I attended Donald Trump’s failed rally at the University of Illinois at Chicago as a mole, hoping I could slip in unnoticed among his thousands of supporters and get a look at the inner workings of a movement whose size and intensity has become a source of international fascination. Who are these supporters? Why do they support Donald Trump? Why did they feel the need to drive in from Downers Grove to express said support instead of just voting in the upcoming primary? Are they really racists, sexists, xenophobes, homophobes, neo-fascists, egomaniacs, overcompensating men, mind slaves, etc., as some critics say?
As any reasonable person would expect, there was no single answer to any of these questions. Certainly, there were many people who seemed to embody the reigning stereotype of a Trump supporter. I saw one red-faced, goateed man collapse into his wife’s arms after his vein popped when he hollered “ILLEGAL MEANS ILLEGAL” at a couple who walked by holding a Mexican flag. One man in wraparound sunglasses and a knee-length bald-eagle t-shirt said he hoped there were snipers on nearby buildings, “just in case.” When I asked him to clarify, he said that he meant “the good kind of snipers, not the bad kind.” There was a woman in a three-foot star-spangled wizard hat, and a contingent of pimpled “Nerds 4 Trump” in combat fatigues, and a baby covered with Trump temporary tattoos. (At least I hope they were temporary.) A man in the urinal next to me asked if I “wanted to compare.”
But the vast majority of those in attendance were not so conspicuous. They were groups of middle-aged women, couples in their work clothes, or lone men. When I asked them why they supported Trump, almost all of them began by insisting that they were neither racists nor neo-fascists: “maybe some people here,” ten separate supporters said, “but not me.” They like Trump because he “can’t be bought,” because he “speaks his mind,” and because he “says it like it is.”
“His message resonates with me,” said one woman.
“What part of his message?” I asked.
“The entire message,” she said.
“The wall,” said her friend. “The wall is huge.”
I had no more luck in the seating section closest to the stage, where I finally found a spot. In clockwise order, the supporters seated around me were:
• A white man with a neckbeard discussing campaign strategy on the phone
• A white man playing Candy Crush
• A white boy
• A white boy in a camouflage bucket hat
• A white man
• A white man drinking a 32-ounce bottle of Dr. Pepper
• A white man in a studded black leather jacket
• A white boy in a Captain America shirt
I interviewed all of them, too, but I heard the exact same things I had heard in line. I had to suppress a feeling of disappointment as I listened to Pavarotti and “Tiny Dancer,” apparently the only two pieces of music to which Trump has full usage rights. I had gone straight to the source, hoping to find the nuance that was lacking in the mainstream characterizations of Trump’s supporters. Instead, I had merely found regular people, similar to me except insofar as they held opinions I found reprehensible.
By 5:30 p.m., thirty minutes before the scheduled speech, hundreds of protesters had sat down en masse in the back of the venue and begun to chant. They represented virtually every group one could imagine disliking Donald J. Trump—there were Black Lives Matter activists, protesters wearing “Muslims United Against Trump” t-shirts, immigrant rights advocates, and more. Almost all of them were my age. I had spoken only to Trump followers while in line, but there must have been hundreds of protesters in line with me, hiding their signs in their shirts. Plans for a massive, thousands-strong protest outside the UIC Pavilion began mere moments after Trump’s campaign announced the event, but in retrospect it boggles my mind that Trump thought he would be able to preach to his faithful inside and confine dissent to the appointed protest location, parking lot 1B.
At first, police removed the smaller groups toward the front of the stage; an announcer’s voice counseled supporters to alert security if they saw someone protesting, but not, under any circumstances, to attack the protesters. But when it came to the hundreds of protesters in the rear sections, the police were simply outmanned—they had no way to remove two whole sections of people, so they had no choice but to let them stay.
At 6:30, after the tenth play of “Tiny Dancer” and the fourth of Pavarotti, a faceless man appeared at the podium to announce that “after consulting with law enforcement, for security reasons,” Donald Trump had decided to “postpone” his rally. This was, for Trump, the only sensible decision: at least a third of the room hated his guts. He had probably guessed that they planned to storm the stage during his speech. At the same time, the announcement also meant there was now nothing to stop dozens of red-hatted young men from pushing their neighbors out of the way, jumping the banisters, and bum-rushing the demonstrators who they blamed for the cancellation. And that’s what happened.
News reports and in-the-moment tweets may tell a different story, but I can only report what I saw: The protesters huddled in a scrum at the back of the room, singing Kendrick Lamar hooks, leading anti-Trump chants, and waving Bernie flags. They were jubilant—I do not think I have ever seen such a sudden, ecstatic display of solidarity and victory. I couldn’t say whether all these young people would be able to reach a consensus on economic policy proposals or specific social reforms, but they certainly agreed on one thing then and there. Meanwhile the Trumpites, who before had seemed to me so banal, had put on new faces. Groups of fraternity boys marched across the room screaming “USA!” Men in red hats stared down protesters from only a few inches away; when the protesters stared back, the two factions swore at each other until the police pulled them apart. A white woman in “POLICE LIVES MATTER” shirt implored her husband to protect her from the young black men who were celebrating their victory. Middle-aged men, still in work clothes, pushed protesters to the ground. A woman who had tried to convince me to marry her daughter while we were standing in line yelled the same thing over and over again as protesters streamed out of the exit: “Narrow-minded bastards! Narrow-minded bastards!”
How much of this anger was produced by the situation, I wondered, and how much of it was latent in these wall-loving suburbanites before they showed up at UIC, before Trump’s candidacy even began?
After the rally was canceled, I took the Blue Line toward downtown. On one side of the train were Trump supporters; on the other were protesters, Bernie Sanders supporters, joyous UIC students. I was standing in a place that did not exist in that arena, and perhaps does not even exist in our country today: the center.
The naked confrontation of the rally could be seen as a caricature of the current political climate, or as a perfectly accurate representation of it. There may be a middle ground, but it is of no consequence: as Trump noted the next day, there were Bernie chants, but I heard no Hillary chants, and if there were John Kasich signs I must have missed them. The people at the two poles of this country’s political spectrum, who do not even disagree on every issue, bypassed the middle position, the status quo that they both find intolerable. They stared each other in the face, and one side dumped beer on the other.
And in November I suspect the outcome will be the same as it was on Friday night in Chicago: one side will win, but the other won’t go away.