The first thing you notice about the Trump rally, as you pull into the Alaska Airlines Center, is the line. It disgorges from the double doors out front, discharging a cavalcade of contractors, soccer moms, veterans, mechanics, journalists, babies, and people from all walks of life, dressed to the nines in the requisite Trump gear (more on that later). It winds down the sidewalk and around the massive venue, like a tendril of some enormous ocean beast or a brunch line from a Portlandia sketch, ending in some unspecified section of Midtown Anchorage.
Thank Christ I’m not waiting in that, I think.
The second thing you notice about the Trump rally is the vast assortment of T-shirts. They span the gauntlet of right-wing politics, each shirt an attempt to one-up the one next to it, bedecked with phrases coined and screenprinted by assorted Republican wags and wits. “When I Die, Don’t Let Me Vote Democrat.” “Jesus is my Savior, and Trump is my President.” “We The People … ARE PISSED OFF.” “Just a Mom, Trying To Not Raise A Liberal.” “Unmasked. Unmuzzled. Unvaccinated. Unafraid.” “If You Voted for Biden, You Owe Me Gas Money.” Another, which repeatedly drew praise and demands for pictures, read “I Identify As NonBidenary,” one that certainly would have annoyed the small group of protesters outside to no end. And finally, innumerable “FJB” and “Let’s Go Brandon” articles of clothing, the latter (for the uninitiated) a reference to a Nascar live broadcast gone awry.
If you were to pull your truck or minivan (two of the most common vehicles in the packed parking lot) past the APD officers directing traffic, and into the VIP parking section, you might see a small group of bedraggled looking protestors waving signs and meekly shouting at cars, each with their own set of slogans that were already tired when they came out in 2016, and are the worse for wear 6 years later. “Not My Cheeto.” “Republicans Have Little Dick Energy,” and so on. Their heart isn’t in it, and at any rate, there’s no comparing with the tide of energy radiating from the crowd filing through the doors of the stadium, each person practically radiating with a giddy glee that can only be compared to religious ecstasy.
And in a way, it’s pretty close – because Donald Trump is in town. The godhead of the modern right, the elected emperor of the Republican dynasty, is in this town, and to everyone here, this is like seeing the pope, but with more energy and scarier-looking security. There’s a tangible, almost palpable sense of excitement in the crowd, one that is readily apparent to each person here, from the group of moms with matching shirts depicting “the Donald” as a Tupac-esque gangster rapper, to the lady in a motorized wheelchair with an African gray parrot on her shoulder, like she’s a cast member on a Disney ride. An actual parrot. Of course, she’s turned around at the security checkpoint by an officer informing her that no animals are allowed in the venue – but still. It’s surreal, but at the same time, intensely grounded in the insane reality of American politics in 2022. Joe Biden is in the White House. Why shouldn’t this lady have a parrot at a Trump rally?
I’ve gotten, by virtue of a family member, a VIP ticket, which means I’ve skipped the general admission line out front, and zipped through security comparatively quickly – and once inside, the atmosphere is even more intense, if that were possible. Local political figures have turned out in force. Billy Toien, 2018 gubernatorial hopeful, pushes past me to get to the bathroom, his trademark suitcase in tow. Assemblywoman Jamie Allard is here, sitting a few rows behind me, waving a “Save America” sign, as is Judy Eledge. Dustin Darden is walking around in a sleeveless 1776 muscle shirt, looking like he wants to have a little tussle in the general admission section. Dave Bronson is sitting to the left of the stage, accompanied by his family.
And of course, part of the reason everyone’s here – Sarah Palin and Kelly Tshibaka are around somewhere. The rally is ostensibly to drum up support for their House and Senate runs, respectively, but they’re mostly the opening acts for the Big Guy himself, like bands warming up the crowd for Metallica.
Absently, I wonder what would happen if the sound guy played some hardcore over the PA system – would the crowd of people in general admission open up a mosh pit? Windmilling Republicans slamdancing at a Trump rally to Gorilla Biscuits or Cro-Mags – that’d be something to see.
I’m sitting off to the right of the stage (or stage left, if anyone’s an actor) about ten feet from the red carpet catwalk that’s already being guarded by private security agents who look like extras from “300.” I point this out to the guy sitting next to me, who’s wearing a “Joe and the Hoe Have Got To Go” t-shirt, and he remarks that “it looks like they went down to Chippendale’s and got some of the dancers to squeeze into a security outfit.” Just then, one of the security guards comes over and asks him to cover up his shirt, which he does, begrudgingly.
This is, after all, a family event.
It’s 12:30, and Trump isn’t scheduled to come on until four, but there’s plenty to see and observe in the meantime. Press is up on an elevated pedestal, and anchormen are busy giving descriptions and interviews and – holy shit, that’s the MyPillow guy, someone says to me. I look over, and even at a distance, Mike Lindell’s visage is unmistakable. He turns and waves to the crowd when someone shouts his name, and then turns back to the cameraman.
The crowd is a red white and blue sea of MAGA hats, Tshibaka signs, and Palin posters, matching the bunting attached to the bleachers, which are, even now, starting to fill up. People keep packing into the arena, which, according to a Google search I did while trying to estimate the crowd strength, fits 5000 sitting. We’re almost at that now, and that’s not counting the people on the floor, milling about, waiting for the speakers to start.
The filler music, loosely put, is what I would describe as “Indiana wedding reception,” or what my friend once called “songs that make white people go crazy.” You’ve got your “YMCA,” your “I Am A Real American,” your collection of AC/DC songs, but you’ve also got some deeper, stranger cuts, like “Do You Hear The People Sing,” from Les Miserables, and for some reason, Pink Floyd’s “Dark Side of the Moon,” and considering Roger Waters’ generally uncharitable attitude towards Trump, this is more than a little ironic.
