About this series: What's happening in America? What does it mean to be an American? These are questions defining a campaign unlike any other. For nearly 35 days, we crossed the nation looking for answers. This is what we found.

PART 1 | PART 2 | PART 3 | PART 4


Workers at Detroit Manufacturing Systems, an auto-parts company in Detroit, await a visit by Hillary Clinton on March 4. (Melina Mara/The Washington Post)

To reach the heart of the matter in Michigan on a late-winter evening, navigate out of downtown Detroit and drive 20 miles north on Interstate 94, hang a left at Highway 59, and continue for seven miles, the darkening way illumined by the flickering yellowish glow of American commerce, until you reach yet another strip mall at the corner of Schoenherr Road. There, in a storefront headquarters stuck between Buy Buy Baby and Long Tall Sally, members of the Macomb County Republican Party were coming out of the cold to watch their presidential candidates debate again on television.

Macomb County, in the vast suburban landscape above Detroit, is mostly white and middle-class, filled with people who fled the troubled city and shed their pasts as Democrats and union members. Many were from families that voted for FDR and roared with the multitudes in Cadillac Square when John F. Kennedy opened his fall campaign there on Labor Day in 1960. All of that is long gone. It was 36 years ago that Macomb County became synonymous with Reagan Democrats, but the rightward lean began there a decade earlier with the embrace of George Wallace, the Southern segregationist.

Now the territory was largely Republican, and another movement, the phenomenon of Donald Trump, had turned it once again into a case study of modern politics.

Among those in attendance at the debate watch were two people who might be considered bookends of the Trump movement. One was Jason Powrozek, an earnest 17-year-old senior at Anchor Bay High School, whom the state field director had praised as the most productive volunteer in Michigan. The other was longtime political aide Ken Matiyow, state Sen. Jack Brandenburg’s district chief of staff. Matiyow’s boss was the first Michigan senator to endorse Trump, an early rider among public officials across the country starting to scramble aboard the Trump train even while others were desperately trying to blow up the tracks.

Republican frontrunner Donald Trump cited the Great Wall of China while talking about the reality of building a 1,000-mile wall along the Mexican border after his Super Tuesday victories. (Reuters)

If you wonder what the Trump phenomenon said about America, Matiyow advised that you spend time knocking on doors in Macomb County. The feedback at address after address was the same. All anti-immigration, all the time. “Man, does that strike a nerve. It gets an incredible response when you get to talking about illegal immigration. People don’t want them to ever be legal citizens.” There was one front-stoop conversation where they were denouncing the idea of a path to citizenship and saluting Trump’s plan to build a wall and make Mexico pay for it, and someone heard Matiyow talking and said, ‘Hey, let me have a sign, too.’ ” On immigration, Matiyow said, there was “a massive outpouring of disgust.”

After describing how Brandenburg had helped turn Macomb County red by pounding away on conservative issues and taking the territory back one house at a time, Matiyow concluded a riff on immigration by telling a personal story about where he lived. For the past several years, he had been renting a place at the Village Park apartments on Dequindre Road in Shelby Township, not far from the party headquarters. When he moved there, he said, “there was no one there from India. Now half the building is made up of people from India. These are young techies who have come to replace American workers. This is a real scandal.” The Indians, he said, all had proper documentation but were taking jobs away from Americans.

Matiyow sat in the front row as the televised debate beamed in from Houston. He was alternately animated and subdued as what he was watching descended into playground insults, just as the larger campaign itself had devolved, with Trump sandwiched between his twin tormenters and twin targets, Marco Rubio on one side, Ted Cruz on the other. He laughed when Trump said Mitt Romney had run a terrible campaign. He clapped when Trump said that he was the only one onstage who had hired people and that Rubio hadn’t hired anybody. He looked around to see who was laughing when Rubio said that while important events were unfolding, Trump was busy firing Dennis Rodman on “The Apprentice.” A perturbed look crossed his face when Cruz and Rubio started yapping at his man at the same time, rendering the conversation unintelligible.

