11:31 a.m.: It’s a brisk, bright day, and we’re going to see Donald Trump. Though the rally won’t start until 3 p.m., there are already a few hundred people lined up in the parking lot. From here, school buses will transport thousands of people over the next few hours to an airport hangar on Scottsville Road. The buses idle as enterprising vendors/cynical salesman (take your pick) hawk their unsanctioned wares to rally-goers. There are buttons, scarves, posters, flags (both Trump and American), novelty t-shirts (“Hillary Sucks, But Not Like Monica; Trump That Bitch”), and, of course, knockoff “Make America Great Again” (MAGA) hats. A healthy portion of the line is already donning some apparel bearing his famous phrase. An older man and his wife discuss church social events, and a man who uses the phrase “by golly” is pinned with the button of a man who advocated for violating the Geneva Convention. On the bus, we sit next to a man wearing a leather jacket that declares him a “Proud Infidel.”
11:50: Our bus empties at the hangar. The street is lined with police vehicles and animals (surprisingly docile horses and dogs), and as we’re directed inside the barbed wire compound, the concentration becomes even greater. Two heavily armed policemen stand on top of the hangar, looking down intensely. A man behind us thanks God that there aren’t any Muslims at the event, while his friend thoughtfully reminds him that they’re all too busy “eating camel shit.” Possible article title #1: “The Prince of Darkness.”
Besides the ubiquitous MAGA, the dominant plumage seems to be American flags. Hats, scarves, and shirts bear the Stars and Stripes. Many wear camo or leather jackets, but rarely both. The different uniforms seem to congregate at different points in the line. Though the crowd is overwhelmingly white, the stray person of color can be found with a sharp eye. As we filter through the security tent, an Oswego man in a brown leather jacket, cowboy hat, and gold-flaked wingtip boots strums on a guitar and croons, “Trump train, rolling down the line.”
12:02 p.m.: It’s only after we settle in about 30 feet away from the stage that we realize no one ever asked for a ticket. Later, it’ll become clear that the point of the tickets was to get the bearer’s email address on a list, but at the time, it’s very confusing. The stage features a simple podium with a Trump poster affixed to the front, dwarfed by a half-court sized American flag right behind the stage. The media is confined to a pen in the back, cameras seeming to outnumber people. People look at them as if they’re lepers. The reporters look grim.
12:15: “Dad, why are we here so early?”
“Horrible, isn’t it? Drag you to see a piece of history, ‘stead of playing video games. You might learn something, Gio.”
The sea of red confirms that it is now clearly the color of the day (and perhaps of the year). We’re still about three hours from The Arrival.
12:40: Music starts to play from the overhanging speakers, and the opener is “Tiny Dancer.” A baffling choice, no doubt, but the crowd seems to enjoy it—people are bopping their heads all over. When “Uptown Girl” comes on, a man with a handlebar mustache, camo jacket, and a t-shirt with an oft-circulated meme of Moses cowering by the Burning Bush saying “My Weed, Fuck” goes absolutely bonkers. Even our tightly packed neighbors have a laugh at that one.
There is a bit of a family aspect to the rally. Besides the presence of actual families in the room, there seems to be a shared sense of persecution. People scoff to each other that anyone could call them violent, just because they support a candidate who speaks his mind. They talk about him like the handsome, overachieving cousin that everyone wants to see come Christmas. A man wearing a “Don’t Tread On Me” shirt finds Kasich “docile” and Cruz “untrustworthy.”
1:09: The hangar is now at capacity—I foolishly guess at around 1,500, but a man behind me lets me know that the hangar can fit 3,000, with an overflow capacity of 3,000 more. Reports the following day put attendance at 7,500.
Suddenly, the hangar doors start to part and a blindingly white light pours into the cavernous room. The cheer goes up (“Trump! Trump! Trump!”), and the doors open almost completely. Unless you’re abnormally tall, all you can see are phones, hats, and an enormous white expanse. The light is heavenly. Jet tails can be glimpsed with a well-positioned phone, raised high in the air; some seem to think it’s Him. But that’s wishful thinking, because if Trump knows anything, it’s how to keep ‘em waiting, and leave ‘em wanting more. After all, he just made 3,000 people turn 45 degrees without even being in the room. The cinematic quality of it, the mise-en-scène, is incredible.
1:20: The Rolling Stones–heavy playlist has given way to Pavarotti belting Puccini’s “Nessun Dorma.” Several men wave copies of “The Art of The Deal” like conductors. Possible article title #2: “The Art of the Real”; possible article title #3: “People of the Book.”
1:24: Three local high school students jokingly chant “Build that wall.” Calls are returned, with far more venom. The boys can’t believe it.
We’re about 90 minutes away.
1:34: “Tiny Dancer” again. Either he really likes Elton John, or…
1:40: …this playlist is a bit too short for the time it’s supposed to fill. “You Can’t Always Get What You Want” comes on for round two.
