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Saturday, March 12, 2016

Inside the Nightmarish Hellscape That Was Donald Trump's St. Louis Rally

Posted By on Sat, Mar 12, 2016 at 10:57 AM

click to enlarge PHOTO BY THEO WELLING
  • Photo by Theo Welling

If Donald Trump only knew my true intentions when I attended his rally in St. Louis on Friday, he probably would have had me arrested upon arrival.

It's not that my plans were particularly malicious — go to the event, see the sights, craft a snarky article upon my return. It's more that Trump has a markedly adversarial relationship with the media. He's expressed a desire to "open up those libel laws" as soon as he enters office — Trumpspeak for "attacking the constitutionally assured freedom of the press." He keeps reporters corralled at his rallies, referring to us as "scum" — the same word he uses for ISIS. Recently, security at one of his events even choke-slammed a Time photographer for daring to step out of the assigned press area.

On top of that, I'm a complete smartass with no love for the guy. I'd surely have a target on my back by virtue of my mere existence.

I decided I'd better go incognito, clad in a Goodwill-purchased NRA hat and a shirt with a bald eagle on it. I packed a flask full of Jack Daniels to calm my nerves (and also to lubricate myself while waiting in line for hours).

Now, I fancy myself a seasoned expert in the art of consuming alcohol, but 8:30 a.m. is generally a little early even for me to break into the whiskey. But standing in line outside of the Peabody Opera House in a sea of Donald Trump supporters, I was glad I had the foresight to bring a flask.

click to enlarge PHOTO BY THEO WELLING
  • Photo by Theo Welling
Attendees numbered in the thousands and mostly represented a diverse crowd of both young and old white people. I took my place in line between a fresh-faced, well-dressed young man named Kevin, who had skipped class at Parkway South to be here, and an older guy in a Cardinals jacket named Joe, who walked with a cane/folding chair hybrid that afforded him both assisted mobility and a portable seat.

"Well that's handy," I remarked, trying to make friendly conversation. "It's necessary," Joe shot back gruffly, before immediately turning his attention away from me again. Shit, I thought. I'm not passing. A swig from the flask steadied my hand once more.

A pair of overweight men selling Trump merchandise walked down the line, hawking their wares. "Buy American," one said. "None of that commie stuff."

Kevin told me that before the day was over he was definitely going to get one of Trump's "Make America Great Again" hats, with the stated intention of wearing it to school and seeing how many "liberal teachers" he can make angry. "Take that to your unions," he laughed derisively.

Kevin went on to share that a classmate told him she was never talking to him again when he said he was going to the rally. He replied, "Have fun with your 90 percent tax rate under Bernie. I'm gonna get a real job."

He insisted to me, "I'm one of the only people coming from my school to listen. Everyone else wants to protest."

Soon Kevin's dad showed up, himself a living, breathing tribute to khaki-colored clothing and sensible shoes. Meanwhile the numerous other people arriving to wait in line displayed remarkable and, at times, conflicting fashion sensibilities. A kid in Black Lives Matter shirt looked out of place walking with his family, who were sporting Trump hats. A Young Republicans-type bro strolled by in a button-up shirt and suit jacket/American flag short shorts ensemble. Some ladies in line behind me expressed quiet disapproval of a mother clad in both a Black Flag shirt and a Trump hat, who'd dressed her toddler in a sundress and no jacket for the occasion, despite the fact that it was about 40 degrees outside. "It's too cold," they agreed. (Frankly, I found both mother and daughter's outfits to be confusing.)

click to enlarge PHOTO BY THEO WELLING
  • Photo by Theo Welling
Kevin started telling his dad about the sick Trump swag he wanted. Dad warned him not to buy any Chinese-made bootleg merchandise. "Trump hats will be the last thing still made in America," Dad declared with pride, ignoring the fact that Trump has a well-documented history of outsourcing the manufacture of his clothing to China.

"Can I have two bucks to buy a button?" Kevin asked. "Oh yeah," Dad replied. "We're gonna buy you all that stuff." I'm pretty sure Dad might be incrementally ruining this poor kid's life.

As a chant of "Build that wall! Build that wall!" started behind us in the line, three teens clad in varying amounts of real-tree camouflage — presumably in the event of a deer sighting inside the rally — walked up and joined Kevin in line. It turned out they are classmates. One of them, named Ben, was the most camouflaged of all, with both hat and T-shirt rendering his upper half virtually invisible.

As he arrived, he surveyed the scene.

"I didn't know so many city slickers supported Trump," he said, eyes pointed in my general direction. It wasn't until he made some remarks concerning the Black Lives Matters protesters on site — specifically, "They need to learn their places. We are the masters" — that I noticed the Confederate-flag themed lanyard hanging out of his back pocket. Another long pull off my flask eased my despair for the youth. 