And when it was over, Matiyow said he preferred town hall meetings over debates. The guy next to him said he thought that Trump was perhaps the new Andrew Jackson.

Jason, sitting 10 feet behind them, kept a calm demeanor throughout. He used to worry about what Trump would say during a debate and how other candidates went after him, but no more. “Mr. Trump says whatever he wants to and it doesn’t hurt him,” he said.


Jason Powrozek, 17, makes calls to potential voters at a Donald Trump phone bank in Rochester, Mich., on Feb. 27. He was praised as the most productive volunteer in Michigan, putting in hours after school and a full schedule on weekends. (Linda Davidson/The Washington Post)

Jason offered a different notion of how to look at Trump, a variation of the dream that anyone can become rich and powerful. When first encountered at the regional Trump headquarters a few days earlier, the teenager was soft-spoken and polite. It would be hard to imagine him shouting insults at a rival, or at a protester at a Trump rally. Jason lived in New Baltimore, on the edge of Lake St. Clair, and would not turn 18 until October, in time to vote in the general election. His mother worked at home, and his father was a sales rep for Cintas, a uniform company. Earlier that afternoon, he had made the 45-minute drive along 26 Mile Road from high school, wearing black dress shoes and a suit and tie, his brown hair gelled straight in front.

His support for Trump was rooted in personality more than the construction of a wall. He had never been much for cartoons or sports but was into prime-time television, and his favorite show was “The Apprentice,” which he began watching when he was 12. Trump had been an authority figure in his life ever since. “I have always looked up to Mr. Trump. I like how when he walks into a room, he commands the room. I enjoyed that show. He was almost like a role model for me. That show was able to convey his personality and charismatic appeal. I would like to become more like him. I am currently not that way, but in my own progression I would like to develop my personality more like Mr. Trump’s. I would like to become successful and help other people become successful.”

Since getting involved in January, Jason had placed more successful calls from the Trump phone bank than any other volunteer in the state. He said he kept finding people who called themselves Democrats and said they had never voted for a Republican. At Anchor Bay High, he said, he worried at first about how classmates and teachers would react to his support of Trump, then decided, “I’m going to express myself and my views.” He wore a Trump T-shirt to school and spoke up in government class, where he thought his teacher, James Swartz, admired him “even though I know Mr. Trump is not his first choice.”

Swartz later praised Jason’s involvement as an example of what it means to be an American. He had never had a student “take such an active role” in campaigning. “Neil Simon’s ‘Biloxi Blues’ comes to mind when thinking about Jason’s role in political activism. In the play, Epstein accuses Eugene of ‘always standing around watching what’s happening.’ He says, ‘You’re scribbling in your book what other people do. You have to get in the middle of it. You have to take sides. Make a contribution to the fight.’ Jason is simply doing what Epstein is asking Eugene to do. Instead of scribbling in a notebook, which I guess would be this generation’s version in the form of Facebook, Twitter or Internet blog, he is making his contributions through his actions.”

The fact that Jason was inspired by “The Apprentice” revealed something else about the Trump phenomenon. The New York real estate mogul’s appeal was many layered. In the entryway near where Jason worked the phones, two retired men wearing “Make America Great Again” caps sat at a card table, unofficial bouncers of a sort. Gary Hohf, 63, and Bill Manjar, 60, fit the Macomb County Reagan Democrat archetype — beefy guys who grew up as Democrats, once belonged to unions (United Auto Workers and ironworkers, felt “screwed,” as they said, by various free-trade agreements, left the Democratic Party and were now all in for Trump. His was the first campaign they had ever felt the desire to join.

But when Jason exited the headquarters to canvass that day in Shelby Township to promote Trump ahead of the Michigan primary, which was then two weeks away, his companion was another variation of Trump supporter, Rick Cruz, a 62-year-old self-employed entrepreneur who shared young Jason’s admiration for Trump’s commercial success. In listening to Cruz, one could see a connection between Trump’s evangelism about money and his unexpected popularity among religious evangelicals, between mega-churches brimming with believers who want to be saved and arenas filled with people who want to be taught how to become rich. Prophets and profits, in this sense speaking the same language.

