Dispatches from Chicago's Trumpocalypse

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Protesters outside Friday's abortive Trump rally at UIC Pavilion - CHRIS RIHA
  • Chris Riha
  • Protesters outside Friday's abortive Trump rally at UIC Pavilion
A man wearing an American flag slung around his shoulders like a crude superhero cape handed a street vendor named Cot a $20 bill. In exchange, Cot gave flag man a replica of the red "Make American Great Again" hat made famous by a certain celebrity billionaire turned inexplicably popular presidential candidate.

Two hours before Donald Trump's scheduled rally at UIC Pavilion on Friday afternoon, Cot was hunkered down on the corner of Polk and Racine to hawk his wares. Chicago was just his latest stop. The Ohioan has followed Trump's gatherings all over the country—but not for ideological reasons.

"Myself, I'm more of a Bernie Sanders than a Trump guy, but I'm not really political," he told me. Cot's a pragmatist, which is why, when he gets grief about his unusual sales gig ("What's a black guy doing selling Trump hats?" people ask), he's honest: "I tell them, 'Look, I'm just trying to make a buck, man.'"

There's poetic irony in the idea of a secret Sanders supporter selling cheap knockoffs of Trump's iconography back to his most ardent supporters. The bloviating businessman is like the human manifestation of Cot's hats: a cheap knockoff of patriotism and populism fueled by empty bravado and sloganeering that he's selling back to America for his own personal gain, never mind the contradictions.

Trump dismisses Obama as a joke of a president whom foreign leaders don't respect, but turns debates into self-promotional infomercials blended with comedy roasts of his flailing Republican opponents. He's not afraid to make brash promises about keeping China in check or kicking ISIS's ass, but when faced with a few thousand protesters from Chicago—many of them young college students—he tucked his tail, ran, and made simpering excuses. He brags about the way he runs his businesses, yet exploits his own workers.

"He says he's going to take care of America, but he can't even take care of his own family—us," said Miguel Funes, a U.S. citizen from Honduras who works as a food server at Trump International Hotel in Las Vegas for $9.18 an hour, less than half of what he gets at his second job down the strip at the Mandalay Bay casino.

Funes and most of his coworkers at the Trump hotel voted in December to unionize in an effort to get higher wages and benefits, including health care and overtime. ("I'm just trying to get food on my table and provide my family with decent health care," said Funes.) The union contract was recently ratified at a sister hotel in Toronto, Funes said, but Trump has protested the results of the Vegas union election and is accusing the union of improperly coercing workers. Funes journeyed to the Chicago rally to raise awareness of his cause.

"It's funny, we picketed at his Nevada caucus, and he saw us and smiled and gave us a thumbs-up," Funes added. "Most of us hadn't seen him before and were kind of starstruck, but it didn't mean anything. He still hasn't signed the contract."

He hasn't done much of anything besides talk on television. 

It's mystifying that Trump's hard-core supporters are exposed to his ever-shifting positions, double talk, and flat-out lies yet still perceive him to be a truth teller unbridled by the restraints of political theater. Some supporters rationalize his most outrageous positions while explaining away others in order to keep the Trump faith.
Trump supporter Cat Perez holds a "Viva America! Viva Mexico! Viva Trump!" sign. - CHRIS RIHA
  • Chris Riha
  • Trump supporter Cat Perez holds a "Viva America! Viva Mexico! Viva Trump!" sign.

Archietta Shannon, a self-described evangelist from the Roseland neighborhood (and the only African-American woman I saw among the thousands of Trump supporters packed into UIC Pavilion), told me she was with Trump "100 percent" even if that meant dismissing some of his absurd statements as miscontrued jokes.

"I don't actually think he'll build a wall on the border," Shannon said regarding Trump's call for a wall on the U.S.-Mexico border, a controversial plan that—as tall tales tend to do—grows in size and scale over time. Recently, Trump's taken to describing it as a second Great Wall of China.

"He's cracking a joke about the wall on the border, and I think people just don't get his sense of humor," Shannon added. "He's just trying to strike a chord."

Leah Metz, a young white suburbanite, was more of a Trump literalist. She overheard Shannon's conversation and interrupted to express her outrage.

"No? You don't think he's going to build the 30-foot-high wall?" she asked Shannon. "I think he will. And I'll help him build it. I'll lay the cement and push the wheelbarrows."
Trump voters took to the UIC Pavilion, but their candidate didn't. - CHRIS RIHA
  • Chris Riha
  • Trump voters took to the UIC Pavilion, but their candidate didn't.

