By Brandon Soderberg
In “Signs Of Life,” a piece published in Baltimore City Paper the week after Donald Trump won the election, I wrote: “The first time it became clear to me that Trump might really win was at a rally in Berlin, Maryland, back in April….when Trump walked off stage to crazed cheers after an hour of hot nonsense I saw how he had the crowd in his hands.” One year out from this strange and (for me, at least) eye-opening though modest-sized rally, I thought I’d revisit Trump’s speech and some of the other events in Berlin, MD, which I only touched on a bit in that piece. Below are my extended notes from a day that showed Trump’s ability to turn politics into a bigoted reality-TV sideshow and his supporters’ frenzied desire to eat it all up.
At a Donald Trump rally in the tiny Maryland town of Berlin on April 20, 2016—yes, this was a Trump rally in a place called Berlin on Adolf Hitler’s birthday—the interplay between Trump’s ardent supporters and a cluster of impassioned, anti-Trump protestors went like this: The Trump supporters, so many of them thrilled to gawk and bug protestors and some, admittedly, there solely to bug them, all of whom feel affronted by the mere presence of an oppositional voice, approach the wall of protestors not far from Stephen Decatur High School where Trump will speak later on and begin yelling. Stuff like “Build that wall,” “get off welfare,” “speak English,” and “all lives matter”—you get the point.
In response, the anti-Trump protestors, of which there are about 50, say what is evidently true about Trump—that he is a hatemonger when it comes to a staggering number of issues, and you’re totally one if you ride for him.
Trump supporters, pissed off that they, along with their man, have been called racist, double down on their rhetoric, and begin throwing racist slurs at the protestors, especially the word “nigger,” all of which proves the point of the anti-Trump protestors.
Repeat for four straight hours until the Trump rally is over, at which point things get darker and violent.
The need to connect and find some common ground with Trump’s supporters seems to matter more in a small, rural town on the Eastern Shore like Berlin, MD—population somewhere around 4,500 and for most people, a place to stop and take a piss on the way to noted summer vacation spot Ocean City, MD and nothing more. So for most of the day, the protestors engage Trump supporters, firing off facts and counter-arguments to the Fox News-brewed propaganda. A few times it even works and some conversation happens, though not too much.
“This is my first protest,” 17 year-old high school senior Gabrielle Franks of nearby Hebron, Maryland, who organized the anti-Trump protest via Facebook, says. “We are here to protest Donald Trump’s incitement of violence and hate speech against opposing beliefs, immigrants, minorities, including Mexicans, African-Americans, and women.”
Throughout the day, Franks stands between the protestors and Trump supporters, encouraging non-violence.
Across from Stephen Decatur High School is a less forgiving, more trollish Trump protest: A remixed Trump campaign bus that now reads “T.Rump” on its side and features some of Trump’s famous slogans in Arabic and along with the phrase “# Woman Trump Trump” sits near the highway, intent to trick Trump supporters who gladly take selfies in front of the thing as if it is a Trump bus proper.
The bus is a project put together by activists t.Rutt, David Gleeson, and Mary Milhelic. It’s a real Trump campaign bus, by the way—it’s Trump’s bus from Iowa, which the trio purchased and then changed up, Milhelic explains as she sews ridiculous Trump quotations onto American flags, mocking Trump and defacing the flag all at once.
She has been traveling to as many Trump rallies as possible, hoping to offer a dissenting voice and, presumably, trip up a few pro-Trump types too, she says as she sews the quote from Trump in which he referred to September 11th as “7/11” onto a cheap flag.
Hanging nearby is a finished flag that reads “You could see there was blood coming out of her eyes” stitched on it—that’s how he described Fox News anchor Megan Kelly when she asked him a tough question.
Inside Stephen Decatur High School and right on time, Trump enters. Lights flicker and 2 Unlimited’s 1990s song ‘Get Ready For This’—you know, that “y’all ready for this” party song you’ve heard a million times before—blasts. It feels like a high school pep rally. It basically is.
A Donald Trump speech does exactly what you would expect a Donald Trump speech to do, which is to say go on for an impressive amount of time without saying much at all: Trump compares himself to Babe Ruth, who you know, just had “that instinct” for hitting home runs and, see, Trump just has that same instinct, not for home runs but for creating jobs (Hillary Clinton does not, obviously) and it just isn’t something you can teach, so yeah, vote Trump; the United States military will be “so strong no one will mess with us” and right now, the country is no longer in control of anything or in power and “we’re a bully that gets beat up” and, well, who likes the bully who gets beat up; cops are the most mistreated people in the country, he says, and that sure, there are a few “mistakes” made by the police, but then activists and the media focus on these mistakes for weeks and weeks and it’s just all out of whack because crime in the country is “rampant”; and this country is being “ripped off” by Mexico, China, India, Japan, and Vietnam, and while “the Hispanics are great people,” some of them are also “tough cookies” in gangs who come here from Latin America and South America and, well, he heard of a woman “raped, killed, and sodomized by an illegal alien,” so build the wall.
