Redding is a small-ish town of about 100,000 located in the far North region of California that people tend to mistake for Oregon. The natural beauty of the surrounding mountains and lakes slopes down into the valley where civilization has cropped up. The town is bisected by a river, then further drawn and quartered by train tracks and freeways. A community of avid outdoors-folk mingle with a slowly growing arts scene and an already vibrant meth culture.
The town’s populace runs counter to the stereotype of Californians as a whole – that of hippie liberals, rich Hollywood types, and languid beachgoers. The denizens of Redding tend to skew older, heavily Conservative, and religious. This is Red State territory at its core, so viciously opposed to the tyrannical grip of the rest of liberal California that the whole multi-county area is trying to secede and form its own state.
I don’t know if Donald Trump was privy to any of this information. He flew into the local airport, gave his speech, and flew away.
I went to the rally with my friend Cannon, after I managed to bribe and cajole him out of his house. The night before he had been to a Bernie Sanders rally in neighboring Chico, CA. He had just gotten out of the shower when I arrived to pick him up.
“I needed to wash the Bernie away,” he said. “Otherwise the Trump people will be able to smell it on me. I’ll be like chum to sharks.”
We were going to this thing out of sheer curiosity. This entire election cycle I’ve known of Trump (and all the other candidates, for that matter) as nothing more than a television character. A cartoon. You read all these articles of incredulous outrage bemoaning the conduct of Trump and his supporters at his rallies. I wanted to go and see it myself. To see if the media is just blowing everything out of proportion.
Turns out they aren’t.
“That sure is a gigantic flag,” said Cannon, his spine arched back like a C as he stared straight upwards.
I slathered sunscreen across my pasty white skin and tried not to choke on the dust churned up by cars driving across the dirt field that served as an extended parking lot. The flag was hoisted a hundred feet up in the air, held aloft by a giant crane. I stared at it for a while then got distracted by the variety of shirtless skinny white guys carrying armfuls of blood-red Trump paraphernalia.
“How much for a hat?” asked the woman who had parked next to us.
“I’ll take two.”
This conversation was repeated the next car down.
The midday sun spat its rays down like it was angry at us. Keep in mind that is a town which used to make news for being hotter than Death Valley about once a summer. This factoid hasn’t been reported as news in a while, having grown banal from repetition in recent years.
“You sure you don’t want sunscreen?” I asked Cannon, waving the bottle at him.
He squinted at me. “No. I deserve this. I want it to hurt.”
We left the car and trudged across the parking lot, a different field, and yet another parking lot before we finally made it up to the gates.
Cannon pointed into the roped-off Official Vehicle section. “Hey, check it out. This thing hasn’t even started and already it’s a crime scene.”
TSA controlled the main entrance, their tall metal detectors as rigid and uncompromising as they were. Once we made it through we emerged onto the area of sun-blasted pavement that had been sectioned off a couple hundred feet from the runway. We wandered around for a little while before realizing that there wasn’t much to see. A podium, music blaring from the loudspeakers, a media pen, a couple gazebos for shade, some water dispensers, and a row of port-a-potties. This thing wasn’t about the amenities.
We staked out a spot in the crowd and sun and began to wait. It was 104 degrees.
At one point Cannon nudged me and indicated a woman walking in front of us. She wore dark sunglasses and held a telltale white-and red cane swaying out in front of her.
“Look at that,” said Cannon. “The blind leading the blind, right?”
I said, “You’re an asshole.”
“That seems to be a theme here.”
A few minutes after we arrived, the local state assemblyman, Brian Dahle, stepped up to the podium. He made a few, “next president of the United States” comments, then asked everyone to bow their heads for a prayer. After that he asked that we all turn around to face the monster flag in the parking lot for the pledge of allegiance.
Cannon said, “You know, if they cut out just an eighth of that flag they could have provided shade for this entire event.”
As the crowd began reciting the pledge of allegiance I found I couldn’t remember the words.
From there, Dahle left the stage and Bruce Springsteen roared back to life on the loudspeakers. I checked my phone clock. About a half hour to go. I counted the seconds in beads of sweat dripping off my chin.
Trump was scheduled to speak at 1:00. It was 1:15 when Neil Young was swiftly silenced and immediately replaced by the kind of soaring, heroic music that would be too on-the-nose for a superhero movie.
This prompted immediate cheering, as it indicated the candidate was close.
