celebrate the man they think can fix what ails America. This core group believes strongly the system is rigged and that we’ve exhausted all possibilities of working within it. So the system needs to be broken.
This is a major part of Trump’s appeal—ripping things apart, breaking the system, exposing the fissures. One man I spoke with at the event described Trump as creating a third party by splitting the GOP. Something new was being born out of something old and decrepit.
One group of men told me they’re mad about Republican cronyism. Others said they’re pro-Trump because he’s not indebted to foreign governments, corporations, or lobbyists—unlike Hillary Clinton, who one day, according to a supporter, will be asked to repay those debts in the form of political favors.
Of course, Trump supporters have no lack of fuel for feeling this way, especially given Hillary’s sham FBI investigation. Trump supporters at the event wore shirts that read “Hillary for Prison,” and there was just as much anti-Hillary propaganda as there was pro-Trump regalia.
Bringing the Fringe Mainstream
But it’s not just frustrations with party politics, lying politicians, and backroom deals. The Trump rally included many members of the Alex Jones faction of Trump supporters, who are worried about the globalism conspiracy and want someone to get to the bottom of what really happened on 9/11. They like Trump because he’s putting issues like these on the map, issues that up until now have been left out of the mainstream. According to some young men I spoke with, Trump has the power to control the narrative in American politics in a way not possible before.
The conspiracy theory presence isn’t surprising given that the rally, organized by Citizens for Trump, featured speakers like Roger Moore and Jones, who runs the conspiracy site Infowars. Moore compared the Trump movement to the transformational power of Barry Goldwater, while Jones, in his typical manner, riled up the crowd like a fiery preacher on Sunday. But rather than Jesus Christ, Jones was preaching the gospel of Trump, the man who would confirm all Jones’ conspiracy theories. The crowd responded enthusiastically.
Attendees at the rally said the pledge of allegiance, sang the “Star Spangled Banner,” and chanted “Make America Great Again,” doubling down on co-opting all things American for the party of Trump. This was accented by a woman singing about Trump in a way that sounded like the sort of evangelical praise and worship songs heard in many megachurches across the country.
The crowd at the riverside venue was smaller than expected, with perhaps a couple hundred in attendance, a good portion of them members of the media. A few hours into the event, anti-Trump protestors descended the hill to Settlers Landing. Like the event itself, their numbers were underwhelming. But the police were ready and plentiful, riding bikes and horses, and forming shoulder-to-shoulder lines on either side of the street. A small scuffle broke out, mainly just shouting, that anti-Trump protestors told me was caused by a neo-Nazi group approaching them.
Trump Will End Wars
Veterans’ affairs were a major theme of the rally, with many former service members in attendance. One ex-Marine who served in Vietnam, a man in his sixties, told me he’s for Trump because he wants to end Americans dying in wars. He lost a brother fighting in Lebanon decades ago and says you don’t understand what war means until it hits someone you know. This hit at the heart of last night’s convention theme: Make America Safe Again, featuring among others Marcus Lutrell, of Lone Survivor fame, who gave an emotional speech asking for better care for veterans.
Not everyone at the rally, however, was the kind of hard-core Trump supporter typical of the event. I spoke with one man in his thirties, a family dairy farm owner, who, while supporting Trump, wasn’t as animated as many there. He likes Trump’s platform, although not his demeanor, and wants an end to illegal immigration to help his business. He admitted Trump has a tendency to waver on issues, but doubts he’ll change during the campaign season. The bigger danger, according to the dairy farmer, is that he’ll flip-flop after winning the general election. But he doesn’t think that will happen. Trump likes to be liked. If he were to go back on his promises he’d be vilified, and his ego wouldn’t allow that.
One thread that emerged at the rally was the number of people who self-identified as Libertarian or Libertarian-leaning. One middle-aged African American I spoke with told me Rand Paul was his first choice during the primary season, but after he dropped out, Trump was it for him. It’s hard to tell whether these Trump supporters have been Libertarians for a long time, or whether they are part of the Alex Jones contingency of libertarians.
Another possibility, however, is that these are voters who don’t want to sully themselves with the name of the party they associate so strongly with cronyism and corruption. So they’ve selected libertarian as a more neutral option, and as a way of rejecting the Republican establishment they’ve come to hate so much.
Whatever the reason, they were there to tell Trump to blow it up and let these conspiracies see the light of day. They think this is the beginning of a new America—and they’re getting in on the ground level.