1:50: The hangar doors part further this time, revealing an old propeller plane. A man behind me, sensing my confusion, explains that it’s the Whiskey 7, one of the last surviving planes from D-Day. A local group is dedicated to its upkeep, and now an older man in a bomber jacket has opened the hatch to raucous applause. He waves an American flag and an Air Force flag to cheers.
The crowd is starting to push towards the stage. Possible article title #4: “The Unbearable Lightness of Being There.”
2:11: A man tells me that he’ll be landing here at 2:45.
“Where’d you hear that?”
“This woman right here. Her friend is the pilot.”
2:22: “TINY DANCER” AGAIN.
2:28: A man strides on to the podium; it seems to be the bomber jacket man. “Wow,” he says. “God Bless America. God Bless Donald Trump.” The crowd is going absolutely wild now. “That plane will be here soon,” he says, and no one has to ask what plane he’s referring to. Bomber Jacket Man does a nice cover of the Trump classics: rebuilding the American Dream, seven years of a leader who didn’t lead, “charlatans and phonies,” “No mo Cuomo,” “America does not have to apologize for its history,” “the Party is trying to steal the right to pick a leader from the people,” etc. Huge cheers for the hit “We’re Gonna Build A Wall, And Mexico’s Gonna Pay For It.” A new riff on an old classic. Bomber Jacket Man smiles. “He’s gonna love you guys.”
The tall man standing next to us wants so badly to be heard. He often calls out to no one in particular, trying and failing to start chants. When chants do actually start, he’s often doing the wrong one. His manner of speech can only be described as “braying.” He clutches his little wife close.
Bomber Jacket Man is followed by “PASTOR Mark BURNS,” as he introduces himself. He unsheathes the mic that he seems to have brought from home, and it’s gleaming in the sun. His speech is part Revival tent, part Wrestlemania, and sweat pops off his head while he exhorts the crowd to “shout never, shout never” to Sanders or Clinton in the White House. A “Lyin’ Ted” chant energizes the crowd, and they are riding the wave with Pastor Burns, who knows exactly where his bread is buttered. He directs the crowd toward the media pen in the back, those liars with the cameras. People boo, shake their fists, and flip them off, but the caged reporters stay stone-faced. He finishes off with this: “There are no Black people, White people, Hispanic people, Asian people! There is only one color that matters, and that is red, white, and blue!”
It’s that kind of day.
3:01: A little antsy now. Where’s our man? People’s eyes stray to the skies like someone waiting for a crush to walk down the stairs at a party. Also, having now heard the same Puccini aria for the third time, the magic seems to have been lost. Possible article title #5: “None Shall Sleep.”
3:06: And there was a great cry in Rochester, such as there has not been before and such as shall never be again, as He ambles to the podium in an ankle-length black coat, clad in a red power tie. He’s more orange than you’d expect, and His hair is more blonde, too.
Immediately, a protestor starts to yell about 15 feet away from us. He’s taken out as those there for the regularly scheduled program tell security to “get him the fuck out.” Trump expresses disbelief from the stage, lazily flicking the man out of the crowd with a single finger. “These people. Where do they find them?”
Donald J. Trump, as so many seem to be fond of saying, puts on an hour set of the greatest hits. He starts local, acknowledging the fears of those laid off from manufacturing jobs. He rails against environmentalism, decrying the lack of fracking and remarking, “It’s supposed to be 70 degrees today. It’s freezing,” he says. He gets a little bigger now, going after Cuomo as a segue into Cruz’s comment on “New York values.” More Lyin’ Ted chants as Trump smiles and looks on. For a man who claims not to care what people think, he sure does do a lot of impressions of people in anticipation of possible criticisms.
Select quotes: “They ask me, what is your policy, like, on the military?”; “John Kerry, who did not read ‘Art of the Deal’”; “The Bible is the best, but ‘Art of the Deal’ is one of the best books of all time.”
His speech pattern is as-advertised. A general structure is there, but he weaves old consequents into antecedents from paragraphs ago. He hypes himself up, leaning in close to let the crowd in on a secret before he blows it up with a grand proclamation or accusation. He fires away at Jeff Bezos, John Boehner, and nameless reporters who annoy him. He clucks his tongue at protesters as they’re thrown out, and then urges the crowd to pay them no attention. He rips on the media whenever he gets the chance, and 45 minutes in, he’s still going as strong as the second he stepped on stage.
3:51: “This is a movement of love.”
4:00: The speech comes to an end with what amounts to a crazed drum solo—he hits all the main beats without taking a breath, walking off stage as the adulation of the crowd grows ever-louder. His photogs rush on stage to take pictures of him shaking hands with those lucky enough to be in the front row. We can make out where he stands by the focus of the phones and quick glimpses of his hair.
4:29: The line for the bus back to the parking lot is oppressively long. Across the street, protesters waving Anarchist flags make the Trump supporters chuckle. New York State Police, hard-looking bald men with no necks, become agitated as those who were cheering for the rule of law try to sneak around some fences to get to the buses. Someone yells, “Look!”
Behind us, Trump Force One flies up, up, and away. He promised earlier that he’ll be back.