Last Friday afternoon I stopped briefly on Cross Campus at a table set up by Yale Students for Bernie, who refused to speak to me on the record but did urge me to register to vote. I demurred. Three hours later I found myself one of 7,000 at a Donald Trump rally.
“It was weird but boring,” I later told friends, who asked: “But was it different from normal political rallies?” Having never attended any others, I didn’t know. (As the graduate of a large public high school in Texas, I have been to pep rallies, which feature better music and younger audiences.)
This rally, held at the Connecticut Convention Center in downtown Hartford, was Trump’s first appearance as a candidate in the state. Since his first, fiery stump speech, his team has planned two more stops in advance of next Tuesday’s primary — he’s slated to appear in Waterbury and Bridgeport Saturday, if you’re interested.
If you go, my suitemate might also prepare you with physical safety tips. When I told her about my plans to attend the rally, she informed me to avoid bone-to-bone contact should I end up in a physical altercation. “Bone to soft spot,” she instructed, meaning I should hit a groin with my knee, but not punch someone in the nose with a closed fist. As it turns out, the penned-off area for the press limits the likelihood of such possibilities.
But I’m getting ahead of myself. That Friday afternoon, another News reporter and I found our reserved Zipcar outside of Payne Whitney Gym, dutifully beeping as I repeatedly hit the horn button on my Zipcar app.
We arrived three hours early. The sun was still out, and tables ringed the front of the convention center, arrayed with Trump gear. (You know: “Make America Great Again” hats, “Make America Great Again” sweatshirts, “Make America Great Again” toe socks.) A handful of protesters holding signs demeaning the size of Trump’s hands and ones with slogans such as “Hate won’t make us great!!” faced the vendors.
I approached one of the protestors. The reporter accompanying me veered off.
Hamden resident Michael Alborino told me he was here to demonstrate the existence of an opposition group to Trump and “all this hate.” Alborino cited fear as the other driving emotion in the situation — first-time voters and people who don’t know a lot about the political process are especially afraid of the current political climate, he said.
“People are afraid of what’s going on right now,” he told me. “They want something different. I can’t blame them for wanting something different. But somebody who’s never held office?!”
* * *
Closer to the entrance, we found August Wolf — described on his website as “a father of four, Olympian, business leader and Republican candidate for U.S. Senate” — soliciting rally attendees, accompanied by his press secretary (a former Ben Carson ’73 campaign hire) and campaign manager. Wolf, who is seeking the Republican nomination for current Connecticut Sen. Richard Blumenthal’s LAW ’73 seat, towered over me as I asked him about his presence at the rally.
“The country has changed a fair bit,” he told me. “Our party, the Republican Party, isn’t dealing with that in the right way in including people. They did a terrible job including folks like you [young people] in dialogue and thinking about market-based solutions to issues,” he said.
Wolf considers Trump a “genius,” he said, although he wouldn’t tell me who he was voting for in the primary. The former Olympian shot putter is taking some tips from Trump in his Senate run.
“First and foremost, my opponent, Dick Blumenthal — I’m referring to as Lyin’ Little Dick. Okay?” Wolf said. “That’s a very apt description of him. Not because he’s physically little, which he is, but because he plays small ball. He doesn’t play in the Big Leagues.”
Inside the convention center, a crowd fringed around the stage area. People also lined the walls, charging their phones, or so I assumed until I approached and found that most of them were simply weary and waiting, using the wall as a spot to lean on.
“All you young kids with those Apples,” said Bobbie Padegimas, gesturing toward my phone. “Let’s force Apple to make those iPhones in America.”
Padegimas, leaning against the convention center wall, told me she was a nurse living in Windsor Locks (and that she refuses to own an iPhone until it is made in the United States). This wasn’t her first rodeo — she had attended another Trump event in Massachusetts. She likes Trump because he’s a “non-politician” who is all business, she said. Padegimas and the woman next to her began to vigorously discuss the need for manufacturing jobs in the United States.
“He can bring jobs back here even for the immigrants!” exclaimed Sonia Burns, the woman next to Padegimas.
“I think Donald Trump represents the American dream,” Padegimas added. “I think America is one of the few places that, given the opportunity, you can go places. ‘The Voice,’ ‘American Idol’ — things like that are representative of what can happen to you, being in the right place in the right time in America. I don’t know if any other country offers you that.”
I inquired about their feelings on Trump’s daughter, Ivanka.
“Oh my god, I think she is amazing!” Padegimas said.
“What impresses me about her?” Burns pondered. “She had a baby and she had the hospital clothes everybody wears.”
“She didn’t close off a wing of a hospital like Beyoncé and her baby,” Padegimas agreed.
