One does not simply walk into Grumman Studios, site of Wednesday night’s Donald Trump rally in Bethpage, Long Island: one takes a shuttle bus packed to the bursting point with people who want to make America great again.
Car and foot traffic was blocked starting about a mile around the venue (a measure that temporarily closed down a nearby crisis center for victims of rape and domestic abuse, with no advanced notice), so for two hours, I stand freezing in line outside a Dunkin Donuts as three buses pull up, fill, and depart without me. In line, a lady in a knit hat is upset about De Blasio’s executive order to let “cross-dressing men” “rape” women and children in bathrooms. A 20-year-old from Commack, in shorts, explains “the Breitbart thing” to me. Apparently, Michelle Fields “wasn’t supposed to be there anyway.” Everyone is smiling, excited for the rally.
Then, a local man with a hand-written “YOU’RE ALL MORONS” sign appears in a parking lot across the street, standing on the roof of his car. The line: “You’re the moron!” and “I hope you fall and break your legs.”
There’s some discussion about whether the “very rude” “lowlife” is “instigating violence” from across the street. I disagree. The lady in the knit hat smiles and tells me that I, a reporter, am taking up space on a bus intended for supporters—buses that Trump was so classy to pay for.
Finally, onto a shuttle bus I go, accompanied by Bucky Turco, Gawker’s sometimes escort into potentially hostile territories. “Nothing but first class with Trump!” says a disembodied female voice from a tightly packed aisle.
Earlier this week, Police Commissioner Thomas Krumpter said, of the upcoming rally, that “violence will not be tolerated.” He said that the Trump campaign is “a bit of anomaly for law enforcement” because of the “different dynamic and the sheer size of this.” Roads would be blocked starting at 2pm and guns and bags would be banned from the venue to prevent, what NBC has called, “bad behavior.”
Commissioner Krumpter estimated that the overtime will cost police between $300,000 and $400,000 for the night. (The Trump campaign is not expected to compensate the city.) It’s just one part of the very visible effort to keep the protestors, the press, and the Trump supporters separated by metal barricades, squad cars, and plenty of space.
On the bus, we pass a mobile road sign frozen on “area” as in the “free speech area” housing protestors. As per Krumpter’s plan, a separate bus had dropped protestors off into a designated barricaded zone about half a mile from the rally. It’s too crowded inside to see the protestors from where I’m sitting. The bus rattles with boooos.
Off the bus, we’re funneled onto a path between a fence and a line of barricades. (“The silent majority is BACK, BABY!”) We pass tiny Trump swag vendor booths. (“YEAH, free market capitalism!!!”) We walk around a giant block of the former assembly plant for Grumman, a major defense contractor, who, for decades made military aircrafts—Top Gun planes and torpedo bombers—and toxins which are now in a SuperFund site. The plant is now a movie sound studio and the rally attendees seem very pleased to know this, chattering about how Bethpage is “definitely” the new Hollywood. Inside, I overhear a young man say, “Yeah, Angelina Jolie went to that Applebee’s across the street!”
There are many more cops along the way, some in fancy leather motorcycle riding coats, security personnel with crisp suits and dangling earpieces, police in black beanies and “secret service” vests. There are TSA agents checking people through about ten metal detectors. Inside the packed airplane hangar, I make a useless attempt to get closer to the stage at the front.
Bringing in signs isn’t allowed, so people make their own.
It’s hot and sweaty and tense, though mostly for me. People holler “Hey, you!” and high-five. Construction workers sing along to “Tiny Dancer” and “You Can’t Always Get What You Want” playing over the loudspeaker. Before anything even begins, an older Guardian Angel is buzzing around someone in trouble for a pre-made sign that reads “30 million people are starving!” Before I could ask what side the red-jacketed vigilante from NYC is here to help, he’s gone in the crowd. There’s a commotion. One of the first of the six people that would, by the end of the night, be taken to the hospital for exhaustion is carefully led out. There’s more noise. I can’t tell who was just kicked out, but a woman riding her companion’s shoulders unfurls a “White Lives Matter” sign in response.
Bucky hangs back, talking to two black women in fur coats about Revelations, One World Order and the greatness of Donald Trump. We later agree that, these women aside, the thousands of people in here are virtually all white.
There’s spontaneous, chanty yelling throughout the crowd: “Build! The! Wall!” “Nuke! I! Ran!” and “Turn! On! The screens!” The stage is too low and the screens are off. I can’t see anything.
“What a great place for a concert!” a couple giggles by me. They say the last time they saw so many people together was at a country concert in a town over. “Who played?” “Everybody!”
