“I’m a woman. He checked last night,” Angela Willson told me, pointing and laughing at her husband, who wore a matching cap and T-shirt touting the Second Amendment. They’d made a day of the rally with two other couples and had been waiting for hours in gray, drizzly weather in a strip mall parking lot outside an appliance store. Their mood was festive.
Willson had voted for Trump in 2016, and when I asked her why she’d be renewing her support, the pause was long enough that her husband joked, “Want me to answer for you?” which got more laughs out of everyone around them. “I’m pro-life, so that’s why,” she said. “Umm.” She delayed another moment, and her husband interjected, “He’s not a career politician.”
Most people I talked to that day hesitantly conjured something to say in answer to my question but had trouble coming up with more than one reason. I admit that I had trouble accepting some of their answers, which at times felt fallacious on a surreal level. “He kept his promise on building the wall” was the most common response, though my read on that issue is that Trump has only created five new miles of wall at our southern border. More than once, I met a person wearing multiple items of Trump apparel who couldn’t list even one reason they planned to vote for him. Some of the people in Trump gear walked the razor fine line between admiration and disgust, like a friend of Willson’s whose hat called him an expletive.
They aren’t the only ones who had trouble specifying their reasons to support Trump: For the first time since 1856, the Republican Party didn’t even issue a new policy platform this year, instead putting out a full-throated endorsement of the president with no details except “America First.” The evidence against him may seem irrefutable to his opponents, but it’s also irrelevant to a vast number of Americans. Fifteen thousand people gathered in Muskegon 17 days before the election to spend time together and to have fun, but Trump and his policies were an afterthought at best.
Up and down the line, every few minutes someone talked about how cool it was going to be to see Air Force One. There was excitement about the luxe charter buses taking people between the lot and the hangar and about the sirloin steak tip food truck. The crowd — about 98 percent White — laughed and hugged, mostly maskless. They wrapped themselves in Trump flags and flew them from their bumpers. They made sandwiches on their dashboards before getting in line, and someone pumped AC/DC out of their speakers and drove slow circles around us. If you didn’t know better, you might think we were at a late ’70s rock concert.
Rebecca Feikema, a housecleaner, is voting for Trump for a second time, and she cited the construction of the wall as her primary reason. She was one of many women there who had firsthand experience with the opioid crisis in western Michigan, and she felt the wall would have an impact on that painful situation at home. She couldn’t come up with a second reason but told me she’d written down a list on her fridge; she wished she could think of the rest.
Jennifer McGruder had a few reasons: “I’m happy he put the wall up. He’s bringing the swamp down. Who better to beat the system than someone who went through there and came out on top? He knows the wins and the ways. With his first business, he was able to get it so he didn’t have to pay the taxes. That’s a good businessman. That’s a good man who knows the loopholes of our system so we can prevent those future loopholes.” Each of these felt debatable to me, but the person next to her, a man she had just met who carried an oversize American flag, was nodding along word for word. I asked if they came to the rally together, and they said no. “But we’re united,” she said.
With many thousands inside the gate at the Muskegon airport hangar and thousands more still lined up, Trump’s plane landed, Queen’s “We Are the Champions” started playing, and his speech began. The remarks were disjointed, bouncing randomly from applause line to applause line every few minutes. “The radical left!” he’d say, and the crowd would react. “Socialism!” and they’d react again. He hammered home the idea that Democrats would take away statues of American heroes and would rename Columbus Day to Indigenous Peoples’ Day. He denigrated women continually, including Nancy Pelosi and Savannah Guthrie. He spoke about riots in Minnesota and mentioned Rep. Ilhan Omar (D-Minn.) enough times that I thought he may be confused about which M state he was in. He asked people to chant “four more years” then suggested they change to “12 more years,” and they did. When he mentioned Gov. Gretchen Whitmer (D-Mich.)’s name, the crowd crowed “Lock her up!” He turned away from the podium briefly then leaned down close to the mic and said, “Lock 'em all up.”
Two men next to me wore different versions of unflattering Trump Halloween costumes, and across the sea of humans beneath Trump’s podium, there were red visors with attached yellow fright wigs emulating his notable hair. A few minutes into the speech, Trump cried, “No one told me there were going to be 40 mile an hour winds over here” as his hair flapped side to side. A staffer eventually emerged from Air Force One with a red hat for him, and people in the crowd made fun of his hair to one another.
Seven minutes into his remarks, even before the emergency MAGA hat was delivered, people began to leave. For the rest of the 90 minutes that he was at the podium, audience members steadily streamed toward the exits. Just inside the outer gate to the rally, others were taking turns with an electric scooter and framing selfies from different angles. They’d waited in line in 45-degree weather, had their temperature taken and spent their whole Saturday to be here. There was room for them inside the gate, but they were having more fun outside it.
By now, Feikema was also on the other side of the gate. She shouted that I should join her. “I called my friend. I have my reasons now,” she said. Her face mask, which said TRUMP, was looped on her wrist. Over her shoulder, I saw a White man with an almost empty box of signs that read BLACK VOICES FOR TRUMP. Feikema recited the reasons from the list on her fridge (the economy figured prominently) while I watched this man disperse his last 10 BLACK VOICES placards to White people gathered outside the gate, playing games on their cellphones.
Trump’s speech wrapped up, and a Village People song started as he pumped his fist. “Young man …” they sang, and our 74-year old president boarded the plane for a rally starting in less than an hour in Janesville, Wis. While he made his way across Lake Michigan to deliver another 90-minute speech, the crowd halfheartedly sang along to the music and lingered at the hangar, where Trump T-shirts were half price and the food truck was still open.