Cruz said he had read many of Trump’s books, including “Midas Touch” and “Why We Want You to Be Rich,” and had taken courses Trump sponsored in real estate and wealth development. “I admire success,” he said. Trump was his favorite profit evangelist, but he also was keen on investor Warren Buffett (“If I could just sit down in that fast-food restaurant where he eats every day, I would love to do that!”) and motivational speaker Tony Robbins, and was just starting to get into the other businessman Trump is always trumpeting, Carl Icahn. Was he rich himself? Cruz had lost his share of homes and cars over the years, he said, and he had been “divorced twice, like Trump.” But “I’m comfortable enough with what I’ve earned. I haven’t had to draw unemployment this last year even though I haven’t worked.”

The wide, quiet streets of the Shelby Township subdivisions were mostly empty as Jason and Cruz weaved their way canvassing late in the afternoon. They finally found a guy hauling things out of his garage on Sandy Creek. His name was Mike Miroslaw, and he said he was not that into politics and thought it was “a really bad crop this year, a bad crop.” But if the choice was between Trump and Hillary Clinton, he was going with Trump. “I want this country to get back to where it should be,” he said. “It’s time to focus on the U.S., on this country again.”

* * *


Fatima Salman, pictured with two of her three sons on March 2, is a working mother living with her husband in Bloomfield Hills, Mich. Salman attended a West Bloomfield Township board meeting a month earlier in support of a resolution that had passed but was being challenged by a roomful of angry tea party conservatives. The resolution declared that West Bloomfield was a “welcoming” city for immigrants. (Linda Davidson/The Washington Post)

Focusing on the country was precisely what Fatima Salman was doing. She was an organizer with the Technical Assistance Center in Detroit, an outfit working to help the city’s neighborhoods emerge from decades of decay, and was among hundreds of businesspeople and community leaders attending the winter conference of the Detroit Regional Chamber at the MotorCity Casino Hotel. The conference was about reviving the city’s neighborhoods. That sort of work was what Salman thought being an American was all about. But there was more. She grew up in the suburbs, in Troy. Her mother taught Montessori. Her dad worked at Chrysler. “We always had a Chrysler in our driveway. We are very much a part of the Detroit car culture. We are so American!”

Now she was married to a doctor and lived in West Bloomfield with three children who attended public schools, and it was in that suburban setting, at a meeting of the West Bloomfield Township board a month earlier, that police escorted her to the safety of her car. She had attended the meeting in support of a resolution that the board had passed but was being challenged by a roomful of angry tea party conservatives. The resolution declared that West Bloomfield was a “welcoming” city for immigrants. Salman’s parents came from India 42 years ago. Her husband grew up in Syria. They were American citizens and Muslims who worshiped at the Muslim Unity Center in Bloomfield Hills. The Detroit area had the largest concentration of Muslims in a nation of immigrants. Salman had always been proud that Michigan “was so welcoming to Muslims” — until that night at the town hall meeting when she was surrounded by anger. Reporters were at the meeting, and the discussion was recorded.

One resident talked about the beheading of Christians. Another said Muslims wanted to change the U.S. Constitution. A third said new immigrants from Syria and other Muslim countries would “never be American” — that these immigrants were taking jobs and resources away from real Americans and that the United States was in danger of becoming a Third World country.

