I went to a Donald Trump rally because I thought it would make good material for a funny story. Something like: Gay guy goes to a Trump rally and tries to meet men on Grindr.
That changed very quickly. An exercise in levity turned into a reality check about bigotry and hate.
This was in St. Louis, a few hours before the Trump rally in Chicago that erupted into a brawl when it was canceled at the last minute, and about a week before a Trump rally in Arizona descended into brutal violence.
Even before these outbursts, we had all seen the ugly images from other Trump rallies—snippets of footage of protesters being shouted down, shoved, even decked.
But what is it like to actually be there?
I'm about to tell you so that you'll never have to find out for yourself.
I got to the Peabody Opera House about two hours before the doors opened, and there was already a crowd lined up for blocks. I didn’t intend to hide that I was not a true Trump supporter, but I quickly sensed, after observing the behavior of the crowd, that I could be putting myself in physical danger by being open about it.
The first thing I noticed was how on guard people were: Any noise or sudden motion was a potential protester, and the Trump supporters were ready. I would soon learn that the same thing happens inside. They’re hyper-aware of the need to quickly stand, find the commotion, and yell it down. It’s almost as if they aren’t there for Trump at all, but for the opportunity to attack verbally, and in some cases physically.
“Doughnuts for peace,” a Muslim man said as he handed out doughnuts to the crowd. He was accompanied by other members of his mosque. “We’re here to show that the St. Louis Muslim community is a community of love and family, not hate.”
I took a doughnut, because who passes on a free doughnut? Before I could take a bite, a man in front of me said, “Careful, it might be bioterrorism,” in a boisterous voice, so as to get a laugh from those around us. It worked.
I ate the doughnut.
I scanned the largely white crowd, dressed in casual clothes—jeans, hoodies, tennis shoes. I was surprised by how many young people were in line. The oddity in the sea of white, however, was an African-American woman standing to my left.
“I just think some of those people ruin it for everybody else,” she whispered to me as we chatted about the recent protests at Trump rallies. I asked why we were whispering, and she said, “Because I’d rather not make anybody angry.”
As the line moved inside, a young man sneaked in line next to me.
“Hey, are you a Trump supporter?” he asked me. I told him that I was an undeclared voter interested in learning more about Donald Trump. Not a total lie.
He was African-American, a college student at St. Louis University, and he had come with a sketchbook to pass the time. Based purely on his age, race, and appearance, I wondered whether he was a protester. Nothing he said indicated that, although I did notice part of his hoodie stuffed in his pants, creating a fat spare tire on a person who appeared to have a thin frame.
We lost touch on our way in. After going through the metal detectors, he made his way to the balcony, and I got as close to the Donald as I could.
I found a seat three rows back from the stage next to an 18-year-old high school student, who was on his first day of spring break—“not skipping school,” he made clear. We had time to kill before the program started, so I asked why he supported Trump.
“I think he’s funny,” he said, “and I also think we need to build the wall.”
Confused about why an 18-year-old would be so concerned about immigration in a community far from the border, I asked why the wall was so important to him. “They’re taking our jobs,” he answered. “When I graduate college, I’m going to have a hard time finding work because of Mexicans.”
He could visually see I didn't get it. But seeing how strongly he felt about Trump, I knew not to inquire further, especially after whispering with that woman in line. That's the first thing you learn at a Trump rally: Never ask a follow-up question.
As I sat there, I overheard a man say, “Those sand n–––––s are out to get us. We need to bomb the hell out of them.” It was the first time in my 33 years that I’ve heard anyone use that term.
Not long after that, another man nearby said, in a conversation about Washington corruption, “the Donald will get all those Jews out of Washington.”
At Trump rallies, the buildup to the arrival of the candidate himself is highly orchestrated. Each speaker before him focuses on Trump’s main talking points, immigration, trade, and jobs, and asks the crowd questions like, “Do you want to make America great again?” The crowd knows what to do: They leap to their feet and chant, “Build the wall! Build the wall!”
When Trump arrived at this rally, he took his time to reach the podium, basking in the audience’s love.
“Thank you. Thank you. Thank you,” he said.
He wasn't five minutes into his remarks in St. Louis when the first protester interrupted. The crowd instantly stood, signs in the air, chanting “USA! USA! USA!” while Trump yelled from the stage, “Get ’em out! Get ’em out!” The police dragged the protester out.
After the mood calmed, Trump talked about how much fun his rallies are because of the protests: The other candidates give speeches, “but we have fun.”
At that remark, another protest erupted. Then another. After the sixth disturbance, I stopped counting and started observing the reactions of those around me. My 18-year-old seatmate sat there with a huge grin, ready to leap to his feet with every disturbance, loving every moment he had to react to a protester.
Suddenly fear and sadness came over me. I felt I was taking part in blood sport, in an event that is all about creating fear and hatred. I felt I could instantly be in danger for a myriad of reasons: gay, Jewish, not a true Trump believer. I kept thinking: Will they find me out?
“There used to be consequences (for protesters),” Trump said when an African-American protester returned to the room.
“We didn’t fight the Civil War for this,” another Trump supporter yelled in response.
Here I was in the hornet's nest of hate. In every direction was someone ready to scream, spit, and possibly even cause physical harm. Being a minority comes with a sense of victim awareness: Not only are you aware of the potential dangers you face, but you empathize with other minorities about the dangers they face. Every time a protester was shouted out, taunted, a piece of my heart went with them.
Just then there was a loud noise, someone yelling from the balcony. Instantly everybody looked up and chanted, “USA!” Then I noticed it was the local college student from the line, the one with the sketchbook.
As he yelled, he pulled from his pants a large banner and unfurled it over the balcony. I couldn’t make out the full message other than BLACK LIVES MATTER. Trump supporters surrounded him, chanting and taunting as the police escorted him out. As he left people pulled at his banner, dragging him like a rag doll in whatever direction the crowd pulled the banner, as he literally held to his beliefs. His protest was one of the last.
I couldn’t find my protester friend in the crowd because he, like 31 other protesters, had been arrested for disturbing the peace. Ironic considering all the hate that surrounded them.
I was proud of him and the other protesters. Proud that he was able to do something I couldn’t do. I came to observe, find the humor, but he made plain that there’s nothing funny about this. He and his fellow protesters showed that what’s going on is dangerous and needs to be stopped. If the Republican Party can’t stop Trump, then the people will.
The actions of these protesters and those rallying in the street are not there because of an interest in any particular political candidate, but rather because they see racism and bigotry and are speaking out. Like so many civil rights activists before them, they are attempting to stop a force of hate. The question is, is it too late to be stopped?
Watch the full speech and protests from inside the rally.
H. Alan Scott is a writer/comedian. His work has been featured on MTV, The Huffington Post, and Thought Catalog. Oprah said his name. halanscott.com