How it began was quiet. The cold morning after the Republican debate, thousands of people began arriving at the Phoenix-Mesa Gateway Airport, crunching across a gravel parking lot and lining up alongside a cavernous airplane hangar.
In three hours, GOP presidential front-runner Donald Trump would hold a rally inside, and they would become his roaring, jeering crowd. A white-haired man in suede wingtips would punch a protester. A young man would shout “mother f---ing tacos!” at two Latino protesters.
But for now, the Trump supporters were still relatively alone, arriving in ones and twos mostly — a mother and daughter, a retiree in pressed khakis holding his wife’s hand, a woman in platform stilettos, three machinists who took off work.
“Will you take a picture of us?” a woman asked a man as she and her friend got in line.
“Any Hillary haters here today?” a man hawking buttons called out. “Hillary haters?”
No one said anything, but an elderly man laughed to himself. Another nodded to the hawker, bought a “Hillary for Prison” button and pinned it to his camouflage jacket as they all inched forward.
For the most part, people were not exactly coming to hear Trump. Most already knew what he had to say about banning Muslims from entering the United States, or “bombing the s--- ” out of the Islamic State, or building a wall to keep out Mexicans he has described as rapists and drug traffickers. They had read his books, had seen him on the news.
Instead, they were here to be part of something larger than themselves: part of the Trump Crowd, at this point a phenomenon in and of itself that has become more raucous and sporadically violent as this primary season of fear and anger has progressed. At a rally in Birmingham, Ala., last month, a black protester was kicked and punched by several white men as Trump yelled: “Get him the hell outta here!” At a rally in Las Vegas on Monday, someone screamed, “Light the motherf---er on fire!” as a protester was dragged away, and a middle-aged man in the crowd yelled the German Nazi-era salute,“Sieg heil!”
In Mesa this Wednesday morning, the line of mostly white faces was getting longer.
“Getting closer!” someone said as they shuffled through a barbed-wire fence, past protesters waving signs that read “Combat White Supremacy!” and toward the hangar doors.
“I want to get his mood,” said Jo Gingras, 44, who works for the Department of Veterans Affairs and was there with her 19-year-old daughter. “I want to see if he can motivate the crowd.”
“I don’t expect to hear anything I haven’t heard before,” said Tammy Edwards, 56, a medical assistant. “But it feels good to be around people who think the same as you, who are fed up.”
A man wearing a blazer pinned with military ribbons waved the line through the metal detectors. Some men lifted shirts to show their empty gun holsters, though one managed to hide a three-inch blade behind his “Make America Great Again” button. Into the hangar they all went.
“We can tell our grandkids we were here,” said Scott Monley, 49, as he walked inside.
“We expect the unexpected,” said his son Justin, 29, who had seen other Trump rallies on television and wanted to be part of what he and others said was starting to feel like a movement. “It’s like, ‘What’s gonna happen at this one?’ ”
Inside, it was getting louder as people melted into the crowd, thousands now standing shoulder to shoulder and facing the empty podium. Behind it a huge American flag flapped in the breeze. Beyond that was the blue sky and runway where Trump would soon arrive in his private jet. The Rolling Stones’ “Jumpin’ Jack Flash” began blasting.
“Woo!” someone yelled from a middle section of the crowd, where Edwards had found her place and was now bouncing on her toes.
“I tell you what!” a man in a leather jacket beside her yelled over the music. “You got to look into the Muslim doctrine!”
“Yeah?” Edwards yelled back.
“Yeah!” he shouted. “It’s like we’re being invaded! It’s like I’m a minority here!”
“It’s like my son said!” Edwards yelled. “To be a white man is like a sin now!”
“Right!” the man yelled. The Rolling Stones’ “Sympathy for the Devil” was blasting.
“I’m so excited!” Edwards yelled. “I was so excited he was coming here after the debate!”
“I’m tired of all the bulls---!” said another man next to her, a machinist named Scott Lausier, 47. “He says what we are all talking about, what people are thinking but are too P.C. to say!”
People kept pouring into the hangar, and nearly two hours into the pre-rally, Maricopa County Sheriff Joe Arpaio, who is known for his tough stance against illegal immigration and who has his prisoners wear pink underwear to humiliate them, walked up to the podium.