Around this time, another very overweight man walked by, also selling overpriced Trump stuff. "If anybody's hungry I got a Hillary KFC special," he pitched. "Two fat thighs, two tiny breasts and a wing." The crowd laughed and cheered. 

More high school friends arrived, joining the group in front of me. (Trump fans, at least the young ones, apparently have no issues with cutting in line.) One was black, and he was friends with the real-tree trio, including Confederate Ben. He began musing that he should take a picture of himself at the rally. "Like, see, black people do like Donald trump," he aimed to prove. "He's not a racist." (Though it certainly would have livened up my morning, I opted not to tell him about the horrifying shit his pal was just saying moments before about "masters" and "places." They'll have a lifetime of friendship to sort that mess out, I suppose.)

click to enlarge PHOTO BY THEO WELLING
  • Photo by Theo Welling
"You're an honorary Republican," one of the other real-tree kids said, which was confusing for a number of reasons (none of these kids are old enough to vote/why not just "Republican"/why would being black make him "honorary"?). But he didn't address these issues, instead raising some equally important points about the things he doesn't understand about the Grand Ol Party: namely "chaw and camo — I just don't get it. I don't get what it means."

"You'll learn," one friend confidently assured him.

Ben then remarked on the appeal of Trump over Hillary Clinton, revealing his formidable political acumen.

"Yeah, Trump has said some mean things," he admitted. "But Hillary has killed millions of people. It's not the same thing." Distracted by a man with long hair walking by with a "Make Donald Drumpf Again" sign, he then turned and yelled "Go back to Russia you commie!" before resuming conversation with his comrades. I started to wonder if there was a nearby liquor store where I could refuel.

Close to 10 a.m., the line finally started to move as people filed slowly into the Peabody. As we got nearer to the front of the building, a throng of protesters became visible. One, dressed in a "Fuck the Police" shirt and a red Guy Fawkes mask, dropped an American flag on the ground and began dragging and trampling it with his feet.

  • Photo by Daniel Hill
The Trump crowd, predictably, became incensed. Several broke from the line, yelling at the man to "pick that flag up right now!" Police stepped in and separated the groups before anything got too ugly; meanwhile the crowd still in line engaged in a deafening "Donald Trump! Donald Trump!" chant. (More on that whole incident here.)

Finally approaching the entrance around 11:45 a.m., I slyly crotched my flask — to the uninformed, I probably just looked like a guy scratching his balls outside of a Trump rally. Certainly not the strangest sight on the scene.

Problems arose, though, when I stepped foot through the door: metal detector problems. Unwilling to miss this spectacle over something so stupid as smuggled alcohol (and plenty buzzed anyway from coping with the journey to this point), I opted for the safe route. Un-slyly, I pulled the flask out of my underwear at the front of the line and took a long drink before throwing it away. (Oddly, no one, not even the Secret Service members on hand, batted an eye.)

As I found a seat, I noticed that Trump's people were pumping Elton John's "Tiny Dancer" through the house speakers. Trump, according to his staffers, actually picks out the songs for his playlists himself. For a brief moment as the song played on I pictured Elton and Trump holding one another, locked in an embrace, dancing the night away. It was a strange but soothing vision, and now you are picturing it as well.

The song was followed by "You Can't Always Get What You Want." Originally released in 1969, the Stones classic is a resigned, pragmatic rumination on the closing of the decade-long party that was the '60s — a look at the dreams and aspirations of an idealistic counter-culture through a sober, less-than-optimistic lens. It seemed like a strange choice for a Donald Trump rally. But then Billy Joel's "Uptown Girl" came on next, which actually kinda made perfect sense.

Trump's STL hype-men/women — immigration attorney Jasha McQueen, Missouri Republican vice chairwoman Valinda Freed, Eagle Forum president and former GOP chairman Ed Martin, and "conservative icon" Phyllis Schlafly — warmed the stage by talking about what a cool winner he was, though Freed heaped praise on McQueen as well. "You know, Donald loves beautiful women, and he sure found one in Jasha, right?" she inquired. The crowd responded with whistles and catcalls.

Then more music. The Stones' "Let's Spend the Night Together." CCR: "Born on the Bayou." Johnny Cash's "Folsom Prison Blues" was a truly mind-blowing choice. Cash would have despised Trump, and probably most of the people in attendance. Still, the song won the biggest cheers from the crowd out of the whole playlist. "Nessun Dorma" by Luciano Pavarotti won the award for "least welcomed or expected."

And then "You Can't Always Get What You Want" again. Again? That's the second time in an hour's worth of music. What was the meaning of this? An older man sitting behind me started adding to the lyrics. When Jagger sang "you can't always get what you want," the man would add, "unless you're Trump." He seemed very pleased with himself.

