I went to a Donald Trump rally. Here’s what I learned.

Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump gestures during a campaign event in Hartford, Conn., Friday, April 15, 2016. (AP Photo/Charles Krupa)

Everyone, from seemingly every background, political party and class, seems to be fascinated with Donald Trump. Even those that hate him can’t seem to tear their eyes away from the screen when he’s on television, so I went with a friend to a Trump campaign rally in Hartford last Friday to see what it was all about.

The first thing I noticed on the way in to the event at the Connecticut Convention Center is how marketable Trump is. Outside, street vendors sold knock-off Trump hats, Trump jerseys, shirts, pins and even masks of the presidential candidate.

Would-be politicians and activists campaigned outside, some protesting silently and others campaigning by handing out flyers and brochures. Everyone wants a piece of Trump’s popularity. 

I arrived at the Convention Center at about 4 p.m., with Trump set to speak at 7 p.m. That left three hours to talk to Trump supporters, and they had a lot to say. I endeavored not to give away the fact that I was not a die-hard Trump supporter, and mostly gave noncommittal or vague answers when questioned.

Still, Trump supporters were more than happy to talk about the election, their thoughts on the other candidates, the economy and especially protesters. 

The Trump campaign seems to be painfully aware of how much the attacks on protesters by Trump supporters have hurt his campaign, or at least Trump’s ability to appear presidential. That seemed to be the message delivered over the PA system prior to Trump taking the stage.

If they saw a protester, the crowd was instructed to hold up their “Trump for President” signs and begin chanting “Trump, Trump, Trump” until security took the troublemaker away. No less than eight protesters were taken out of the building over the course of the evening. 

After three hours, Trump arrived almost exactly at 7 p.m. and began speaking. Although the speech contained absolutely nothing new policy-wise, and was only about half an hour long, there is no denying that Trump is a gifted public speaker. His energy flowed through the crowd, and he in turn seemed to feed off it.

At one point, a group of supporters near the back of the room began chanting “USA! USA!” and Trump encouraged it, stepping to the side of the podium so that the rest of the room could join in the chant.

What was really remarkable about Trump, however, was the way that he undermined or defanged protesters as soon as they appeared, even working them into his speech. At one point, Trump spoke about the “dummies” in the government, and as a protester began shouting, pointed and said “there’s one of the dummies,” drawing raucous laughter from the audience. It was far from the last protester Trump shut down this way.

The most interesting part of the event, however, took place after Trump stopped speaking. Close to 6,000 Trump supporters and other attendees all left the building at once, only to encounter a protest with more than 100 people holding signs representing various movements. Some chanted “Racists go home! Racists go home!” while the Trump supporters replied by chanting “Get a job! Get a job!”

Eventually, I extricated myself from the protest, and moved toward the parking garage, reflecting on what I had learned. Trump offered nothing that would cause anyone to change their personal views on him, but his supporters and protesters did give me some pause. 

Trump supporters, though not unique in this flaw, sometimes seem to live in an echo chamber, where the constant reinforcement of their own beliefs and ideas leaves them blind to any other viewpoint. One man told me that Trump would “destroy” Hillary Clinton in a general election. A Fox News poll from earlier this week suggested that Trump was seven points down to Clinton in national polls, with other surveys suggesting equally bad or worse numbers.

Although most Trump supporters ignored the protesters on their way back to the parking garage, more than a few were willing to get into debates, or in some cases, screaming matches, with the protesters. One old woman approached a young woman holding a “Black Lives Matter” sign and yelled, “White Lives Matter!” Only a few feet away, a man was arguing with a group of people holding a “God Hates Trump” sign. 

Though my views on Trump have not changed, my opinion of both his protesters and supporters has. His supporters, although reasonable and polite, do seem to consume only a certain kind of media and associated largely with those that already agree with their viewpoints. The protesters, meanwhile, are not a homogenous group dedicated to protesting Trump, but dozens of small groups that do not want a Donald Trump presidency and are willing to turn out in force to protest his events. 

Although the evening did not go the way that I initially expected, there was no denying that the entertainment provided was unlike any other political theater ever seen at the Connecticut Convention Center. The entire evening was best summed up by a line from Mr. Trump himself as yet another protester was removed.

“There is nothing more fun than a Trump rally, right?” he said, drawing enormous applause.


Edward Pankowski is the life editor for The Daily Campus. He can be reached via email at edward.pankowski@uconn.edu.