August 3rd, 2016
JACKSONVILLE, FLORIDA – The talk all day had been whether Donald Trump could get his shit together and stage something resembling an actual campaign for the Presidency of the United States of America. Rumors swirled that GOP officials were looking into any means necessary to steal the nomination from him while top party officials and Trump confidants were planning an intervention of sorts. Newton Leroy Gingrich, longtime Trump sycophant and certified space cadet, had even gone on the record saying Trump was coloring himself “unacceptable,” a real treat coming from a man who has salted more earth than Sherman himself.
No sooner had the pundits pondered and guessed that, yes, Trump would bring his campaign back to civilized society, Trump took a question from a supporter in Daytona Beach and said that Hillary Clinton “should get an award” as “founder of ISIS.”
Pulling into a parking garage outside Jacksonville’s Veterans Memorial Arena, part of me was prepared to find shortened lines and a conspicuous absence of Trump faithful. Hard times have a habit of making orphans in the political cycle and these were much more than hard times. What Trump had stepped into in the last seventy-two hours was nothing short of a apocalyptic meltdown the likes of which hadn’t been seen since the barbarians ransacked Rome.
It seemed, finally, as if the fever might’ve broken.
But there they were. Dressed in their red, white, and blue. Their cheap-ass Make America Great Again hats. Their Hillary For Prison t-shirts, the first of which I saw in the stairwell down from the second floor of the garage as I followed a couple on the steps, the husband barely holding a smoking nub of a cigarette between his fingers as he said, to no one in particular, “Trump’s going to bring the jobs back. He’s gonna do it.”
“He does this all the time,” his wife said, looking apologetic. “Ever since Donald came around it’s all he talks about.”
He wasn’t alone. Outside the arena there were the usual clumps of people fretting over terrorist attacks and what Hillary Clinton had said or hadn’t said in the last news cycle. But, of course, the topic du jour was Khazir and Ghazala Khan, parents of slain war hero Captain Humayun Khan, a Gold Star family that had had the nerve to speak at a convention they were invited to and speak their minds.
“They can say what they want,” I overheard a retired major tell a journalist inside, echoing the prevalent opinion, “but what they did, going there and grandstanding like that?”
Honestly, I hadn’t known what to expect when it came to this crowd and the Khans considering how much Trump supporters love to throw around their love of vets and the military. I wondered if they’d sidestep the issue the way Trump had been doing in his stump speeches this week, but this group took the controversy head on.
Before Trump had even arrived in Jacksonville there were speakers who took turns decrying the media – a line that never failed to direct the ire of the crowd toward the press pit – and saying they would stop at nothing to derail Trump’s ascension to the presidency. A man next to me wearing a chambray shirt pushed up his glasses, raised his TRUMP PENCE 2016 sign, and pointed at the journalists, screaming, “You’re disgusting!”
Later, after General Michael Flynn, one of the most embarrassing public speakers and wild-eyed loons this cycle has produced, tried to assuage worries – “You’re hearing in the media today about some type of intervention that’s going on in the Trump campaign…the intervention is the intervention by the American people against Washington, D.C.” – Trump took his turn and immediately criticized the press, insinuating that they were dishonest and unwilling to report the size of his crowds, drawing a massive round of applause from a primed arena.
“By the way,” he pivoted, “speaking of great people…speaking of our best people…we have, and I just visited with some incredible folks…I have no idea where they’re sitting but I know they have a good location…some really amazing Gold Star families.”
While the crowd cheered he pointed them out, calling them “incredible” again, to which a man behind me yelled, “Not like the Khans!” To further fluff and paint himself as the hero of veterans, he displayed a Purple Heart that’d been gifted him earlier in the week and then showed the crowd an envelope. “A gentleman handed me a check. I haven’t even opened it yet. He said it’s more money than we can afford but we want you to have it,” he said before saying he wasn’t going to tell how much it was and then peeking inside. “Wow.”
The entire program was an exercise in denial. Trump droned incessantly about how great his campaign is doing and bragged that it was more unified than it was even in the beginning, even though staffer leaks are calling morale in the offices “suicidal.”
Throughout, the people seemed to sense it. More so than any other rally I’ve attended, they cheered over his lines, yelling, “We love you Donald!” and “Keep it up!” The cheers less confident than I’ve heard them in the past. More reassuring than aggressive.
Outside, once Trump had had enough of the limelight, his supporters ran smackdab into a pen of protestors chanting “This ain’t a Trump rally / it’s a Klan rally,” a chant more than a few took exception to. Within minutes tempers flared and supporters were crowding the fence between the two parties, spitting on the protestors, threatening them, shoving their Trump signs in their faces and yelling back, “All lives matter/all lives matter.”
Two separate fronts developed: one by the arena and the other across the street, where a small battalion of socialists with red flags stood waiting for the barrage. The overflow from the arena drove supporters straight into them and it wasn’t long until they moved from one scene to another, shouting and prosecuting the same arguments and personal attacks.
On both fronts Confederate flags appeared, both with TRUMP 2016 lettering across the stars and bars.
On both fronts the people displaying the flags shoved them in the protestors’ faces and screamed at them.
One man, holding the Confederate flag, leveled a finger at a protestor being restrained: “You’ve been fucking brainwashed by the media,” he charged.
Jacksonville police cleared out the scene the best they could, leaving stragglers from both camps to provoke each other in the streets and on the sidewalks. I walked behind a small group of Trump supporters, still wearing those hats, still wearing those shirts, and listened as they came across an African-American man standing on the street corner in a HILLARY FOR PRISON shirt with his arms folded. Just moments before someone in the group had said, about the protestors, “They don’t know how racist niggers are.”
I waited to see how this interaction would play out. I was feeling sick, exhausted, relieved that police had broken up the scrum with the Confederate flags before real violence ensued.
“Finally,” one of the men in the group said to the man on the corner, “a black guy with some sense.”
In the parking lot the stairwells were full.
Downstairs, as far as I could see, there were people wearing Trump shirts and chanting “Trump/Trump/Trump.”
The fever, it seemed, was still burning.