Communities

I’m Gay. I’m With Hillary. I Went To A Trump Rally Undercover.

by Eric Sasson

April 21, 2016

Trump took New York in a landslide on Tuesday, and though the win wasn’t exactly a surprise, his “dignified” victory speech confirmed a shift in strategy, signaling the arrival of a “kinder, gentler” Trump “determined to lock down the nomination.” I’m here to testify that indeed, the Donald has been distancing himself from the spectacle of violence and bigotry that has come to define his campaign: I went to his rally in Albany last week, and the level of decorum there really freaked me out. 

I had come upstate to unwind for a few days at my friend Will's house in Hudson. He had moved there from Brooklyn last year. When Will first told me he and his friend Jeff were going to the Trump rally in Albany, I resisted at first, partly because I was a little afraid I wouldn’t be able to handle the people I met there. But mostly, I’d assumed a political rally would take place in the daytime, and I didn’t want to lose my whole day to an exercise in irony.

“Bernie rallies are during the day,” Jeff said, explaining that the rally wouldn’t take place until 7 p.m. “Trump people work.”

And then we all laughed, like the witty, bitchy, Hillary-supporting fags we all were.

The first thing you must decide as a gay man about to attend a Trump rally is what you're going to wear. When I looked down at what I was currently wearing—a purple zip hoodie, blue jeans, gray sneakers, an electric green watch, and a pair of purple-framed eyeglasses—I realized I needed to step back into the closet for an evening. Will loaned me his dark green jacket; my coat was too black, too edgy, too chic, so it would stay behind. Jeff’s beige boots were a bit too hipster to be hick—“hickster,” we called them—though they were certainly on the masculine side of adorable. As for Will, most of his wardrobe was alarmingly Trump-appropriate. He even had a trucker hat.

I was amongst the enemy! And lo, they were very white.

I'm not going to lie, we had high expectations. A Trump rally! We would be entering the lion's den, armed with nothing but our cell phones. Fights would no doubt break out. People would yell at us and ask if we were real Americans, and we would have to say, “Fuck yeah!” back to them, or risk exposing ourselves. They'd want to know who we were supporting in the election, and we'd have to make up stories about being undecided or leaning towards Kasich, and how we were there to “feel” Trump out and see what he had to say.

Several people had set up stands selling all sorts of Trump paraphenilia.

So we drove out of Hudson, and thirty minutes later, we approached the Times Union Center in Albany. Jeff was worried that the massive crowd would mean the parking lots and garages would be full, but just a few blocks from the arena, there were plenty of spaces left. “It's gonna be $20, fellas,” the attendant said. I balked; it was pretty steep for a couple hours in Albany. Jeff added that at those prices, most Trump supporters would likely park on the street. Who had $20 for parking? Fat cats from the city, that's who. Impostors.

My nerves definitely kicked in once we approached the arena. I was amongst the enemy! And lo, they were very white. Some wore Trump hats and shirts, others sports jerseys. I spotted a few American flag jackets, and even more North Face fleeces. Overall, everyone looked … ordinary. Of course they weren’t sophisticated or hip, but they weren’t exactly tatted-up supremacists with mullets wearing overalls, either. 

What the fuck was this? Politesse at a Trump rally?

Several people had set up stands selling all sorts of Trump paraphenilia—hats, shirts, pins, you name it. I asked Jeff and Will to take anything anyone handed to them, but we only managed to come away with a few pamphlets. My favorite was from Tony Alamo's Christian Ministries, telling us to “BRACE YOURSELVES” because “Anytime now, a worldquake and a series of prophesied catastrophes will shockingly awaken the entire global population to a horrible, God-sent, unparalleled nightmare.”

Once we turned the corner towards the entrance, we finally spotted protesters across the street. There were hundreds of them, which made me happy, until I reminded myself that they were protesting me. Unlike our side of the street, they were a gorgeous mosaic of different skin shades, holding signs and chanting all sorts of riffs on “Fuck Trump.” Within seconds, a cup full of beer landed a few feet from me. Other cups soon followed. We had come at the right time: the crowd was getting rowdy and one of the Trump supporters decided to cross the barrier and confront someone on the other side.

We ran away from these protesters to avoid being recognized.