In front of us, a guy in a gray hat said, “There he is! Plane’s coming in.”
I looked around. The only plane I could spot was way up in the sky, scratching out its white lines at about 20,000 feet.
Hopefully that was Trump. Hopefully he knew he was already late and so he decided to just parachute down to the podium in a truly spectacular entrance. That’s how I’d do it if I were running for president. Skydive into every one of my rallies with an American flag as my parachute. Except for maybe the indoor arenas. There I’d blow through the walls like the Kool-Aid man.
A moment later I saw the plane Gray Hat was actually referring to. There was no mistaking it. It came in low over the runway, black and red with “TRUMP” emblazoned across the side and a giant “T” on the back. The crowd roared their approval, pulsing with energy. And just as the majestic music reached its crescendo the plane… kept going.
“Crowd treated to a fly-by,” is how a Politico staff member on Twitter described it. His definition of “treat” there apparently meaning “being made to stand in the blistering heat for another ten minutes while the plane circles back around.”
The sweeping orchestral music played the entire time, that same three-minute long song looping over and over again. There aren’t many songs I can listen to twenty times in a row, and I had quickly grown to hate this one.
Finally, mercifully, the plane landed. The music kept playing as the whole Trump team exited the plane and inexplicably took five minutes to cross a hundred feet to the podium.
Then Trump ascended, smiling and waving. He wore a dark suit and a camouflage “Make America Great Again” hat, which he later said was donated to his campaign by the NRA. He moved to the microphone.
I took a deep breath. Somewhere in the midst of this sentient creamsicle’s ensuing diatribe would be my moment for protest. My time to push back against the tide of bigotry and absurdity that this man represented. At any point I could have simply decided that I had had enough. That I needed to take a stand and express the discontent that had brewing inside me for the duration of this ridiculous primary process. Maybe if I was some kind of Gandhi or Malcolm X I would have had the conviction.
Instead I expressed my seething moral outrage in the most potent way I am capable: I jotted down notes on my phone.
Just a preview.
“Oh, Redding, Redding, I love Redding!” Trump said, referring to the two and a half minutes he had spent there.
He then made a comment about the heat, asked if everyone was okay. The people roared back their resilience.
“They didn’t even give him shade over his podium,” I said. “Props to him for that, I guess.”
Next to me, Cannon was in the process of tearing his phone into pieces. Before I could say anything he held it out to me.
“Here, feel this.”
I grabbed the device by its bevels and immediately recoiled, my flesh scalded.
Cannon said, “Yeah. I’m trying to live tweet this shitshow, but my phone keeps overheating.”
He held his disassembled phone bits into the air and waved them around.
“Do you think people will know I’m just airing out my phone or will they think I’m protesting the NSA or something?”
“Look at all these people!” said Trump. “See these camera guys back there? I wish they would turn it around, they’re so dishonest. Turn it around and show this crowd!”
He want on to lament how unfairly the media reports him. “We have the biggest crowds of anybody by far. The other night Bernie had 3,000 and I had 17,000. And they talked about me, blah blah blah, never mentioned the numbers. Then they said Bernie Sanders had a ‘massive’ crowd of 3,000 people! I’ll tell you what, the press is so biased against us!”
Cannon leaned over, “There were 6,000 people at Bernie’s thing last night.”
Later reports would show that Trump’s rally in Redding had 3,000 to 4,000 attendees.
This was the overflow crowd that Trump wanted the cameras to “turn it around” to look at.
We had brought in water bottles, purchased cold at a gas station on the way to the rally. By now they were as hot as the atmosphere around us, but I still made myself drink from time to time. It was important to stay hydrated, even if it felt like drinking blood.
Trump moved on, talking about the events of his San Jose rally the day before. “We had an amazing packed crowd. It was absolutely incredible. It was a love fest inside. […] We wrapped up, everybody was cheering like crazy forever. Then they walk out and they get accosted by a bunch of thugs burning the American flag. Burning the American flag. And you know what they are? They’re thugs!”
“Build that wall!” came the shout from the crowd.
It started right in front of us, a stone of xenophobia tossed into the pond and rippling outward, the chant spreading through the crowd and increasing in volume. Eventually Trump acknowledged it, chiming in, “Yeah, build that wall, you’re right. We’re gonna build the wall folks, don’t even think about it.”
