What I Learned Protesting a Donald Trump Rally

At this point in the circus that we’ve collectively agreed to refer to as our primary election cycle, it would appear that the presidential nominees of both parties have been all but decided. Hillary Clinton, barring extraordinary circumstances and a rapid outbreak of the Bern, seems to have clinched the Democratic nomination after winning four of the five Northeast primary elections on April 26th, which included taking two thirds of the delegates up for grabs in Maryland. The Republican nomination, much to the confusion and frustration of most rational Americans, is almost certainly going to be filled by billionaire real estate mogul and noted 7-Eleven enthusiast Donald Trump, not so much barring extraordinary circumstances as because of them.

Trump’s competition has now been whittled down to Senator Ted Cruz, who failed to win even one state on the 26th due to his resounding unpopularity outside his home state of Texas and other evangelical hotbeds, and Ohio governor John Kasich, who in any other year might have been a perfectly reasonable conservative candidate but, when compared to the vitriolic bombast of Trump and Cruz, is about as interesting as a bowl of cold oatmeal.  

So, rather than choose a boring candidate with feasible policy ideas and a working understanding of the word “compromise,” the majority of the Republican constituency has so far thrown its hands into the air and, with a resounding “whatever, it’ll probably be fine,” chosen to put forth a candidate that exemplifies much of the poisonous rhetoric that Americans have spent decades attempting to extinguish.

At this point my opinion of Trump’s policies and general worldview should be pretty obvious. When I initially heard that the Donald would be holding a rally at Hagerstown Regional Airport, I was shocked; not only was a presidential candidate bothering to visit Western Maryland  at all, but he was holding a full-blown campaign event with all the fanfare included with such an occasion. Within 24 hours of the Trump campaign’s announcement that they would be holding an event nearby, fellow Frostburg State University student Ethan West announced an event of his own via Facebook; West would be organizing a counter-rally to voice opposition to Trump’s policies and show his supporters that their ideas would not go unchallenged by those in the region who believe they go against what America stands for.

Naturally, when I saw West’s post calling for anyone opposed to Trump’s policies to come out and show support for his cause, I resolved to attend the protest, held on Sunday April 24th, to see for myself what happens at a Trump rally and, more importantly, learn what I could about his supporters and how they react to their worldview being challenged.

We arrived at the entrance of the airport at noon and took up positions at our designated protest area, and the first thing I noticed was the sheer volume of Trump’s supporters that were already arriving; it was four hours before the event was scheduled to begin, and already hundreds of people were hurrying to find parking spots before Trump’s arrival. In most protester’s hands were signs featuring varying admonishments of Trump’s campaign platforms, with some adorned in quotes from the candidate himself, such as “I love the poorly educated,” or “there needs to be some form of punishment” in reference to women that choose to have abortions. Also posted near our protest location were two police officers, one from the Hagerstown police and one Maryland state trooper, who were joined by a Trump campaign staffer in directing traffic to the event parking lot. As our protest ran its course I would come to be very appreciative of the presence of law enforcement.

Almost immediately after our signs went on display, Trump’s more passionate followers resolved to make it clear that dissent was not welcome in their presence. As cars full of potential voters rushed to enter the event grounds, they would slow down as they passed the protest area to scream at us, sometimes chanting the name of their idol and holding a middle finger aloft as if flipping off a total stranger was somehow an act of defiance, a critical step in their fight against the forces attempting to keep America from being great again.

Speaking of making America great again, it turns out that Trump’s favorite catchphrase may not necessarily be the slogan of choice for his supporters when dealing with opposition. By far the most common retaliatory phrase I heard that day was “get a job.” This was confusing for a few reasons, not the least of which being that fact that I already have a job. To one point, the rally was held on a Sunday, and most attendees were either college students or simply had jobs that gave them Sundays off. Some were actually retirees. Nothing unusual there, unless you’re a Trump fan desperate for talking points I suppose. However, if we were only protesting the rally that day because we didn’t have jobs to report to, what reason did Trump’s supporters have for attending?

The scariest part of the whole event wasn’t what was said to us, though, and it wasn’t even the pitiful attempt at intimidation by a member of the crowd that stopped to scream at us for a few minutes before being escorted away by police – it was being reminded that for a large part of the American population, Trump’s constant lies and misinformation, hostility in the face of opposing views, and dismissiveness toward the progress that we’ve made as a nation isn’t just unimportant, it may actually be the reason they listen to him at all.  The protester next to me saw a teacher of hers – a person trusted by society to positively influence young people and teach critical thinking skills – walk past the protest site, rushing to get into the rally with her husband and two young children. When the protester called out to her, the teacher looked almost embarrassed, as if she knew that the ideas she went there to support were wrong and could have real adverse effects on the lives of people she actually knew.

I have no doubt this realization probably did nothing to dissuade her from voting for Trump, and that’s what scares me the most about this election year; even though there were people at that rally that were grandparents to children struggling to pay for college, teachers to children with immigrant friends, women that were fully aware of what Trump really thinks about them, injustice might make no difference to them at all if the person propagating it is convincing enough and no one stands up to fight back. The side of progress had a lot of people at that rally, but the side of fear and intimidation had more.

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