Alas, the police were prepared for this. Several rode up on literal horseback—and not just any horses, mind you, but regal, grand, gorgeous horses with Farrah Fawcett-like manes of blonde hair—to save the day, or at least make sure nothing got too out of hand.

I snapped photos, which only made me seem like everyone else. The vast majority of the Trump supporters were not engaging the protesters at all. They were mostly laughing, and taking pictures like I was. As soon as Will and Jeff recognized a couple of their friends on the protesters' side, we made a quick break for the stairs, up into the arena. They didn't want to be seen. The scandal!

“I'll blame it on you,” Will said to me. “You're writing an article and you dragged us along.”

“Keep it down,” I said, pitching my voice an octave lower than usual.

Heading up to grab some seats, we noticed that most people had lined up on one set of stairs, even though the other two staircases were wide open. Needless to say, we jumped over the banister. I mean, what the fuck was this? Politesse at a Trump rally? I knew we weren’t in the city anymore, but New Yorkers don't wait and watch people pass. We cut, goddammit.

As people filed in, it was clear that the crowd was overwhelmingly, crushingly white. Surprisingly, also quite young. But the (very) few people of color near us didn't seem afraid or upset. Of course, I couldn't tell how they felt. Maybe they were upset. Maybe they were curious, and just pretending to blend in like we were.

There were about 15,000 people in the seats.

I didn't know about them, but I was afraid. I was definitely doing a lot of macho straight-dude posturing—answering questions with short, clipped sentences while rarely making eye contact.  But from the looks of it, I didn't need to bother. We'd assumed the crowds would be angry, or at the very least, super passionate. Instead, everyone respected the line and waited patiently to pass through security. Occasionally the crowd would break out into chants of “USA! USA!” but it would never last more than a few seconds.

Overall, everyone in the audience seemed pretty civil with each other. If I didn't know better, I could have easily imagined myself at a Limp Bizkit concert circa 1998. (Except those crowds were probably way angrier. ) Still, maybe only Trump's supporters in Albany were mild and easy-going. But I think everyone was calm because Trump himself was calm (or, as Slate called him early Wednesday morning, “domesticated.”) By the time we passed security—which really wasn't that strict given who we were seeing—Trump was already on stage. It was nine minutes past 7. Headlining your own show and starting on time? Diva, please! Who does this? Conservatives and their goddamn punctuality.

Now Trump makes sure to say ‘Don't hurt him,’ or ‘We love our protesters, don't we?’

We were shuffled from section to section because so many seats were already filled, which made me feel a bit queasy. The arena was massive, and three-quarters full. That Trump regularly fills stadiums of this size disturbs me greatly. Though we got a spot behind Trump, we city boys don't settle for bad seats once we spot better ones. So we kept moving closer to the center of the action, hopping over people and chairs as necessary. I assumed people would get angry at us. Instead, when my foot got stuck inside one of the seats and I almost fell down, two people tried to help me out. I was a little perturbed. Don't help me, assholes, I thought.

Granted, we were in the cheap seats.The people who lined up early to get a place on the floor were probably a bit more bombastic. Still, I started to wonder how many in the audience were like us, there to witness the spectacle rather than help Herr Drumpf on his way to the nomination.

Once we sat down, my friends and I started to (quietly) play “Count the Minorities.” I was never any good at spotting Waldo, so I wasn't having much luck. Then the protesters started to protest, and it was much easier to find the brown and black people—because they were being escorted out.

The procedure was always the same: a roar somewhere in the crowd, followed by chants, followed by Trump saying something to the effect of “Get 'em out,” followed by a much louder roar of approval in the arena, followed by us finally being able to pinpoint the ruckus, with the protester at last led to the exit. I don't want to say that all the protesters were people of color. So let's just say that minorities comprised a far greater percent of the protester population than the crowd in general.

‘Don't help me, assholes,’ I thought.

But Trump seems to have learned from his past mistakes regarding protesters. Long gone are the days when he offered to pay people's legal bills for punching back. Now he makes sure to say “Don't hurt him” or “We love our protesters, don't we?” Plus, he’s given them a catchy nickname: the Dis-Trumpers. But even a genteel Trump tries to make it seem like throwing out protesters is part of the fun of attending his rallies. The crowd gets to feel like they're participating in a game, bonding together against a common enemy. This way they don't have to focus on the actual people protesting, or what it means to toss out dissenting voices instead of hearing what they have to say.

