On the tarmac with Trump

Feeling uninspired and undignified after his Redding rally

Donald Trump speaks to his flock at the Redding Municipal Airport.

Donald Trump speaks to his flock at the Redding Municipal Airport.

Photo by Meredith J. Cooper

Temperatures were creeping up and over the 100 degree mark on the tarmac at Redding Municipal Airport last Friday (June 3) as a crowd of thousands eagerly awaited the arrival of Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump. Some took refuge under shade tents, sipping from water bottles provided by rally staff. Many displayed their patriotism with American flags and other variations of red, white and blue. And as 1 o’clock approached, the mass swelled in anticipation.

Neil Young’s “Rockin’ in the Free World” and “You Can’t Always Get What You Want” by the Rolling Stones played on a loop over the loudspeakers. The latter seemed like a strange choice for a rally, but maybe that’s just me. (Interestingly, both the Stones and Young have requested that Trump stop playing their songs at his events. Young even offered up the use of “Rockin’ in the Free World” exclusively to Bernie Sanders, who played the song at his Chico rally. Legally, however, as long as the venue has the proper licensing, both tunes are fair game.)

Around 1:15, the loop ended and the theme song from Air Force One came on. The crowd, as if on cue, shifted its collective gaze to the sky. And there he was, the Donald himself, in his personal Boeing 757 many have dubbed “Trump Force One.” The plane did a dramatic flyover, looping around the airstrip and behind a humongous American flag hoisted up by a crane, before landing and finally taxiing to the designated drop-off spot. Trump took the podium around 1:30 p.m., half an hour late. The entire entrance could be described as epic, a grand display of celebrity the likes of which I have never seen off the silver screen.

We in the press box had already gotten antsy. Upon arrival—by 12:30 at the latest—we were told we could not leave our designated area. I was talking later to a reporter from Washington, D.C., who said the reason was so we wouldn’t have access to voters. Alrighty then. It wouldn’t have been so bad in that box had we been provided with a few simple amenities, like water and toilets. The port-o-potties sat just feet away, outside the barrier. Water was being handed out freely to Trump supporters, but when I asked the woman guarding the gate if we could have some, she said no—they hadn’t set that up for us. A general lack of shade sent some of us to seek refuge from the blaring sun underneath tables and, during a good portion of the speech, I sat under the stage. It was nearly unbearable.

Trump spoke for about an hour, maybe longer, and his audience seemed to be excited, though not spirited the way Sanders’ followers had been the night before. At the Sanders rally, there were cheers and chanting, but I felt a sense of emotion in the air that I can only attribute to the positivity of Sanders’ message and the collective engagement and passion of everybody there. I actually fought back tears a few times and wondered, for a moment, if I was being sucked in. Is this all it takes, I thought, to become a follower?

To be completely honest, I hoped I would be inspired by Trump, too. I wanted to feel the intensity, to be awed by his presence, to understand the draw. But I didn’t. Perhaps I was turned off by his early—and frequent—references to the “biased,” “dishonest” and “sleazy” press. Or maybe it was the heat. Perhaps it was the overall negativity of his speech, which was filled with jabs at Hillary Clinton—and a few at Sanders—along with general badmouthing of his protesters (“thugs”) and anyone else who criticized him.

Trump’s supporters, however, seemed engaged. They cheered often and broke into chants from time to time (“Build the wall! Build the wall!”). He threw around the “L” word a lot, as he’s wont to do, including to a woman early on who passed out due to the heat. “We need a medic over here,” he said. “She’s been here for five hours—some of you have been here for seven or eight hours. We love you—are you OK?” Then there was the already notorious gaffe, when Trump pointed at a black man in the crowd of white faces and said, “Look at my African American over there. Look at him. Aren’t you the greatest?” (That man turned out to be Gregory Cheadle, a District 1 Republican Congressional candidate who told news outlets later that he is not, in fact, a Trump supporter but he was not offended by his comments.)

By the time I left the tarmac—after Trump boarded his plane to that Air Force One song—I felt I’d gotten a better sense of his campaign and him as a person and potential president. I hadn’t expected to feel as personally affected by the experience as I did. But hiding underneath that stage and begging for a water bottle from a policeman whose job was not to fetch me water felt downright undignified. And his childish name-calling of the press made it pretty clear he wanted us to feel that way.