“What am I doing here?”
That perplexing question ricocheted throughout my head as I paced through an airport-like security checkpoint that separated me from a seething mob of 11,000-plus Donald J. Trump supporters waiting to hear the GOP frontrunner speak.
My decision to attend Trump’s rally at First Niagara Center last week was not planned; when I had learned of the event a week earlier, I shrewdly dismissed all talk of it with a horde of cynical remarks.
It was only until a friend of mine, after much persuasion, offered me a ticket and a ride that I agreed to go. Mind you, this proposition presented itself just hours before the large-scale rally that strategically happened to land on the eve of the newly critical New York primary.
The rapidity of my agreement had me praying that my impulsive decision-making wouldn’t come back to haunt me.
With our plans solidified, three others and myself embarked on a trek dedicated to witnessing the virulent breeding ground of a disgruntled political movement orchestrated by Trump.
Considering I would have the ability to vote this November, I began to analyze the happenings of this year’s presidential election early in its genesis, when the chaos was still at bay. However, the election cycle’s unusual normality spontaneously combusted when Trump, a real estate mogul, threw in his bid for president and hijacked the Republican Party.
Trump, known for launching a war on “political correctness,” became widely criticized for his proposed policies and comments that his critics say ensue bigotry, misogyny and racism.
For many, a Trump presidency seemed like a pipe dream until primary season lurched forward and he stomped out most competition with ease.
His steady rise in popularity has in turn fabricated a diverse profusion of “anti-Trump” movements stemming from the left as well as core members of the GOP “establishment” with one daunting goal in mind: sedate and eradicate the prosperity of the Trump campaign.
As we neared the arena, the sheer magnitude of the upcoming congregation was foreshadowed with every parking lot stuffed to the gills. After searching for what seemed like a half-hour, we found a coveted parking spot and began a sinuous walk toward the epicenter of Trump country.
While still on the outskirts of the arena, waves of rampant patriotism began to illuminate the sidewalks. Between an endless stream of American flags (and the occasional Confederate flag) stood dozens of vendors hawking merchandise, capitalizing on the evening’s ever-present adoration of Trump.
These countless merch stands were stockpiled with hats, pins, shirts and anything else that could have the word “Trump” plastered on it. Although the vast majority of merchandising displayed Trump’s long-standing campaign slogan, “Make America Great Again,” some vendors applied scathing satire when fabricating products and emerged with some outlandish results.
It seemed as though the more vitriolic a product’s message, the better it sold given the sweeping amount of people donning shirts that disparaged former Secretary of State and Democratic candidate Hillary Clinton.
After dodging the sales pitch of a particularly manic merchant, I turned the corner to find a swath of frenzied media outlets. While buckling under the pressures of live broadcasting, dozens of reporters seemed to form a natural barrier separating the angry from the angrier.
One side of the barricades harbored the protesters who wielded condemnatory signs and exhausted all their energy roaring their opinions at the steely reserve of Trump’s faithful who gawked from the other side.
In the thick of the mayhem, I locked eyes with a protesting transgender veteran whose presence at a rally full of intolerance clouded my mind with disillusionment. Angry with myself, I admitted to my friends, “I feel guilty being on this side of the barrier” – a comment that was met with a venomous stare from a burly man wearing an NRA shirt.
It was at this moment that I remembered where I was.
After reading of the many violent incidents that occurred at Trump rallies, I told myself to keep my mouth shut or suffer the consequences.
While people squirmed with anxiousness, the PA system began to play Trump’s particularly odd playlist of warm-up songs. First up was the Rolling Stones’ “Sympathy for the Devil.”
I couldn’t discern whether there was a subliminal nature to this choice, or if Trump foolishly skimmed over the song’s meaning that is glaringly obvious from its title. I guessed the latter.
After a slew of Stones hits, Elton John’s indelible classic “Tiny Dancer” played, causing the entire audience to belt out its FM-friendly chorus.
It was all very odd; it was like Elton John humanized the agitated nature of the audience. I suddenly remembered that friends, neighbors and family could be a part of the madness transpiring.
With momentum peaking, an announcement was relayed over the PA that touched on Trump’s policies with handling hecklers.
It stated while Trump strongly believes in the First Amendment (ironic, considering he is on record saying he wants to “open up” libel laws in order to sue media outlets), all disrupting protesters will be ejected, emphasizing that no one should engage in a confrontation with a protester.
Forbidden to lay hands on protesters, the audience exploded in malice including a man sitting below me who screamed, “No promises!”
With an undeniably hostile aura present in the arena, Trump’s arrival was preceded with introductory speeches made by prominent area GOP members, including Erie County Republican Chairman Nicholas A. Langworthy, Rep. Chris Collins, and Buffalo real estate developer Carl Paladino.
Followed by an insipid introduction by Buffalo Bills head coach Rex Ryan, Trump strutted out to unrestrained cries of loyalty.
Within only 40 seconds of Trump’s speech, fiery protest began to erupt on the ground level resulting in protesters being taken away by police. While being dragged by their limbs, Trump taunted the protesters yawping, “Get em’ outta here” and “Go home to Mommy” with his signature throaty inflection.
Continuing on with his speech, Trump drew unanimous cheers from stream-of-consciousness ruminations on his many controversial proposals, including his ever-popular supposed end-all to illegal immigration: a wall built along the Mexican border.
He seemed to constantly redirect emphasis back to his Orwellian wall proposal with a one-liner that generated riotous chants: “We’re gonna build that wall.” Trapped in a lucid nightmare, I shuddered at the sight and sound of thousands chanting in unison, “Build that wall!”
After mistakenly referring to 9/11 as “7-Eleven” – a memorable gaffe that would likely end a Democratic candidate’s campaign – in the “New York values” portion of his speech, Trump began to stretch his authoritative rhetoric muscle.
In what felt more like a surreal carnival than a political gathering, I left asking myself one question: “Why Trump?”
Then I remembered the words to a song I had heard earlier in the evening:
“Please allow me to introduce myself / I’m a man of wealth and taste / I’ve been around for a long, long year / Stole many a man’s soul and faith.”
Matthew Aquiline is a senior at Lancaster High School.