USA: To Trump’s Hard-Core Supporter; His Rallies Weren’t Politics. They Were Life.

What 2020 looked like from the front row on the campaign trail

Michael C. Bender | The Washington Post

Donald Trump soaked in the adoration as he commanded a rally stage inside a massive central Florida arena. I stewed in my seat and stopped taking notes.

It was the third summer of Trump’s presidency, and the event had been billed as the official kickoff of his re-election campaign. What unfolded, however, was effectively the same rally I’d already covered at least 50 times since 2016 as a White House and political reporter for the Wall Street Journal.         

Traditionally, a campaign launch marks an inflection point for a candidate to frame the race, offering a new message or a second-term agenda. But the only differences that day in June 2019 were cosmetic:

The sound system was louder, the physical stage grander. Timeworn chants of “Lock her up” and “Build the wall” rippled through the arena, with Trump supporters echoing their favorite lines like childhood friends at a sleepover watching their favorite movie for the umpteenth time. 

THEN IT STRUCK ME. The deafening roars and vigorous choruses from the capacity crowd at the 20,000-seat Amway Arena showed that Trump’s supporters were excited to watch a rerun. They’d stood in line for hours or camped overnight — enduring stifling humidity interrupted only by brief bursts of hard, heavy rain — to ensure a spot inside.

NOW I WAS RATTLED. I had let the rallies – which formed the core of one of the most steadfast political movements in modern American history and reordered the Republican Party – turn stale and rote. Why was Trump’s performance still so fresh and resonant for an entire arena of fellow Americans? I spent the next year and a half embedded with a group of Trump’s most hardcore rallygoers — known as the “Front Row Joes” — to try to understand what I’d overlooked.

THE ANSWER WASN’T SO MUCH WHAT I’D MISSED AS WHAT THEY HAD FOUND. They were mostly older White men and women who lived paycheck to paycheck with plenty of time on their hands — retired or close to it, estranged from their families or otherwise without children — and Trump had, in a surprising way, made their lives richer. The president himself almost always spent the night in his own bed and kept few close friends. But his rallies gave the Joes a reason to travel the country, staying at one another’s homes, sharing hotel rooms and carpooling. Two had married — and later divorced — by Trump’s second year in office. 

In Trump, they’d found someone whose endless thirst for a fight encouraged them to speak up for themselves, not just in politics but also in relationships and at work. His rallies turned arenas into modern-day tent revivals, where the preacher and the parishioners engaged in an adrenaline-fueled psychic cleansing brought on by chanting and cheering with 15,000 other like-minded loyalists. Saundra Kiczenski, a 56-year-old from Michigan, compared the energy at a Trump rally to the feelings she had as a teenager in 1980 watching the “Miracle on Ice” — when the U.S. Olympic hockey team unexpectedly beat the Soviet Union.

“The whole place is erupting, everyone is screaming, and your heart is beating like, just, oh my God,” Kiczenski told me. “It’s like nothing I’ve experienced in my lifetime.”

THEIR DEVOTION WASN’T RECIPROCATED. Trump was careless with his supporters’ innocence, as he turned coronavirus tests into political scorecards and painted civil rights protests as a breeding ground for antifa. His last campaign-style event as president, the “Save America” rally on Jan. 6 in Washington, helped fuel a deadly riot at the Capitol that has resulted in the arrests of more than 500 Americans. But the former president still drew thousands to a rural fairground about an hour outside Cleveland last month and to another in central Florida. And the question from June 2019 about what keeps bringing his fans back remains a pressing one for the country — and an urgent one for the Republican Party. 

Many of the people facing criminal charges related to the riot have pointed to Trump and his lies about the election as the reason they stormed the symbolic heart of the world’s longest-standing democracy. But those arguments have taken place inside courtrooms. Outside Trump rallies, there are alternative facts. 

“It’s ridiculous those people are in prison for no reason,” Kiczenski told me at the Ohio rally last month. “And it’s a shame because if Donald Trump were still the president, they’d all be free.” 

What do people get out of a Trump rally in 2021? I WENT TO FIND OUT. 

