I attended my first Donald Trump rally Thursday. It convened at the South Florida Fairgrounds in West Palm Beach and attracted several thousand avid, angry supporters.
Hearing sound bites on the radio, seeing snippets of speeches on TV or reading coverage of the Trump campaign was no longer enough. I needed the full experience. I am a semi-retired journalist, and my last reporting job — 2002 to 2015 — was at The Palm Beach Post. So it was familiar territory. But I didn’t go there to do interviews. I went to watch and listen.
The overwhelming majority of Trump’s 50-minute speech was taken up with blanket denials of accusations against him — including those of sexual assault — and rancorous attacks against his Democratic rivals, his GOP betrayers and the “disgusting” media. His words were met with loud, angry jeers at his enemies and cheers for him.
I knew from my own experience as a reporter that Trump had not invented that anger. For almost 13 years, I covered immigration issues at the Post. With some regularity I received angry calls insisting that Mexicans were overrunning South Florida, stealing jobs from citizens and should be deported en masse. They were law breakers, pure and simple, and why wasn’t I saying so?
Some people didn’t want to hear anything else, but others would at least talk. Palm Beach County hosts one of the largest —if not the largest — agricultural economies in Florida. Growers — most of them political conservatives — insist that they need illegal immigrants to pick their crops because no one else will do the back-breaking work, moving to successive farm towns farther north for most the year, for very little money. The state economy would collapse without them, the growers insist.
At that point, the caller might argue that illegals were also taking construction jobs or other desirable positions. I agreed that jobs that citizens and legal residents wanted should go to them. But why blame the illegal Mexican doing only what anyone would do, take the better job he was offered? Why not blame the employer who knowingly hired him and the politicians on both sides of the aisle who have refused to mandate Social Security number verification?
And if you deported adult illegals what happened to their kids who were born here and were U.S. citizens? Did you really want to divide families?
At that juncture the caller often grumbled. Blaming anonymous Mexicans was easy. Tangling with employers and politicians didn’t appeal to them. Child-welfare issues were also complicated. It wasn’t all that easy. Did our conversations change anything about their attitudes? I don’t know, but we talked.
Starting in 2009 I began to have contact with tea party groups. To my surprise, the press spokesmen for those organizations were often level-headed people who stuck to their issues. Immigration wasn’t one them. They cared about taxes and the size of government. But I found tea party members who believed in immigration reform and allowing illegals to stay. Many of them had Latino neighbors. They had a different view than the tea party folks in Arkansas, as one of them said to me.
But later, after the tea parties found electoral success in 2010, some callers were angrier. Deporting immigrants became a key issue for some elected tea party favorites in other parts of the country and tea party supporters grew more aggressive about “the Mexicans.” The recession and Obamacare were thrown into the mix, as was birtherism. President Obama was demonized more and more. Nationwide, the negativity from the right wing was relentless. I came to a conclusion: that the United States was no longer a country run by and for white people scared a large segment of the population.
Then along came Trump to exploit that fear, in part with his simple solution to the immigration issue — the border wall.
A couple of things struck me Thursday as I stood in that crowd — which was almost pure white. First, that demagogues aren’t leaders, they are followers. Trump has followed a segment of the U.S. population down a dark, angry road paved with frustration and fears of the future. Once in that dark place, he has used his celebrity to affirm and amplify those fears. Given his performance Thursday, he is largely stuck there, feeding the rage of his supporters, with little time left over for real solutions.
Second, I assume some of the people who I talked with over the years were in that crowd Thursday. I wonder if they ever pick up the phone anymore and talk to someone who might not think just the way they do.
John Lantigua’s new book “The Big Split” is available on Kindle.