The Greatest Show on Earth
“Don’t believe anything you hear and only half of what you see.” That’s what my Dad used to say. I think he was just trying to be funny, but I suspect there was a modicum of healthy skepticism behind the joke.
That’s how I’m approaching this election cycle, I think to myself. I’m not taking anyone’s word for it, I’m determining for myself which candidate deserves my vote.
I begin my quest for the truth by accessing the algorithms of one of the most widely recognized purveyors of information in our society – Facebook. From Facebook I learn Bernie Sanders is a Birkenstock wearing communist, Hillary Clinton is a crook controlled by Wall Street who needs a lesson in email etiquette, and Donald Trump is a very, very, very smart person with an affinity for spray on tans who has certain parts of his anatomy that are correspondingly proportionate to his unusually small hands. I also learn the presidential election is rigged (it’s not really clear by who), and that, in addition to being smart, Donald Trump is a comedian in the same vein as political humorists like Don Rickles, Ron White, Adolf Hitler. In one especially noteworthy performance Trump does this act where he mocks a physically disabled reporter. I don’t really “get it”, but it seemed hilarious to the thousands of able bodied, white, middle-class folks in his audience. I guess you had to be there.
As I scroll through the posts one catches my eye. My friend, Diana, is announcing to all 2453 of her closest Facebook friends that she has secured “tickets” to the upcoming Donald Trump rally in Travis County. This is it! This is my opportunity to discover for myself the nuanced differences in the candidates’ political platforms. This will be great! I quickly text Diana and tell her to put my name on one of those tix. I’m in.
The plan is for another friend, Sarah, who, by the way, has been in Columbia (the country, not the university) for the past year teaching young, aspiring, future undocumented immigrants English, mathematics, and a little science, I think, to come to my house on the East Side and we’ll ride together and meet Diana at the Expo Center where the rally is being held. The three of us will then use the tickets that Diana stealthily obtain on-line through the Trump campaign website to “sneak” into the arena. Our scheme feels very Mission Impossibleish. I half expect a cassette tape to arrive in the mail bearing the voice of Bob Johnson instructing in baritone, “your mission, should you decide to accept it, … .”
I haven’t spoken with Sarah since she left on her odyssey and I’m excited to hear about her subvers..., I mean, altruistic work with the kids down there. There’s a knock on my door and I open it to find Sarah standing on my porch with a grin that belies an ulterior motive and wearing a T-shirt that has emblazoned on the front in letters that can be seen from a mile away – JESUS WOULDN’T VOTE TRUMP. I’m taken aback by this overt attack on the virtue of the Republican nominee. Hasn’t Sarah been reading Facebook feeds? Didn’t she see the videos of people being dragged out of Trump rallies by their hair and in handcuffs for daring to question the magnitude of Mr. Trump’s prowess and appeal? But Sarah’s so innocently naive. How do I break the news to her?
“Awesome shirt!” I say, after exchanging obligatory niceties, “how’s the internet service down there in Columbia.” She looks at me as if I had asked “when was the last time you had sex?” The question didn’t seem to fit the moment. After she tells me internet service was sketchy and not working most of the time, I feel better about bringing up the “oh, well, I guess you haven’t heard then” conversation about what, according to Facebook, happens to people who display non-supportive messages at a Trump rally. I don’t think Sarah believes me, but I’m adamant about her needing to cover up her T-shirt if she expects to make it past the camouflaged wearing Republic of Texas security detail sure to be patrolling the grounds for any sign of threat of attack by brainwashed 3rd graders and radical peace activists. I give her an old T-shirt of mine she can wear over her’s, and off we go.
Honestly, I think this excursion might be a waste of time. I mean, this is Travis County, Texas, home of Austin, indisputably the most liberal city in Texas and one of the most progressive communities in the United States. How many people in this bastion of liberality would support a candidate who espouses the perspective expressed, on Facebook anyway, by Mr. Trump? And how many of those would bother to drive to the rally to stand around for 3 or 4 hours to listen to Trump blovia..., I mean, speak?