The Front Row Joes include several Trump aficionados who had spent decades keeping tabs on his political flirtations, tabloid melodrama and star turns on reality television. But I talked to a surprising number who’d also voted for Barack Obama at least once, attracted to the Democrat’s charisma and fed up with Republicans over foreign adventurism and the growing national debt.

Kiczenski met people like Ben Hirschmann, a Michigan legislative intern who posted on Facebook anytime he had an open seat in his car on the way to a rally. She bonded with Brendan Gutenschwager and flew with him to Hong Kong, where they spent 24 hours waving their red, white and blue Trump flags during protests over China’s extradition laws. She occasionally overnighted about an hour outside Detroit with Judy Chiodo, a fellow Trump rally-trotter, rather than drive all the way home to Sault Ste. Marie.

But 2020 proved grueling for the Joes. In March, Hirschmann was among the first Americans to die of COVID-19. His death, at 24, shook his Trump friends. “I talked to him more than my own daughter,” Cindy Hoffman, a 60-year-old Iowa woman who ran a tool-sharpening business, said on a Zoom call that the Joes held to grieve.

Yet within a few months, as Trump’s response to the pandemic became increasingly politicized, the Front Row Joes had pinned Hirschmann’s death on a push for doctors to see patients remotely by Michigan Gov. Gretchen Whitmer. Her changes largely mirrored steps the Trump administration had taken, but she was a Democrat who had emerged as a foil for the president. They also turned on one another, shaming friends who wanted to wear masks or were nervous about attending rallies during the pandemic.

In my red state, people see masks as unmanly. That’s Trump’s fault. 

When Randal Thom, a 60-year-old ex-Marine with a long gray mustache, fell severely ill with a high fever and debilitating congestion, he refused to go to the hospital. He was a heavy smoker who was significantly overweight and knew he faced an increased risk of severe effects from COVID-19. Still, he refused to take a coronavirus test and potentially increase the caseload on Trump’s watch: “I’m not going to add to the numbers,” he told me. Thom survived the scare, but died months later in a car accident while returning home to Minnesota from a Trump boat parade in Florida.

While most Americans only occasionally left their homes, the pandemic proved a blessing for Kiczenski’s Trump travel plans. She bought cheap airfare, repeatedly basked in the extravagance of an airplane aisle all to herself and logged more flights in 2020 than at any other point in her life. She attended 25 Trump rallies, boosting her total to 56. She spent 79 nights of the year away from her bed. Kiczenski traveled so often during the pandemic that a Delta flight attendant thanked her for being a Silver Medallion member and upgraded her to first class; she initially assumed it was a mistake.

Kiczenski was in Washington with friends for the Jan. 6 rally. She was convinced beyond a doubt that Trump had been re-elected on Nov. 3, only to have his victory stolen in what she described as “a takeover by the communist devils”. She said she believed that, in part, because she had crossed paths with Corey Lewandowski, a well-known and ubiquitous Trump adviser, in the Trump International Hotel the previous summer. Lewandowski told her, she said, that the only way Trump could lose was if there was massive election fraud.

“If someone put a gun to my head and said: ‘Did Donald Trump win, yes or no? And if you’re wrong, we’re going to shoot your head off!’ I would say yes,” Kiczenski told me. “I’m that confident that this stuff is not made up.” 

On Jan. 6, she and her friends made their way to the west side of the Capitol, where a mob pushed through police barricades and turned steel bike racks on their sides, leaning them against stone walls like ladders. Some men helped her climb up the rungs. People were everywhere, and it was difficult to move. Kiczenski and her friends scaled one more wall and were within about 100 yards of the Capitol. But it had become so crowded — they didn’t want to lose one another — that they decided to stop on the west terrace, take pictures and soak up the atmosphere.

They paused in the place where Trump and Vice President Mike Pence had been inaugurated in 2017 amid a crowd of former presidents and against a Capitol decorated in red, white and blue bunting. Now, four years later, Trump’s supporters swarmed the ornate building. Outside that evening, countless Trump flags flapped in the wind. Clouds of tear gas hung in the air against the purple twilight sky, and the orange light glowing from inside the Capitol’s windows gave the scene a surreal, apocalyptic feel.

