DES MOINES, Iowa—By the time R.E.M.’s “Losing My Religion” came on for the third time at Donald Trump’s Thursday night rally at Drake University’s basketball arena in Des Moines, Iowa, I was ready to lose my mind, having already lost my religion sometime in high school.
I had entered as the Backstreet Boys’ hit “I Want It That Way” blared over the speakers, which was certainly a musical choice that had been made. I had listened in as a Patagonia-bedecked lawyer talked to his buddy, also dressed in Patagonia, about his year at the Heritage Foundation and the necessity of “stroking” people’s motivations in his work, insisting that “there’s nothing corrupt in that.” I had counted an alarming number of bottle blondes decked out in rhinestone pins spelling out “Make America Great Again,” which I learned could be bought from a website called Trump Girl, which also sells socks with tufts of Trump’s signature wispy hair glued to the side. I had spoken to several women whose names began with the letter “K,” one of whom told me Trump “encouraged women,” and when I asked her for specifics, told me, “I can’t think of any examples off the top of my head.” I had made a series of trite observations to a group of friends via text: “You’re a minority here if you’re brunette.”
I had already been asked by a stranger whether I knew a random East Asian man who was being interviewed by a video team (I did not know him). I had walked by the official merch table selling “Space Force” bumper stickers at least 12 times. Sitting in the basketball arena’s mezzanine, where print journalists had been sequestered, I had spent a good 10 minutes contemplating the two signs flanking the stage screaming “JOBS! JOBS! JOBS!”—the decision to use two spaces after each word, as well as the aggressive use of exclamation points, a perhaps unintentional paean to a sort of angry old age. I had observed at least five men wearing the jersey of Kansas City Chiefs quarterback Patrick Mahomes, roughly equaling the number of people of color attending the rally. I had gazed out at the sea of humanity before me—the middle-aged women who wanted to be girls or alternately, “Hot Chicks for Trump;” the men with beer bellies wearing t-shirts depicting Donald Trump as a virile, glistening boxer; the rosy-cheeked children whose parents decked them out in gear that read “America First”—and thought to myself, Fuck. Why am I here?
There is, after all, little new to be gleaned from a Donald Trump rally, three years into his presidency. The booing of the “fake news media,” the chants of “build the wall” and “drain the swamp,” the man’s often-incoherent ramblings and stream of consciousness speeches emerging from his increasingly decrepit grey matter—it’s all rote by now. One might even say boring, as the French reporter sitting to my left in the media pen described the event’s proceedings to me, as we fidgeted in our seats. For his most ardent supporters, a Trump rally is a form of church, one where their leader is a fascist, narcissistic buffoon and criminal and their gospel primarily centers on making life as mean and miserable as possible for those they consider heretics, which is to say, anyone darker, queerer, more foreign. For many in the news media, they’re an opportunity to generate more hits—pulling out the newsworthy bits while tending to downplay the mindblowingly stupid, and alarmingly dangerous, garbage that spews out of the president’s mouth. For everyone else, if you’re smart and care about your mental health, at this point they’re probably best to be ignored. Still, I was there, my first Trump rally. Nothing human is alien to me, as the saying goes.
When the gay anthem “Macho Man” by the Village People began playing—“Every man wants to be a macho man / To have the kind of body always in demand”—we all knew Trump was about to come on stage. The crowd had been warmed up by Jeff Kauffman, the chairman of the Iowa Republican Party, who had begun his speech by taking off his jacket, making me idly wonder if he would continue stripping as he frothed at the mouth about Adam Schiff and CNN; and by Vice President Mike Pence, who droned on about the three Fs—“faith, family, and the American flag.” As Trump strolled to the stage on the makeshift runway, the crowd held up their arms, phones in hand, to capture the moment, looking for all the world like they were giving their leader their very best impression of the Hitler salute.
I made it about 10 minutes into his speech. When he compared the USMCA, Trump’s trade agreement that has been described as “climate sabotage”, to the song “YMCA,” I decided to leave. I could feel my mind liquefying. I stopped by a merch table outside, a mistake. “You from China?” a middle-aged white man asked me. I told him I was born in Texas. His name was Gary, and he was a precinct captain for his local Republican caucus. Unprompted, he began telling me about how he dated a girl from Shenyang, which is “close to North Korea,” that “Chinese people are nice people,” and that, “If you’re talking about black, Hispanic, Asian discrimination, Asians are discriminated the most.” “China’s running us over, and it’s okay! I love Xi,” he said, mispronouncing the name of the president of China as “Chee.”
He then asked me if the ballcap he was trying on fit his head. I said no, because it did not. Gary launched, again without my asking, into his assessment of the Democratic field. “They won’t let Bernie win,” he said, “they” being the Democratic Party. “Bloomberg is a great guy, he’s a businessman. He wouldn’t ruin the country.” Given his apparent love for Asian people, he was a fan of Andrew Yang, another businessman whom he saw speak in person and whom he admired for not describing Trump as evil, just on a “different side.” “I think he’s really a Republican,” Gary said of Yang. “I think he’s a misguided Democrat.” By this point, I was vaping constantly. “You’re going to get pneumonia from vaping,” he warned before departing.
Outside, dozens of protesters stood huddled in the cold, clutching signs and chanting, the opposite of the crowd inside the basketball arena—young, racially diverse. They cared about the Green New Deal, about immigrants, about the ways that factory farms were polluting their waterways and the rural communities in which they and their families lived. As I walked up to them, I spied a woman approaching the protesters, who said she tried to throw a snowball at them before walking away. “She tried to shush us,” one of them told me, shaking his head.
Tyreq Washington, a Drake University student, was there with a friend and his cousin, standing next to a police barricade. “A lot of students didn’t come to class today,” he told me, worried about being on campus at the same time as so many Trump supporters. His cousin Sydney chimed in. “That’s really frustrating, especially when you belong here,” she said. “I’ve seen a lot of my classmates here. It just makes you more uncomfortable.” Their friend Brandon Weaver mentioned statistics that show that hate crimes rise after Trump rallies; all three are black. “We’re going to have to deal with that,” he said.
As we stood in the below-freezing temperatures, chatting about who they planned to caucus for—Brandon and Tyreq were leaning towards Elizabeth Warren and Bernie Sanders, and Sydney was a fan of both Warren and Pete Buttigieg—Trump’s speech was being broadcast on a big screen outside, his face looming over us. He began talking about the Green New Deal, which he stated “would crush our farms, destroy our wonderful cows.” “They want to kill our cows,” he continued, before repeating himself. “They want to kill our cows. That means you’re next.”
“I don’t even know what he said,” Tyreq said, laughing. “It’s funny though.”