“I was shaking,” Salman said. “It shows we have a lot of work to do. We have to work overtime to overcome all the negatives. . . . Trump by himself has changed Muslim life so much. The fear of the other. Everything they were saying at that town hall was what he was saying.” The incident and others like it, as chilling as they may be, had one positive effect, she said. They forced the Muslims she knew to coalesce and get active and engage the world around them and not recede into their safe zones. The incident at the township meeting also challenged her view of America, she said, but did not change it. She had lived in Syria once, as an exchange student in the late 1990s, and her husband had grown up there, and they knew what it meant to live in a closed society with an oppressive government. The United States, she said, was “a country that celebrates the beauty of diversity, the prosperity of diversity. The whole world looks at America and says, ‘You guys have got it!’ ”


Nakeyja Cade bathes her three children in bottled water on March 1 in Flint, Mich. Her her 1-year-old daughter, Zariyah, at left in the bathtub, scored high on a blood test for lead. The working single mother said that Zariyah began having seizures shortly after she was born and that the lead in the water is responsible. Cade’s 3-year-old son’s levels were not as high. She has not yet tested her 5-year-old daughter and herself. (Linda Davidson/The Washington Post)

Perhaps, but they might look north to the city of Flint and say something else. Here was another Michigan story leading to citizen discontent. Flint, where the water was so full of lead that it was poisoning its residents, where the people were victims of government disregard, where Clinton and Bernie Sanders would come to campaign and return to debate and denounce a slow-to-react state government run by Republicans. Flint was where the Rev. Gerald Cardwell talked about how his church, Quinn Chapel AME, the oldest in the city’s African American community, had lost almost all of its younger members since General Motors left town. The average age was now 65. He worried about that, along with why his hands started cracking a few years ago because of the additives in the water, and then the poisoning came along and he stopped cooking and showering with tap water.

His was the city where Nakeyja Cade, a single mother who worked at the Forman Mills clothing warehouse, worried about what that tainted water did to her 1-year-old daughter, Zariyah, who keeps testing high for lead in her blood and started having seizures and passing out a few months after she was born. And it was where the Rev. Allen Overton, a Baptist minister who had lived there for half a century, first noticed the funny color of the water, then the irritation of his skin, then thought it was odd that there seemed to be more concern early on about the water corroding car parts than about it harming people. How did he define America during this election season? As a nation that was still divided by race and economics. “I don’t know what it means to take America back or make it great again,” he said. The words seemed like code to him, but entirely irrelevant to his city’s struggles.

* * *


A billboard put up by business owners welcomes visitors to Harrison, Ark., a town with “beautiful people, no wrong exits and no bad neighborhoods.” It hangs on State Road 412 above a sign that says “ ‘Diversity’ is a code word for #whitegenocide.” (Andrea Morales/For The Washington Post)

On the Sunday morning when Trump, in a CNN television interview, did not disavow the endorsement of former Ku Klux Klan grand wizard David Duke, Jeff Crockett sat in his home and flinched. He lived on a farm in Harrison, a rustic Arkansas hamlet deep in the Ozarks. With a town square that looked like a western movie set, and more than 40 churches from First Baptist to Brand New Church, Harrison had tried to move beyond an unsettling distinction. It was the listed address of the KKK.

The Klan’s headquarters were nearly 20 miles out of the city limits, but the mailing address said Harrison, and that was enough to keep the city’s racist history fresh. During riots in 1905 and 1909, whites ran out practically all the African Americans living in the city. The reputation held that Harrison was a “sundown town,” a place unsafe for blacks at night. The current census said that about 0.3 percent of the city — 43 people — identified as African American.

“We never hear any complaints from them,” said Crockett, a former mayor who grew up in the Chicago suburbs. He was bald, with a hearty laugh and piercing blue eyes. As mayor, Crockett tried to reshape Harrison’s reputation. When the city tried to host a convention for nonviolence, parents of black students from Little Rock were so afraid of sending their kids to Harrison that they asked if they could be accompanied by a police escort. In 2014, Crockett held a ceremony with those students in which they symbolically put “hate” in a casket and declared it buried. Some residents complained, asking why they were bringing up the subject of race.

“There’s a percentage of racism here, but there’s racism everywhere,” Crockett said. “Diversity is harder to grasp because they’ve never been around it. They haven’t had to drive through the projects, they don’t know what Cabrini-Green is.”

After Barack Obama was elected, Crockett said open displays of racism were muted. “No one wanted to introduce racism,” he said. With Trump, he had concerns that his leadership might re­introduce that word he buried with the schoolchildren. “I worry a little that some people, very few people, might start beating the drum louder because of what Trump is doing.”

