Melbourne is beachside and on the lower end of Florida’s trunk, part of a small constellation of cities known as the Space Coast. This means its area code is 321, as in “blastoff!” It’s also home to Patrick Air Force Base, headquarters of Air Force Space Command’s 45th Space Wing. Population-wise, it’s about the size of Scranton, Kalamazoo, or Boca Raton. The ecosystem is shorts-appropriate, the air punctuated with the sound of heels smacking against sandals.
The line to get into the airplane hangar where Donald Trump’s first rally for his 2020 campaign was to take place stretched two miles north along the flat, palm-flanked road. Drivers waving American flags honked and whooped as they sped by. At least 500 protesters—the county’s largest progressive turnout for a protest in more than a decade—had gathered on the southbound side. An orange high-visibility barrier, courtesy of the local police, separated them from the airport’s private property. Drivers traveling in this direction also leaned on their horns. Airport-side, clumps of signs were held at chest level or above heads and flashed Make American Airports Great Again.
All along the line people schmoozed. They had been waiting, after all, for at least an hour and a half, and there wasn’t much to do other than sweat and talk. A group of young guys wearing partial fatigues had struck up a conversation with an older man in gleaming white shirt and shorts, who squinted at them in the dying sun and cracked a joke about borders, the punchline of which was: “Not foreigners, that’s for sure!” The young guys—Sam, Andrew, Frank, and Adam—were already friends. They came here together. I ask them to describe how they were feeling.
Frank responds with zero hesitation. “Makes me want to have children so I can tell them about it.” His friends seem impressed with his sentimentality. The line starts to shift; they’re letting people into the hangar. Talk turns to immigration.
“America,” Sam explains to me, “is not just some magic dirt where anyone can come here and they’re magically an American. I think all of us feel like we have roots in this nation. You know, our grandfathers’ bones are in the ground; our great-grandfathers’ bones are in the ground. This country means something to us.”
I ask if there shouldn’t be an opportunity for the children of immigrants to feel the same about their grandparents and great-grandparents—roots and so on—and Sam looks at me as though I had suggested this was all a dream. “Well, for one, they do not hold our same values. They do not assimilate. They come here, and most of them get on welfare. They send all their money back home; they’re not helping our economy. When you see an influx of a Muslim population within a city, then they turn it into one of their countries. If you go into the barrios, it doesn’t look like America, it looks like Mexico. We want to keep America America.
“America is more than just an idea,” he continued. “It’s a people. And it’s our culture. And what we’re seeing today, especially by the left, is that they are attacking our culture, our values, our way of life, and saying that we have to change—or else we’re bigots, we’re racists.” I ask him if being white is a part of being American. He falters; we’re moving again, slowly making our way south toward the hangar. The other guys are watching Sam for his answer. “I think it has—I mean, it’s . . .” He trails off, focusing on walking for a moment. “Yes and no. But, I mean, there’s African Americans. There’s white Americans. We all have our own different cultures. But why do we need immigration? Why do we need more people to come in, when we have people that can’t find jobs, our vets aren’t getting the support that they need? I think America should be put first.”
“The first time I could vote, I voted for Trump,” says Andrew, who just turned 21. “And I expect to vote for him in 2020. “He just doesn’t give a shit. If you look at him, he really just doesn’t care. He doesn’t care that he will offend anybody. Like: suck it up! We have this generation of childish people. I learned how to use a mill. I learned how to blacksmith. I learned how to actually machine.” Andrew appears to be on a roll. “This generation now, they’re stuck in their parents’ basement! They’re on the computer constantly!”
A woman wearing large, bronze-colored sunglasses and a Make America Great Again tank top ducks under Andrew’s elbow, wanting to say her piece. “They emasculate men!” Everyone chuckles.
Andrew glances down at her and continues. “They’re on Adderall—”
“And they take their penises, and they wear them!” the woman adds, and this really makes everyone laugh.
There’s a distant sucking sound in the sky, which excites the crowd. Several phones point skyward. Air Force One is powder blue and descends, ponderously and slowly, above the waiting crowd’s heads. They must have planned it this way, because though the sonic ripples are deafening, the plane’s approach rouses a cheer so raucous that the two sounds fight, which only whips up the rally-goers more.
Inside the hangar, it is clearer how white the crowd is. Over the din I can hear Lee Greenwood’s “God Bless the USA.” Melania opens the rally with the Lord’s Prayer; the atmosphere is megachurch-like. I duck and sidestep through the crowd to get close enough to see Trump. He is glossy and sheened with sweat, though presumably he just stepped off an air-conditioned plane. His halfway buttoned shirt is somehow both casual and louche, his skin as cartoonish and plasticine as it appears in photos.
