“It’s my first Trump rally.”
That’s what I tell the lady seated behind me when she asks, “when did you become a conservative?”
She had already posed that question to a man behind me, who was the only other African-American person in our section at President Donald Trump’s rally in Minden, Nev., on Sept 12. I wondered if the question was a polite way of asking “what the heck are you doing here?” My answer is true, but incomplete.
I hadn’t been to a Trump rally before. I’m a student at the Reynolds School of Journalism at the University of Nevada, Reno. I was in the process of being hired as a part-time reporter for the Reno News & Review when the rally was announced, so I got general admission ticket in order to see the event from the point of view of the attendees. It was initially scheduled to be held in an airplane hangar. There, I thought, it would be possible to maintain a bit of distance from the crush of unmasked Trump fans once Air Force 1 arrived.
With one-day’s notice, the Trump campaign sent an email about a location change from the Reno-Tahoe airport to Minden. The Trump administration accused the Reno-Tahoe airport of having systemic bias, stating if Joe Biden wanted to stage a rally, it would have proceeded.
Minden is about 50 miles south of Reno in Douglas County. The county made headlines recently when its sheriff took offense over a Library Board agenda discussion item denouncing racism and in support of the Black Lives Matter movement. Sheriff Dan Coverley warned that he will withhold emergency services from the library because to support BLM “is to support violence and to openly ask for it to happen in Douglas County.” He has since withdrawn the threat.
The faithful converge on Douglas County
On the drive to Minden, Trump flags hang outside cars and wave above the beds of pickup trucks on the highway. Parking areas are about a quarter mile away from the Minden Tahoe Airport, a general aviation facility. Shuttle busses ferry attendees to the venue. Few wear masks. A sea of “Make America Great Again” red hats are bobbing on the road to the airport. The signature colors of people’s wardrobes are red (a lot of red), white, and blue. I walk, as do many others. Families, couples and seniors hurry along.
The mood is like the prelude to a rock concert. “The President is coming to see us,” said an elderly white man, dressed in white pants and shirt, topped with a red cowboy “MAGA” hat, as he trots to the airport entrance.
At 3:40 p.m. hundreds of people are jammed together, shoulder to shoulder, in front of three silver gates. A fourth gate is marked “veterans.” As each veteran enters, those waiting at the other portals shout and thank them for their service.
Just after 4 p.m., the silver gates open. The crowd sweeps through, only to be stopped for temperature checks and a spritz of hand sanitizer. Each is offered a mask. “It’s Trump’s country, you don’t have to take one,” says a girl behind me to her mother. They pass on the masks.
Excitement builds as the venue fills
Once through the first checkpoint, many run the short distance to the second gate, like kids sprinting towards an ice cream truck on a summer afternoon. There’s another stop. People pass through metal detectors; bags are checked for glass, alcoholic beverages or other contraband. Once cleared, people move into the open seating area. “Hey, young lady, Trump welcomes you,” says a man, in the upbeat tone of a Wal-Mart greeter. He hands out bottles of water. There are stacks of folding chairs nearby.
A large TV screen near the entrance plays a video of Pastor Darrell C. Scott of Ohio, a member of the president’s executive transition team. He testifies that Trump is “the most pro-Black president of my lifetime.”
I’m in the general admission section about 60 yards from the stage, where people jockey for position. They grab water and chairs and work their way to the front. I get as close to the front as I can. I introduce myself to those around me. The loud speakers blare songs by Celine Dion (“Titanic,” ironic for several reasons, most recently in light of the sinking of boats in a Trump boat parade in Texas), the Backstreet Boys, Elvis, and several other country and rock selections.
The excitement grows as people struggle to get closer to the stage. Then, we are asked to bow our heads and close our eyes for a pre-rally prayer. I take a photo with my phone.
Nevada Republican Party Chairman Michael McDonald and former Nevada Attorney General Adam Laxalt take the stage. They praise the president and condemn Gov. Sisolak, Joe Biden and Black Lives Matter. Fear also is in attendance. People near me, some of whom have traveled to the rally from California, are worried that “antifa” might show up to cause trouble. Others counter that no one would dare try anything with the Secret Service around.
Conservative talking points surface
The conversation around me turns to current events. White privilege, several folks agree, does not exist. They say they have worked to earn whatever wealth they have, and therefore, it’s not privilege, but hard work that raised them up in society. Black Lives Matter also is a popular topic. One man, citing damage done in riots, says the protests are actually attacks on America. Others agree, including the African-American conservative behind me.
I am reluctant to add my voice to the conversation. I realize that BLM, police reform, immigration, the administration’s pandemic response and other such issues are not matters of debate here. They are gospel.
My new acquaintances see Trump as a victim of senseless hatred and undeserved criticism: “No matter what he does, people have a problem with it,” says Jack Wilson, a Nevadan wearing an American flag t-shirt. “He’s just human — is he not allowed to make mistakes?”
The lady behind me then asks when I became a conservative and I dodge the question.
The motorcade arrives. The crowd begins to shout and scream. Many hop on chairs for a better view. “He’s here!” a woman shouts breathlessly. As Trump comes to the front of the stage, all eyes are on him. People near me stare, unblinking, at the podium. Many hold cell phones overhead to capture the moment.
Trump takes the stage and the crowd goes wild
“We got thousands and thousands of people outside, taking buses here,” Trump says. He pauses. The crowd takes the cue. “USA! USA! USA!” it roars. Then comes a litany of Trump’s greatest hits: he will win Nevada, even though Gov. Sisolak, who “controls millions of votes” (he doesn’t) is planning to rig the election; Joe Biden will turn the nation into a hellscape of socialism and constant riots; no president has ever been treated so unfairly; the “fake media” are the worst people he has ever known, even including New York real estate developers and foreign leaders who are enemies of the U.S.
When he mentions the media, the crowd responds with boos and shouts of “fake news.” Many attendees glare toward the “pit,” where reporters and photographers are stationed.
He declares the rally “a peaceful protest,” and remarks that Black Lives Matter is allowed to have protests, but he is discriminated against. With every comment that Trump makes — about the media, “illegal aliens,” “antifia,” or Gov. Sisolak, the crowd loudly boos and hisses. Some shout “amen” or “we love you, Trump!” after each of his verbal attacks or complaints about unfair treatment.
The dog whistles and overt insults continue. I wonder about the motives of the people who say they want to “make America great again.” Are they really blind to Trump’s shortcomings and the reasons people take to the streets in protest? They came to the event risking infection during a pandemic. Can they really be satisfied with the Administration’s handling of the crisis? I do not ask. The cheers are an answer.
Trump spoke for more than 90 minutes, but after about 45 minutes, some people leave. At the start of his talk, many people stood on their chairs. Gradually, most sit down. At about the 60-minute mark some attendees near me take an interest in their smart phones and later miss some of the president’s applause lines.
A rally, a peaceful protest, or a super-spreader?
A woman near me tells her husband she is feeling dizzy and isn’t sure why. She is pale and appears frightened. She finds her mask and puts it on.
Around 9 p.m., Trump, who has been riffing from topic to topic, seems to turn to the teleprompters. Complete sentences follow. “And together with the incredible people of Nevada, we will make America wealthy again,” he says. “We will make America strong again, will make America proud again, we will make America safe again and we will make America great again.”
He leaves a happy crowd in his wake. People return to their cars. They seem satisfied that they got what they came for. In two weeks or so, given the lack of masks and social distancing, some may find out they also got something else.
I wore a KN95 mask with a cloth mask over it. There was no way to maintain distance inside the venue. I’ll get tested for the virus that causes COVID-19 next week, just in case.
It was my first Trump rally.