It’s ordinarily about a 5 minute drive from my house to the Expo Center, but not today. Looking East past 183, I see cars lined up for miles. Maybe “vehicles” would be a more accurate description. Many, perhaps most, of the vehicles are pickup trucks. Many, perhaps most, of those pickup trucks have multiple flags waving from poles mounted in the back of the truck bed. Many, perhaps most, of those flags resemble the Confederate States of America battle flag. You know, like the one displayed on the Facebook posts of your cousin who lives in Nachodoches. The posts showing someone, about the same size and shape as your cousin, wearing a white robe and a funny looking hat that covers his face. Anyway, a lot of the vehicles on their way to the Expo Center are displaying those flags, and there’s an occasional American flag thrown in every now and then. It’s usually smaller, though.
I don’t think Sarah was prepared for the demographic of those who attend Trump rallies. The big Cheshire Cat grin she’s been wearing is starting to droop, and she’s not nearly as talkative as she was earlier. She just keeps staring out her window at the stream of homogeneously pale complexions as she repeatedly mumbles something that sounds like “Oh My God, Oh My God, Oh My God.”
One of the hundred plus police officers assigned to the rally (I’d read on Facebook that Mr. Trump is a big supporter of law enforcement) directs us into the Expo Center parking area. It’s packed. I park just as a truck load of folks with some of those Confederate flags on their vehicle pull in next to us on the passenger side of my car. Sarah begins to scramble to find the innocuous T-shirt I’d given her earlier. I don’t think I’ve ever seen someone put on a shirt while bending over with their head between their knees. After Sarah straightens her clothes, we begin our long walk to the entrance of the building.
This place reminds me of those carnivals that used to come to town from time to time. There are booths and tables set up along the most traveled paths with vendors hawking trinkets and clothes displaying the words “Great” and “America”, and Playboy magazine quality airbrushed images of Donald Trump. At the entrance to the Expo Center I think I see metal detectors like the ones at the Airport. As our spot in line moves us closer to our scheme to “sneak” into the rally, it looks like the people running the metal detectors are wearing TSA uniforms. “Holy Shit!” I blurt out to Sarah, “Trump has the same security detail as an international flight to Tel Aviv! We’re never going to get in! Where’s Diana?! Where are our tickets?! Who’s going to bail us out when they find out we’re not one of them?!”
I can tell I probably should have downplayed my concern a little. Sarah is frantically texting Diana to see where the hell she is since she’s the one who orchestrated this mission, and now we’re the ones who are about to be taken to a dark room with a single overhead light bulb and interrogated for hours by a guy sporting a teardrop Tatoo near his left eye and donning a red cap with “Great” and “America” on it.
A TSA person motions for us to step forward. Neither Sarah nor I are wearing anything red, and we don’t have confederate insignias on our clothing. They’re sure to figure out we’re not committed Trump supporters, hell, we’re not even Republicans.
As I cautiously pass through the metal detector I scan the corridor on the other side to determine the path of least resistance in case I have to break and run after being recognized by someone who reads my Facebook posts and knows I’m not nearly as undecided about who I’ll vote for as I pretend to be. I love Sarah dearly, but, damnit, she’s on her own if one of those protectors of the 2nd Amendment looks like they’re making a move for something shiny concealed under their protuberant paunch that’s covering the Champion Bull Rider belt buckle they bought at a garage sale. It feels like every eye is on Sarah and me as we do our best to nonchalantly transcend the security area when a guy in a blue blazer with a wire behind his ear looks at us sternly and barks “Enjoy the rally.”
I hear Sarah finally exhale as we’re absorbed by the crowd of 8000 one-percenter wannabes. With a countenance of bewilderment, she turns to me and, between pursed lips, whispers in a tone of indignant resignation, “I think he’s going to win this thing.”