PITTSBURGH _ The four of them, one Trump fan and three earnest liberals, met at the Trump rally outside the Convention Center. Twenty-two-year-old liberal Cecilia Hornberger went over to 20-year-old Martin Z. in his Make America Great Again hat and told him there was too much yelling, and they should talk instead, right there on the sidewalk. A 30-something and 50-something liberal, both of whom declined to give their names, wandered over because they saw Hornberger and Martin Z. arguing confidently and civilly. As the anti-Trump protest died down, the four of them chatted so long it felt wrong to interrupt them.
A 21-year-old woman in a Black Lives Matter shirt who gave only “J” as her name yelled “socialist popcorn!” to the crowd and gave it away. Her big plastic bag of neon snacks had been given to her by someone else, and it was free for anyone–including Trump fans–as long as they didn’t have a cold. “J” said she was there because Trump cultivates hate, and she is all about love. When asked about some of Trump’s policies, she said, “I understand that we have borders, but I feel like we need to accept people who need help.”
And they weren’t the only ones behaving well. The police were mostly restrained and decent, letting the protest die away and only slowly clearing people away from the building. There were three arrests, and a few random peppersprayings by civilians. There were also a few moments that looked like they might turn to fights–when things got tense–but no fists were thrown. All the while, the cops seemed as dispassionate as people paid to stand in front of protesters and an ACAB (All Cops Are Bastards) sign could be.
In the college neighborhood of Oakland, a long line of serious Trump fans and sheepish curiosity-seekers jawed occasionally with protesters, including some with a Black Lives Matter banner and other creative signs of displeasure. Forming the queue, also, were slightly smirky young men who looked to be in college, whom it seems were there because they appreciate Trump’s more trollsome qualities. Some Trump supporters wore tasteless T-shirts, one of which boldly proclaimed “Hillary sucks, but not like Monica.” The back said “Trump that bitch!”
The Algonquin Round Table it wasn’t, but compared to the 2009 G20 Summit here, whose violence I witnessed, the majority of protesters and Trump voters were peaceful, and the city police were chiller than I’ve ever seen. It wasn’t the shit show that went down in Orange County, Calif., that’s for sure.
Supporters and protesters had gathered because Trump was in Pittsburgh for a town hall with Fox News’ Sean Hannity in Oakland and an evening rally at the Convention Center downtown. Both events attracted hundreds, perhaps thousands, of protesters, as well as fans of Trump. I was there to talk to the people fueling the Trump phenomenon, the much-derided, often-misunderstood, about-to-make-history Trump Voter.
If you speak to Trump fans–real ones, not imaginary ones–they have some valid concerns. They bring up fair points and worries over money, jobs and free speech.
And yet they howl and cheer for an obviously speechwriter-less candidate who just spews emptiness. On stage Trump resembles a cocky drunk who has backed you into a party corner and is now proceeding to tell you in excruciating detail about how wonderful he is. And it’s not an endearing confidence. It’s the kind where the man suggests that Pittsburgh lost its industry (true) and now sucks just as much as the rest of the U.S. He forgets to mention anything positive such as the city’s many colleges and world-class hospitals. A token pander to the Pittsburgh Steelers team was outnumbered by at least three different comments about Penn State and a baffling remark about how we should “bring back” disgraced Penn State football coach Joe Paterno, who, for the record, we can’t bring back, because he is dead.
To fully face down Godwin’s Law, no, it didn’t feel like a Nuremberg Rally. In fact, his 4,000 or so fans were far less enthralled than Bernie Sanders’ were. They knew when to cheer and when to chant, but many of them appeared to space out a bit during Trump’s longer, more rambling sagas. Though a few of them weren’t comfortable giving their full names, every Trump fan I talked to was pleasant and happy to take a stab at explaining why they were out in such force for the Donald.
And it was no more or less frightening than any other political rally with which you disagree, just more befuddling (and not just the pre-speech song choice of “You Can’t Always Get What You Want” by The Rolling Stones. Really?) Sure, other politicians don’t tell the crowd to boo the press pen or call them “worse than politicians,” which is an odd insult for a wannabe politician to make. But, hell, Trump is right about flaws in “the system,” and in the media, and that politicians can be dishonest creeps, even the ones with good intentions. Yet the man is a Jenga tower of glaring contradictions–he’s a self-proclaimed billionaire Republican frontrunner playing the downtrodden populist who hates the media even though it’s given him everything. He’s with you, he’s against the man, and Hillary Clinton attended his wedding. He knows a few things, but he can’t communicate any of them, and none of them involves self-awareness, even though America is more aware of him than any other individual in recent memory.
His fans also seem to know some things that are true. Politics is very strange and very rigged. And when Trump followers are not necessarily right, they’re worried over real, big issues.
