I know I’m politically neutral here except as regards climate change, but Mr. Trump is a climate denier. In any case, I don’t really want to talk about the candidate himself so much as the process of protest. I’m posting this a few days early so that I can write the story while it’s still fresh.
The issue is that Donald Trump was within ten miles of my house today, in Berlin, Maryland. Or maybe he still is. Or maybe he never showed up, I’m not really sure. He was supposed to speak at the Stephen Decatur High School at 7 PM tonight, so, naturally there was a counter rally and a counter-counter rally. I attended. I made no attempt to actually get inside to hear him speak. I’ve heard what those people do to protestors. I probably have “liberal” stamped all over my forehead.
I wasn’t sure whether I should go. I wasn’t sure if I even wanted to. Would attending a counter-rally make a difference? Would it make enough of a difference to justify my burning the gas to drive there? Does it even make sense to protest a political rally given that the freedom to rally for the candidates we like is part of the point of America? How do I even find the answers to these kinds of questions?
I did what I normally do when faced with a judgment call: I hopped on Facebook, moped around the house for a while, then called my mother.
I realize that makes me sound superficial and immature, but the thing that I like about Facebook is it allows me to address a whole group of people at once, the equivalent of standing up in a crowded room and shouting “hey you guys!” And in the “room” that is my Facebook friends list there are a lot of intelligent and wise people. As for calling my mother, I happen to be the daughter of a very smart woman. From Facebook I got several responses:
- My friend the peace activist said that when Mr. Trump comes to his area he will go. A group he is part of plants to go inside the rally to stand as silent witnesses, which I take to mean that they will go and allow themselves to be witnessed as people who quietly disagree. He wished me luck with my decision-making.
- My friend the ornithologist said the whole thing would be a waste of time and I ought to do something positive instead.
- A woman I went to grad school with said to go and report back, as she wants to hear about it from someone who was actually there whom she knows.
- My friend the ornithologist said I ought to go grab a beer with some friends and do something constructive and enjoyable.
- A woman I went to high school with said to “Go…and write an article about it.” And we had a neat little discussion about whether the candidate is actually who and what he presents himself to be.
- My friend the ornithologist said “Eh*.” When I asked him what the asterisk led to he explained that Donald Trump has gotten too much attention already and we should not give him any more of it and really there are better things I could be doing with my time.
My mother, when I called her, initially said the same thing, that Mr. Trump should not get any more attention.
“It might be a little late to hope he’ll go away if we ignore him,” I said.
“I don’t want to go if it’s not going to do any good. I don’t want to waste the gas,” I said. “But on the other hand, if this guy becomes a worst-case scenario, what am I going to say when people ask me what I did to stop him?”
“I just don’t think we should add to his divisiveness. Like, if someone insults you, you can laugh it off or you can tell them their mama wears combat boots, you know?”
“Yeah…but, ok, if this guy ends up being like Hitler, there’s going to be a moment when we have to stand up and say No. Maybe this isn’t that moment. Maybe this isn’t that situation. But if this isn’t that moment, what is?”
“I don’t know. I just think it could be dangerous. I can’t make your find up for you.”
“I know. But when is that moment? When is it time?”
“Go. Be safe. Report back.”
So I went.
And, as it turned out, all my worry about fuel use was for naught–when I checked the directions I realized I could have biked it if I’d just started earlier instead of worrying and moping. One of these days I may stop underestimating my options, but apparently today wasn’t the day.
As I drove down the familiar roads towards the Harley Davidson dealer where our counter-rally would meet, I started to see people walking on the side of the road. In pairs or alone they came, mostly walking towards me on the side of the highway, mostly older people. I have no idea if they were associated with the event (if they were, why were they walking away from it?) but their presence was odd. As I got closer there were more and more people in larger and larger groups going in both directions. State troopers stood at the intersections directing traffic, their cars parked nearby, lights flashing. Crowds swelled and surged. Parking was obviously a zoo. There was no way to tell who was protesting what or where I should go or where the battle lines, if such lines there were, had formed. The late afternoon was clear and beautiful and blue. An abject terror seized me.