They’re wrong. The hangar is not a great place for a concert. The acoustics are garbling Carl Paladino, a former New York State gubernatorial candidate, and he’s cutting in and out of the noise, saying something about the War on Christmas. (“BOOOO!”) Ivanka comes on to lionize her father who built “the tallest towers in New York” and “will never take no for an answer.” The people like that.
There’s a festive aggression in the air. Everywhere, people talk about protesters and look around for them wistfully, (“They can come, maybe they learn something.”) I overhear a man with tree-trunk forearms say “These are elbows for protestors.” I ask what he means. “Oh, nothing. Just got elbows for protestors.” I take a bad picture for which he poses happily and reassures me, “Hey, I wouldn’t do that to nobody!”
It feels like people are anticipating confrontation. Not just here, but in their lives in general. “What’s happening in this country!” shouts one. “Tell me about it. My oldest is going to college in two years.” Adds a third, “I told mine, NO! I am not paying that. You’re going to military school.”
Finally, Trump comes out to “Y’all ready for this?” He’s late, but cheers cheers cheers. It feels like a bad play, a Trump karaoke. He’s doing all the hits: “Who’s gonna pay for the wall?” (“MEXICO!”) “We are going to knock the hell out of ISIS. Believe me.” “Taxes.” “Jobs.” “China.” “China.” “Japan.” “China.”
More protestors are led out through the crowd and the booing radiates. People are saying there was a fight and two people were arrested. “Get him out please. Don’t hurt the person. Do not hurt the person,” Trump booms flatly. “Is a Trump rally the greatest?”
I try to catch eye contact with someone not booing. A white teenager with pastel rainbow hair and her Latina friend stand nearby, looking very uncomfortable. When Trump shouts, “I LOVE HISPANICS,” the Latina girl shudders and laughs. They tell me that they just came to watch the craziness, but they didn’t expect the crowd and no, seriously, the town isn’t all like this.
Trump launches into a cringe-worthy, semi-poetic reading of Al Wilson’s R&B song “The Snake.” It’s about a “tender woman” who takes in a frozen snake, which is now his go-to metaphor for Syrian “terrorist” refugees. It, of course, ends in betrayal. “You know your bite is poisonous and now I’m going TO DIE!!!” he bellows. The mic cracks. “You knew DAMN WELL I was a snake before you took me in!” The crowd goes wild.
Then, suddenly, the crowd starts to leave in waves. Trump is about two-thirds through his speech but the crowd is thinning quickly. They say they want to “beat the traffic.”
Bucky and I head out, walking between two fences. School kids behind us are still riled up from the show, and Bucky goads them on: “I hear there is a Bernie supporter here!” “WHERE?!!! Fuck Bernie!” Bucky yells, “Bernie is a Socialist!” They yell, “Yeah, Bernie you geriatric Socialist fuck!” Bucky yells, “Bernie is from Brooklyn! FUCK Brooklyn!” They don’t fall for that one and now are suspicious of us. I walk faster.
Half a mile later, the protestors are hanging out in their pen, the “free speech zone.”
There’s a road-sized buffer full of SWAT’ed-out police officers standing in a neat line between two lines of barricades—one for the protestors and one for the rally crowd. They’re yelling at each other. “Get a job!” “I’m in college! How about you?” “I’m Hispanic and I’m voting for Trump YEEAAAH!!!”
The kids on the protester side are mostly college freshmen and high school seniors, but a girl who was kicked out earlier for unveiling a white t-shirt with Sharpie-scribbled anti-fascist hashtags says she’s fourteen. “Hey, guys, do you want to chant ‘Black Lives Matter?’” a kid in a Yeezus hat asks his friends.
For a long time, a high school senior who came out from Glenn Cove, an affluent town on North Shore, talks about how Trump is dividing the country and how that’s bad. His friend holds a Zoidberg meme sign that reads “Your campaign is bad and you should feel bad.” I feel better. The kids protesting, on average, are younger. There has to be some sort of factually comforting math there.
It’s getting late and the cops seem weary, directing traffic through half-blocked roads, eager to get this whole thing over with. No one got punched in the face at this rally, it seems. Good job, everybody. Nothing to do but head home and beat the traffic. There’s just deflated anger now, a phobia without specificity. No signs that America is any greater (or worse) than it was before the rally began. Both sides are tired. It’s a weeknight. The kids get up to leave and someone on the other side of the barricades yells “Go back to... wherever!!!”
Additional reporting: Bucky Turco.