Taxes are high, and D.C. gets rich, and life isn’t improving for them. The media is no good, as 21-year-old Todd Su boldly told me. They control too much. And Nikolas Eichenlaub, 23, wants to put America first in the world and to build infrastructure at home. Su wasn’t crazy about the volume of the protesters, but nobody supporting Trump said the protesters shouldn’t or couldn’t be there at all. In a way, the massive opposition legitimizes Trump and makes his followers feel like they are part of something big–a movement, a curiosity, a spectacle that means something.
One melody that kept being repeated was the ephemeral one of political correctness. The most interesting condemnation of it came from 19-year-old Pitt student Devon T., whose large cross necklace suggested a motive for her objection to putting her full name in Playboy. Devon T., a confident poli-sci major and Trump supporter, had lots of ideas about how the world works, and she defended them well. Black Lives Matter, Muslims, the Silent Majority–Devon said that PC keeps them apart. “If you want these groups to gel and run together, you need to start letting them heal, letting them communicate, and talk, and not having a safe space to guard their feelings.” The vocab almost defies political labeling, but, at the same time, she only said that we have to talk about things in America we haven’t been talking about before.
But just when the Trump folks seem decent–when you can feel the hypothetical Brooklyn snobs looking down on all of the American flags and denim in sight, and you almost want to defend them on principle–we hit the wall.
Among Trump fans, and even friendly, cheerful folks who are easy to speak to, they turn unsettling on the topic of “illegal” people. Martin Z. happily called himself near libertarian and cleverly condemned money in politics by noting, “The way I put it is that there would be no lobbyists if politicians didn’t have too much power to interfere with the economic system.” And yet when immigration came up, neither the fiscal cost nor the moral skin-crawling quality of deporting 11 million people seemed to make him pause.
And back inside the rally, there’s the part in Trump’s speech where they chant. That moment, frankly, was chilling. Not the least because the crowd was extra excited to chant it.
“What are we going to do?” asked Trump.
“Build a wall!”
“Who is going to pay for that wall?”
It’s so easy to say you will deport 11 million people. It’s more difficult to explain how you will plan it, pay for it and pull it off without violence and without brutalizing millions of families.
Trump mentioned trade, China, politicians, currency, even Russia, Japan and war. But it really felt like the crowd liked chanting for the wall the most. Because it’s so goddamned easy. It’s even easier than combining the words America and great.
Fifty-six-year-old bus driver and megastore employee Debbie Howard was an exception to the chorus of “Sure, deport them all” answers. Howard is sick of PC as well. She also thinks working folks like her are being ignored. But she knows that it takes more than magic to bring jobs back to America. She mentions the country’s excessive capital gains tax, which, no fooling, makes her sound more sophisticated than Trump ever has. Howard can come off a little cold towards immigrants when she rants about their inroads into schools, hospitals and the welfare they take. But ask her about kicking out all 11 million illegal immigrants, and she bumps into the reality. “We can’t obviously do that. Because they’ve been here for years and years…because they have families…they had children on our soil. So it would come down to is, if you don’t have a job, and you’re illegal, you need to go back. This problem has gotten out of hand, but we have to be careful how we do it. Can’t just bring in busloads and deport all these people.”
Howard’s niece, 25-year-old Tiffany Bertetto, agrees that it’s work or leave. And work is hard enough for Americans to find. But both of them, blonde, tough-friendly, and passionate, really do think they’ve been forgotten in this 2016 America.
And perhaps they have. Perhaps many other Trump supporters have, too, but the idea that a wall will solve that problem is being peddled to them, and it’s a lie. Building a wall will not make America great. It says that America is terrified of its neighbors. And practically speaking, the border already has ten drones and 21,000 agents watching it. They actually have jurisdiction over areas that are 100 miles from any border. The most immigrant-skittish American should understand that law enforcement on the border will eventually affect them as well.
And yet thousands gather to chant-cry for policies that further chip away at our civil liberties and make sure immigrants who get through (and they will) can’t ever return to their home countries. Most immigrants are peaceful and work hard, but there is no acknowledgment of that, or that thousands of immigrants are being kept in overcrowded detainment centers and that net immigration has hit zero repeatedly over the years. Yelling for a wall says immigrants are the problem. A wall is the panacea to America’s lack of greatness. Immigrants, the kind who are here because they broke a victimless law, are a moral failing, and removing them means what is good and right will follow.
That’s the line, anyway, and it works.
Trump is not good for America. He may be a fascinating catalyst for change in the parties. He might be able to burn out some rot with his absurd, impossibly successful campaign. But the people who follow him are falling for yet another sham. Not because they’re stupid, or they’re cruel, or they haven’t thought about a lot of important issues. It’s because Trump managed to catch their eyes as something different. He isn’t. He’s just like the rest of them.
A few days later, Trump won the Pennsylvania primary with 57 percent of the vote.
Second-place finisher Ted Cruz managed just 22 percent.
Originally published at Playboy.com. See: https://web.archive.org/web/20171010080941/https://www.playboy.com/articles/trump-fans-pittsburgh