“The silent majority is not silent anymore!” he said, and they roared. “They said to warm you up, but you’re already hot!”
“We love you, Uncle Joe!” someone yelled, and not long after that, the soaring score to the movie “Air Force One” began playing, the huge flag was flying and Trump’s plane taxied up to the hangar.
“Oh, my God!” a woman yelled.
“Here he comes!” another yelled.
“I can tell by his hair!” a man shouted, and they all hoisted their cellphones.
“Donald!” they yelled, as Trump’s theme song, Twisted Sister’s “We’re Not Gonna Take It,” began pounding so loud you could feel it in your chest.
Edwards held a black-gloved fist in the air for a long while. The man next to her in the leather jacket held his fist up, too, and there in the middle-right section of the crowd, people began singing or mouthing the chorus, “We’re not gonna take it — anymore!”
There was momentum. The crowd was ready — for Trump, for something. But what happened next left people confused.
Trump rushed through the crowd over to the TV camera platform to give an interview to Fox News, turning his back on his supporters so that the cameras would capture them. He carried on about having no respect for conservative columnist Charles Krauthammer.
“Sour Kraut!” someone in the crowd yelled, but the energy in the room began to drain as Trump finished and the soaring “Air Force One” music started up again. Trump made his way back to the podium.
“Donald!” people yelled, and as he began talking about how impressive the size of his crowds are, his voice echoed in the relative silence.
Then a group of people started chanting — at first it sounded like “Trump! Trump! Trump!” and Trump said, “I love you guys so much.”
But then it became clear that it was several protesters shouting “Dump Trump! Dump Trump!” and now the crowd began to jeer and whistle and yell and boo.
“Dump Trump!” the protesters kept shouting, their fists in the air, and now they began trying to make their way back out of the crowd, shoving past the section where everyone had just been singing.
“You’re scum!” a woman yelled.
“Get out of here!” shouted a white-haired man wearing an argyle sweater and suede wingtips.
And as one of the protesters passed — a skinny young man with long dark hair and a nose ring — the man punched him in the side with a fist. The protester whirled around to see who had done it, but the man quickly put his hand back into his pressed khakis, and now he was just one more face in the rowdy crowd. Trump carried on.
“You know, I’m at 43 and the other guys are at two and three and seven. . . .” Trump said, talking at length about his poll numbers, occasionally shifting to his big applause lines about the wall or rejecting Muslims, but mostly coming back around to the subject of himself.
People began to leave.
“We have to take our country back and run it smart,” Trump said, and people cheered, while others began to check their cellphones.
“Obama sucks!” someone yelled, even though Trump was not really talking about Obama just then.
“I hate Obama,” a woman muttered to herself.
“I should have gotten an Emmy for ‘The Apprentice,’ ” Trump went on, and people kept leaving, including the man who had punched the protester, who began to lose interest.
Jack Owen, 70, a retired auto dealer and Vietnam veteran, walked behind the podium to take a look at Trump’s plane. He had come, he said, “because I read two stories in the Arizona Republic telling people not to come out — ‘Don’t spread the hate.’ Then I said, ‘Well, now I’ve got to go for sure.’ ”
Asked about punching the protester, Owen said almost casually, “Yeah, I sucker-punched the guy; the guy had a ring in his nose.”
Asked what had pushed him that far, he shrugged.
“Just a reaction — we’ve got to go now,” he said, and then he took his wife’s hand and they joined others exiting the hangar, where Trump was still speaking, his voice rising.
“I don’t want to be a nasty guy, but I don’t care anymore! I don’t care!” he yelled as the crowd began breaking up into ones and twos.
“I tell you, I felt safe in there,” one woman said to another.
“Courtney’s house at 7 tonight — ‘Survivor’ finale!” another woman said.
A police officer escorted two Latino protesters back to their cars in the parking lot.
“We’re just here to be sure you get home safely,” the officer told them.
Later, as the thousands of cars exited the parking lot, a young man in the bed of a pickup truck would begin yelling at two Latinos in the car behind him.
“Mother f---ing tacos! Go back to Mexico! Go back to Mexico! Nobody wants you!”
The Latino driver would get out of his car and say: “Come on! Come on!”
But for now, the Trump supporters lingered awhile in the parking lot to watch his plane take off for his next campaign stop.