Then it struck me. The deafening roars and vigorous choruses from the capacity crowd at the 20,000-seat Amway Arena showed that Trump’s supporters were excited to watch a rerun. They’d stood in line for hours or camped overnight — enduring stifling humidity interrupted only by brief bursts of hard, heavy rain — to ensure a spot inside. Now I was rattled. I had let the rallies, which formed the core of one of the most steadfast political movements in modern American history and reordered the Republican Party, turn stale and rote. Why was Trump’s performance still so fresh and resonant for an entire arena of fellow Americans? I spent the next year and a half embedded with a group of Trump’s most hardcore rallygoers — known as the “Front Row Joes” — to try to understand what I’d overlooked.
The answer wasn’t so much what I’d missed as what they had found. They were mostly older White men and women who lived paycheck to paycheck with plenty of time on their hands — retired or close to it, estranged from their families or otherwise without children — and Trump had, in a surprising way, made their lives richer. The president himself almost always spent the night in his own bed and kept few close friends. But his rallies gave the Joes a reason to travel the country, staying at one another’s homes, sharing hotel rooms and carpooling. Two had married — and later divorced — by Trump’s second year in office.
In Trump, they’d found someone whose endless thirst for a fight encouraged them to speak up for themselves, not just in politics but also in relationships and at work. His rallies turned arenas into modern-day tent revivals, where the preacher and the parishioners engaged in an adrenaline-fueled psychic cleansing brought on by chanting and cheering with 15,000 other like-minded loyalists. Saundra Kiczenski, a 56-year-old from Michigan, compared the energy at a Trump rally to the feelings she had as a teenager in 1980 watching the “Miracle on Ice” — when the U.S. Olympic hockey team unexpectedly beat the Soviet Union.
“The whole place is erupting, everyone is screaming, and your heart is beating like, just, oh my God,” Kiczenski told me. “It’s like nothing I’ve experienced in my lifetime.”
Their devotion wasn’t reciprocated. Trump was careless with his supporters’ innocence, as he turned coronavirus tests into political scorecards and painted civil rights protests as a breeding ground for antifa. His last campaign-style event as president, the “Save America” rally on Jan. 6 in Washington, helped fuel a deadly riot at the Capitol that has resulted in the arrests of more than 500 Americans. But the former president still drew thousands to a rural fairground about an hour outside Cleveland last month and to another in central Florida. And the question from June 2019 about what keeps bringing his fans back remains a pressing one for the country — and an urgent one for the Republican Party.
Many of the people facing criminal charges related to the riot have pointed to Trump and his lies about the election as the reason they stormed the symbolic heart of the world’s longest-standing democracy. But those arguments have taken place inside courtrooms. Outside Trump rallies, there are alternative facts.
“It’s ridiculous those people are in prison for no reason,” Kiczenski told me at the Ohio rally last month. “And it’s a shame because if Donald Trump were still the president, they’d all be free.”
The Front Row Joes include several Trump aficionados who had spent decades keeping tabs on his political flirtations, tabloid melodrama and star turns on reality television. But I talked to a surprising number who’d also voted for Barack Obama at least once, attracted to the Democrat’s charisma and fed up with Republicans over foreign adventurism and the growing national debt.
Kiczenski met people like Ben Hirschmann, a Michigan legislative intern who posted on Facebook anytime he had an open seat in his car on the way to a rally. She bonded with Brendan Gutenschwager and flew with him to Hong Kong, where they spent 24 hours waving their red, white and blue Trump flags during protests over China’s extradition laws. She occasionally overnighted about an hour outside Detroit with Judy Chiodo, a fellow Trump rally-trotter, rather than drive all the way home to Sault Ste. Marie.
But 2020 proved grueling for the Joes. In March, Hirschmann was among the first Americans to die of covid-19. His death, at 24, shook his Trump friends. “I talked to him more than my own daughter,” Cindy Hoffman, a 60-year-old Iowa woman who ran a tool-sharpening business, said on a Zoom call that the Joes held to grieve.