The Capitol riot shouldn’t have surprised us. Trump forecast it for five years. 

Kiczenski was inspired by a vista of Trumpian strength and patriotism: The Washington Monument in the distance, the majestic Capitol in the foreground, and freedom-loving patriots fighting like hell to stop a stolen and fraudulent election, liberate their country and save their president. She snapped pictures and recorded videos.

“It just looked so neat,” she said. “We weren’t there to steal things. We weren’t there to do damage. We were just there to overthrow the government.” 

But when Trump posted a video to social media asking supporters to go home and saying he loved them after the riot raged for hours, Kiczenski felt confused and depressed. “We were supposed to be fighting until the end,” she said. 

She reminded herself that the president hadn’t technically conceded, and as soon as she arrived home in Michigan, she packed for the next Trump trip. Kiczenski trusted that something was coming and wanted a go-bag ready if she needed to leave for a rally at a moment’s notice.

“We’re all on the edge of our seats waiting to hear about the next event,” she said. “Now we’re like an army, and it’s like boots on the ground. Tell us where we need to go!

“The time is now,” she continued, sounding at once urgent and wistful. “It’s time to go.”

And when Trump returned to the rally circuit in June, so did Kiczenski. “We have a lot of down time now that we’re trying to fill,” she told me in Ohio. “It’s basically like we don’t have a president right now.” 

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Comments

  • brandli62  On 07/19/2021 at 11:13 am

    The Trump cult reminds me of those people that blindly followed a guy back in Germany in 1933. We all know how that Pied Piper story ended….

  • wally n  On 07/19/2021 at 1:34 pm

    Come on Doc… There is no Trump, remember….what annoys me more is the constant mention of South Africa…South Africa this South Africa that..on this site….stop it please.

  • brandli62  On 07/19/2021 at 3:36 pm

    Have I been mentioning South Africa?

  • wally n  On 07/19/2021 at 4:40 pm

    naw….I was throwing out bait..sorry Doc

    • Brother Man  On 07/19/2021 at 4:59 pm

      As the sayings go:-

      To each his own! Beauty is in the eye of the beholder. Every puppy is a princess in mama’s eyes! You can put lipstick on a pig but it’s still a pig. All things are relative!

  • Clyde Duncan  On 07/20/2021 at 12:25 am

    The Hollywood Reporter:

    Donald Trump Campaign Offered Actors $50 to Cheer for Him at Presidential Announcement

    A casting call was sent out “looking to cast people for the event to wear T-shirts and carry signs and help cheer him in support of his announcement.”

    WHAT’S TRUE

    The Trump campaign paid a contractor who then hired a subcontractor, Extra Mile Casting, to provide services at the 16 June 2015 rally where Donald Trump announced he would run for U.S. president.

    WHAT’S FALSE

    The Trump campaign denied knowing about or approving the hiring of actors to fill the crowd at his 2015 announcement rally.

    The Truth About Donald Trump’s Crowd-Size Obsession

    The president’s rallies are grand spectacles, evidence of his political potency and oxygen for his ego. Can he sustain his re-election campaign without them?

  • brandli62  On 07/20/2021 at 3:44 am

    There will be no Trump re-election campaign because even his most ardent donors know that he cannot win. It would be putting money down the drain.

    • Chris  On 07/20/2021 at 7:06 am

      The stupidity of Republican voters has no limit!

  • Clyde Duncan  On 07/20/2021 at 5:44 pm

    Tom Barrack, Trump Ally, Charged With Acting As Agent of UAE

    By Matt Hamilton, Michael Finnegan | L.A. Times

    Thomas J. Barrack, Jr., Billionaire, prominent Southern California businessman, Chair of former President Trump’s inaugural committee and a philanthropist, was arrested Tuesday on federal charges that he and others were part of a years-long effort to shape Trump’s foreign policy as a candidate and later president, all to the benefit of the United Arab Emirates.