Their slice of the country, largely ignored in politics, had suddenly become thrust into the national conversation. Republicans were eager to pick votes from rural and working-class white voters, and the top three candidates had visited northwestern Arkansas in a 24-hour span. Their presence, and Trump’s comments, provided neither solace nor clarity.


Men chat while drinking coffee at the Townhouse Cafe in Harrison, Ark., on March 8. They are a part of a group of locals who gather at the diner for coffee every morning. (Andrea Morales/For The Washington Post)

On the eve of Super Tuesday, Crockett headed to the Townhouse Cafe, a restaurant with exposed-brick walls and tablecloths that read “Société Générale.” The old-timers liked to come to this place each morning, visiting with one another from table to table. As Crockett munched on a breakfast sandwich and hash browns, Dave Fitton joined him briefly.

“So who are you voting for tomorrow?” Crockett said.

“If there was a libertarian candidate, I’d vote for them,” Fitton said. “But there’s not, so I’m not sure I’m going to vote.”

Fitton thought the government had sunk beyond reproach. “Even when you send people with good intentions, they get up in Washington, D.C., and they get a lot in the club,” he said. “Republican, Democrat, if you just look at what they’re saying, there’s not a lot of difference.”

“I’m just confused right now,” said Tim Lauer, 68. “I’m waiting for the shoe to drop to finally expose what these people are really thinking. I just don’t trust them.”

Lauer used to own the cafe with his partner, who died in 2012. They abandoned the partying lifestyle in New Orleans in the ’80s to avoid the scourge of AIDS, seeking refuge in a town that was dry until 2011. The town folk rarely acknowledged that the cafe was run by a gay couple, and Lauer worked to be accepted. He held his tongue when customers complained if Lauer did “woman’s work” of waiting on their tables. When he wanted to introduce the chicken fricassee as a dish, customers steered clear of it until they renamed it “stewed chicken over rice.”

These regulars were independent, and proud to call themselves mountain folk. They didn’t believe in rocking the boat. They said what they resented most about the country today was not the poverty or education level of their town, but that politicians didn’t fully understand their desire to run their own lives. They were interested in business, maybe, but not government programs. They were interested in the moral teachings of their pastor, but not this president. And they would not vote if they didn’t want to. Lauer understood that now, too. He said he was unsure whether he’d cast a ballot in the primary.

How did his patrons feel about Trump’s push to get more votes from people in rural areas who did not go to college? George Cady, 62, a former trucker, said he thought the country was in dire need of some more common sense. “Our president is a socialist, and we are in debt,” he said. “I personally think politicians could learn from us. I didn’t go to college, but I know I have to pay my credit card bills on time. So what does that tell you?”

At another table, Frank Hampson and his friend Joe Bilbee were leafing through copies of World War II magazines. “I know how to fix the illegals problem,” said Hampson, a justice of the peace. The government, he said, should find illegal immigrants and then force them to work in gardens and grow vegetables before deporting them. “Before you knew it, we would have all these fruits and vegetables from our gardens,” Hampson said. “And it would send a message that if you come to the United Sates, all you will do is garden.”

As Lauer walked out of the restaurant, he announced to Crockett that he was leaving town. He was moving to Eureka, Ill., a community that had a gay bar, and he was eager to hoist up a big rainbow flag without any worry.

* * *


Jorge Silva, left, the director of Hispanic media for Hillary Clinton’s campaign; Choco Meza, the top volunteer at Clinton headquarters in San Antonio; and campaign volunteer Ernesto Aguilar listen to their candidate speak on the television on March 1 at the campaign’s San Antonio headquarters after election results for the Texas primary were announced. (Spencer Selvidge/For The Washington Post)

Texas and Michigan seem at the center of things this year in many ways. The vote may be more decisive elsewhere, but the threads of the story weave through these two states, the debate over different definitions of what it meant to be an American. Texas, like Michigan, was a great divide. Here was one Texas: the richest donor base of conservative money in the era of Citizens United. Texas, where Alex Jones, America’s airwave conspiratorialist, portrayed a world in which 9/11 was an inside job and the moon landings were faked. Texas, where public officials seriously questioned whether the Jade Helm military exercise was a prelude to a government takeover of the state. Texas, where officials urged gun manufacturers to move after the shootings at Sandy Hook. Texas, in the vanguard of voter-ID laws, abortion restrictions, guns in government buildings, and textbooks rewritten to eliminate history with a liberal slant. Texas, with the longest border and more than a thousand miles of Trump’s imagined great wall.

