Droppin’ in on the Inexplicable Trump Rally

This originally appeared in the March 21, 2017 issue of LEO Weekly.

“Official Donald J. Trump for President Gear is ONLY Available Inside the Venue” read the bottom of the ticket to get into the rally in Louisville on Monday night. This struck me as odd. If you omitted the proper noun in that sentence, one could assume we were talking about officially licensed NBA Starter jackets. Also, “for President” gear? Didn’t the Electoral College already take care of that? Is this discounted post-Valentine’s Day chocolate or are we talkin’ new model 2020 POTUS swag with factory-to-dealer incentives? The Trump universe has certainly never been short on strange optics.

To boot, the reason for this rally remains a mystery.

On the same day FBI director James Comey announced an official investigation into collusion between Russia and Trump’s campaign, the president, for some reason, was to speak to a near-capacity Freedom Hall. Perhaps he was in town to sell the GOP healthcare plan as Mike Pence did earlier this month. Maybe he just needed to charge his batteries with some thunderous applause. The press release didn’t really say either way. Will recent events be mentioned at all? And how will the most-ardent supporters mentally reconcile 2016’s “Lock her up!” cheer with “just because there’s an investigation doesn’t mean there’s any wrongdoing.”

Hesitant to ask folks that one, of course. As a member of the media, I’m an enemy of the American people, and I’m exiting my echo chamber to lie real low in another one. I took a ride-share shortly before the gates opened, since I drive a Prius instead of an American-made truck donning a sticker of Calvin peeing on, I dunno, a Palm Pilot with emails from John Podesta. I’m even carrying the NRA card I had to purchase to cover last year’s convention. It was the last time Trump and I were in the same room, and given events surrounding his last speech in town, I felt more trepidation schlepping down to the Expo Center this evening than an entire weekend with munitions enthusiasts.

By just after 4 p.m., a swarm of red hats wrapped around the entire facade of the South Wing. Jefferson County is a deep blue oasis, but still just under 144,000 votes for Trump were cast here last November (vs 191,000 for Hillary Clinton). And Louisville is the economic driver of a very red state. There’s a whole lot of folks here.

A few hundred from the resistance movement welcomed attendees filing through Gate 1, pink caps and signs in tow, but they were required to remain an entire parking lot away and were barely audible. Adjacent to the “Deplorables Crossing” sign between the lot and sidewalk, music bellowed from the Trump Unity Bridge, a large parade float peppered with octagonal signs proclaiming “drain the swamp” and Trump-positive catchphrases. A lot of disco, in particular. And a Madonna song (oops). The Weather Girls’ “It’s Raining Men” felt particularly out of place, but perhaps it’s my prejudice to assume this demo crowd likes only Lee Greenwood. Shortly into the National Anthem, a man on the float shouted through the PA to “take off your hats!” The crests of this sea of people became significantly less red for a moment. A Trump impersonator entertained a generally subdued crowd, and people got their photos taken. I confirmed that, indeed, there absolutely was a tent selling official Donald J. Trump for President Gear outside the venue (the ticket was fake news!). Japanese media was present filming B-roll of the line moving. A man with wispy white hair and a blue jersey held up an index to the camera: “You’re in the right place, because Wildcats are No. 1! We’re No. 1 here.” The camera operator smiled politely, probably confused. A half hour, one selfie with the Trump impersonator, and a bunch of creepy literature from Christian cult leader Tony Alamo in my back pocket later, I was in the building. At no point was my ticket reviewed or scanned to gain entrance.

I guess they just got my info.

I stood at the nexus of the two arena wings, first to see if they were selling beer (they weren’t), and to absorb the environment. Noteworthy T-shirt highlights included an illustrated Trump with eroded type: “I’m here to grab pussy and Make America Great Again” and “Finally Someone With Balls,” in a tasteful sans serif. All this genitalia talk made me think Freud must have some kin in the building. Retired military jackets, shirts adorned in the generic campaign logo and totally nondescript sartorial choices were more common, however. Relegated to the nosebleed section, I caught opening comments from Kentucky state Sen. Ralph Alvarado, a Republican from Winchester and a physician and vocal opponent the Affordable Care Act. He lamented the bureaucracy doctors navigate. Perhaps we actually are in for an evening of healthcare talk. Kentucky Lt. Gov. Jenean Hampton, meanwhile, exalted broader conservative themes of self-determination, bootstraps and how to pull them.

The first of a few of surprises this evening came from Gov. Matt Bevin. Opening with Thomas Paine’s “The American Crisis” (“these are the times that try men’s souls. The summer soldier and the sunshine patriot will, in this crisis, shrink from the service of their country.”), Bevin offered up a fairly measured and moderate speech for a governor who governs neither measured nor moderate. He thanked the media for covering the event and noted the virtue of free press, while admonishing their write-off of the movement. Fair, we’ll answer to that one for a while, cringing at George Stephanopoulos literally laughing it off in 2015. On economic policy, he curiously said “that isn’t to say we don’t want free trade, but America first.” The second clause, sure, but dicey move to utter the first in front of thousands who believe NAFTA stole jobs. He did it again on immigration. “We want to make it easier for people to come here legally and harder to come illegally.” Folks, that’s basically the sentiment of immigration reform proponents too. Perhaps we need to frame our debates better.