Yet within a few months, as Trump’s response to the pandemic became increasingly politicized, the Front Row Joes had pinned Hirschmann’s death on a push for doctors to see patients remotely by Michigan Gov. Gretchen Whitmer. Her changes largely mirrored steps the Trump administration had taken, but she was a Democrat who had emerged as a foil for the president. They also turned on one another, shaming friends who wanted to wear masks or were nervous about attending rallies during the pandemic.
When Randal Thom, a 60-year-old ex-Marine with a long gray mustache, fell severely ill with a high fever and debilitating congestion, he refused to go to the hospital. He was a heavy smoker who was significantly overweight and knew he faced an increased risk of severe effects from covid-19. Still, he refused to take a coronavirus test and potentially increase the caseload on Trump’s watch: “I’m not going to add to the numbers,” he told me. Thom survived the scare, but died months later in a car accident while returning home to Minnesota from a Trump boat parade in Florida.
While most Americans only occasionally left their homes, the pandemic proved a blessing for Kiczenski’s Trump travel plans. She bought cheap airfare, repeatedly basked in the extravagance of an airplane aisle all to herself and logged more flights in 2020 than at any other point in her life. She attended 25 Trump rallies, boosting her total to 56. She spent 79 nights of the year away from her bed. Kiczenski traveled so often during the pandemic that a Delta flight attendant thanked her for being a Silver Medallion member and upgraded her to first class; she initially assumed it was a mistake.
Kiczenski was in Washington with friends for the Jan. 6 rally. She was convinced beyond a doubt that Trump had been reelected on Nov. 3, only to have his victory stolen in what she described as “a takeover by the communist devils.” She said she believed that, in part, because she had crossed paths with Corey Lewandowski, a well-known and ubiquitous Trump adviser, in the Trump International Hotel the previous summer. Lewandowski told her, she said, that the only way Trump could lose was if there was massive election fraud.
“If someone put a gun to my head and said: ‘Did Donald Trump win, yes or no? And if you’re wrong, we’re going to shoot your head off!’ I would say yes,” Kiczenski told me. “I’m that confident that this stuff is not made up.”
On Jan. 6, she and her friends made their way to the west side of the Capitol, where a mob pushed through police barricades and turned steel bike racks on their sides, leaning them against stone walls like ladders. Some men helped her climb up the rungs. People were everywhere, and it was difficult to move. Kiczenski and her friends scaled one more wall and were within about 100 yards of the Capitol. But it had become so crowded — they didn’t want to lose one another — that they decided to stop on the west terrace, take pictures and soak up the atmosphere.
They paused in the place where Trump and Vice President Mike Pence had been inaugurated in 2017 amid a crowd of former presidents and against a Capitol decorated in red, white and blue bunting. Now, four years later, Trump’s supporters swarmed the ornate building. Outside that evening, countless Trump flags flapped in the wind. Clouds of tear gas hung in the air against the purple twilight sky, and the orange light glowing from inside the Capitol’s windows gave the scene a surreal, apocalyptic feel.
Kiczenski was inspired by a vista of Trumpian strength and patriotism: the Washington Monument in the distance, the majestic Capitol in the foreground, and freedom-loving patriots fighting like hell to stop a stolen and fraudulent election, liberate their country and save their president. She snapped pictures and recorded videos.
“It just looked so neat,” she said. “We weren’t there to steal things. We weren’t there to do damage. We were just there to overthrow the government.”
But when Trump posted a video to social media asking supporters to go home (and saying he loved them) after the riot raged for hours, Kiczenski felt confused and depressed. “We were supposed to be fighting until the end,” she said.
She reminded herself that the president hadn’t technically conceded, and as soon as she arrived home in Michigan, she packed for the next Trump trip. Kiczenski trusted that something was coming and wanted a go-bag ready if she needed to leave for a rally at a moment’s notice.
“We’re all on the edge of our seats waiting to hear about the next event,” she said. “Now we’re like an army, and it’s like boots on the ground. Tell us where we need to go!
“The time is now,” she continued, sounding at once urgent and wistful. “It’s time to go.”
And when Trump returned to the rally circuit in June, so did Kiczenski. “We have a lot of down time now that we’re trying to fill,” she told me in Ohio. “It’s basically like we don’t have a president right now.”