Don't get me wrong, the narcissistic megalomania was on full display, with endless riffs on how popular and how much of a winner he was. And the Trumpisms! Oh, the Trumpisms: “Hillary Clinton's whole life is one big, fat, beautiful lie.” “We take care of illegal immigrants in our country better than we take care of our veterans.” “Our current administration is a group of losing people like I have never seen in my life before.”

In-person, Trump still doesn't sound remotely reasonable. His “solutions” remain dangerous and deeply divisive. But I could finally understand, listening to the underlying issues he focused on in his speech, why so many people found themselves drawn to him: He talked a lot about a rigged system. He chided Colorado for awarding Ted Cruz all of its delegates in what certainly seemed like backroom negotiations. He spoke repeatedly about the U.S. losing manufacturing jobs, about unfair trade deals, about politicians being beholden to special interests. He praised New York Values and called out the “dishonest” media. He went through a laundry list of things that he felt were screwing the average worker, and then made some vague promises about Making America Great Again.

‘Is there anything more fun than a Trump rally?’ asked the Donald.

Sound familiar? I'm not saying I could close my eyes and imagine myself at a Bernie rally, mostly because I actually think Bernie inspires a much more personal and passionate devotion in his supporters. People at the rally liked Trump, sure, but they were more apt to chant “USA” over and over again than “Trump.”  They were far more enthusiastic about him taking down Hillary than they were about his vague solutions to their problems.

I’d gone into this hoping Trump and the crowd would feed off each other, but that just wasn't happening. “Is there anything more fun than a Trump rally?” the Donald asked the crowd at one point. You can probably guess my answer: A Scissor Sisters concert. A midnight showing of Whatever Happened to Baby Jane? Any episode of Drag Race. Or maybe takeout Thai and a Friends rerun. But even Trump’s actual supporters seemed pretty bored.

I didn't want to think about the fact that Trump supporters were people just like me, struggling and frustrated.

As we were leaving the arena, Jeff, Will and I passed each other a knowing look, something we confirmed once we were far enough from the arena. The rally wasn't scary at all. We expected to be shocked. We expected to be discovered as undercover agents. We expected an angry, overtly racist mob. But that's not what we were confronted with. Most of the people around us were perfectly civil.

I suppose I went to the Trump rally hoping that afterwards, I’d be able to pat myself on the back for “surviving” it. But since I’d chosen to “pass,” I experienced the rally as someone who was welcome. Maybe if I hadn’t toned myself down to better blend in—if I'd worn clothing that more clearly marked me as gay—I’d have experienced Trump as far less than dignified. (Also, of course, I’m a white man. If I’d been a person of color, or dressed in a hijab, perhaps the supporters in the seats around me wouldn’t have been so helpful when I nearly fell down the stairs.)

Wait, do people really think Trump will make America great again?

But here's my take: A lot of the Trump supporters seemed ordinary to me because they might very well be. Of course a whole bunch of them might be racist, or xenophobic, or both. Most were likely conservatives and Republicans. But I knew that going in. What I didn't know—or didn't really want to think about—was that Trump supporters were also people, just like me, struggling and frustrated, excited to hear a candidate validate their disappointments and their fears for once.

Which leads me to the most troubling realization I have to make: just how little I still know. I went into the rally with preconceived notions, so much so that I decided I had to blend in. But once I blended in, I couldn't really confirm or challenge these notions. I was no closer to understanding Trump supporters than I was before.

Maybe this means I can't simply dismiss them. Maybe I might have to accept that the people I decided I ought to hate are just human. It doesn't make me dislike Trump or his campaign any less. It doesn't change my resolve to make sure he'll never get elected. What it does do, though, is allow me to see that hating on Trump and his supporters is just too easy. Making assumptions is too easy, and blending in is too easy. I might have to find a more constructive way to channel my disapproval. I might have to be courageous—to stand up for myself and be more empathetic towards others.

It may be pointless to think I'm going to change any minds. But maybe it's not about changing other people's minds—just my own.

Top image via Flickr user Gage Skidmore (cc). All other images via the author.

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I’m Gay. I’m With Hillary. I Went To A Trump Rally Undercover.