WARREN, Mich. — Secret Service agents were on high alert at a rally for Donald Trump here Friday morning, scanning for protesters among the throngs of Trump fans who packed the Macomb Community College Sports & Expo Center. As soon as protesters revealed themselves — or were outed by others in the crowd — they were quickly escorted out of the building.
Protesters have become as much a staple of Trump rallies as his “Who’s gonna pay for the wall?” call and response routine with crowds. In Warren, one of Michigan’s largest cities, located about 20 miles north of Detroit, the event was interrupted three or four times over the course of the hour-long speech. Each time, Trump stopped mid-sentence to bellow “Get the hell out!,” spiking the frenzy of his supporters.
While other politicians sometimes try to ignore demonstrators in an effort to maintain order, Trump seems to relish the chaos, often providing commentary: “That’s the meekest protester I’ve ever seen,” and “He looks like an Elvis impersonator, which is strange, because Elvis impersonators love Donald Trump.”
After the third person was removed from Friday’s event, prompting the crowd to erupt in a chant of “USA! USA!” the Republican frontrunner asked, “Are Trump rallies the most fun, or what?”
For those who are convinced that Trump is the man to “make America great again,” they certainly are.
Trump supporters cheer at a campaign rally in Cadillac, Mich., March 4, 2016. (Photo: Jim Young/Reuters)
The energy at the sports center Friday morning felt like that of a major sporting event. Vendors sold Trump T-shirts, buttons, hats and other swag outside the stadium, where thousands waited in line to pass one at a time through the airport-like security that has now become part of every candidate’s campaign. Inside, supporters quickly filled the bleachers, and when Trump entered the venue, it was to the Chicago Bulls theme song, bringing the crowd to its feet with the same music that once introduced Michael Jordan. (If fans of the Detroit Pistons, longtime Bulls rivals who play in nearby Auburn Hills, were annoyed, they didn’t show it.)
It perhaps goes without saying that a Trump rally is not a placid gathering. Yelling, chanting and stomping are encouraged — the louder the better. That is, of course, as long as you’re yelling in support of Donald Trump.
But the theatrical, and at times violent, removal of dissidents is increasingly becoming as much a staple of Trump events.
Back in September, a widely shared video from a local news station showed one of Trump’s longtime bodyguards hitting a protester in the face outside a press conference at Trump Tower in New York City. A steady stream of reports and videos of physical altercations between protesters, security guards and Trump supporters have emerged since then.
In November, a fight broke out between several white Trump supporters and a black man who was reportedly punched and kicked several times after yelling “black lives matter” at a rally in Alabama. Trump praised his fans’ behavior on Fox News that Sunday, saying, “Maybe he should have been roughed up, because it was absolutely disgusting what he was doing.”
A video taken in Las Vegas the following month shows several Black Lives Matter activists being forcibly removed from a Trump event, as people in the crowd cheer. When security escorted a protester from another event in Sin City ahead of Nevada’s primary election last month, Trump told the crowd, “I’d like to punch him in the face, I tell ya.”
Just last week, several white men were seen shoving and yelling obscenities at a black woman during a Super Tuesday rally for Trump in Louisville, Ky. (One of the men identified in the video was Matthew Heimbach, who this writer coincidentally profiled in 2013 when he was the head of Towson University’s White Student Union.)
Trump points out a protester during a campaign rally in Warren, Mich. (Photo: Carlos Osorio/AP)
Friday’s event in Michigan did not erupt in violence, and Trump repeatedly reminded the crowd that they have to be more careful with protesters because of attention from the “stupid” media. He also took time to talk about local economic concerns like manufacturing jobs and the future of the auto industry.
But while Trump’s supporters seemed to appreciate that focus, they reserved their most enthusiastic responses for his greatest hits. The candidate had barely taken the stage before the amped-up crowd burst into a round of “Build a wall! Build a wall!” He gladly picked up the riff.
“We’re going to build a wall,” said Trump. “And who’s going to pay for it?”
“Mexico!” the audience screamed in unison.
Other topics that elicited a similarly enthusiastic response included torture (“They’re allowed to chop the heads off people, but we’re not allowed to waterboard them?”); his opponents (“Little Marco” and “Lyin’ Ted Cruz”); and virtually all jabs at the “stupid” media.