    Barrack, 74, and two other men were indicted in a New York federal court and accused of acting as unregistered foreign agents of the UAE starting about the spring of 2016. The indictment describes the trio as being “tasked” by four UAE officials: With influencing public opinion through media appearances; with molding the foreign policy positions of the campaign and later, the Trump administration; and developing “a backchannel line of communication” with the U.S. government.

    • brandli62  On 07/21/2021 at 3:22 am

      They are picking the low-hanging fruit first….. More to come later!

  • wally n  On 07/20/2021 at 5:50 pm

    New York federal court???????Comedy Central Here is a better headline OK.
    Biden pees himself on White House floor, demands Kamala cleans it up, more plausible, eh??? Get Real guys….

  • Clyde Duncan  On 07/21/2021 at 12:11 am

  • Clyde Duncan  On 07/21/2021 at 12:21 am

    JUSTICE NEWS
    Department of Justice
    Office of Public Affairs
    FOR IMMEDIATE RELEASE

    Tuesday, July 20, 2021

    Former Advisor to Presidential Candidate Among Three Defendants Charged with Acting as Agents of a Foreign Government

    Defendants Allegedly Acted and Conspired to Act at the Direction of Senior United Arab Emirates Officials to Influence a Presidential Campaign, Public Opinion and the U.S. Government

    A seven-count indictment was unsealed today in a New York federal court relating to the defendants’ unlawful efforts to advance the interests of the United Arab Emirates (UAE) in the United States at the direction of senior UAE officials by influencing the foreign policy positions of the campaign of a candidate in the 2016 U.S. presidential election and, subsequently, the foreign policy positions of the U.S. government in the incoming administration, as well as seeking to influence public opinion in favor of UAE interests.

    Thomas Joseph Barrack, 74, of Santa Monica, California; Matthew Grimes, 27, of Aspen, Colorado; and Rashid Sultan Rashid Al Malik Alshahhi, aka Rashid Al Malik and Rashid Al‑Malik, 43, a UAE national, are accused of acting and conspiring to act as agents of the UAE between April 2016 and April 2018. The indictment also charges Barrack with obstruction of justice and making multiple false statements during a June 20, 2019, interview with federal law enforcement agents.

    “The defendants repeatedly capitalized on Barrack’s friendships and access to a candidate who was eventually elected President, high-ranking campaign and government officials, and the American media to advance the policy goals of a foreign government without disclosing their true allegiances,” said Acting Assistant Attorney General Mark Lesko of the Justice Department’s National Security Division. “The conduct alleged in the indictment is nothing short of a betrayal of those officials in the United States, including the former President. Through this indictment, we are putting everyone — regardless of their wealth or perceived political power — on notice that the Department of Justice will enforce the prohibition of this sort of undisclosed foreign influence.”

    “As alleged, the defendants, using their positions of power and influence in a presidential election year, engaged in a conspiracy to illegally advance and promote the interests of the United Arab Emirates in this country, in flagrant violation of their obligation to notify the Attorney General of their activities and in derogation of the American people’s right to know when a foreign government seeks to influence the policies of our government and our public opinion,” said Acting U.S. Attorney Jacquelin M. Kasulis for the Eastern District of New York. “These arrests serve as a warning to those who act at the direction of foreign governments without disclosing their actions, as well as those who seek to mislead investigators about their actions, that they will be brought to justice and face the consequences.”

    “Today’s indictment confirms the FBI’s unwavering commitment to rooting out those individuals who think they can manipulate the system to the detriment of the United States and the American people,” said Assistant Director Calvin Shivers of the FBI’s Criminal Investigative Division. “Barrack is alleged to have abused his access to government officials to illegally advance the interests of foreign governments. The FBI stands in concert with our external partners to ensure all who seek to wield illegal influence are charged for their crimes.”

    “American citizens have a right to know when foreign governments, or their agents, are attempting to exert influence on our government,” said Assistant Director in Charge William F. Sweeney Jr. of the FBI’s New York Field Office. “This is especially important to Americans during a presidential election year, and the laws on the books were created to protect our nation from such untoward influence. This case is about secret attempts to influence our highest officials, and when that corrupt behavior was discovered, we allege Mr. Barrack went even further, obstructing and lying to FBI special agents. In case it needs repeating, each of those bad choices is a federal felony, and each now comes with significant consequences – the first being today’s indictment.”

