Do Not Harm The Protester: Three Hours At A Donald Trump Rally

Reuters/Scott Morgan

Reuters/Scott Morgan

"Excuse me sir, how long have you been a racist?"

Seven months after his official announcement — and just six days before the crucial Iowa Caucuses — Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump is finally in Iowa City, the state's liberal heartbeat.

"'Make America Great Again' pins, five dollars!"

An hour and a half before Trump is scheduled to speak, the line stretches down the block, inching forward only when one of its members is in danger of freezing solid. A half-dozen people peddle unlicensed merchandise, from an older woman offering "Hillary for Prison" pins to the cigarette-smoking man hawking knock-off hats "just like the ones he wears inside." The most popular dealer is decked in full camouflage.

Closer to the entrance looms a raucous demonstration. Dozens of signs — red X's over black swastikas, devil horns topping Trump's famous coif, messages of Muslim acceptance and respect for women — bob up and down as rehearsed chants ring through the air. It's a group comprised mostly of women, and there is anger in their voices.

"WOOOOOOO!" Three men wearing matching American flag bandanas and jackets announce their arrival with sarcastic claps in front of the protesters. "U-S-A! U-S-A! U-S-A!"

The demonstrators stick together, save for one bold woman focusing her energy on confronting individuals directly.

"Excuse me sir, how long have you been a racist?"

Her target doesn't respond.

"Did it start when you were born, or were you taught to be this way?"

"I'm just tryin' to keep an open mind," he says. "I want to hear what each candidate has to say." It's an unconvincing line, given the perpetual media circus surrounding the night's speaker.

Their back-and-forth continues until the protester closes the trap set with her initial question.

"When I asked how long you've been a racist, you could have just said, 'I'm not.'"

The man pauses. "I could have."

*   *   *

The line snakes through the doors of the old University of Iowa Field House, up a flight of stairs, around a corner, and over an enclosed catwalk in the pool room. For their 45 minutes of shuffling, line members are rewarded with metal detectors and pat-downs from Secret Service agents wearing bulletproof vests.

Security inside the venue is less intimidating. Middle-aged men in ill-fitting suits stand in pairs with their hands clasped, itching for the opportunity to put their ear pieces to use. Running security for presidential candidates is a welcome change from avoiding Dick Tracy. 

The gym floor in front of the stage is filled with coat-wearing Iowans expecting the star of the show to arrive at any moment. Hundreds of smarter people fill the bleachers to the left of the stage. Surely this is not their first rodeo.

If Trump's ideas divide, his rallies certainly unite. Three young women wearing Bernie Sanders shirts take a selfie near a man whose embroidered leather jacket leaves no doubt which side of the ballot will feel the press of his pencil.

"It's so great to see all you people with the hats, the shirts, and the signs! Mr. Trump paid for everything you're wearing!" The first speaker, the runner-up on the third season of Trump's business reality show The Apprentice, is apparently unaware of the thriving underground market for Trump merchandise.

The next speaker, a state senator who resembles a mid-level crime boss in The Dark Knight, does his best to sap the crowd's energy with a rambling speech. He closes with a reminder that the Republican caucuses feature secret balloting, unlike the process for Democrats.

Defiant music fills the time between speakers, and is only interrupted by a pre-recorded warning:

Mr. Trump loves the First Amendment just as much as he loves the Second. However, some people take advantage of Mr. Trump’s hospitality by choosing to disrupt his rallies by using them as an opportunity to promote their own political messages.”

“While they certainly have the right to free speech, this is a private event paid for by Mr. Trump. We have provided a safe protest area outside the venue for all protesters. If a protester starts demonstrating in the area around you, please, do not touch or harm the protester.

A few chuckles.

This is a peaceful rally. In order to notify the law enforcement officers of the location of the protester, please hold a rally sign over your head and start chanting “TRUMP! TRUMP! TRUMP! TRUMP!"

More laughter.

Perhaps growing tired of waiting, or dreading the post-rally traffic jam, the first protester makes her presence known. She's an older woman, yelling at the back of the crowd. With the detailed instructions fresh in their minds, the people around her hold signs in the air and perform the requisite chant. As the woman is quickly removed from the area, her "NO RACISM" bobs high in the air. The crowd goes wild.

An hour after he's scheduled to begin, Trump emerges from the blue curtain, jolting the room back to life.

His first order of business is to praise the beloved Iowa football and wrestling teams. "We've got the next Tom Brady right over here! I know Tom, he's a great guy. Come on up here, guys! What a great team, huh?"

To the crowd's delight, the billionaire real estate mogul raises the custom "TRUMP 1" Hawkeye football jersey presented to him by the players. The leader in the polls knows his way to Iowa's heart.

The polls. Data collection is his favorite topic. "Have you seen these polls? I think I made polls famous. Amazing, these polls."

Even ardent supporters grow bored as the leading candidate reads numbers from "highly respected" organizations which prove he really is ahead of the pack. This is not the fireworks show they waited so long to see.

The first disruption of the speech is also the night's most memorable. As Trump describes the size of his crowds compared to those for other candidates, he is oblivious to a tomato hurled his direction. The second one buzzes him a little closer, and captures the attention of the room. This time, the boos overwhelm the Trump chants and shaking placards.

The Donald grins. "You wanna let the football team take care of 'em?" The crowd erupts with a bloodthirsty cheer. For a moment, an old gymnasium in snowy Iowa is on the brink of becoming the Roman Colosseum.

The tone is set, but that doesn't stop the next waves of hecklers. Every few minutes, someone disrupts the room with a yell or sustained whistle. And every few minutes, Trump gains approval with a dismissive comment or bold proclamation.

"Aye yai yai, these protesters. It's incredible, isn't it?"

"These people, what the hell are they doing?"

"I could take a person like that — unless there's a substance abuse problem, which there very well could be — I could sit down with them for ten or 15 minutes and they'd come over to our side. I really believe it."

"Am I allowed to rip that whistle out of their mouths? I'd rip it right out of there, I really would. Should somebody do that?"

The whistles and shouts draw the attention of the news cameras, something Trump has grown to love.

"The reason I like these protesters is because ... [the cameras] turn like a pretzel. So people see how big our crowds are. So anybody who wants to protest, go ahead. It's fine, go ahead."

The 40-minute speech ends after about 35 minutes of speaking. The rally reveals nothing new: no new ideas, no new attacks, no new predictions. The wall will be paid for by Mexico, health care will be fixed, trade deals will be amazing, and no one will point guns at our sailors. Jobs, China, polls, Hillary. Country, great, caucus, I love you all.

Two-thirds of the crowd leaves satisfied, while the remainder struggles to wipe the bewilderment from their faces.

National news reporters interview the Iowans who wield enormous power in this presidential election process. "Why are you here?" they wonder. "Why do you support Donald Trump for President?"

A balding man wearing a grey shirt tucked into his jeans politely answers questions from a woman with a notepad. His two preteen sons flank him on either side. The younger one stands quietly, obediently. There's a pin affixed to his camouflage jacket.

"Bomb the SHIT out of ISIS!" |ES|

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