What was I afraid of? This was no mere anxiety, but straight-up, full-blown fear such as I am lucky enough to rarely experience. And yet I felt no urge to run, only to be very alert. What was I afraid of? Trump’s bad hair? The presence of incarnate evil? I have no idea. Perhaps it was only the sudden obviousness of reality that frightened me.
I want to be very clear; when I suggested to my mother that “this guy” could end up being “like Hitler” I did not actually mean that I think Donald Trump is literally a genocidal Nazi. I don’t actually know what he could be if he came to power. Nor was I simply using Hitler’s name as a rhetorical cudgel, the way many folks are fond of referring to anyone or anything they simply dislike as Hitlers or Nazis. What I meant, and my mother knew this because we’ve talked about it before, is that the way Donald Trump is going about building support is very similar to the way that several historical fascist dictators, including Adolph Hitler, pursued their power. This blog is not the place to elaborate on that, but I do see some value in looking for models, both historical and mythical, with which to put my own experiences in some kind of larger context. What history tells me is that sometimes how one responds to a demagogue becomes an important moral choice.
I drove along, past the crowds, and ended up running out of parking lots to turn into. My area is pretty rural and there are large areas still of just woodlots, corn fields, and the ruins of old drive-in movies and the like. I made a U-turn and parked next to a small office complex. I walked the rest of the way back into the turmoil, perhaps half a mile. The flowers blooming in the grassy verges were lovely, henbit and shepherd’s purse and forget-me-not.
“Can I help you?”
The man turned out to be a parking attendant. I asked directions to the anti-Trump protest and he waved in the general direction of the crowds–unhelpful, but he seemed friendly.
“Let me ask you this; why are you protesting Trump? Doesn’t he have a right to speak?”
“I’m not protesting the fact that he is speaking,” I said, carefully. “But I don’t like the direction he could take this country, and I think it’s important to stand up and say so. And I know this is going to be on the news and I don’t want the story to be that everyone on the Lower Eastern Shore liked him.”
“It won’t be,” he assured me. “I think it’s about 50/50, for and against.”
As it turned out, the man didn’t much like Mr. Trump, either. He didn’t like any of the candidates, though he had a different reason for disliking each and seemed to regard Donald Trump as one of the least objectionable. We had a very pleasant conversation and wished each other a good evening. I started to feel less afraid. The crowds surged ahead.
Eventually I found a tight knot of perhaps two hundred people, many of them carrying signs and chanting mostly incomprehensible slogans, standing on the grassy margin between the Harley Davidson place and an access road facing the high school. In the access road stood four or five state troopers and then, on the other side of them, perhaps five hundred other people mostly without signs, just staring back. Behind the five hundred was another road and the swelling, moving crowds flowing into and around the event itself. The area smelled strongly of sage smoke. Several vendors sold Trump t-shirts and other campaign merchandise, though nobody seemed to be buying. They were, quite literally, on the wrong side of the event. Every so often a huge cheer went up, although nobody seemed to know why. Less than twenty feet of pavement separated the protesters from the staring, pro-Trump, counter-protestors.
Moving through the crowd I caught pieces of stories I would obviously never know the rest of.
“Don’t say anything!” begged a middle-aged woman of a teenage girl. “You can’t say anything.”
“Relax. I didn’t give my name. Nobody knows I’m here,” said the girl.
“I’m proud of you. Be safe.” And the woman hugged what I’m guessing was her daughter and, as she turned away, crossed herself, almost in tears.
Two young men walked by, one of them holding a sign that said “Get Weed Here.”
“That’s the problem,” one of them whined loudly to the crowd as a whole. “That’s the real problem. People keep trying to lock me up just for smoking weed.”
“It smells like a cheese factory here,” asserted a man next to me. He was white, skinny, and perhaps about twenty. “Cheese and Axe and K2”
“K2?” I asked, confused.