Then the other Texas, the land of Latinos who are rising faster than any group in the country and by large percentages want nothing to do with the wall or the idea of deporting 11 million or 12 million undocumented immigrants. San Antonio is the heart of this Tex-Mex Texas, the one that inspired the notion of demographics as destiny, an eventuality of a blue Lone Star that would change everything about American politics. The idea still seems a far distance away, if it would ever arrive.

Among the abuelas of this other Texas is Choco Meza, the top volunteer at Clinton headquarters in San Antonio. She was an immigrant herself, arriving in Texas in the early 1950s at age 3 with her parents and four siblings from Zaragoza in the Mexican province of Coahuila. Their first stop was Uvalde in the Rio Grande Valley, where her father, Alfonso R. Gonzalez, dug ditches for ranchers. Then they moved on to Eagle Pass, up along the border, where they lived in public housing, and where a second-grade teacher scolded Meza for bringing her Spanish-speaking mother to school. “If she doesn’t know English, why is she here?” the teacher asked. “Because she is with me,” Meza replied.

The family finally made it to San Antonio’s west side, with these results from three generations: All five children went to college and three, including Meza, to graduate school. Among 13 grandchildren, three are lawyers and the others work in homeland security, cybersecurity and various businesses. Meza’s son and daughter are lawyers. When she was asked what it meant to be an American, she said: “Just look at my family. That is an American success story.”

The anger and frustration that permeated this campaign left Meza disheartened. What a different world she lived in from that old gentleman in rural Arkansas who thought undocumented immigrants could be punished by having to grow gardens. So many obstacles that could have made Meza feel cynical about the democratic process, she said. As a woman, as an immigrant — “I can think of all these ways that I could have been held back, but I had to work through it, we have to work through it. Just because things don’t happen right away is not reason to be belligerent to our own country. We may not be a perfect country, but we certainly are a great country.”

One of Meza’s oldest friends in San Antonio was Rosie Castro, whose mother, Victoria, arrived in San Antonio as an orphan from Mexico at age 6, living with her guardians, the Garcias. Castro also grew up with the Garcias. Her young mother never married, never got past third grade, worked as a housekeeper, but could read in Spanish and English, and sent Rosie, her only child, to Little Flower Catholic School and then to Our Lady of the Lake University. Rosie never married, either, but had twin boys, and as she became more involved in politics in San Antonio, she took them with her to meetings and rallies all over town.


Rep. Joaquin Castro (D-Tex.) and his mother, Rosie Castro, have lunch at Mi Tierra in San Antonio on Super Tuesday. Rosie Castro was a single mother who raised twin sons, now 41, Joaquin and Julian, who, after being mayor of San Antonio, now works in President Obama’s Cabinet as secretary of housing and urban development and is on the shortlist of potential running mates for Hillary Clinton. (Spencer Selvidge/For The Washington Post)

As Rosie Castro sat in Henry’s Puffy Tacos eating lunch a few days before the Texas primary, she pondered the same question asked of many dozens of people over the past month. What did it mean to her to be an American? She said that when she started as an activist four decades ago, it seemed to her that America had “a lot of prejudice and no remedy. . . . It didn’t matter what the issue was, it looked like we were screwed.” But she had always loved the country nonetheless. “Ever since I was a child, my thing was the American flag,” she said. “I sold little American flags then. Later I had an American flag in front of my home. I just so fundamentally believe in the ideals of America. I believe that fundamentally Americans are good people. Even though we face difficulties, in a democracy there is a way to change things. You have to be engaged. You have to understand that things don’t just happen. I think back to 30-some years ago when I ran for city council and didn’t stand a chance, to today, when my sons could be president someday.”

