What We Learned the Day Trump Came to Town

Faces of the Donald Trump rally and protest. (Photos by Julie Leopo)

We couldn’t resist.

Sure, we always have Form 700s to pore over, datasets to analyze, public record battles to wage, and any number of other watchdog functions that a local investigative news agency performs every day.

But the Donald J. Trump show was coming to town Thursday — specifically to the Pacific Amphitheater at the county fairgrounds in Costa Mesa. And like thousands of others in Orange County (although not nearly the 31,000 Trump claimed) we wanted to witness a political spectacle, the likes of which we may never see again.

Plus, we’d heard from a number of our sources that protests were being planned. And given our previous experience covering clashes with local police and protesters, we knew that things could get ugly.

So we came. We saw. And here’s what we learned:

Trump’s crowds are more diverse than we had anticipated, but their viewpoints aren’t.

One of the first things we noticed when we arrived at the fairgrounds in the early afternoon was the crowd slowly assembling wasn’t just angry-looking white guys in “Make America Great” hats, although there were certainly plenty of those.

There were actually quite a few people of color, and lots of women. And at least two openly gay men.

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So maybe there is a kernel of truth to Trump’s claims that “the blacks” and “the Hispanics” support him in larger numbers than the media gives him credit for. Or it could be that California is such a melting pot that just about any crowd will be more diverse than a similar-sized crowd elsewhere.

But while many of the people looked different from each other, they didn’t sound different. When we asked people of color why they supported Trump, their first (and often only) response was illegal immigration. In other words, building the border wall and keeping the Muslims out.

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Here’s what Edward Pao (pictured), a Chinese American from Long Beach, had to say: “I came to America from China when I was nine-years-old, but I came legally.”

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Here’s what William Pages (pictured), a Latino from Glendora had to say: “Its not race, its where you are from. [Mexican immigrants] are leaching off society.”

Conventional wisdom dictates that Trump won’t win a general election as a one (or two, if you count free trade) issue candidate; and he will have to moderate, at least somewhat, his stance on immigration to have any hope of winning in November.

Given the feelings of his supporters we talked to Thursday, he’ll need a very deft touch if he does moderate on immigration.

The overall vibe of Thursday’s rally was more Jimmy Buffet than George Wallace.

Trump is often compared to Wallace, as his xenophobic populism and volatile rallies resemble the aura that surrounded the 1968 candidacy of the Alabama segregationist.

Wallace’s rallies were characterized by violent clashes between his white, racist supporters and protesters. In a New York rally, for example, his supporters at one point surrounded a group of black protesters and began chanting “kill ’em! Kill ’em!”

Now perhaps if Trump’s March rally in Chicago — which was cancelled due to the threat of violence between Trump supporters and protesters — had been allowed to take place, there might have been a similar outcome.

But if the scene at the fairgrounds on Thursday is indicative of a typical Trump rally, any comparison of the Trump phenomenon to that of Wallace and the late 1960s culture wars is overblown.

The hours leading up to the rally more closely resembled the anticipation surrounding a rock concert than a rumble. DJs were broadcasting live, people were selling t-shirts, and occasional chants of “Trump! Trump! Trump” would fill the air.

Tensions certainly rose when protesters arrived on the scene later in the afternoon. And maybe it was because of the overwhelming police presence (which we will get to in a bit), but even then the confrontations felt more like heated arguments than potentially violent clashes.

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Inside the amphitheater, people seemed to be enjoying the spectacle rather than venting their anger. People cheered when a couple protesters were removed, and gleefully jeered the media when prompted by Trump. But all in all the crowd spent way more time laughing and cheering than ranting and raving.

 

It’s possible to initiate an impromptu line dance in the middle of a chaotic street with cops on horses bearing down on you.  

While they got off to a slow start, the protests definitely gathered steam as the night wore on, and got downright unruly in the end. Most of the media led their coverage of the event with the scene of more than a thousand protesters shutting down the intersection of Fair Drive and Fairview Road.

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Cops in riot gear and on horseback lined the street as protesters blocked traffic and chanted “Fuck Trump!” And “Fuck the Police!” Things did get ugly when protesters threw water bottles at the police and trashed a squad car.

And at least one Trump supporter did get clocked when he provoked a group of protesters.

 

But all in all, similar to the rally inside the amphitheater, the protest felt more like a party than a night of rage. We witnessed several instances in which protesters would recognize friends on the street and bro-hug like they were at a class reunion rather than in the middle of a potentially violent confrontation.

One of the highlights of the evening was this impromptu line dance by protesters as the cops pushed the crowd away from the intersection:

 

What does this mean? Perhaps that the anger so often associated with Trump — both among his supporters and haters — is not as deep-seated as we’ve been led to believe.

There was an overwhelming police presence, but the cops seem to be learning from previous experiences.

Anyone who says we don’t have enough cops on the streets, should have come to the Trump rally. To say there was a large police presence at the fairgrounds Thursday, would actually be putting it mildly. It was massive.

There were local police, sheriff’s deputies, and highway patrol officers. Not to mention U.S. Secret Service agents. There were cops in cars, cops riding bikes, cops on horses.

A mounted police officer monitors the crowd assembled at the Orange County Fairgrounds Thursday for the Donald Trump Rally.

But throughout the day and during the nighttime protest, officers were generally calm and disbursed the crowd without major incident. Not a single “non-lethal” round of ammunition was fired – despite threats otherwise.

The mounted police gradually pushed the crowd of protesters down the street until the protesters’ ranks thinned and, eventually, they just sort of melted away. At one point, the protesters made plans to storm the 55 freeway. But they missed the offramp and the chaos soon fizzled out.

In the end, there were 20 arrests reported.

 

It was a stark contrast from the scene outside Anaheim City Hall in the summer of 2012, when back-to-back police shootings of young Latino men led to rioting, during which police fired pepper spray pellets and bean-bag rounds to quash the unrest. Some at the time blamed the police for escalating the situation.

In this case, the police refrained from any aggression against protesters, even when things were thrown at them. That being said, there was a level of violence toward the police at the Anaheim protest that didn’t exist following the Trump rally.

Despite rhetoric from his campaign that he’ll be softening his tone, Trump stuck to familiar notes at Thursday’s rally.

Last week, one of Trump’s top advisors told a group of Republican National Committee members that Trump has been playing a role, essentially putting on a show to secure his base. And that from now on, he’ll act more “presidential.”

But at the fairgrounds rally, Trump stuck to his crowd-pleasing collection of greatest hits.

There was “low energy” Jeb Bush, “lyin’ Ted” Cruz, and “crooked Hillary.” He also recounted once again a dubious tale about a U.S. general in the Philippines who crushed an Islamic terrorist movement by having a group of militants executed with bullets dipped in pig’s blood.

Then there was the ritualistic bashing of the “dishonest” reporters in the media pen. And, of course, there was the promise to build the wall and have Mexico pay for it. He took things a step further Thursday by bringing onto the stage family members of people killed by illegal Mexican immigrants.

 

So calling Trump’s speech at the rally “presidential” would be a stretch. To his supporters in attendance, The Donald was still “telling it like it is.”

That being said, he didn’t utter anything new and controversial that would dominate headlines for days and draw condemnations from his usual gallery of critics.

Perhaps that’s as toned down as we should expect him to be.

Please contact David Washburn directly at dwashburn@voiceofoc.org.