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Inside a Trump rally: Stelter's view from the press pen

The first thing you see at a Trump campaign rally is the line.There was a long line in the pouring ra...

Posted: Oct 29, 2018 8:36 AM
Updated: Oct 29, 2018 8:36 AM

The first thing you see at a Trump campaign rally is the line.

There was a long line in the pouring rain ahead of the October 26 rally in Charlotte, North Carolina. Some devotees had started lining up the night before. Others came straight from work on Friday afternoon and waited to be screened by the Secret Service. It had the look and feel of a political concert — a celebration — but with an angry edge.

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Friday was my first time attending a Trump rally. I was two years too late. I should have gone to a rally in 2016. I'm a media reporter, after all, and Trump is putting on a show at these campaign events, complete with a booming soundtrack and a grand finale that regular rallygoers know by heart.

That's one of the things I noticed inside the Bojangles Coliseum in Charlotte: Many of Trump's supporters knew the lyrics to his "songs," meaning, his favorite stories. And sometimes they sang along -- by chanting "CNN SUCKS" and mouthing the words to his complaints about "chain migration."

So here's what I observed. First of all, walking into the arena, a projection screen tells you to sign up for "real news" by following Trump on Twitter and Facebook.

But my impression is that most of the people at Friday's rally were already signed up. Numerous attendees told me this wasn't their first time at a Trump rally. Some of them said they appreciated that I was there.

Our conversations happened on two sides of a wall — a metal barricade that divides the standing room part of the arena and the "press pen." You've probably seen this in pictures. Reporters from major networks and newspapers are inside the pen along with all the camera crews on risers. Campaign workers try to keep journalists inside the pen, and on Friday they escorted us to and from the bathrooms upstairs.

When you're in that pen, you really do feel like a zoo animal. Rallygoers gawk at you, take pictures of you, and sometimes sneer while they walk by, saying things like, "You're fake news" and "enemy of the people."

Interacting with the rallygoers

Three hours before the rally began on Friday, two men came over — one in a MAGA hat, the other wearing an anti-CNN T-shirt — and told me I was the "fakest of the fake news." They laughed. But a moment later, the second man walked back over to me, and changed his tone.

"We love you. We do," he said.

"I know," I said.

"We're all people," he continued. "We all love each other."

Other rallygoers told me things like "I wish you'd come to our side" and "I wish you'd report the truth."

One person came up and asked me if Fox's Sean Hannity was going to be there. (He wasn't.) Another said he wanted to meet CNN's Jim Acosta. (He wasn't there either.)

Some folks were rude, calling me names, heckling me during live shots. They didn't have much interest in a conversation.

But others were friendly. A dozen people wanted to take selfies. We talked about the news and the weather. This is something Acosta has pointed out in the past: Folks at rallies will chant "fake news," but then they'll ask for a photo.

After one particularly raucous "CNN SUCKS" chant, one man walked over to me and said, "Hey, nothing personal."

"Look," one woman told me, "we're not so bad."

I smiled and said, "I'm not so bad either."

Some of them seem to think Trump's dangerous "enemy of the people" talk is just a performance, like WWE pro wrestling. But others seem to really, truly believe it.

My point: There are all kinds of Trump rallygoers. Some hardcore fans stand up front and wear Trump flags on their backs. Others hang in the back of the arena and just want to see the show. But all of them are supporting Trump by helping to fill these giant rooms.

In Charlotte, the doors to the arena opened around 3 p.m., and some warm-up speakers came out at 5 p.m. In between, the soundtrack was... surprising.

The best songs on the warmup set list included "Rocket Man," "Knock Knock Knocking on Heaven's Door," and "Wild Horses." At one point there was a sudden transition from Queen's "We Are The Champions" to the Backstreet Boys' "I Want It That Way."

For some rallygoers, these events are social gatherings — chances to see friends and share stories. Taking a page from Trump, some of these stories bear no resemblance to reality.

I listened in as one woman told a group of other rallygoers that the suspect in the mail bombs, who was arrested earlier that day, was really a "liberal," not an obsessive fan of Trump, as all the evidence indicates.

"He was anti-Trump on his Facebook," the woman said, blatantly misleading the other people.

As for the suspect's van, plastered with pro-Trump and anti-Democrat memes, the woman proposed a full blown conspiracy: "They put stickers on his van, like, last night." She shouted this to anyone who would listen. Later, she helped lead some of the boos against the press.

Par for the course while covering a Trump rally

Trump-beat reporters are accustomed to all of this. The crowd's hostility is just a part of the job, albeit unpleasant. "As they have for months, CNN journalists at the rally on Friday night worked alongside hired security guards," Katie Rogers of The New York Times noted in her story afterward.

That's true. Television networks usually don't like to talk about this — they don't want to draw attention to it — but they sometimes employ security in case anything gets out of hand.

So, you might be wondering, did I feel like I was in danger at the rally? No. Not at all. But the jeers and the insults can feel intimidating. And I was glad that I wasn't alone when Trump encouraged the crowd to boo the press corps.

At Friday's rally, he didn't try to tamp down the "CNN SUCKS" chants — even after a week of bombs in the mail. Instead, he soaked it up. He reveled in it.

Then he told scary stories about illegal immigration and dastardly Democrats, pushing the crowd to be angrier, contradicting his own calls for unity.

The NYT's Michael Barbaro tweeted on Friday: "Imagine a world where our president at his rally tonight said: 'I'd like to take a minute to say to all those who were sent these terrible pipe bombs, our hearts go out to you. This should never have happened. You are valuable voices in our civic life. Don't be silenced.'"

Needless to say, that didn't happen.

I left the rally even more sure that Trump is leading a hate movement against the media. No, not everybody at his rallies buy into it, but some do. And that's a serious problem.

Is Trump able or willing to control the forces that he has unleashed? Is he able or willing to tamp down the fire that he has fueled?

His actions on Friday strongly suggested that he's not.

So what does that mean for the rest of us?

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