I did my best to enter Republican presidential candidate and former reality television star Donald Trump's rally in Macon, Georgia with a good sense of humor. Considering the first supporter I saw was dressed like an angry Captain America on the Fourth of July, I couldn't help but laugh from a mixed place of pity and amusement. I quickly learned, however, that none of this was a laughing matter to Trump and company. The small and sleepy town of Macon, nestled in the center of Georgia, was fired up by a fear that Trump has spent the majority of his campaign stoking. Foreigners are coming to take what America has.
The question of who is actually coming was varied and in many ways irrelevant — immigrants, refugees, and terrorists were all conflated as one. From the attendees to Trump himself, the manner, legality, and reason someone enters the United States does not seem to matter. What ultimately matters is the threat they supposedly represent. As one Trump supporter told me, "America's stupid. I'm more afraid now than ever for my country. Trump's the only one who gets it: no more illegals and refugees."
I began to see why Trump's pitch to build a wall along the Mexico border, despite the insurmountable monetary barriers, seemed so attractive to his followers. They were told time and time again to be afraid, and isolationism is an answer to that fear.
The rally itself was a pompous spectacle, during which the would-be politician gave a long, odd speech that often verged on sounding like stand-up material, filled with impersonations of rivals and President Obama. But despite his attempts at humor, he hit on some key points, including immigrants and refugees. Trump didn't miss a beat — he jumped from the border wall to Syria. There was rapid-fire talk of banning "anchor babies,” how the U.S. has "no borders, and with no borders, no country," and waterboarding. The crowd was electrified. Trump's mention of ISIS and waterboarding brought on chants of "USA, USA!"
You want to go a step further than waterboarding? I'm OK with that. Because they're chopping off everyone's heads!
Anchor babies, ISIS, and torture of terror suspects, all neatly packaged to elicit the greatest concern. And the supporters who attended the rally largely echoed this fondness for fearmongering.
One supporter, financial adviser Lucretia Consuela Hughes, was calling for an end to refugee resettlement. She handed me a pamphlet on the supposed dangers posed by refugees, which could be debunked with a quick Google search. For instance, one of the pamphlet's main talking points was that the Tsarnaev brothers, responsible for the 2013 Boston bombing, were refugees from Syria. This is false; they were from Chechnya.
Despite these inaccuracies, Hughes was adamant. She said, "Obama wants to say we're scared for the orphans and women. But that's not the people we're bringing over here. It's the men coming in, men who look like soldiers and aren't needy. So until you get your facts straight, this needs to stop."
Two other Trump supporters who voiced opposition to immigration, Chris and Serafinus Weck, were a married gay couple, the latter of whom is the son of immigrants who came to the U.S. illegally. The Wecks spoke about their support of Trump's off-the-cuff style and his promises to veterans. Serafinus felt that Trump's immigration policy was in line with his own: “We're supposed to be about working hard. You can't just have things handed to you on a silver platter. You have to show some respect before you can become an American.”
But after about 10 minutes of talking, the husbands' stances began to waver. Serafinus, who has immigrant parents, conceded: "I do think the deportation plan is a little extreme, because you're talking about millions of people. It's one thing to move them, but where would you expect them to go?"
This brought about one of my key takeaways from attending the rally. I'm half-Honduran and was born in the U.S., but people generally assume I'm an immigrant. So when I asked people about Trump's plan, I got this vibe that they were not only a little unwilling to speak on it, but also embarrassed.
When I had pressed Hughes on immigration, despite her views about refugees, she gave in too: “Well, there are some people who are trying to get here legally. They've been waiting for years and paid their dues. They might end up getting put on the back-burner ...”
This uneasiness said a lot. When face-to-face with someone who could possibly be affected by Trump's plan, they might back down, or even change their mind.
Not everyone in Macon was buying into Trump's ideology, however. In fact, the city's former mayor, C. Jack Ellis, was the first to arrive at a "Dump Trump" protest staged outside the venue. Elected in 1999, Ellis was the city's first black mayor to be elected. When asked why he was protesting — a decidedly political move, given his title — he told me it was to fight back against Trump's rhetoric. "It's anti-woman, it's anti-black, it's anti-immigrant, it's anti-Muslim, it's anti-American."
While discussing the rally's fearful tone on immigration, Ellis reiterated that we are a nation of immigrants.
Trump's people don't want anyone to come here that don't look like them. Does the Statue of Liberty no longer mean anything? Should we throw it into the Hudson River? It says right on the statue, "Give me your tired, your poor, your huddled masses," and yet we have immigrants and refugees screaming from oppression, persecution, and war, but we can't take any of them in — even a little kid — because they're afraid they're going to blow someone up.
Ellis' "Dump Trump" protest continued through to the end of the rally, and its aftermath was the hardest part of the night to witness. Despite being in an auditorium with around 7,000 Trump supporters, it wasn't until this final moment, when everyone was filing out of the venue, that I felt I witnessed any true hostility. Many of the Trump supporters screamed the usual "Go back to Mexico!" and "Get a job!" lines at the protesters. But it was the look on their faces, contorted with so much hatred, which really said it all.
Protesters Linda Jacinto and Stephanie Alnais told me that one of the comments they'd heard from an attendee had been particularly disheartening. In reference to Jacinto's "Jesus was a refugee" sign, a Trump follower countered: "Jesus may have been a refugee, but he didn't bring in machetes and guns!"
In spite of the negative response, the protesters' outlook was still bright. "Our presence here counts," Alnais assured me. "Even if we're not allowed to speak up in front of everyone like Trump does, our being here allows us to have a voice."
That is definitely something I'll remember most from the rally. In the face of persecution, speak up. It's all very easy to take what Trump says as a joke and assume it's media fodder — whether it's about Muslims, or immigrants, or refugees, or whomever. But the consequences of his actions have real effects on real people. It's our duty — not only as American citizens, but also as human beings — to assure that such hatred never steps foot into the White House.
Images: Melissa Cruz