Sunday afternoon an airplane flew over Fort Wayne, Indiana, with a message: “SEAL THE DEAL INDIANA VOTE TRUMP.” People in line to get through security for a Donald Trump rally looked up, laughed, and raised their phones to take pictures.
I stood in line next to John, who works at Costco and says he likes Donald Trump because he supports a $15 minimum wage. His family also immigrated from Greece years ago — “legally,” he emphasized — and he supports Trump’s anti-illegal-immigration stance. John wished he could vote for Reagan again, but there was no Reagan, so it was going to have to be Trump.
John and I had walked over to the rally together after taking a look at the usual protesters on one side of the parking lot, who waved Mexican and Ecuadorian flags and a series of rude anti-Trump signs and Bernie Sanders buttons. A father who was waving an Equadorian flag spoke to me in Spanish through his son, who translated. “We are immigrants,” he said. “And we want to stay here.”
Drivers going by alternately honked and hooted, or screamed the f-word in various incarnations. Several t-shirt and political button sellers across the street, who sell both Trump and Bernie Sanders merchandise at the events of both across the country, told me Bernie’s supporters are hands-down always the rudest and most aggressive. “They think Trump people are rude, but they’re nothing compared to Bernie’s people,” a woman with stained teeth manning a folding table told me, shaking her head grimly.
Everyone knew about the violence that had broken out at a Trump rally in California just two days before, which ended up with 20 people arrested and others with bloody faces.
Once past the metal detectors and security so strict they trashed umbrellas and sent a woman all the way back to her car with her three cigarette lighters and perfume bottle, the loud music reverberated throughout the building. “He’s here!” two young ladies wearing shiny new trucker hats squealed to each other, increasing their pace and practically running down the corridor. “We’re going to see the next president of the United States!”
Inside, Trump was already warming up. He began by telling Hoosiers how horrible things are in their state and county: Since the North American Free Trade Act, Fort Wayne had lost one in four manufacturing jobs. In the surrounding Allen County, the number of people living in poverty had doubled since 2000.
“Our country is being run by people who have no clue,” Trump thundered. Then he boasted about the number of people there, filling up a stadium in a way only rock stars can. “There’s seven thousand people outside still!” he said. Two burly fellows in front of me looked at each other. “That’s not true,” one said. “We were just there and almost everyone was already inside.”
“He’s lying just like a politician,” the other said, shaking his head and shifting his feet. This was a common refrain from Trump supporters I spoke with: Yeah, Trump is lying, but politicians all lie. If he does a bad job, we’ll vote him out in four years. Trump is full of bullshit, just like every politician. They know it. But at least Trump believes his own bullshit. A man that plain-talking is authentic, at least. Worth a shot. All the other suits they’ve voted for haven’t done any good, so let’s play the wildcard.
That’s just about what Austin and Charles said.
The event felt like a cross between a rock concert and a megachurch meeting, with a charismatic front man backed by hypnotic, repetitious, and culturally comfortable music, obvious applause lines, and responsive chants and laughter. There was also a high amount of in-group versus out-group, with Trump making an in-group of people who have felt on the outs now for years. Trump gives them permission to cheer for America again — to cheer for themselves again.
Standing there, among the bikers in leather, metal-studded jackets and tattoos, and the construction workers in baseball caps and jeans, all of whom treated a bitty little preppy-dressed lady with polite respect, stepping out of my way and excusing themselves as I wiggled through the crowd, I felt a deep compassion.
These are the Americans I grew up with in a little rural Wisconsin town. These are my playmates who, unlike me, were not straight-A students. Writing a coherent paragraph was really hard for them. I know, because I’ve also taught in these environments. What have these folks ever really won at? Fifty years ago, they could point to a happy little intact family, and say “I built that.” Now, with sky-high divorce and extramarital childbearing rates, declining church membership, plus a hollowed-out ability to support a family without a college degree that at best certifies four more agonizing years of pointless bookwork and incomprehensible studies classes that spite such people for existing, what do these folks have to look forward to for deep satisfaction in life?
Trump spent much of the evening scaring people, playing to their fears, telling them that things are bad, really bad — “the factories are closing, real estate is horrible — but he’s going to fix it. How, it’s not exactly clear, besides promises of things it’s impossible for a president to legally do alone, like building walls on our border. Clap lines included “I took out a million-dollar loan and turned it into ten million dollars,” a credulous statement to an audience that probably frequently plays the lottery; “Crooked Hillary is not qualified to run for president”; a huge cheer at “We won’t do what’s politically correct. That’s a disastrous term”; and “The last thing we need is another four years of Barack Obama, which is what Hillary is.”
Of course, there was talk of trade. “China rapes us,” Trump insisted, right before backtracking, “I like China, I really do.” He spent a long time talking about Chinese currency devaluation, leading me to wonder if anyone there really knew what that was. I hardly do, and I read about that sort of thing for my day job. Perhaps people just let this talk slide right through and take it as evidence he’s intelligent.
“National Review, they want it to be free trade but they don’t understand it’s killing us,” Trump said. “Globalization is killing us.” After talking about how he would slap companies that leave the United States, such as the closed Indiana Carrier plant that moved to Mexico, with 35 percent tariffs to bring their things back into the country, Trump also covered his bases by telling everyone he “support[s] free trade.” So free trade is killing us, but Trump likes it, just like he loves a China that rapes us.
The cynicism and desperation of it all recalled to me Matthew 9:36: “When [Jesus] saw the crowds, he had compassion for them, because they were harassed and helpless, like sheep without a shepherd.”
After the rally, I asked a few other bystanders to tell me why they support Trump. Here’s Toby.
And here’s Talisha, who came almost two hours away from Elkhart to attend the rally with her friend.
Outside, waiting for the older woman’s husband to pull up the car, I found these two sweet ladies. Off-camera, they revealed that one had already voted for Trump in early voting. The other had voted for Ted Cruz.