It was hot and there was no shade under the afternoon sun at the Trump rally this past Tuesday at Nathan Benderson Park. It was my first one. I don’t like to go to crowded public events in general, but I was convinced I should make an exception because this could have been the last Trump gathering ever in this area.
Trump rallies have always been a spectacle. I’d seen them on TV, but only in short, digestible clips that are spellbinding no matter what end of the political spectrum you’re on. What would it be like firsthand?
Donald Trump wasn’t going to be here today, though. He was confirming Amy Coney Barrett, his third U.S. Supreme Court Justice in four years. Ivanka Trump was speaking on behalf of her father to get out the vote.
I arrived a little after noon. The place was packed, and a line of people stretched out of the park and spilled on to the sidewalk. I left my car near the entrance and walked to the end of the line. This gave me a chance to survey hundreds of people waiting to get in. Almost everyone was white and wore shorts. There were lots of women. Maybe more women than men. Some school-age children. Lots of older folks, too. I wondered if more seniors would have attended if not for the heat.
Everyone at the rally wore some kind of Trump paraphernalia. You can’t have a Trump rally without the ubiquitous red MAGA hat, but there were other hats, too. One read "All Aboard the Trump Train." A pink hat said "Women for Trump." The very few people who wore masks were only wearing those that had "Trump" written on them. There were Trump umbrellas, Trump socks, Trump visors, Trump flags and Trump shirts with all kinds of edgy humor. One shirt said "I am Politically Incorrect. I say Merry Christmas, God Bless America, I Own a Gun, Salute Our Flag, Eat Bacon and Thank Our Troops. If That Offends You, I Don’t Care." Another man wore a shirt with dozens of disembodied, floating Trump heads.
One of the few Black people I saw carted around a wagon filled with Trump hats he sold for $15 and $20. People bought the red, white and blue bucket hat he sold to protect them from the unforgiving sun. There is a sort of flattening effect with everyone wearing the same thing while waiting in line. It’s egalitarian. No one is better than anyone else. They’re all communicating to each other that we are the same—so long as you wear the uniform.
When I got to the end of the line, a woman had her phone out and recorded herself with the long line in the background. “Look at all my new friends!” she exclaimed, and then did a little jump for joy. When cars passed and honked in approval, cheers erupted from the crowd. Everyone was kind and gregarious and making new friends. The whole thing reminded me of those Harry Potter book release events at Barnes & Noble stores. Kids and nerdy adults would dress up like their favorite characters and wait for the doors to open at midnight so they could purchase the latest book in the series.
The line moved very little, but it did grow longer. My skin sizzled. I decided to wait near the entrance under some trees. I met John in the shade. He’s 54 years old and works for a local tech company and asked to remain anonymous. He wasn’t wearing any Trump gear. “I wasn’t planning on coming, but when I drove by and saw how many people there were, I postponed all my meetings so I could come check it out.” It wasn’t John’s first rally. He went to the first Trump rally in Sarasota back in 2016 at Robarts Arena and came away a supporter.
I could hear “Eye of the Tiger” playing faintly by the stage where Ivanka was supposed to speak at 1:30. She didn’t arrive until 2:15. The line had barely budged. People began to glisten with sweat and impatience. The newspaper said 3,500 people attended, but it seemed like far fewer people as I surveyed the scene. The registration tent to get into the event was overwhelmed. People began to leave. Two parents grabbed the hand of their 5-year-old girl to go back to their car when it was clear they weren’t going to get in. The little girl stomped in frustration, pointed in Ivanka’s direction and cried, to no avail.
Bill was one of those attendees who gave up. He was sitting in the grass eating pretzel sticks that he dipped in a mustard jar. He wore an American flag shirt and MAGA socks. He told me this was his first rally. “I waited for hours before getting turned away because of the mustard,” he told me. “They said it was a projectile.” The email the campaign sent out to attendees had a long list of things that weren’t permitted inside the event: coolers, flag poles, toasters. Didn’t say anything about mustard jars. It looked like a fancy jar of mustard, so maybe that’s why he didn’t throw it out.
As Ivanka got up to speak, people were still leaving. Maybe it was the heat from the sun. Maybe they had jobs they had to get to. Maybe it was to let people who had been waiting for three hours in line a chance to be nearer to a Trump.
Or maybe it was the event itself that was important, not what was said. I read that Ivanka gave the exact same speech in Fort Myers the other day. In this way, these Trump rallies are like football tailgates. The game is just the thing to gather around; it’s the communing with others that is most meaningful. Human beings need a team to cheer for, a place to belong.