Throughout the Republican Party’s presidential primaries, New York billionaire Donald Trump has stirred controversy with remarks about minorities, women and the disabled. Yet he draws at least some support from those groups, and Roll Call Editor-in-Chief Melinda Henneberger attended a recent Trump rally to hear why.
RICHMOND, Va. — Waiting to get into Trump's rally here on Friday night, a 23-year-old man who grew up on Navy Amphibious Base Little Creek in Virginia Beach says he had been drifting away from his family’s conservative beliefs until Donald Trump came along.
“Out of high school, I was as liberal as can be,” says Michael, who didn’t want to give his last name. So when he cast his first ballot in 2012, it was for Barack Obama .
The minute he started saying he was intrigued by Trump, though, it was his Democratic friends who finished the job of pushing him back into the GOP.
“I’ve had 10 friends block me on Facebook just for saying I like Trump!" Michael said. "There’s so much smugness that I no longer see the left as a voice of reason — and he’s probably the most moderate Republican I’ve seen in a long time.”
At this, a young African-American woman holding a handmade pro-Trump sign interjects, “I heard your testimony; do you want a hug?”
“Hungary has a wall,’’ too, Michael notes.
“But we can’t have one?” asks the woman, Tyra Booker, who is 18 and has come here with her twin sister, Tia, to their Democratic family's horror. And no, they aren't the only minority voters here who say they find at least some of Trump's message appealing.
Those gathered around the girls nodding in approval are all white, though, and include a man using a wheelchair who puts in, “Everybody’s welcome," in the United States, "just use the right path in.”
'I love everybody'
“I love everybody,’’ Tyra echoes, “but illegal aliens hurt black people the most.”
Since she brought up race, “Can I ask you a racially-charged question?” asks Martin Wells, a 52-year-old defense contractor for the government who became paralyzed from the neck down at 18, then later got some function back. If he could provide for a family and raise two kids, he figures, then why can’t people whom he sees as having a lot easier time than he's had in life just follow the rules like he has?
What he wants the Booker twins to tell him is whether Obama was only elected because he’s black. Oh yes, says Tyra, she does think that, and her twin does, too.
“My mom has Obamacare,’’ says Tia, “and she doesn’t like it at all.”
Wells says he can’t stand what he sees as that nonsense that Trump (who did mock a reporter’s disability) is somehow down on the disabled. “Do you really believe he attacked someone in a wheelchair?” he asks the sisters.
Absolutely not, they tell him. “The number-one bad thing people say is he’s racist,’’ Tia says, “and I don’t see it.” Or, says Tyra, "they play the 'sexist' card, and I just laugh."
Another African American who’s getting a wildly positive reaction here is Tamara Moore, who is hawking T-shirts that say, “Hillary Sucks , But Not Like Monica.” The message on the back is even more aggressive: “Trump the Bitch." When Moore, a 50-year-old Cleveland man, approaches a group of Trump volunteers, they guffaw and give him high-fives.
Does he believe the message he’s selling? Though he voted for Bill Clinton and Barack Obama twice — and isn’t sorry he did, either — “I do feel like she sucks. And he might, too,’’ he adds, referring to Trump, “but she is so invested with big corporations, I feel like I’ll have a better chance with him. He’s never said he hates all minorities.”
Moore worked for a mortgage company “before that fell out,’’ and in the hope that Trump might create some jobs, he says, he already cast a ballot for him in the Ohio primary.
The shirts he’s brought sell so well here because the crowd doesn’t just disagree with Clinton, but is enraged by, as 20-year-old Californian Christian Groff puts it, “that crazy woman.''
"I despise her,” Groff says, for one thing over Benghazi , which almost all of the 20 Trump supporters I talk to mention. And then there’s “the whole email thing; I know all about security classifications and it blows our minds.”
'Lock her up!'
Inside the hall, a series of warmup speakers and then Trump himself describe Clinton as someone who should be in prison, and the crowd chants, “Lock her up! Lock her up!”
When someone on the floor of the coliseum goes further and shouts, “Hang her!” he gets a big laugh.
Not every one of the maybe 1,000 people in attendance is all in for the presumptive nominee, of course; paramedic Deborah Rose, who has come here with an African American friend, says she sees her options as imperfect, to say the least.
“This is the most ridiculous election in history,’’ says Rose, who describes herself as “a bit of a tea partier.” And though she’ll under no circumstances vote for Clinton, she finds Trump obnoxious and too cavalier.
His comments about Judge Gonzalo Curiel, who is presiding over the class-action suit against Trump University, bother her, too: “That someone can’t be impartial because of his background? That’s as un-American as it gets.” More than anything, she has come here “looking for confidence he’s not going to destroy everything” if elected.
Sitting behind her are two men wearing Trump stickers and speaking in Spanish as they eat popcorn and wait for Trump to take the stage. The younger of the two, 36-year-old Mexican-born Martin Madrigal, himself came to this country illegally at age 18.
Now, he works in a warehouse and is a U.S. citizen.
“I came to that wall in the past,’’ he says — and yes, there is one already in a lot of places along the border. “But things are changing and a lot of bad people come to this country; terrorists can come to Mexico and then here.”
He does not agree with Trump that everybody just needs to get in line and come into the country the right way: “It’s hard unless you’re rich; I could not afford a visa.”
Yet the way Trump talks about immigrants doesn’t really bother him: A lot of people “say he’s so mean, but they say the same things” in private.
A two-time Obama voter — “I wanted to be part of the history” — he was torn between Bernie Sanders and Trump, but is enthusiastic about the latter now because “I know when he becomes president he’s going to do the right thing.”
After hearing Trump speak — about the wall, Hillary, the wall, winning, the wall and ‘Pocahontas,’ as he calls Elizabeth Warren, I ask Madrigal if he still feels the same way. Yes, he says, and bursts out laughing: “I’ve got a wall to build. And if I’m going to pay [for] it, I guess I’ve got to start saving.”