“And by the way, you see what we’ve accomplished in a very short period of time. The White House,” Trump pauses for effect, “is running so smoothly.” The crowd cheers in agreement.
“And believe me, I—and we—inherited one big mess. That I can tell you. But I know that you want safe neighborhoods, where the streets belong to families and communities. Not gang members . . .”
“That’s right!” someone shouts.
“. . . and drug dealers, who are right now, as I speak, being thrown out of the country,”
“Yes—yes!” The same person shouts, matching the crowd’s mounting applause.
“And they will not be let back in!”
The cheers are now drowning out Trump’s words, and he raises his voice to be heard.
“We will have strong borders!”
When the audience bellows, the sound reverberates and doubles itself up in the hangar’s vaulted ceilings; their whistles bounce. Several times people start up a chant of “Trump, Trump, Trump!” At the mention of Obamacare, a man with a foam thumbs-up twists it into a thumbs-down. I am pressed on all sides by sweating bodies cheering in paroxysms of rapture. A man bends down to tell me, “You’re watching history, right here.” The sky behind Air Force One is lurid, the kind of sorbet swirl I know to be distinctly Floridian. Trump begins to praise himself for his success with women voters, and up rise the pink “Women for Trump” signs. I’ve had enough.
The protesters are now around thirty feet from the police-sanctioned area. They have crossed the four-lane road and pushed about ten yards into the field in front of the hangar. It took them an hour to get there, inch by inch, a girl named Michaela tells me. First they broke the barrier, crumpling it. Then a few made it to the grassy median and stayed there long enough to attract others. They crossed the last two lanes and hung out for a while. It all began with a handful of people, maybe four or five, Michaela says, but then people started to join them. About 200 protesters chant and hold up signs on the airport’s private property.
The light is quickly fading. The speech ends and “You Can’t Always Get What You Want” plays to fill the vacuum. The protesters chant as people with Trump signs start to pass by, on their way to their cars. Two haul out a portable speaker and make wailing noises into a microphone; the protesters begin to chant “Love Trumps Hate” to drown them out. I see one of the young men from before, Andrew, drift across the field, cupping his hands to his mouth. “Buh-bye, babies!” he shouts. “Go back to your safe spaces!”
The airplane rumbles to life, and the protesters boo and become agitated. “Don’t engage!” a policeman says into a megaphone. “Please remain peaceful!” A compact man, sunburned and shrunken and wearing sunglasses, tries to read one of the signs, which says Resist the Tyranny. “Does that say ‘Resist the Trannies?’” he asks nobody in particular. Someone corrects him, and he laughs. “Should read ‘Resist the Trannies.’” He’s pleased with himself, so he begins to shout this, over and over. “I’m a liberal!” he adds, presumably for some variety. “I have the right to marry a frog if I want to! I can use any bathroom I want!”
Now the sky is dark, and the police lights throw pulses of red and blue over the gathering standoff. On one side, the protesters chant “Beetlejuice, Beetlejuice, Beetlejuice!” On the other, they’re stretching over the cop car that idles between them, and someone shouts, “You’re a slave to George Soros!”
To my right, I see three policemen surround a young black man. His voice rises, and he points over the cop car to a group of men holding Blacks for Trump signs. The police are pushing him away, and I can see his face furrow and twist. He is growing more agitated as they force him to walk backwards, away from the group. Another protester, an older white woman, pushes through the ring of police and touches the man’s arm. “Hey!” she shouts over the noise, “Hey! What’s your name?”
The man glances at her and doesn’t answer. She asks again, and he turns to her and says his name is David. “Hi, David.” She gives her name and points to his uniform. “I see you work at Popeye’s. Which Popeye’s? Do you go to school?”
A few more protesters have joined her, weaving through the police and getting close to David, who, distracted and obliging, rattles off his answers. He glances occasionally at the police, but they’re losing interest. The woman tugs his sleeve, “David, let’s walk this way, tell me about your school.”
The woman tugs David to the sidewalk and maintains a gentle chatter. The protest has shrunk significantly; there can’t be more than forty people now. David keeps twisting away, jerking toward the police and the group of “Blacks for Trump” and the other Trump supporters whose voices sometimes swell into chants. The other two protesters linger as well, and David begins to calm.
David says he tried to talk to one of the “Blacks for Trump” protesters about criminal justice, which is what got him upset, drawing the cops.
“I wanted to get answers from him. And he wasn’t providing me answers, which is really troubling for me,” he says. “Criminal justice reform is something that impacts our community hard. And for him to ignore it, the targeting and marginalization of our people—” he shakes his head.
David hugs the woman and then the other protesters who stayed. One—also named David—works for the Florida Student Power Network, a collective of student activists across the state. They exchange information. David promises David they have his back.