“A cheese factory!” he insisted. “Like it’s been running for a month straight!” Another young man, maybe the same age, but chubby-cheeked and black, grinned in a friendly and confused way.
“Are you going to post about this?” I asked, since the skinny one was texting away as he spoke.
“I don’t know. Maybe not. I never plan anything!” He smiled with a weird, exultant joy.
“Please tell her this isn’t like Woodstock,” a young woman said to an older man, who laughed.
Another cheer rose up, then booing, as a line of vehicles with dark-tinted windows and emergency lights flashing moved by slowly. Speculation rippled through the crowd that The Donald might have just shown up, but I certainly didn’t see him and the line of vehicles slowly moved away. A few minutes later another eruption of booing announced the passage of a tour bus emblazoned with Trump 2016 in big letters, plus various other messages in smaller type. The only one I was able to focus on said “My Struggle,” which was, of course, the title of Adolf Hitler’s book. Was the bus and its lettering satirical or not? I couldn’t tell.
Someone standing near me announced to no one in particular that he had seen the Trump supporters and they were all white “except for one who is questionable, but I think he just has a deep tan.” I looked around and noted that the crowd I was in was almost half black, a larger proportion than we normally see around here. A certain racial tension in the situation was simply understood. A young black woman told me, because I happened to be there when she wanted to talk, that she had a friend who was darker than her, “he looks African–because he is African, he’s half African–and he’s wearing a dashiki!” who was standing right in front of the crowd and yelling at the Trump supporters. She was obviously scared for him.
“More power to him, to your friend who is yelling,” I told her, and meant it. She smiled at me.
The signs on our side were mostly positive: WE ARE LOVE! and DON’T EAT HIS FEAR. One of my favorites had actually been abandoned up against a parked car: I LOVE YOU ANYWAY, LIL TRUMPIES. Some were more blatantly snarky, like PUT AMERICA IN BIGGER HANDS and BUILD A WALL AROUND TRUMP AND MAKE HIM PAY FOR IT! Someone else had made the Nazi connection besides me, I noticed: WRONG BERLIN, MEIN TRUMP. We were all friendly to each other, and I noticed no overt hostilities directed at the people of the counter-counter demonstration across the way (though it was hard to see because the crowd was very dense). A woman wearing bold, purple eye make-up showed me a sign that said I’M THE BLACK, LESBIAN FEMINIST YOUR PARENTS WARNED YOU ABOUT! and she apologized for some weird, hurried spelling, but I liked the sign and we grinned at each other, in mutual cahoots. The mood felt warm, good.
And yet there was a basic nervousness, an underlying fear. One woman told me she planned to leave before sundown “because that’s when the violence tends to happen.” People walked through the crowd, trying to find companions they’d been separated from. “She said she was going to try to get in, she had tickets,” said one to no one in particular. “I’m sure she was only was going in for a few minutes, but anything could have happened. I don’t want to leave her.” I noticed a nearby parked pickup truck decked out with two actual flag poles. One flew the Maryland state flag and the other the Confederate flag. I commented on it, addressing the two people who happened to be standing closest to me, a pair of black teenagers: “That’s weird, why fly a Confederate flag at a rally for a candidate for a Federal position? Unless it is about race, which those people always claim it isn’t?”
“We don’t do interviews,” said one of the two boys, glancing at my notebook. I’ve always taken notes at political events, and I’ve never encountered a negative reaction about it before, but this boy clearly saw me with suspicion. He wasn’t the only one. The crowd seemed friendly and supportive but ready to close ranks against hostility, against any sign of threat, and a white person who might be a journalist apparently read as borderline. I shouldn’t have brought the notebook.
Curious, I finally pushed my way to the front of the small but dense crowd, trying to see what was going on and why people were periodically cheering. It was almost 7:30 by that point, and we still had no idea whether Mr. Trump had even arrived. I chatted companionably with the woman next to me and we moved through the crowd together, circumstantial friends in the chaos. Suddenly a ripple of concern moved through the crowd and people started saying the SWAT team had arrived. Despite being at the front, I still couldn’t see anything. There is no way to tell where information comes from in the middle of a protest or if any of it is even true, but we fled backwards from the curb, trying to make the group of us look as un-aggressive as possible.