Finally, Trump took the stage to thunderous and existentially soul-crushing applause. In the first moments of his speech, he referred to Missouri's football teams in a thoroughly incomprehensible manner — on the heels of St. Louis losing its NFL team, no less. His remarks, in full:

"Missouri. Good football teams. Those college teams are good, eh? What are you going to do this year — I think pretty good stuff, huh? Came from nowhere. I'll tell you what, good. You vote a big one for me, I'm coming to one of those games."

(Feel free to try to sort that one out — we already took a shot and came up empty. It seems like he probably would have done better to just say "go Cards.")

After that slightly rocky start Trump got the crowd fully back on board by doing what he does best: pandering like a motherfucker. "I love you too," he responded to a boisterous fan. "Really do. This doesn't get talked about in the press — the love that's in these rooms. I mean, it's love! You know, they talk about a protest or something; they don't talk about what's really happening in these rooms and these stadiums — they don't talk about the love." 
click to enlarge PHOTO BY THEO WELLING
  • Photo by Theo Welling
About five minutes later, the first protester of the night, a young black man in one of the front rows, stood up and began shouting.

The response was swift. "Get him out of here. Get him out. Get him out of here. Get him out of here; he's all mouth. He's all mouth; get him out," Trump said. It was an oddly lyrical string of words that would make a killer chorus for, say, a female-fronted power-pop song — but not one that especially expresses that pure love he was just referencing.

"Isn't it great to be at a Trump rally?" the Donald asked as the man was escorted out. "Really. It's fun. Troublemaker. These are troublemakers."

Then he made an observation: "Look. You'll notice they're singles — there's very few of them, but they're singles. And they go into one location; there will be some at other locations, and they'll scream a little bit and we'll have to stop for a couple of minutes — we'll have a good time. We'll have a good time. So you'll see — you'll find out, they're singles. It's a single here, a single there, it adds up to like four people, but you know, they make a big deal."

The "troublemaker" swept out of the building, Trump launched into his greatest hits, including:

-Bashing other candidates
-Bashing China
-Boasting about his many successes
-Bashing the media
-"We will build the wall, folks; we will build the wall." *massive applause break*
-Bashing other candidates some more

Another protester popped up, and we again got to hear that sweet refrain. "Get out of here; get out. Take him out. Get him out of here." (Could work as a variation on the chorus for a bridge, I'd say.)

"Another single," Trump noted dismissively. "You know, they're singles because they don't have many people with them, because the people are with us."
click to enlarge PHOTO BY THEO WELLING
  • Photo by Theo Welling
Trump barely, barely got time to talk about building a wall again (AWW SHUCKS) before he was interrupted by another "single." At this point you could tell he was starting to get frustrated.

"They're allowed to get up and interrupt us horribly and we have to be very very gentle, very gentle," he bemoaned. "They can swing, they can hit people, but if we hit 'em back it's a terrible, terrible thing, right?"

But as Trump was about to learn, it wasn't all "singles." As he continued speaking dismissively about protesters in general, the night's "main event" protest kicked off, as ten to fifteen activists linked arms and stood in the aisle to the back left of the floor seats.

"It is our duty to fight for our freedom. It is our duty to win. We must love and support each other. We have nothing to lose but our chains," they chanted, a quote attributed to Assata Shakur — a member of the former Black Panther Party and Black Liberation Army, and an aunt to the late rapper Tupac — currently living in exile in Cuba.

Trump fans' response: "USA! USA!"

The protesters went dead-weight as police tried to drag them out of the building. It was pandemonium — their efforts effectively shut the rally down for a full ten minutes.

"Go home and get a job," Trump shouted, to thunderous applause. "Get a job!" It is a common criticism from people who dislike protesters, and it has never made any less sense than it did here. These protesters are at the Trump rally, as are the Trump supporters. Does this mean nobody in the goddamn building has a job?
click to enlarge PHOTO BY THEO WELLING
  • Photo by Theo Welling
The Trump crowd had no time for such heady queries though — they had already started chanting "USA!" again.

"These are not good people folks, just so you understand," Trump said. "And I heard this was going to happen, and they said, ‘Mr. Trump, would you like to cancel?’ I said, ‘Absolutely not.’" (At this point he got one of the biggest cheers of the night. Before the day was done, however, he would cancel his next two rallies.) 

Trump became increasingly annoyed as the time passed, with the protesters refusing to budge.

At the three-minute mark: "OK get ‘em out. Get ‘em out. Come on let’s go. Get 'em out."

Four-minute mark: "Did they get 'em out? Did they get 'em out? Well where are the police? C'mon police, get 'em out; lets go. C'mon. C'mon. Let's get 'em out. Troublemakers, just troublemakers. C'mon, get 'em out, police, please. Let's go."