Her twin sons, now 41, are Joaquin and Julian Castro. They went to Stanford and Harvard and got law degrees and became politicians. One served in the Texas legislature and is now a congressman. The other, after being mayor of San Antonio, now works in President Obama’s Cabinet as secretary of housing and urban development and is on the shortlist of potential running mates for Hillary Clinton. Here is one of the central tensions of the political debate this year. Although some express dismay about a lost America and the dilution of the national ideal by an influx of immigrants, there are people like Choco Meza and Rosie Castro who believe that the American ideal is alive to them and their descendants as never before.

Joaquin Castro, the congressman, came home to San Antonio that weekend to campaign for a local legislative friend and for Clinton. “People are motivated by two things,” he said at one rally. “Hope or fear.” And fear had been let loose this year, he said, through the scapegoating of immigrants and talk of a wall across the Mexican border. “In the era of Donald Trump, you can’t stay quiet. They are talking about us. The people of this neighborhood. And a lot of that talk started in Texas. This was ground zero.”

Audrey Garcia was driving home from a cross-training class on Saturday morning when she saw Castro walking along Commerce Street, door-knocking in the Edgewood district on San Antonio’s west side. She pulled over and got out of her SUV, bringing along her teenage daughter to meet the lawmaker. She said she wanted her daughter to be proud of politics and proud of her country, not angry.


A protester is escorted out of a rally for Donald Trump on March 1 in Louisville. (John Bazemore/Associated Press)

The next day, in Louisville, a different side of America. Johanna Hribal had decided she needed to take a stand. Donald Trump was coming to town, and the diminutive 24-year-old middle-school foreign-language teacher with long black hair had decided to organize a protest. She was no lefty. She had never organized anything before. She did not even know who would get her vote. What she did know is that she disliked what she considered to be Trump’s bullying, wild boasting and arrogance, and feared it would ruin America. She had watched a John Oliver video detailing Trump’s faults and read that fact checkers deemed more than three-quarters of the Trump statements they examined as false or mostly false. Maybe she could help stem the momentum.

As Hribal put out her protest call on Facebook, strangers from around the country warned her to be careful. Trump rallies could get violent, they wrote. When a local television station asked to interview her about the cause, she called her mother in Virginia. Concern, but not complete support there. “You know I actually am going to vote for him,” her mother said of Trump. “I just don’t really like Hillary.”

The plan moved forward anyway. Hribal straightened her hair and wore a baseball cap to throw off any security guard who might have seen her on television. She wore a T-shirt with a bald eagle on it. At 1 that afternoon, she joined the line to enter Louisville’s convention center, in the heart of its industrial downtown. Once inside, she waited for more protesters to find her.

“There are no seats here,” Hribal said, although her protest was known as ­#emptytheseats. “We’ll just stand and walk out.”

Among those who joined her was Keith Rose, burly and bearded, who came with a handmade sign that said “Make America Great Again.” The motto nauseated him. The past eight years, he said, had been the happiest in his life. Rose grew up gay in a small town in the 1990s, fearing that bullies might kill him. Now he had married the love of his life and watched a president, after some hesitation, fully embrace gay people. “What we’re seeing is a lot of resistance to change in this country and it’s sad,” Rose said. “But we’ve come too far to let it get away.”

The hall began to fill. Soon they were surrounded by men with thick beards and women in jeans, dancing and singing along to “Uptown Girl.” Hribal got nervous. Then the rally started. A woman sang the national anthem. A Korean War vet saluted the flag. New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie told the crowd that Trump was the only person who could beat Clinton. And out came Trump to deafening applause.

Hribal was too short to see him through the tangle of arms and heads and cellphones. She was surrounded by women in American flag paraphernalia and men with caps proclaiming their veteran status. The crowd began shouting the candidate’s name.