I stood stock still, like this crowd of angry vipers’ vision was based on movement. He hadn’t even brought up the illegals at the border thing. He had just said “thugs” and the crowd reacted by screaming for a wall along the border. Like that thing in San Jose would have never happened if we had just kept all the darkies out in the first place. At that moment I felt like every one could see right through me. Like they knew I was there as a farce. That I was not one of them. For the first time in my life I, a white male millennial, had a brief, real glimpse of what it would be like to be on a raving mob’s bad side.
And then it was over. Trump moved on. The crowd calmed down. I exhaled.
Trump said, “I got a lot of endorsements. In the history of our party more votes than anybody who’s ever done this before. Think of it. More than Dwight Eisenhower. I mean, he won the second world war! More than Ronald Reagan, who we all love. More than anybody!”
“What?” I whispered.
“This crowd. It’s mostly old white people but mixed with hot blondes for some reason. I don’t understand.”
The guy in the gray hat glanced back at us. I grunted in response, not wanting to blow our cover.
Cannon’s head swiveled around like an owl as he tracked another pair of beautiful women. He said, “God, there are so many girls here that I want to take away and ‘fix’.” He pulled his hat off his head and soaked it with water. “And by that I honestly don’t know if I mean ‘correct their viewpoints’ or ‘sterilize’.”
Trump was taking Hillary Clinton to task for her reliance on teleprompters. “I don’t need a teleprompter. It’s called like up here,” he pointed to his head, “and it’s called memory and it’s called… other things. I speak from up here and from the heart.”
I finished my water without realizing it. The last few drops evaporated on my tongue and I immediately felt thirsty again. We were barely ten minutes into the speech.
Trump said, “People tell me it doesn’t matter whether we win or lose. It’s been incredible. It’ll be in the history books forever.”
“I’m going to get some water,” said Cannon. “You want any?”
He nodded and went to shove his way through the people beneath the gazebos to get to the coolers. I turned my attention back to Donald.
“I think Hillary is very weak. I think she’s pathetic. She should be in jail for what she did with those emails.”
Paraphrasing a bit, he went on to say that she should have known that her email server was endangering the public. That some nefarious agency like China could have cyber-hacked her. It’s why Trump doesn’t do stuff like that. Because he knows he can be hacked, so he doesn’t keep secrets.
He said, “Every time I pick up a phone I assume people are listening!”
Cannon appeared beside me and said, “Well yes. That is the entire purpose of a phone, is it not?”
He handed me a small plastic cup of water.
I said, “Oh God, is this it?”
Cannon said, “Oh, you are welcome. What do you want me to do, grab you the entire five gallon jug?”
I mumbled an apology and thank you and gratefully sipped the water.
Trump was talking about his social media presence. “You know, if I tweet something and CNN and Fox all of a sudden they say, ‘we have breaking news, Donald Trump’ – You know, I’m siting there tweeting. Bing bing bing. – ‘Donald Trump has just issued a major statement.’ Its a weird deal going on here folks. But we got a lot [of followers]. We have like almost nine million on twitter. We got a similar number on Facebook. On Instagram like a million and a half or something. Soon it’ll be twenty million people! That’s like owning the New York Times without the losses!”
Cannon leaned in, his mouth right against my ear. “That… isn’t right. That doesn’t add up at all. Most of your followers on Twitter probably also follow you on Facebook and Instagram. You can’t just add up overlap like that. It’s not how math works.”
Trump said, “Oh, hey, are you okay ma’am? Can we get a medic up here?”
We couldn’t see from our vantage point, but a woman in the front of the crowd had apparently just passed out from the heat. Paramedics rushed in to extract her.
“Give her a hand!” said Trump. “They tell me she was here for five hours. Some people were here seven, eight hours.”
The whole thing took about five minutes. When the woman was safely carted away Trump resumed talking. He moved on to the subject of China, and all the havoc they were wreaking upon our country.
“They’re scamming us with cyber. We’re living in a cyber world,” Trump was saying. “All these countries, they’re laughing at us. They don’t even believe it. Even the people from China this morning, you’ll see this morning. They say, ‘you know, Mr. Trump is right.’ They cannot believe what they get away with. I have the largest bank in the world from China. Largest bank in the world. Massive bank. It’s a tenant in one of my buildings. I know the people! I mean, they’re sorta friends of mine. They tell me, ‘we don’t believe we get away with it.’ You know they know me. I don’t know if they know I’m going to be revealing this but they say ‘we can’t believe we get away with it.’ So we’re gonna turn it around.”