The second surprise — not one, but two Backstreet Boys songs played between guests (I’m really waiting for the Lee Greenwood). It was during these interludes I met Tammy Kelly of Elizabethtown. She identifies as a “reformed Democrat.” “I reluctantly voted for [Trump]”, Kelly said. “At the last minute, I just couldn’t vote for Hillary.” I mentioned that we probably have common ground in not having much use for the DNC, revealing my support for Bernie Sanders in the primary.  “Oh, you all got screeeewed.” “Yeah, no shit,” I replied. Kelly came mostly to join her husband, who’s she described as “more of a traditional Republican than [she].” Kelly said she does not like the president’s budget, the “Jesus talk” in the speeches, or the current GOP healthcare plan. She’s mostly concerned about immigration issues, particularly “sanctuary cities.” “The Democrats have done nothing to enforce the laws on the books,” she said. “I don’t like [idea of] the wall, but the other side is not doing anything.” On healthcare, Kelly likes the openness of a marketplace with interstate policies, but felt the issue of pharmaceutical price inflation has remained totally unaddressed.

To the other side of me was James from Louisville. Younger and dressed in a suit, he moved here from Dayton, Ohio, two years ago and came to the rally with his fiancé, an Air Force recruiter. They asked their last name not be used. He turned to me after hearing us talk about Bernie. “I’m a liberal too,” he said. “I wanted to come hear him say something dumb.” I respect that hustle, waiting in long lines to witness some sort of chicanery, gas-lighting, or otherwise corrupt bargains in the flesh for sport. Not a sunshine patriot move. “I want to see if he’ll stick his foot in his mouth about the FBI,” James said.

Me too, buddy.

The third, and my favorite, surprise of the night: U.S. Sen. Mitch McConnell got booed. He got booed real hard. Total deafening jeering. Oh, man, I loved it. Sadly, this crowd can boo all they all want, but he’ll still get re-elected because the Kentucky Democratic Party is worthless, and McConnell can earmark some serious money for the state. “He’s why we need term limits in Congress,” Kelly said.

The president was tardy, staring almost 15 minutes later than the scheduled 7:30 p.m. time and over three hours after the doors opened. So he and your local DIY punk band have that in common. What followed was… a dim, scripted speech. Dare I even say “low energy?” The gravity of the room changed a bit, of course, as Trump riled up his base rehashing the same talking points as before the election. He kicked off ruminating on famous historical Kentuckians, leveraging Henry Clay (who hated the guts of Trump’s muse Andrew Jackson) and his support of import tariffs to bolster domestic industry as a pivot point. Ergo, jobs. “We believe in two simple rules: buy American and hire American,” he said. “We are putting coal miners to work,” Trump proclaimed, sans any specifics and against all economic trends. Mentioning the myth of “clean coal,” a woman behind me asked “is that a real thing?” “Yes,” another replied (in my best Ron Howard impression: no, it doesn’t).

The loudest cheer came with the call to “secure our borders.” Immigration is serious for this base. Touting a 61-percent reduction in immigration along the southern border (who knows if this is true), Trump spoke of “the influx of immigrants poisoning our youth,” citing acts of violence in San Bernardino and Boston ,while conveniently omitting Charleston, Aurora and similar violent acts from terrorists with a lighter Pantone. “Nuke ‘em!” a man three rows behind me clamored when the president moved on to North Korea. “What’s happening there is disgraceful, not good,” Trump said of the Hermit Kingdom. He echoed the repeal and replacement of Obamacare without sharing anything new — presumably the entire point of his visit. Trump finally dialed up the nativism (“a new national pride is swelling our hearts”) mixed with some light crowd pandering (“you just worry about your basketball team, we will take care of the rest”). He exited the stage to Lee Greenwood’s “God Bless The USA” (finally!).

Compared to the nightmarish inaugural address, Trump’s speech on Monday exuded a much more positive outlook to — the fourth and final surprise of the evening — a totally understated, generally-polite crowd without any headline-grabbing hi-jinx. Eric from Louisville enjoyed the environment, talking at the exit. “Honestly, I’ve never seen any president live, and it was interesting to see the diversity of folks who voted for him,” he said. “I wanted to be here because it felt like a big moment.” “I didn’t hear anything surprising,” James said. “I wanted to hear more about healthcare, and I’d like to hear more, but [the speech] was just the same old, same old.”

It was also light on policy, heavy on misinformation, lacking any discernible point, and perhaps worst of all, bland. A total campaign speech after being elected president, with election gear for sale going to the campaign. While claiming the contrary during the rally, maybe Trump just showed up to flex on Kentucky’s junior senator Rand Paul, who has basically voted no confidence on the GOP healthcare bill. Perhaps relinquishing underdog status surrounded by supporters extinguished some of the fire.

No worries, there was plenty of fire outside. The resistance protest, sometime between early dusk and the dark night, moved from the gate entrance to the front door, flanked by rows of officers and police horses. “Black Lives Matter!” mantras clashed with “U.S.A.!” chants. A lanky young man with long, blond hair tousled under a red MAGA cap howled “Pizzagate is real!” into a camera. Crests of handmade signs towered over the perimeter of law enforcement. An officer tried to assuage a shouting match, calmly telling an attendee that while he respects his right to stay here and yell, the more prudent move is to get in your vehicle and go home. More attendees exiting the event shout “get a job!” at the group (maybe not the strongest argument at 8:30 p.m. while, ya know, you too are out on the town). A veritable Facebook thread come to life on the Freedom Hall lawn.

It was much calmer inside the echo chamber, but not nearly as interesting.