I joke that Princeton gave us fall break so we could come home and fulfill our civic duties, but the stakes have never been higher in sunny Michigan, a traditionally Democratic-leaning state. Just last week, Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton visited for campaign rallies, and I attended both.
As an Asian-American, I didn’t fully understand the appeal of a presidential candidate who had alienated women, minorities, and immigrants, so I decided to find a supporter’s perspective.
It was a blustery, overcast Halloween day when my sister Jennie and I drove over to Macomb Community College in Warren. We stood in line alongside Trump supporters, most of whom were wearing Trump merchandise, and we engaged in amiable chats with them, discussing each of the presidential candidates and what qualities and offenses they carried.
Several supporters admitted that they didn’t agree with everything that Trump said, and noted even if they had been Hillary supporters, they would find areas of disagreement as well. They weren’t just Trump supporters: they were veterans, a disillusioned couple, and dedicated Republicans who had put thought into their choice, and found someone they believed in.
We shuffled in and noticed that the supporters were older and not incredibly diverse — I could only pick out a handful of people who looked like me. At the same time, it wasn’t like we were being ostracized. The woman standing next to us told us she was a registered nurse and took care of elderly patients when she wasn’t taking care of her own grandchildren, and the men in front of us were construction workers who’d managed to take some time off so they could attend. They were all pleasant and hardly seemed like the stereotypical, vitriolic Trump supporters we’d heard about in some news stories.
The speakers — a reverend, a politician, one of Trump’s employees, and Indiana University basketball coach Bob Knight — had provoked cheers, but this gave way to a noticeable slump, as Trump was running late. In this interim, one man fainted, and the woman standing next to me ran in to help the man up. The man, hardly the typical middle-aged white male Trump supporter, emerged to a rousing applause and big smiles all around.
When Trump finally arrived, the crowd was ecstatic. It was as if his entrance had whipped up a frenzy, something he contributed to as he jumped from one point to another, as if engaging in an unscripted conversation with his supporters.
“Is that a protester? Get ‘em outta here,” he said to cheers and fervent sign-waving. He openly mocked the press, encouraging the crowd to turn around and boo the cameras, and they obliged; those around me were incredibly vocal in their disapproval, jeering at the cameras.
“USA,” “Trump,” “Build the Wall,” “Drain the Swamp,” “Lock her up,” “Hillary for Prison,” “Crooked Hillary,” were common refrains alongside classic rock beats. One man told me that the songs were Trump’s favorites and joked that these were the tunes Trump played in his car, just as the average American would on his or her way to work in the morning.
I recognized the Rolling Stones and Backstreet Boys among an eclectic smattering of bands and singers that, oddly enough, included the opera aria Nessun Dorma. These were familiar tunes to supporters who had grown up listening to these singers on a lazy day, maybe even singing along on the radio. It was like attending a concert of classic oldies, with Trump as the main act.
It occurred to me that his supporters looked up to ‘The Donald’ himself. Trump is a pop culture icon entrenched in American memory, made larger through his hotels, casinos, and catchphrase, “you’re fired,” from ‘The Apprentice’. You can find Trump even if you’re not looking, on clothing and the winery not far from where I worked this summer. As a child, I admittedly looked up to Trump as the epitome of business savvy. To some degree, it’s difficult to separate this long-ingrained image of a successful businessman from evidence suggesting otherwise.
That Friday, Nov. 4, Hillary held her ground with a rally that garnered a crowd of several thousand at Shed 3 of the Eastern Market in the heart of Detroit. Volunteers moved up and down the line under a sunny sky, and the atmosphere was optimistic. The woman in front of us had dressed up as Hillary and encouraged everyone to take pictures with her. Another group of women offered us sandwiches and promised to hold our place in line several times.
Hillary’s rally was composed of younger and more diverse supporters compared to the Trump rally; the pop music seemed to reflect this difference, with Katy Perry and Demi Lovato playing. Unlike Trump’s assemblage of speakers with whom I was unfamiliar, this rally featured notable Michigan state politicians, representatives from the United Automobile Workers, and Rev. Jesse Jackson. As we waited for Hillary to take the stage, an aide assured us that she would arrive soon, and sure enough, she arrived to fanfare and cheers from the crowd.
The individuals at the rally worked together just as those at Trump’s rally did — a woman fainted and was helped up quickly — but the key difference was that the crowd was less animated by a mutual hatred of the opponent. Sure, there were a few cries of “Dump Trump!” during the rally, but those were rare. Hillary focused on a message of progress through unity; while she did allude to Trump, she didn’t seem to extend as personal an attack as he had done just days earlier.
The people I met at both rallies could have been my neighbors, teachers, and friends. They were all eager to talk about their candidate. Several Trump supporters told us to move forward so that we might see better and a Hillary supporter gave us her only sign. When people fainted, everyone jumped into action. There was kindness on both sides of the fence.
I had been led to believe that all Trump supporters are irrational and hostile, but this was not the case. Although this revelation allowed me to better understand Trump’s supporters, I could not bring myself to overlook his messages of fear and discrimination reminiscent of that from which we have sought to move forward.
As my sister and I walked back out into the wind that day, we passed several tables of t-shirts, buttons, and other Trump memorabilia. The bright red “Make America Great Again” hats, as ubiquitous as the Trump brand, were perched on blank white mannequin heads against a grey sky.
“No thank you,” we said, and walked on by.
Annie Yang ’18 is an Ecology and Evolutionary Biology major from Troy, M.I. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.