“How far we move is irrelevant,” I said to my companion, “the point is to be on the outer edge so if we have to leave, we can.”
“I’m just worried about my chairs,” she said. “They won’t care about my chairs.”
“Do you want me to help you fold them up?”
“Please. Here’s a bag.”
“Are they the ones who will tear-gas us?” someone else asked.
“I’ve never been to a demonstration where there were different sides before,” I said.
Everyone surged across the access road, apparently spontaneously relocating the whole protest and counter-protest 500 feet to the west for no apparent reason. No tear-gassing occurred. No riot erupted. The sun started to set. The threat we all felt might or might not have been real. Our gathering might or might not have mattered, or even been noticed by anyone. Whatever political value a demonstration does or does not have, its import ceases to be clear once one is inside it. The same chants, the same bull horns, the same sage smoke flow from one event to another the way dandelions pop up on lawns no matter where the lawns happen to be. You go with it. You observe. You add your body to the visual mass of the crowd and hope somebody takes note and that it matters. When the news helicopter flies overhead you all wave and show it your signs.
More inexplicable cheering. More speculation about where Trump was and what was going on. A couple of young women opined among themselves about the Trump supporters who had brought young children with them. “I think some of these people have never been to a protest in real life before. They want to see what it’s like. They want to see the blood and gore. That woman over there? I know her! Why is she supporting him? She’s on welfare!” I made suitable noises of disbelief. A tall, middle-aged man lectured a much younger Trump supporter on sexism, who lectured him right back about collectivism while a young woman held a sign high above her head and provided commentary under her breath.
“You are! You’re so being collectivist!”
“I am not. I have a seven-year-old daughter. How to I justify it to her?”
“Don’t show it to her.”
“That’s not the point!”
“He denigrates individual women, so that means he denigrates all women? He denigrates Cruz and Kasich, too, does that mean he hates all men? It’s a classic, collectivist, leftist–”
“He said he wants to have sex with his daughter! How do I explain that to my girl?”
“I don’t know, I’m not a f—ing parent!”
“You will be!”
I wandered away, leaving the men arguing and the woman beside them muttering.
I found myself near the edge of the crowd again, where one woman explained to another that politics in America isn’t always like this. A bearded man wearing what looked like a kippah listened in. He seemed to be the woman’s partner. The three included me in their conversation immediately, as I’d found most people at the protest more than willing to do. Almost everyone was very generous with their social space, with their basic friendliness. We chatted about the oddity of the current election cycle for a bit and about the oddity and variety of America in general. The woman next to me spoke with a definite accent and she and the man both looked vaguely middle-eastern. Their clothing was definitely not the local style. I suddenly felt like a host with guests. We talked some about this blog and about climate change rallies and she told me about interviewing Bill McKibbon. “He’s really nice. And he’s really tall!”
The Trump bus went by again, and everybody booed.
“This reminds me of the protest against Ahmadinejad a couple of years ago,” my new friend said. “The bus kept going by and everybody booed.”
“Is that where you’re from?” I asked.
“No. We are Russian. That was a protest in New York. In Russia, when we have protests, the police aren’t there for your protection.”
“Oh! I just realized I have to go! My baby-sitter is going to leave!”
“You should hire her as a babysitter!” said the man, indicating me.
“Oh, no, you need a lot of experience to do it.”
I asked about her children and said I have none of my own, but do have nieces and a nephew.
“You have spiritual children,” she said. “The people you teach, the people who read your blog, they are your children.”
“I hope so.”
A glorious sunset glowed beyond the building where Donald Trump might or might not be talking. The sky blazed orange and yellow and pink. I had to leave, too, so we turned and walked away from the crowd, which was still chanting and waving signs and sometimes cheering for no reason, and we said our goodbyes.
“I’m glad I met you,” she said.
“I’m glad I met you,” I told her. And I meant it.