Cannon said, “More water?”
I nodded gratefully. He vanished.
Trump mentioned something about how the world golf championship is moving from Miami to Mexico and the crowd roared with fury at the thought. He brought up the wall again, saying how they’ll put his name on it, even if he “would rather have [his] name on a statue in Washington.”
I looked at my hands. Maybe I was just imagining it, but I swear I could see hazy heat waves wafting off my skin.
Trump pointed at a guy in the audience. “Look at my African American over here! Look at him! Are you the greatest? Do you know what I’m talking about?”
If there’s any part of this particular rally you’ve heard about, no doubt it’s this moment. It has been widely reported and provided another blip of controversy for the Trump campaign that I have no doubt will fade into the background of many more to come.
He later responded in his usual fashion.
He was talking about San Jose again, saying that it’s always the protestors who cause the violence. It’s never his supporters who start fights.
“I tell them be gentle! If there’s someone shouting, I say be gentle. You just smile. If he punches you in the face, you just smile as blood is pouring out of your face.”
Cannon hadn’t come back yet. My vision tilted slightly, first one way then the other. Was… was it getting cold all the sudden? I glanced up. The sun gave me the middle finger. Maybe it was time to find some shade. I staggered my way toward the nearest gazebo as Trump staggered his way through an anecdote.
It was this bizarre comedy-of-errors type thing where one of his African American supporters at a rally chased down a dude wearing Ku Klux Klan regalia. The supporter “punched the hell out of the guy. Just cold cocked him. He didn’t see it coming.” Knocked his cowl right off. Then, as the guy ran away the rest of his robe fell off. It was only then that the media cameras caught sight of the altercation. Of course they spun it like the white guy was supporting Trump and the black guy was a protester, but they had it all wrong! This according to Trump, of course.
It seemed a very bizarre story for him to be reveling in immediately after talking about how gentle his supporters are. I tried to make a note in my phone, something like “violence = fine?” but my fingers wouldn’t stay on the screen. They slipped off, the sweat pouring out of my hands likely compromising the phone’s internal components.
I found Cannon. He stood under the gazebo with a hundred other people. I utilized my well-lubricated pores to slip right in next to him.
He hooked a thumb over his shoulder. “Sorry, man. I had to stay in the shade. They’re out of water.”
“Oh sweet Christ.” My tongue felt like a wad of Band-Aids in my mouth.
Trump said, “If you choose Hillary Clinton this country is going to die.”
I leaned against one of the gazebo’s support poles. I was in the shade now, at least. Still, the heat radiated off the pavement, cooking us all like a giant flat top grill. Fortunately I had stopped sweating, so that must have been a good sign.
Everything Trump said began to run together. My mind made about as much sense of it as a bowl of oatmeal could.
“Obama has to have an agenda. No one could be so stupid to make deals like this.”
“These experts, they aren’t experts. They know less than this beautiful woman standing there.”
“The Clintons hate Obama, folks. Believe me on this.”
“We don’t win anymore.”
“Obama is a disaster cheerleader.”
“We’re ahead by millions and millions of votes!”
The couple in front of me were nodding like bobble-heads, uttering soft exclamations of agreement every four words or so.
Trump said, “And the Saudis, you know, they have all this oil.”
“Yeah,” said the woman. “Wow!”
A man’s shirt from the rally.
Right next to me, close enough to touch, came a stretcher. Paramedics rushed alongside, pushing the unconscious woman through the crowd. Another heat stroke. Contagious, those.
“And Bengazi!” said Trump. “The wife of the guy, you know, the ambassador who was killed. She supports me now. Way she tells it her husband was like a really great guy. So she supports me now. This ambassador’s wife tells me I’m the only one who can do the job. Certainly not Hillary.
“It’s 3 AM when Hillary gets that phone call, and she’s asleep! Well, no one knows what she was doing. I say she was asleep because she has no energy. She was sleeping, and the ambassador died!”
I momentarily broke out of my stupor and nudged Cannon. “He just keeps saying ‘the ambassador’ this and “the ambassador’s wife’ that. I don’t think he even knows the guy’s name.”
Cannon said, “Yeah, and do you?”
My mouth gaped like a fish. “Well, I mean, no, not off the top of my head. But I’m also not using the memory of the dead guy to try to become president.”
Chris Stevens, by the way. I googled him later. Rest in peace.
