On Thursday night, I made a two-hour drive with my now-politics-obsessed autistic son in an effort to go to a rally for President Donald Trump.
He wanted to see politics in action. I wasn’t sure what I would find.
What I saw surprised me in many ways — but not necessarily how you might guess.
Here are seven observations:
- It was peaceful. There was an anti-Trump protest of about 200 people on the (blocked-off) road heading to the arena. About 50 or so Trump supporters gathered to listen/react/chant/disagree, while officers on horseback sat a distance away. There was no violence. There was no screaming 6 inches from the opposition’s face. Just two groups lawfully assembling, stating their case, failing to convert anyone from the opposition to their side, then walking away. No one was denying the other side the right to speak. “This is the way democracy should work,” I told my son. They not only essentially agreed to disagree, but they were allowed to do so in the first place. “In many countries, this wouldn’t be allowed,” I said.
- Chants/slogans matter. The Trump faithful, even though they were outnumbered at the mini-protest, were better organized for one reason: They had a chant. “Build … the … wall.” When they chanted in unison, they were able to drown out the opposition’s thoughts. And the opposition had a microphone and speakers. The anti-Trump crowd had plenty to say (Russia, immigration, children separated from their families), but they didn’t have one slogan they could rally around. Echoes of the campaign.
Winner: Trump supporters.
- It was packed. The reason I was outside the 8,300-seat arena is because the arena was quickly filled and closed. DOT workers and police officers told me the first person got in line at midnight, or 16 hours before the doors opened. In less than an hour, they closed the arena, declaring it full. Anyone who thinks support for Trump is waning is still not paying attention to Middle America. I saw license plates from New York, Connecticut and Maryland (and this was about a mile from the main parking lot). It’s easy to see why Trump feels he has support for the way he acts. He does. Those of us on the East Coast apparently still don’t understand the mood in flyover states. “If you’ve never experience it first hand, you can’t possibly understand it,” a longtime political consultant told me.
Follow Tom Bergeron on Twitter at @tombergeron5
- There was diversity. Not the diversity you may be thinking of (but don’t be mistaken, I saw some African-American and Hispanic supporters). There was diversity in the support for Trump. You can’t tell a book by its cover, but if you think all Trump supporters are poor and uneducated (that’s the polite way to say white trash racists), you’d be mistaken. There were plenty of professionals and plenty of seniors (and plenty of females of all ages) proudly demonstrating their support.
Winner: The base.
- Plenty of good lines. There were no professionally made signs and shirts outside the arena. This was all original thought. My favorite was the anti-Trump protester who wore a shirt which read: “Feminism is the radical idea that a female is a human being.” Trump’s side had its moments, too. There was an “LGBT” sign: “Liberty, Guns, Beer, Trump.” And, when an anti-Trump protester yelled about caring about the children, the ones separated from their kids at the border, it was met with a response about abortion.
Winner: Creativity and passion.
- Not everyone hates the media. After about 20 minutes of walking around, I put my press credential around my neck, just wondering if I would be viewed differently (by either side). I wasn’t. I recognize the same can’t be said for many of my media colleagues. But on this day, my credential did what it always does: Draws people who want to talk to me — often because they erroneously think I can make them famous. Never once did I hear the phrase, “Fake News.”
Winner: The media.
- This is reality. If you think Trump is sinking, you need to step out of the East Coast. Here I was, less than 50 miles inside Pennsylvania, and it was a different world than what we experience in New Jersey. “It bothers me that people think this is Trump country,” one protester told me. What could I say: It sure felt that way to me. The reality is that everywhere is Trump country. He is the president, and roughly half of the people in the U.S. are happy about it. A sold-out, frenzied crowd 18 months into the administration says so. “This is no different than the campaign,” the insider told me. “People used to stand in line for hours just to see him. If you think he doesn’t have a solid base, you are mistaken.” One trip to Wilkes-Barre, Pennsylvania, showed me that.