By the time Trump left the stage, he’d filled the arena with such fervor that it spilled out of the building and into the parking lot, where his supporters were met by a small cluster of protesters who personified much of what Trump inveighs against: a Muslim-American woman in a headscarf, a few African-Americans in Black Lives Matter T-shirts, a couple of white guys waving Bernie Sanders posters, and a Hispanic woman holding a handmade sign that read, “Mexican vet, I am not a criminal.”
A young supporter of Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump at a rally Tuesday, March 1, 2016, in Louisville, Ky. (Photo: John Bazemore/AP)
Energized and perhaps inspired to take on all comers in the Trump mode of response, his supporters shouted insults at the protesters as they poured out of the rally:
“Filthy socialist! … Get out of here. … You don’t belong… Get a job. … F***ing hippie… Deport them! … Move to the country the right way!”
Although the crowd inside the event included all ages, the verbal attacks outside largely came from the youngest attendees — teenagers who had been given permission to miss school for this rare political and educational experience. While most just yelled and kept walking to their cars, others crossed the street to engage with the protesters — zeroing in on the young woman with the “Mexican vet” sign, who had been chanting “I fought for your rights. Tell me I don’t belong here.”
The diminutive woman, no more than five feet tall, managed to tell me her name was Deliza and that she was a 22-year-old Navy veteran, before she was encircled by teenage boys — many still in braces.
One boy, in a red “Make America Great Again” baseball cap, shouted: “How about building a wall so Americans get their jobs back? So we’re not undersold by illegal immigrants taking our jobs?”
Deliza attempted to say something about Trump having workers overseas, but was cut off by the teen in the hat, who had become red-faced and furious, his voice cracking as he screamed, “He has hotels!”
To Deliza’s right, more Trump teens were chanting “All lives matter” and “Police lives matter” at the cluster of Black Lives Matter protesters. For a few moments, it seemed a fight might break out between a white teen in a backward camouflage hat and a black man wearing a sweatshirt with the words “F*** Snyder” and a picture of Michigan Gov. Rick Snyder’s face on the front. The two yelled loudly in each other’s faces as an older white man held the boy back.
A protester holds a photo of Hitler at a Trump rally, Tuesday, March 1, 2016, in Louisville. (Photo: John Bazemore/AP)
Meanwhile, yet another teen in a red Trump hat asked a protester wearing a Black Lives Matter T-shirt, “All lives matter. What’s wrong with that argument?”
The protester, who looked as if he was around the same age, pointed to his shirt and said, “This doesn’t mean your life doesn’t matter. What it’s saying is disproportionately, minorities are being killed by police — unarmed minorities. Me having this on doesn’t mean that I hate white people. My mother is white!”
“And just because I’m a Muslim doesn’t mean I hate Christians,” another young man interjected. “My mother’s a Christian, I recently converted from Christianity to Islam.”
A young Trump supporter thought about that. “Not all Muslims are terrorists,” he said. “It’s only the ones that are, you know, the radical, insane ones.”
Hearing this, a woman in a green headscarf and T-shirt that read, “Make America Kind Again,” stepped in. “My name is Stephanie. I grew up in Michigan,” she said. “Most of us aren’t terrorists.”
Trump’s aggressive, charged rhetoric isn’t just one aspect of his campaign. His gleeful defiance of the traditional rules of politics and society has become the defining attraction for many of his supporters. When challenged, Trump doesn’t apologize but instead doubles down and says something even more outrageous.
His ability to steamroll through most of the early primary contests and surge ahead in the delegate count has defied expectations and confounded political pundits. It also seems to have emboldened his supporters.
While waiting for Trump to appear at Friday’s rally in Warren, 56-year-old remodeling contractor Jeff Robinson said the reason he likes Trump is simple: “He’s not politically correct. He says the same thing everybody here thinks but is afraid to say.”
A protester demonstrates outside a Trump campaign rally in Cadillac, Mich., March 4, 2016. (Photo: Jim Young/Reuters)
That fear, however, is rapidly dissipating the closer Trump gets to securing the GOP nomination.
In addition to the red baseball caps that have now become part of the Trump 2016 brand, several people at Friday’s rally wore white T-shirts with black and white images of Hillary Clinton and Monica Lewinsky next to the words, “Hillary sucks, but not like Monica.” The back of the shirt read, “Trump that b—-!” in big block letters.
Trump may have skyrocketed to the front of the Republican presidential field as the self-appointed spokesman of “the silenced majority,” victims of political correctness run amok. But his continued success in the primaries sends a message to those supporters that is destined to have an impact beyond both the political sphere and this election season. If Trump can say whatever he wants and get this far in a presidential campaign, why shouldn’t they?