Three minutes before the end of his speech is when Trump decided to reel in the smack talk and elaborate on some of his key campaign promises. And by “elaborate”, I mean “list off rapid-fire.”
According to how he put it, Trump’s primary goals are to:
- Get rid of Common Core
- Repeal Obamacare
- Start winning with so many elements
- Save the Second Amendement
- Put America first
- Win at every single level
In fact, this last point required some further elaboration.
“I have three or four friends here in the audience,” said Trump. “They’re gonna come see me at the White House and say, ‘Mr. President, sir! We’re winning too much. The people of California are tired of winning, they don’t want to win so damn much, Mr. President! Please, please stop this winning, we’re not used to it as a country. We’re used to losing all the time we can’t handle it!’ And I’m gonna say, ‘I’m sorry, we’re gonna win win win!”
I looked at Cannon. “I’m delirious, right? I think I need to go to the hospital because I’m hearing all this unintelligible squawking.”
He shook his head. “Nope. All real life.”
“We’re gonna make America great again!” said Trump. “I say make America greater than ever before. Vote this Tuesday June 7, and boy you better vote in November. Thank you very much!”
The crowd roared. Trump waved and smiled.
I turned to Cannon and said, “Take me to an ice castle. Find me an ice castle.”
He had other ideas. “Come on. Let’s see if we can get some free shit.”
There was a cluster of people shoving their way up front to get closer to the candidate. Cannon dove headlong into the seething mass of flesh. I wobbled for a bit, then followed. People pressed in behind us, pinning us to the ones in front. I was okay with it. They were holding me upright.
The Trump people on the other side of the gate were tossing hats and shirts into the crowd. I told myself I wouldn’t touch them even if one flew right at me, but I probably would have. I would have kept it and worn it ironically to piss off my Hillary-loving grandma or something. Like a douche.
But it’s good that none of the souvenirs flew my way. Instead they went to people who actually wanted them. The crowd clamored for the stuff, close to tearing it out of each other’s hands. People held their new hats and shirts out toward Trump, trying to get his autograph.
There was a girl right in front of me, maybe thirteen. She turned to her companions, eyes wide and voice pitched up like she had seen [insert teen heartthrob here]. She said, “I should get him to sign my phone case!”
The crowd contracted like a single unit, pushing me closer to the gate. Two women beside me seemed most enthusiastic of all, waving their campaign sign high above their heads and calling out for an autograph. Their pursuit was short-lived.
A guy, tall and decked out in full Trump regalia, came from nowhere and snatched the sign out of their hands. He turned around and just marched away. The women stared at first, mouths agape, then started yelling at him. “Hey, that’s our sign! You stole our sign, asshole!” But they couldn’t chase after him. The crowd was too thick, pressing ever forward, and they didn’t want to lose their spots.
I craned my neck, watching the guy. At first I thought he would throw the sign away, maybe tear it up out of protest or something. Instead he walked around the other side of the pulsing throng and shoved his way up to the gate. “Mr. Trump! Mr. Trump!” he shouted and waved the sign at the candidate with unfeigned enthusiasm.
It was about then that I noticed the Trump jet was still running. Had been this whole time. Little wavy exhaust lines spewed out the back as it idled, waiting for its master to return in his golden headdress.
And then, as if a switch was flipped, he did. Trump spun on his heel and walked away from the people still clamoring for his attention. He stopped and turned back for a few more waves and thumbs-ups. Then he skipped off toward Trump-jet.
And that was it. It was over. The crowd dissipated like a wave on the shore.
Cannon grabbed me by the arm as we walked out, steadying me. “Hey, are you okay?”
I shook my head, mostly trying to clear it. “I don’t feel right, man. You know when people want to be snarky and they say something like, ‘I got dumber just watching that’? Well, I dunno, that’s how I feel. Like my mental capabilities are just reduced. I’m dizzy, I can’t see straight. Everything just feels different. Like colors are duller or something. I can’t stop my eyelids from drooping. My whole world is melancholy confusion.”
Cannon said, “I think you’re having a heat stroke.”
I sat down. “God, I hope that’s it.”
My thanks to Cannon Knapp, who is a real person I am reasonably certain I did not hallucinate. You can follow his excellent Twitter here.
Outside image credits: Redding, Trump gear seller, Crowd overflow, Trump shouting, Woman passing out from heat stroke, Trump on political correctness, Trump Supporter punching protester, Water Shortage, Ambassador Chris Stevens,