Five-minute mark: "What they don't realize is they really help us realize how important we are and how important it is what we're doing. They're really helping us," he rambled — attempting to spin the obvious derailment as a plus in a way only a true narcissist could — before turning on a dime and contradicting himself without taking a breath. "They add nothing. They add nothing, believe me. They add nothing."

Seven-minute mark: "Part of the problem, and part of the reason it takes so long, is nobody wants to hurt each other anymore, right?" Crowd chants: "USA! USA!"

Ten-minute mark: "I was told it was gonna happen here, because you have people — great people, I've met so many people from this area, great people — but you have people that aren't so great. Get 'em out. Get 'em out. What's the same guy trying to come back, right? See that? In the old days they didn't come back, I can tell you that."

With the corner finally cleared, Trump attempted to launch back into his speech again. That's when protesters on the balcony unfurled banners reading "Caution, racism lives here" and "Stop the hate."

"Get 'em out; get 'em out of here. Oh it would be so nice.... It would be so nice...." Trump trailed off twice, visibly flustered, before resuming. "I won't say what's on my mind, folks. I won't say it; I refuse to say it. I'm a nice person; I refuse to say it."

Can't you just feel the love?

When order was finally restored, Trump resumed offering his supporters the world. "There's no way we can lose," he said of his poll numbers. He vowed to end heroin addiction — "I'm gonna stop it. I promise you I'm gonna stop it." He insisted again that he's gonna "build a wall" — always a reliable applause break. "It's so easy for me. Oh, I'm good at building."
click to enlarge PHOTO BY THEO WELLING
  • Photo by Theo Welling
He claimed he'd "rebuild the military," saying, "We're gonna make it so big, so strong, so powerful. Nobody's ever gonna mess with us again, OK? Nobody.

"I'm not a military man, but I do love the military though," he added. "The military is great. I'm the most militaristic person in the room, believe me."

As if that terrifying confession wasn't enough, he then started praising Saddam Hussein — an odd choice, all things considered — saying he was impressed with the late Iraqi dictator's ability to kill terrorists. "He would kill those people so fast — he was great at that." Mercifully, even this crowd knew that this was simply too crazy to cheer for, and an awkward silence fell over the room.

Trump then reached the end of his speech, opting to again go over his critical but utterly fucking meaningless points: we're going to win and build a wall and I'm self-funded and China is robbing us and etcetera etcetera.

Before he could finish, though, a young man seated just to my right stood up and cut him off, shouting, "Fuck you!"

Trump was irritated. Irritated with that kid, irritated with the rest of the protesters, irritated with the state of Missouri in general. He was more than ready to go. "That's too bad," he lamented. "I mean, right in the middle of my last sentence he does that! Right in the middle of my last sentence — I had a half a sentence to go; I was finished. I could get the hell outta here, and he stands up." 

Two minutes later, the rally ended. To my absolute bewilderment, "You Can't Always Get What You Want" came on over the house speakers again.

It was at this point that I realized it. This is his sly reveal. A master showman, a skilled carnival barker — in some ways, Trump is a true artist.

He is smashing his supporters over the head with the truth every single time that song plays. It's right in the lyrics:

But I went down to the demonstration
To get your fair share of abuse
Singing, "We're gonna vent our frustration
If we don't we're gonna blow a fifty-amp fuse"

You can't always get what you want
You can't always get what you want
You can't always get what you want
But if you try sometimes well you just might find
You get what you need

Trump supporters have seen the demonstrations. They are certainly familiar with abuse — sometimes doling it out to demonstrators, sometimes watching their messiah do so for them. They are venting frustration at every turn. The fuses are blowing left and right.

They want it all. They want to win, to be number one. They want to kill all the bad guys and feel safe. They want to fix the economy, even if it takes drastic, isolationist measures. They want America to be "great again."
click to enlarge PHOTO BY THEO WELLING
  • Photo by Theo Welling
But Trump knows: They can't always get what they want. Instead, he's going to promise the moon, make vows he could never possibly deliver on, and then once elected, he's going to instead give the people of the United States what he thinks they need.

And what is that? He's not subtle about any of this; you just have to listen beyond the blathering about poll numbers and increasingly tall walls. Here is a man who expresses open admiration for dictators, who condemns the media and who quashes protests and voices of dissent with glee. He doesn't want to work with Congress or mess around with legislative minutiae. He wants to force a new path through sheer triumph of the will.

As the rally ended, the crowd spilled out into the weak sunshine of a cool March day. Right about then, with Trump's vision for a dystopian future rattling around in my head, I would have killed for a flask full of whiskey.

Follow the author, RFT's Music editor, on Twitter at @RFTMusic and @fatrobocop.

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