Was it time for action?


A protester holds up a sign reading “Immigrants make America great” as he disrupts a rally for Donald Trump on March 1 in Louisville. (John Bazemore/Associated Press)

When Trump congratulated himself for introducing the debate about illegal immigration, a group of protesters on the other side of the room began to yell, although Hribal could not quite make out what they were saying. A teenager standing in front of her in a black Green Day sweatshirt turned red in the face and began to jump toward the protesters, both middle fingers in the air.

“Build that wall!” the crowd shouted. “Build that wall!” As the chant continued, a man in a purple sweater standing behind Hribal raised a hand in the air, clenching his fist. The crowd members were so riled up that they booed at Trump’s utterance of the word “Mexico.”

Hribal typed a message furiously into her cellphone. It was time. She hoisted a sign in the air and yelled, “EMPTY THE SEATS!”

The teenager in the black Green Day sweatshirt turned and sneered. He grabbed the sign and ripped it to shreds. Rose hoisted a new sign, with the name “Bernie” written in the colors of a rainbow. Another man tore it from his hands and stomped on it.

“Get them out of here!” Trump yelled from the stage. “Out!”

Men in the crowd lunged at Hribal, extending their arms, but Rose acted as a shield. Police officers were coming to escort the protesters out, but the path was blocked. The crowd seethed at them and called them losers. Hribal began to shake. As more officers approached to lead her and her friends out of the hall, a man in a green trucker hat leaned toward her. He whispered, “This old man will whip you.”

Outside, Hribal waited near the entrance to see if any more protesters would be kicked out. One was a young black woman who said she was called vile racist and sexist names and shoved by the crowd. Video of her harassment later went viral. Ronald Fernandez, 29, came to find Hribal and wrapped her in his arms. He was her boyfriend.

“I’m so glad you’re safe,” he said, kissing her on the cheek.

“I’m a little shaken up!” she said. “I’m a little invigorated. Look at these people who are coming out to speak against this guy. Maybe there is hope in America.”

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Miami resident Mali Parkerson grew up in more than 10 countries but has never necessarily identified as American. Her biggest concerns for this election are the environment and foreign policy. (Alice Li,Jayne Orenstein/The Washington Post)

Return to San Antonio for one final scene in the broad expanse in front of the Alamo. The afternoon was soft and warm, a becalmed sea compared with the raging whirlwind of Louisville. Smiling gaggles of 15-year-old girls posed in their flowing blue quinceañera dresses. Tourists stood erect on Segways and glided by single-file. African Americans and Anglos and Latinos came and went, men in cowboy hats, babies in strollers, people speaking Spanish and English and German. And sitting on the stone wall in the shade, a fellow named Maurice Jones. What was his definition of what it meant to be an American?

Turned out Jones was from Wales, the village of Tal-y-bont. He was 63, a retired sergeant major in the British army who had seen action in Northern Ireland and the Falklands. And he was more than game for the question. He loved America as much as any native-born son, and to him the Alamo was the symbol. For many years now, he had made an annual pilgrimage from Wales to San Antonio and booked a room at the Crockett Hotel and visited the Alamo from late February until March 6, the date the mission fell to the Mexican army 180 years ago. He had been obsessed with the place since he was a boy and saw John Wayne play Davy Crockett in the 1960 movie.

Jones thought he knew America, until this year. That morning he had been asking other guests at the hotel to explain the rise of Trump and the ruckus in the Republican Party. He knew about nationalism, and in fact said he would vote for Britain to leave the European Union. And like all Europeans, he certainly knew about the difficulties Western nations faced dealing with a flood of refugees and immigrants, although he thought the Britons were handling the problem more rationally than the Americans.

But “all the nastiness and name-calling on the telly from Mr. Trump” — that was beyond him. And so was the notion that America was not great. “This is still basically the land of opportunity, is it not? If you work at it, you can still get on with it, can you not? It is a beautiful country. If I had it to do over again, and I were a young lad, this is where I would want to live.”