    According to court documents, between April and November 2016, Barrack served as an informal advisor to the campaign of the candidate in the 2016 U.S. presidential election. Between November 2016 and January 2017, Barrack served as Chairman of the Presidential Inaugural Committee. Beginning in January 2017, Barrack informally advised senior U.S. government officials on issues related to U.S. foreign policy in the Middle East. Barrack also sought appointment to a senior role in the U.S. government, including the role of Special Envoy to the Middle East. Barrack served as the Executive Chairman of a global investment management firm headquartered in Los Angeles, and Grimes was employed at the firm and reported directly to Barrack. During the relevant time period, Alshahhi worked as an agent of the UAE and was in frequent contact with Barrack and Grimes, including numerous in-person meetings in the United States and the UAE.

    As alleged in the indictment, the defendants used Barrack’s status as a senior outside advisor to the campaign and, subsequently, to senior U.S. government officials, to advance the interests of and provide intelligence to the UAE while simultaneously failing to notify the Attorney General that their actions were taken at the direction of senior UAE officials. Barrack – directly and through Alshahhi and Grimes – was regularly and repeatedly in contact with the senior leadership of the UAE government. On multiple occasions, Barrack referred to Alshahhi as the UAE’s “secret weapon” to advance its foreign policy agenda in the United States.

    Barrack, Alshahhi and Grimes allegedly took numerous steps in the United States to advance the interests of the UAE. For example, in May 2016, Barrack inserted language praising the UAE into a campaign speech to be delivered by the candidate about U.S. energy policy in May 2016 and emailed an advance draft of the speech to Alshahhi for delivery to senior UAE officials. Similarly, throughout 2016 and 2017, the defendants sought and received direction and feedback, including talking points, from senior UAE officials in connection with national press appearances Barrack used to promote the interests of the UAE. After one appearance in which Barrack repeatedly praised the UAE, Barrack emailed Alshahhi, “I nailed it. . . for the home team,” referring to the UAE. Barrack and Grimes also solicited direction from senior UAE officials in advance of the publication of an op-ed authored by Barrack and published in a national magazine in October 2016 and removed certain language at the direction of senior UAE officials, as relayed by Alshahhi.

    In furtherance of the alleged criminal conspiracy and conduct, Barrack and Grimes, with the assistance of Alshahhi, acquired a dedicated cellular telephone and installed a secure messaging application to facilitate Barrack’s communications with senior UAE officials.

    Neither Alshahhi nor Barrack nor Grimes provided the required notification to the U.S. Attorney General that they were acting in the United States as agents of a foreign government.

    On June 20, 2019, Barrack voluntarily met with FBI special agents. During the interview, Barrack allegedly made numerous false statements, including falsely denying that Alshahhi had ever requested that he take any actions on behalf of the UAE.

    Barrack and Grimes were arrested this morning and are scheduled to be arraigned this afternoon in the Central District of California. Alshahhi remains at large.

    Assistant U.S. Attorneys Nathan Reilly, Ryan Harris, Samuel Nitze and Hiral Mehta of the Eastern District of New York and Trial Attorney Matthew McKenzie of the National Security Division’s Counterintelligence and Export Control are prosecuting the case.

    The charges in the indictment are allegations, and the defendants are presumed innocent unless and until proven guilty.

  • Clyde Duncan  On 07/21/2021 at 12:24 am

    I am very glad Cyril Bryan – creator and administrator – of Guyanese Online allows everyone to share their opinion and even display their ignorance.

    Thanks Cyril

  • wally n  On 07/21/2021 at 9:41 am

    “and even display their ignorance.”ummm and who has the lofty position “JUDGE” separating OPINION from IGNORANCE hope it pays well…good luck
    BTW free advice…wait until the dust settles…..

  • geoffburrowes  On 07/21/2021 at 3:46 pm

    It’s frightening that such a large percentage of American voters voted for Trump. What is even more frightening is that so many Americans believe that God has placed Trump in the middle of politics as His representative or chosen one!

