PENSACOLA, Fla. — For Donald Trump’s latest rally on Wednesday night, his supporters drove in from the other side of town, the other side of the state and the state next door. They braved heavy traffic as they searched for a place to park, often having to catch a trolley or walk nearly a mile. They waited in line for an hour, sometimes longer, so that security guards could search them and their bags. Then they waited for Trump to take the stage.
When he did, it was to the roar of cheers and applause from at least 11,000 people. Several thousand more wanted to be there but were turned away when the Pensacola Bay Center reached capacity.
“Wow — amazing,” Trump said, as he took the stage. “Amazing.”
But that’s not what many of those sitting in the stands behind the Republican front-runner heard. Instead, they heard endlessly echoing vowels. As Trump kept going, a few words would jump out that provided context clues as to what topic he was tackling first: “bad people...were there many people there... keep the camera right on my face... dishonest... dishonest...” Some pieced it together: Trump was bashing the reporters who cover him, and that’s why those with better seats — like in the lower-level stands and on the floor right in front of the stage — were suddenly booing the media.
“Fix the sound!” one man shouted. “We can’t hear you!” another bellowed.
Then came the mass exodus: Dozens of people fleeing the upper-level seats behind Trump in search of a spot where they could hear him. There was still room on the floor, but it was nearly impossible to get down there unless fans knew to take a tucked-away elevator. Instead, they packed into the aisles and walkways where the sound was a little better and the echo was a bit less. At one point, Trump spun around to see what was happening. And about 45 minutes into his 70-minute-long speech, Trump let loose.
“And, by the way, I don’t like this mic,” Trump said. “Whoever the hell bought this mic system — don’t pay the son of a bitch that put it in, I’ll tell ya. ... No, this mic is terrible. Stupid mic keeps popping. Do you hear that, George? Don’t pay em. Don’t pay em. You know, I believe in paying, but when somebody does a bad job — like this stupid mic — you shouldn’t pay the bastard. Terrible. Terrible. It’s true. And you gotta be tough with your people, because they’ll pay, they don’t care, they’ll pay. So, we’re not going to pay. I guarantee, I’m not paying for this mic. Every two minutes, I hear, like: ‘Boom, boom.’ Anyway, I hope it’s okay for you out there.”
It was not okay for those still in the high-up seats behind Trump who missed his entire rant about the mic. But they could hear when he marveled at how his crowd had packed into the stands in front of him.
“Look up there: It’s packed up to the rafters,” Trump said. “Man. Holy mackerel. That is unbelievable. This is an unbelievable place.”
Someone shouted back: “Because we can’t hear!”
Trump has hosted dozens of rallies like the one on Wednesday night. Usually things run smoothly even though these are mammoth productions quickly pulled together and publicly promoted for just a few days. Sometimes there are logistical problems, such as the security line in Claremont, N.H., that moved far too slowly on a bitterly cold night earlier this month. Or the fire marshal in Rock Hill, S.C., who abruptly stopped allowing people into a Friday night rally last week, even though there were still huge swaths of open space. Or the town hall in Des Moines last year that attracted a respectably sized crowd, which then looked tiny in a cavernous fairgrounds facility. Or the rounds of protesters who have disturbed a number of rallies.
But at every rally, Trump’s booming voice has been the constant. That’s what people come to hear.
“I can hear him, I just can’t understand him,” said a 70-year-old retiree from Pensacola who decided to stick it out in the high seats, hoping that at any minute the sound system would be fixed. She didn’t want her name used as she doesn’t want Trump to think that she is criticizing him. “After everything we went through to get in, I wanted to hear what he had to say.”
As Trump continued, the high seats continued to clear out until fewer than 100 people remained. Many continued to take photos of him and the crowded arena. Several people tried to open the online live video feed of the event on their phones, but there was not enough service in the arena. A young guy in a blue polo shirt put his feet up and closed his eyes. Groups of friends started chatting about other things, while the devoted fans in the stands tried to listen closely enough to clap at the right times, although it was nearly always a few seconds after everyone else. A woman answered her phone and had a conversation.
Even in the press area directly across from the stage — packed with many reporters and not nearly enough chairs — it was sometimes difficult to hear exactly what Trump was saying.
Lee Griffin, his wife and two children stayed in their “nose-bleed” seats, even though they could barely understand what Trump was saying. They thought about moving but decided doing so would be inconsiderate to others.
“My wife and I, we’re both retired military and we like to stay in one place — you don’t infringe on other people’s territory,” said Griffin, 65, who is a member of the city council in Mary Esther, a Florida town about 45 miles east of Pensacola. “We could hear parts — and the older news we had heard before and the newer stuff, we got bits and pieces of that, and I’m pretty sure we’ll see that on TV soon. Or YouTube.”