A few minutes later I chatted briefly with Mexican native turned U.S. citizen Cat Perez, who held up a homemade sign at the rally that read "Viva America! Viva Mexico! Viva Trump!," a sentiment seemingly at odds with Trump's largely anti-Mexican rhetoric.

"(People) are misinformed—being under the Trump umbrella will be good for us," said Perez. "He's going to provide us with good jobs."

Meanwhile, hundreds of other Trump proponents waved signs with the words "The Silent Majority stands behind Trump," ignoring the fact they were a minority both in the arena and in America as a whole. Nor were they particularly silent. After a quartet of protesters wearing "Muslims United Against Trump" T-shirts were escorted out of the building by security, pro-Trumpers loudly chanted "U-S-A! U-S-A!" Later, when a staffer announced that Trump would be postponing the rally due to "security concerns," a war of (mostly) words and chants broke out between Trump's supporters and a large contingent of protesters in the stands. 

Granted, liberals haven't done much better in properly gauging the reality of Trump. He's become a human Rorschach test for left-leaning journalists, political commentators, and talking heads, who look at the orange-faced lump of a man and alternately describe him as a savvy con man, a turncoat who abandoned neoliberal centrism, or the second coming of some extremist, demagogue, or dictator—Andrew Jackson, Benito Mussolini, even Adolf Hitler.

The last is particularly galling because invokes Godwin's Law, an Internet adage that posits that the longer and more heated an online argument, the greater the probability that someone will compare the topic at hand to Hitler or the Nazis, effectively cutting off the possibility of a civil discussion. 

As this election cycle grows ever louder and longer—and God, it is absurdly, criminally long—liberals have flexed their itchy trigger fingers and reached for the rhetorical nuke button. Equating the reality TV star/real estate magnate with the German dictator responsible for the Holocaust is not only ridiculously overheated, it lacks self-awareness. A decade ago the left had a problem Hitlerizing George W. Bush too, a president that I think was only slightly more hawkish in terms of foreign policy than Obama. 

The media has further fanned these Trumpian flames by flocking to the near south side (yes, myself included) and willingly stuffing themselves in a designated pen in the middle of the pavilion for the promise of spectacle bound to get ratings and clicks. The Bernie Sanders rally in the Chicago suburbs and Ted Cruz's fund-raiser in the Loop? Mere afterthoughts ("Bernie Sanders and Ted Cruz are in the Chicago area tonight too!" reads DNAinfo's sadly prescient headline).

And Chicago gave them spectacle all right, though one not nearly as big as the hype might indicate. Cable news networks and a host of other outlets breathlessly used words like "violence" and "chaos" to sum up what happened both inside and outside UIC Pavilion. That's not to say there weren't elements of those things swirling around; but the Trump rally felt, in some ways, like a more acute version of the protests that have taken place in Chicago since the release of the Laquan McDonald shooting video last fall. 

The clashes I saw between Trump supporters and protesters didn't even match the level of physical conflict I've witnessed at Illinois-Mizzou "bragging rights games" I went to in college, or particularly rowdy nights at White Sox games. Yes, a couple of scattered fights broke out. Five people were arrested and three people, including a police officer, were injured, according to the Tribune. But that's fewer people than are arrested after drunken brawls and public stupidity on Saint Patrick's Day every year. The vast majority of interactions at the rally were passionate and verbally aggressive, but remained violence free. I never felt unsafe, and judging from the way most people marched slowly out of the arena's exits without incident, I'm guessing most people didn't either.

"People have been good to me here," Shannon told me. "Earlier I was standing in line and this nice white man even offered me his chair. It's not that bad."
The Trump rally's aftermath - RYAN SMITH
  • Ryan Smith
  • The Trump rally's aftermath

And yet, Donald Trump's empty podium still somehow managed to suck the air out of everything this weekend—an all-consuming black hole of news and tweets and memes and photos and predictions.

It's entirely possible that Friday at UIC signifies the beginning of the end of his status as the Republican frontrunner. Perhaps the anti-Trump protesters did us all a favor by denting the candidate's tough-guy image. Maybe his disaffected supporters won't show up to the ballot box on Tuesday. Then again, this could also harden their resolve.

Either way, it already feels like America has shared the same collective experience as Funes and his group of picketing coworkers—dumbstruck by Trump's Teflon-coated star and with very little to show for it.


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