Opinion: Two Rallies, One Big Difference
The lesson from Clinton in Charlotte, Trump in Raleigh
For the first joint appearance of President Obama and Hillary Clinton, Jessica Turkas wears a dark-blue “Hillary 2008” t-shirt. Weird. He’s stumping for her, and she’s a walking memento of the year they were opponents? “We were a split house,” Turkas explains, referring to her husband, Nick, standing in line with her on East Martin Luther King Boulevard. “This is the first time I’ve ever worn this shirt.”
Nick supported Obama, in other words. Eight years later, they support both. I ask them how different 2016 feels from 2008.
“Crazier,” Nick says. “Like there’s a lot more at stake.”
“It’s kind of scary,” Jessica adds as we scoot forward toward College Street and the Convention Center entrance. It’s 1:30 p.m. The heat is literally nauseating. “He’s created this outlet for people … it feels like people think that because he … what am I trying to say?” We all understand who “he” is. There’s no need to even name him.
“It’s like he’s opened the door for more hate to come through,” Jessica finally says. “It’s like if Trump can say or do that, they can, too.”
The Hillary-Obama rally was at 3 p.m. Donald Trump held his own rally in the evening at Memorial Auditorium in Raleigh. I didn’t go to that one—did not particularly want to—but I hung around the Convention Center on Tuesday afternoon, watched, listened, and talked to people in line.
Here’s what struck me: Of course the people who came to see the president and former First Lady can’t stand Trump. They see him as a loudmouth, a con man, a bully, a fool, an ignoramus, someone profoundly dangerous.
But there’s a difference between the way Hillary voters talk about Trump and the way Trump voters talk about Hillary. To paraphrase P.J. O’Rourke—a conservative who said this year that he’s voting for Hillary even though he can’t stand her—the people outside the Convention Center expressed their distaste for Trump within normal parameters.
“He’s ignorant, basically,” said Bob Strickler, who splits his time between Charlotte and Florida.
“I don’t know what’s good about him, honestly,” said Stricker’s wife, Mary.
The way Trump voters talk about Hillary—and Obama, for that matter—is another thing entirely. There’s a corrosive, dehumanizing edge to it, a tone common in comments sections and on right-wing message boards but one that, until Trump’s candidacy, had remained largely hidden.
No longer. Trump and his followers have been widely characterized, even by some longtime conservatives, as manifestations of right-wing America’s id. Even in places where its physical presence is minimal, as in Charlotte on Tuesday, it makes itself known, worrisome, unavoidable.
In Raleigh, two young men speak to each other across a guard rail. One man supports Trump, specifically his call to secure the border against illegal immigration, and the other is trying to talk with him about why. It’s a heated but reasonably civil conversation.
Then a woman on the other side of the rail does something that sets the Trump supporter off. “What’s the problem? You got a problem?” He struts toward her, voice rising. “You do? OK!”
His male counterpart tells him to “take it down a notch. Chill out … You standing up and getting in this woman’s face, that’s not called for. We don’t need that.”
“OK,” the guy says. “Talk to me. Talk to me.”
“It really reminds me of Jim Bakker, way back here, years ago,” says Sherrie Taylor, who’s selling Hillary t-shirts at a table on College. “He’ll just talk and talk and talk, but he’s not really saying anything.”
The t-shirts she’s selling aren’t anything inflammatory, just your basic “Hillary 2016” and “I’m With Her” fare. There’s nothing anti-Trump. That’s interesting, I offer, especially given the pointedly anti-Hillary gear sold at Trump rallies. (“Hillary Sucks, But Not Like Monica”; “Hillary for Prison 2016.” Those are the more decorous ones.) Sherrie shrugs. “Why go negative?”
But there’s no escaping the implications here. She knows, they all know, that he’ll be in Raleigh in the evening, planting his own flag in the battleground of the Tar Heel State. “That’s what really bothers me: You can’t get a straight answer out of him,” she says. “And I have a handicapped son, and I didn’t appreciate that thing he did worth a damn.”
She shakes her head. “A gentleman,” she adds ruefully, “would not act that way.”
As people file into the Charlotte Convention Center entrance, their conversations are drowned out by amplified yelling from across the street, at the edge of The Green. It’s Operation Save America, Flip Benham’s crew down from Concord, with an aborted-fetus sign and others, “ABORTION IS MURDER! HOMOSEXUALITY IS SIN! ISLAM IS A LIE!” The usual. They may not be pro-Trump, but they’re flagrantly anti-Hillary, and anti-Obama. “These are two of the biggest mass murderers of all time!” shouts one man over the loudspeaker. “They are evil!”
An older African-American man is selling Hillary buttons on the Convention Center side of College. Without the aid of an amplifier, and to the amusement of the crowd in line, he yells back. The two exchange imprecations across College Street.
OSA guy: “You’re following a false prophet, a moral reprobate, sir!”
Hillary guy: “Go to McDonald’s and take a lunch break!”
“It was folks like you who crucified Jesus on the cross!”
“Take that somewhere else! I’ll come across the street and cut that line! I’ll go to jail! It’s only $200!”
Operation Save America keeps up the heckling for the entire lead-up to the rally, switching up speakers like pitchers in a rotation. It’s what they do. They’re mostly ignored, although some young guys start up a chant at one point, a rejoinder to a famous anti-gay slogan: “God loves fags! God loves fags!”
The Trump crowd has its share of slogans, but one in particular has emerged as the imperative of choice. It’s short, consonant, punchy, venomous—three one-syllable words that, chanted, sound like strikes on a drum.
Yesterday, the crowd in Raleigh had to absorb the unwelcome news that the FBI would not recommend criminal charges for Hillary Clinton for her use of a private email server when she was Secretary of State. This ratcheted up the animus even more. Trump did his part to pump oxygen into the blaze via Twitter. “Crooked Hillary Clinton is unfit to serve as President of the U.S. Her temperament is weak and her opponents are strong. BAD JUDGEMENT!”
Once on the stage in Raleigh, Trump ran with that theme, turning it into a kind of recitation: “Her judgment is horrible. Look at her judgment on emails. Who would do it? Look at her judgment. Her judgment is horrible.”
Out of the crowd came a new version of the popular chant, bellowed into the air and modified for altered circumstances:
“Hang that bitch.”