“Or the Kardashians. And the baby was wrapped in the same blankets that every baby is wrapped in,” Burns concluded. “There was no difference.”
“As a matter of fact, his children are far more well-spoken than he is,” Padegimas said, turning to me. “He is not polished. That’s one of the things I like about him.”
* * *
I drifted around the convention center, holding my press badge against my notebook in case someone wanted to herd me back into the press pen, where the legitimates (think CNN, The New York Times) had cameras and laptops out. I found a handful of 20-somethings who said they were undecided on their candidate of choice. One man asked if I was a Bernie supporter.
As it turns out, three hours is a lot of time to fill. I began to take note of slogans, the kind printed on generic Hanes cotton T-shirts. Also the kind 14-year-old boys at my high school would have probably been into but would have gotten reprimanded for wearing. “HILLARY SUCKS, BUT NOT LIKE MONICA” (next to cutouts of Hillary Clinton’s LAW ’73 and Monica Lewinsky’s faces). “FUCK OFF WE’RE FULL” (inside a silhouette of the continental United States). “SEX IS MY CARDIO” (???).
Earlier, Padegimas had listed everything she anticipated out of the Trump rally: “I expect the crowd to get very loud when Trump takes the stage. I think that Donald Trump’s going to come out, and he’s going to tell us he’s going to make America great again, and he’ll talk about building his wall.”
The crowd, growing anxious, intermittently chanted “build a wall” and “Donald Trump.”
When the candidate himself finally appeared, I was already in the press pen, located at the very back, alongside the designated seating for the disabled/elderly. Everyone began to take photos.
The rally checked off everything on Padegimas’ list. The crowd got loud, Trump said he’d make America great again, then he talked about solving a heroin epidemic by building a wall.
Here’s the thing: in real life, if you’re at the back of the room, a Trump rally is a subdued matter. Not that the man himself is subdued, but rather, I couldn’t help but feel that I had heard (or read) it all before.
Nonetheless, here are some things he said, just to prove that I didn’t drive out to Hartford for nothing:
1. “Trump rallies are safe.” The cops did remove a handful of protesters, who were outed/identified by nearby attendees holding up their Trump posters and chanting “Trump” to alert security.
2. “There is nothing more fun than a Trump rally.”
3. The North American Free Trade Agreement has killed Connecticut. Connecticut needs jobs.
4. Donald Trump has lived in Connecticut, and has many friends in Connecticut.
I stepped outside after the brief half hour, into twilight. The 20 or so protesters I found outside at 4 p.m. had ballooned into hundreds, effectively stymieing the flow of ralliers out of the convention center. The two sets of crowds, facing each other, volleyed chants back and forth: “Build a wall.” “Black lives matter.” Inside the hotel attached to the convention center, wedding guests mingled. We found a handful of Yale students who told us that security had confiscated their flasks and that they were undercover for another, lesser campus publication. A man stood calmly in the middle of the crowds, vaping.
When I looked at the photos on my phone later, the distance rendered Trump a blurry, glowing figure behind the podium, his finer features obscured by the spotlight. He could have been anyone.
* * *
Back on campus, I started looking for Trump supporters, wondering whether they had attended the rally.
It was more difficult than I anticipated. Unlike Yale Students for Hillary, or the Sanders supporters I talked to, there is no public campus network for Trump support.
Yale’s most prominent Trump supporter, Karl Notturno ’17, who has posted frequently in defense of Trump on the Overheard at Yale Facebook group, agreed to speak with me, but never called me at our scheduled interview time.
I will call the sole talkative Trump supporter I found at Yale “W.” He agreed to speak only on the condition of anonymity, and said he often keeps his support for Trump hidden at school out of worry that it would ruin his relationships at Yale.
“The last thing I want is to stir up a conflict on campus because of a political issue,” W told me, referring to a March incident at Emory University in which chalked messages in support of Trump spurred campus protests.
W, who considers himself socially centrist and fiscally conservative, feels that Trump has been misconstrued in the media as more socially conservative than he is. W doesn’t think Trump supporters at Yale are representative of Trump supporters as a whole, though.
“I feel like a lot of Trump supporters in America are Trump supporters because they’re not informed — not a knock on Trump, he’s loudest candidate by far, definitely most covered by media,” W said. “If you’re Republican, and if you don’t know who to vote for, you’re most likely going to vote for Trump. It helps that he’s the front-runner.”
If he could tell non-Trump supporters anything, W would encourage them to be more open-minded, he tells me.
“Most Republicans and Trump supporters on campus I talk to really have no problem with people voting on the other side of the bipartisan system, and I feel like that is not a sentiment that is felt [across the aisle],” W said.
In the midst of our conversation, a friend in the room interrupted to announce that Trump had won the New York primary.
“Fuck yeah,” W said.