The expected – and unexpected – at a Trump rally
Two hours before the start of Friday’s scheduled rally for Donald Trump, I took my place at the back of a long line waiting to enter the Raleigh fairgrounds auditorium. As we slowly moved toward the doors, I was struck by the age of the attendees; they were much younger than I anticipated. Many of the people were college students and plenty of those walking past me toward the back of the line were 20- and 30-somethings.
Of course, there were also large numbers of middle-aged and older people, as well. But off-hand, it seemed as though at least 25-35 percent of the audience was under the age of 35.
Despite the long lines and inevitable jostling that occurs in highly trafficked areas, I was also surprised at how everyone I encountered was exceedingly friendly and polite — provided one wasn’t a protester (more on that later). Given the endless coverage of Trump’s bigoted and hateful remarks, I sort of expected most of his supporters to have a permanent scowl etched on their faces. In fact, the opposite was true; it was a festive affair.
After I finally made it to my seat, I still had some time to kill before Trump took the stage. During this time, a few of the people around me (who I believe had all just met) were engaged in a conversation about “Muslims” and political correctness which I will not repeat. Suffice to say, the friendliness and courteousness shown to me earlier was not afforded to “Muslims” who “denied that the Islam was inherently violent.” Others were talking about the Panthers’ undefeated season and still others were, like me, mindlessly tapping away on their phones. Again, it was a rather ordinary gathering.
After a prayer, the Pledge of Allegiance, the national anthem, a short speech by a veteran and a few “U…S…A” chants, Trump took the stage. From about 100 yards away, Trump seemed far less imposing than the figure who dominates my living room on the nights of Republican debates. His hoarse voice was difficult to hear at times over the din of the thousands of people who filled Dorton Arena close to its capacity.
Yet, in many ways, the distant sight and diluted sound of the polarizing figure made the spectacle all the more surreal. It is remarkable that one man, far off and faintly heard, can whip a crowd of thousands into a fervor not with lofty rhetoric or perfect prose, but with platitudes and non-sequiturs. In short, the friendly and polite crowd I knew outside the stadium and before the speech was immediately transformed. The same people who had been so kind and pleasant earlier were now roaring in approval as Trump said that he would approve “more than” waterboarding for “the terrorists.” They jeered when a protester interrupted, and celebrated when he or she was escorted out of the arena. They gave him a standing ovation when Trump said he would not just block Syrian refugees from entering the U.S., but deport the refugees already here. A recent New York Times piece summarizes much of his rhetoric if you’re interested in what else he had to say.
As someone who spends most of his days reading about rational deliberation and abstract theories of justice — I’m talking about myself now, not Trump — the Raleigh rally was a stark reminder that politics is an emotional endeavor. Despite what some might wish, human beings are simply not rational calculators; we respond to sentiments as much as sound arguments.
And this is not necessarily a bad thing. However, passionate politics can undermine the values constitutive of democracy, especially when the passions invoked by politicians are fear, anger and disgust rather than empathy, sympathy and compassion. In short, Trump was mobilizing fear of the other (the “terrorists” and the “immigrants”), fear of the unknown (the “refugees”) and fear of America’s decline (“we” are “losing” too much to “China”) to undercut the most fundamental democratic ideal: That all should be afforded equal concern and respect.
And, somewhat paradoxically, the whole ordeal left me feeling quite terrified — not of the “other,” the “unknown” or America’s decline, but at the realization that Trump was right about one thing: He had started a movement.
Isak Tranvik, from Minneapolis, is a graduate student in political science at Duke.