The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

What do people get out of a Trump rally in 2021? I went to find out.

Trump had nothing new to say. His fans didn’t care.

Supporters of former president Donald Trump stand near Confederate and U.S. flags as they gather for his first post-presidency campaign rally in Wellington, Ohio, on June 26. (Shannon Stapleton/Reuters)

For about four years, a single, manically cycloning thought got the best of me: How can all these people believe Donald Trump’s lies? His untruths were so numerous, so rich and bizarre and cruel that at some point I assumed them to be a privilege of the office he held. Maybe the misinformation will fade when it’s uncoupled from the pomp of the presidency, I thought. Maybe all of us will see things more clearly under a new administration. Yet, six months on, the lies thrive.

Aside from some remarks he made at the Conservative Political Action Conference and his speech that preceded the storming of the Capitol on Jan. 6, Trump has had a quiet 2021. Much the same can be said for one of the primary amplifiers of his and others’ falsehoods: QAnon’s de facto leader, Q, hasn’t posted new information since December. On Saturday, in Ohio’s vast middle, Trump returned to public speaking. This time, he was to be accompanied by all you might expect from an 88-degree evening at the Lorain County Fairgrounds — a dusty parking area, livestock stalls and creaky grandstands under the rich, dank odor of manure and surrounded by verdant fields. Air Force One would not be deployed. His lectern wouldn’t be adorned by the presidential seal. He’s not officially running for anything, even if all signs point to a bid in 2024. So, who would want to attend a Trump rally in 2021?

My father was a fabulist. He was a salesman, too, at various times hawking janitorial supplies, vending machine peanuts and paperbacks stocked in spinning racks at gas stations. He knew how to talk to people. To persuade. In the years before he died in 2013, he gulped down Fox News, finding its version of “fair and balanced” an appealing equilibrium. My dad’s understanding of truth was buried beneath several layers of veneer. It’s one of the reasons I found it so hard to agree with him about politics. And it’s probably the primary reason I was one of many thousands in that Ohio pasture on Saturday. My entire upbringing involved negotiating the truth. Today, I can’t stop probing Trump supporters, trying to understand exactly how they see the world and why they’re not seeing it the way I do.

Trump’s supporters in Michigan love him. Even if they couldn’t tell me why.

“I think vaccines are the real virus that’s killing people,” Frank Tondo of Youngstown told me. Tondo and his friend Joe Stasiak both wore QAnon T-shirts. Both believe that Trump is the rightful president and will be back in power soon. Tondo said, “Right now, we have two presidents. Yes, Biden’s the president of the bankrupt corporation. Trump’s the president last year. And he signed the second Declaration of Independence last July when he was at Mount Rushmore.” Stasiak and Tondo went on to tell me other things I don’t believe: about pedophilia, a false theory about the condo building collapse in Florida, the War of 1812 and, yes, aliens.

Lori Bendzula drove more than three hours from West Seneca, N.Y., to attend the rally. “Trump’s running the country, from here” she gestured at the leafy soybean field behind her just beyond a biblical array of donkeys and black sheep. “Have you heard of Q? Are you aware of what’s going on?” Bendzula, who was in Washington, D.C., on Jan. 6, woke in the night two days before this week’s rally with the idea to make Trump a massive belated birthday card. She carried with her a kraft-paper scroll on yardsticks which she asked me to sign. It was already jammed with thousands of signatures. “People are excited and thanked me for it and thanked me for doing this. It’s like a little labor of love, you know?”

Somehow, I hoped the era of lies could be fading now. The truth always eventually emerges, rights the wrongs, sets us free. Right? In 2007, my father had a devastating stroke which worked like a truth serum, unloosing his tongue and revealing hidden truths and upending things I’d always believed. As unlikely as it seemed, I wondered if maybe a dethroned Trump would share some of that humility, some of the vulnerable authenticity that my father gained only in his very sad final years. Maybe, I thought, Trump would have a lackluster audience, an unenthusiastic few to hear him speak.

Instead, rural Ohio thrummed with humans — and lies — on Saturday. Traffic was backed up for eight miles on three stretches of blacktop. Apocryphal stories circulated about how many ticket reservations were made — from 40,000 to 200,000. Estimates place the actual number of attendees in the thousands, but it was hard not to feel the collective mass of the assembling crowd as I drove in. I sat in my idling car for four hot hours on Pitts Road while people got out and talked, decorating their cars and trucks with flags. An ATV slowly crept by in the other direction, playing a rap song about a white power civil war. Another ATV zipped down the lane with a couple and two coolers. “Bud Light or Busch Light,” he said. “Two bucks,” she said.

There was a rumor that no “Q” gear would be allowed inside, so people were turning their shirts inside out, and during the long wait with no bathrooms, several people stood or squatted at the roadside. It took a certain level of dedication beyond that of the casual observer to spend your Saturday this way.

Michigan is politically divided. But we all suffered in the pandemic.

Farmers had spontaneously begun charging $20 for parking spots and those spots, like those at the fairground, were full. So many people began walking, sweating in the afternoon humidity, that the country road was half people, half cars, all bedlam. As the time of Trump’s speech approached, cars couldn’t safely navigate and were abandoned in situ or on land without farmers’ permission. I walked a mile and a half through that sea of humanity and cars and “Trump 2024” flags to find another assembled mass when I turned the corner into the fairgrounds. Thousands of people had amassed, almost all wearing branded Trump gear and elated to have traversed the obstacles to be there.

At least one of the rumors was true — there weren’t many QAnon shirts or hats. The most common shirt I saw simply said, “TRUMP WON.”

When Trump took the stage behind a blue “SAVE AMERICA” placard, he didn’t hew much closer to the truth. As is his custom, he rambled. His speech was disjointed, mostly abrupt phrases such as “liberal elite” meant to garner applause. Like a musician obligingly playing the hits, he ranted about immigrants and claimed that Democrats were letting criminals loose and taking citizens’ guns. “The media will not show the magnitude of this crowd,” he insisted. I felt like I’d heard this same speech several times before. Considering my walk back to the car would be more perilous in the dark, I left a little early, meeting Nancy, a woman in her mid-50s whose last name I didn’t catch and who stood out because she was wearing a sundress, not a Trump shirt.

“Was it worth it?” I asked her, indicating our long walk, the baking sun in our eyes.

“Totally,” she said. “We have to come out and show our support, otherwise the lies win.” We walked by dozens of cars filled with people who’d never managed to get in to the fairgrounds. They were watching the broadcast of the event on Newsmax on their phones. A mile outside of the gates, I could hear Trump’s amplified voice — “stolen election” and “rigged” — echoing between the barns and trees.

“Isn’t it awful?” Nancy asked. “The left has so distorted things that no one knows the truth anymore.”

In the golden Ohio sunset, we walked on toward our cars, and I told her I was feeling about the same way.

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