  • Clyde Duncan  On 07/21/2021 at 7:06 pm

    It is even more terrifying when you consider there are about 74-Million of them!!

    Mister Burrowes, your concerns gain credence after considering the list of Trump Allies that have been convicted, indicted or under investigation – The man-child operates a criminal enterprise, in my opinion.

    As MLK said: The arc of the moral universe is long but it bends toward justice.

  • wally n  On 07/21/2021 at 8:21 pm

    Even MLK knew the biden family will end up in gitmo one day soon. Thanks

  • Clyde Duncan  On 07/22/2021 at 2:04 am

    Litigation Tracker: Pending Criminal and Civil Cases Against Donald Trump

    by Karl Mihm, Jacob Apkon and Sruthi Venkatachalam | Just Security

    On both the criminal and civil litigation fronts, former President Donald Trump faces a bevy of lawsuits and investigations, with more cases likely to follow. Some are civil suits stemming from his pre-presidential business dealings. Others are defamation claims from women he allegedly assaulted. More still are criminal probes and civil actions that scrutinize his attempts to overturn the results of the 2020 election.

    The Chart below tracks all these cases. It will be continually updated as major legal developments occur. “The Chart” NOT Posted Here is tantamount to looking up the Encyclopedia Britannica.

    These cases bear on two pressing questions. First, will Trump maintain his long streak of eluding legal liability in the face of so many lawsuits? Second, if Trump is held to account for illegal conduct, what impact will such a development have on his — and his family’s — political and business fortunes?

    Criminal charges — one would think — would be among the most damaging outcomes. After all, a criminal prosecution of a former president would be a singular event in American history. No former president has ever been indicted, much less convicted.

    Trump lost any immunity from indictment that he may have possessed as president the moment he left office on Jan. 20. To be sure, most of the criminal probes detailed below are in their infancy, so the odds of an actual conviction at this time remain improbable.

    Even so, the mere stigma of criminal charges against the former president could reshape the American political landscape and the historical understanding of Trump’s behavior.

    The civil cases could certainly do their fair share of damage as well, directly or indirectly. If Trump falters in one of his business-related suits, his companies may be subject to massive penalties, or worse. Even apart from such sanctions, his empire is reportedly struggling under looming debt obligations and reduced revenues, a slump which could worsen if his reputation continues to deteriorate.
    With these legal threats bearing down on the former president from nearly every direction, this tracker collects them in one place.

    Note: we have chosen not to include various cases involving Trump’s properties or the Trump Campaign — including slip-and-fall cases, allegations of bedbugs, water use cases, telephone spam suits, copyright suits, and discrimination suits — as they do not implicate Trump directly or it is very unlikely that they will.

    Below we’ve included key takeaways from each case along with case charts that explain the case’s main issue, procedural posture, and any upcoming deadlines.

    We will continue to update this information as new filings are docketed, new details emerge, new plaintiffs come forward or drop out, and other significant developments in the cases occur.

    If you believe we are missing a significant issue or development, send us a message at lte@justsecurity.org.

  • wally n  On 07/22/2021 at 9:57 am

    You guys have all of the evidence,all of MSM worldwide,all of the big social media,all the Democratic AG’s, Judges in a condensed manner commonly referred to as the Hillary Clinton election edge. All I have is gut feeling you might be
    misinformed.
    BTW maybe the forces above might spend a moment on…
    Lefty Democrats are lambasting Blue Origin founder Jeff Bezos over his “despicable” comments thanking Amazon employees and customers for financing his brief trip to space — and calling on the billionaire to pay his share of taxes here on Earth.

    The show of appreciation by Bezos Tuesday to the workers and customers who “paid for all this” following his $5.5 billion flight did not dazzle the likes of Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.), Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-NY) and Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.).

    “Am I supposed to be impressed that a billionaire went to space while he’s paid zero in federal income taxes some years and the workers at his company struggle to afford their medical bills, rent, and food for their kids?” Sanders tweeted. “Nope. It’s time to invest in working people here on Earth.”

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