And suddenly, the music cuts. A hush falls over the crowd, and like the voice of God, a loudspeaker asks us to put our hands together for Mike Lindell, who is making his way up the red carpet to the podium to uproarious applause. Personally, I don’t care for his pillows (too shapeless) but the man knows showmanship. Lindell warmed the crowd up with a tale from his early days in the pillow game, and exhorted all of us to support Trump, Tshibaka, and Palin in the coming elections, and then he was gone.
Tshibaka showed up not long after him, and played to the crowd’s dislike of Lisa Murkowski, her Senate opponent. Personally, I was more impressed by her seemingly effortless display of alliteration towards the end of the speech, that gave the whole thing sort of a “Cat in the Hat” flair – and the “Biden’s CEO: Chief Enabling Officer” jab made her eminently palatable for the Facebook meme crowd. Which, let’s be honest, if you can’t package your platform for the Facebook voters, you’ve already lost. Up to that point, I’d been pronouncing her last name with a soft S, like “sh,” but I learned that day that, in fact, it’s more of a “ch,” like Chewbacca. You live and you learn, I suppose.
Palin’s speech could have come straight out of 2008. I was 7, so I suppose I can’t speak with absolute authority on the subject, but the “mama grizzly” rhetoric came through – and if it ain’t broke, as they say. At one point, she decried the news media for painting her in a bad light, and in response, the entire venue threw boos and jeers at the press section. “But,” she continued, “but, you can’t believe everything you hear. None of what the news said about me was true.” Here, she leaned back into a dramatic pause. “I’m worse!” This one brought the house down. The woman can still pitch to her base.
After the flurry of energy brought by a triple punch of Lindell, Tshibaka, and Palin, the subsequent hour long pause seemed to deflate the crowd a little. Someone started a mass wave, which went around the stadium a few times, and a few chants of “We want Trump!” broke out, but the main event, Godot-like, was conspicuously absent. 4:00 came and went. 4:15 came, 4:20 came, and still the music played over the speakers – the third or fourth repetition of “YMCA” started to get to me, and I wondered, idly, where he was. I tried to gauge Trump’s location by watching Secret Service agents – as they moved closer to the door, I assumed that this predicated a move by the president. It didn’t. Don’t hire me to do crowd control any time soon.
And then, suddenly, the music cut, and the crowd, sensing the arrival of the Main Event, began to cheer. The voice over the speakers was drowned out as the 45th president swaggered out the doors and up the red carpet, basking in the admiration of his supporters. He mugged to the audience, pointed at cheering fans, spread arms wide like Russell Crowe in “Gladiator,” and generally played it up. The man’s a showman, whatever else can be said about him, and I half-expected him to grab the microphone and ask whether or not we were “entertained.”
Over the next hour and a half, Trump touched on every conceivable topic that might be of interest to a voter: guns, religion, oil, the war in Afghanistan, trans women in sports, and his vehement distaste for “Crazy Nancy” and “Sleepy Joe.” He’s got a real conversational speechmaking style, throwing in little asides to prewritten talking points, and peppering in profanity to uproarious laughter and applause. Of ISIS: “We hit them from the left, we hit them from the right, we hit them from the fuckin’ center.” On the Mueller report: “It’s a bunch of bullshit.”
Trump’s stories wind and twist, like Norm MacDonald ghostwrites for him, but there’s always a discernible plot, and inevitably, like Norm, they end up somewhere. A story about a plane ride aboard Air Force One ends up segueing into a diatribe about Biden’s disastrous pullout of Afghanistan, which leads into a self-congratulatory speech about destroying ISIS in the region. “They said it’d take three years – I did it in three weeks.”
Inevitably, Trump decried the 2020 election, calling it rigged, and quoting a figure he refused to name, claiming that the media would say he “idolized” the figure, in saying “often, the ballot counter is more important than the candidate.” (I looked it up. Stalin said that, originally, so there you go.)
The speech went on for about 90 minutes, during which Trump didn’t take a sip of water or pause for even a minute, except to let Palin and Tshibaka express their admiration for his presidency. A real energetic guy, I mused, as Trump brought a fan up on stage wearing a shirt plastered with the Donald’s face. “I’ll tell you what, I want that shirt. Bring this guy up here!”
Just as he came, he left, to thunderous applause and hooting fervor, waving to his supporters and shaking hands with Palin and Tshibaka, accompanied by stone-jawed Secret Service agents. Elvis has left the building.
As I left, stepping over puddles of spilled soda and piles of popcorn, I reflected on a political system that turns representatives into larger-than-life heroes and villains, and the lionization of a brash, politically incorrect one-term president – but by God, you hear him talk and you can’t help but laugh.
Trump is a guy who’s bought so fully into his own mythology that, in a way, it’s become true for him, and by extension, for the people that jump on board. “It’s not about Republicans and Democrats anymore,” he said at one point towards the end of the speech. “It’s about good and evil.” When you paint political struggles in such black and white terms, it’s easy to amass swaths of supporters, and it’s a popular move for just such a reason. Maybe it really is about good and evil. I don’t know. But, I think as I pass a tent hocking “Let’s Go Brandon” flags, it was a fun way to spend an afternoon. “Is there anything better than a Donald Trump rally?” he asked the crowd in his closing remarks. Right now, in the muggy heat of an Anchorage summer, I can’t argue the point.
Jacob Hersh was born and raised in Anchorage, Alaska. He recently graduated from Washington State University with a degree in political science. He’s back in Alaska taking a year off before he attends law school. He’s been described as neurotic, emotionally distant, and unhealthily obsessed with national politics – all by the same person.