Then, a “build that wall” chant surges around the gymnasium.
Trump is very entertaining. His tone, on this day at least—in less than two weeks he will become the Republican nominee—is less grumbling ninny than affable and confused funny little man. He plays the crowd like a crappy stand-up comedian at the Funny Bone, pointing out people in the crowd and talking directly to them, which really makes everyone there feel potentially special. He points out how attractive a woman on the shoulders of someone is. He acknowledges a few screaming Trump supporter bros. He randomly picks somebody in the crowd and jokes that the guy probably doesn’t even know what NAFTA is, which somehow makes the crowd love his shtick all a little more.
There is also some kind of attempt on Trump’s part to appear more human. He tells the group how much he “loves” them a few times, long before anyone has yelled “I love you Donald” (a few do after that), and his tone is a bit lighter than it had been even just a few weeks earlier where, say, in Fayetteville, North Carolina, a 79 year-old Trump supporter punched a black protester in the face.
And Trump’s rambling speech makes his campaign impervious by continuously raising the stakes. If you think he’s a sexist or racist or he’s rude or promotes hate speech, well how does that matter when, as he just told you, there are Latin American gangs killing, raping, and sodomizing women and ISIS is on its way over soon enough and planning to kill us all, which will be so easy because our military’s so wimpy these days. Nothing you can say about Trump is as important as what Trump is worried about.
It’s a long “here’s what’s wrong” talk that jumps between demands for more control and less control depending on the topic. I’m reminded of that phrase “an excess of Democracy” from the 1975 report “The Crisis of Democracy: On the Governability of Democracies,” which essentially argued for a return of governmental authority to counter radical fall-out from the changes of the ‘60s.
Trump is the bloated sequel to Ronald Reagan, that goofy, charming actor who became president because he could literally act presidential. This time, it’s a hyper-competitive reality television goofball instead and so he doesn’t even have to act presidential. This, I think, also explains why Trump’s speeches are meandering, maddening, hour-long chunks of hot nonsense. He’s got to keep us all wanting more while never giving us much at all—this is the agreement we enter into with reality television, which is all about stretching cheap content out for as long as possible and handing us the most shallow of rewards.
As Trump makes his way toward the exit, shaking hands and waving to supporters, reporters and photographers are detained in a gated area until the gymnasium is cleared out and Trump has left the building. A handler who won’t identify himself by name or say whether he works for Trump or Secret Service and a State Trooper for Maryland with his hand on the media gate won’t let reporters out. When one journalist wiggles out, someone catches him and orders him to go back into the media area. This is all so the media cannot possibly approach Trump as he waves to his supporters, the guy who won’t let me and everybody else out explains.
When I finally get outside of the high school, police in riot gear have constructed a line along the road as small pockets of Trump supporters argue with anti-Trump protesters. Some who came from inside are geeked up on Trump’s rhetoric, and others who were outside are amped because they’ve been yelling at protesters all day.
A group of jock-ish white boys yells insults at a group of young black men who’ve been protesting, and soon enough the word “nigger” ekes out. The black men yell louder, angrier, and begin joking about how they’ll be fucking these boys’ sisters and daughters in due time and there isn’t shit they can do about it.
As the argument gets more heated between the two groups, one of the white boys notices one of the black guys and says hi—they go to school together. They share a nod and a “What’s good” laugh at the absurdity of seeing each other here, and then it’s right back to hate-tinged tough talk. Eventually, the group of black men walks away and the white boys keep yelling at them.
It’s around this time that police in riot gear get in formation and march away. Soon after, there’s a fight in the parking lot between the supporters and protestors. The cops have a whole bunch of young black men on the ground.
“No white guys on the ground,” a black protestor shouts out to anybody who can hear him.
“There’s no white people being cuffed, being detained,” another black protestor point outs.
There are two arrests. The scuffle is illustrative.
The fight between Trump supporters and protestors, undoubtedly enabled by the police leaving, shows what the powers that be will do, even more than they already do, under Trump: They will look away if certain kinds of people’s lives are in danger, and by doing so, allow those certain people to get hurt. And then they’ll return once violence sparks and arrest them.
Donald Trump’s entire campaign is one big example of looking the other way.