On Tuesday, while driving to a Donald Trump rally in Grand Junction, Colorado, I pulled over when I saw a political sign that used the word “mulatto.” It was located in the town of Delta, on the west side of U.S. Route 550, at a former shopfront whose walls and marquee had been decorated with big-lettered messages:
IF MUSLIM MULATTO ENDORSES CORRUPT CLINTON AS WELL AS HE DID OUR ECONOMY THEY WILL BOTH BE HUNG FOR TREASON!BAN LIBERAL TARDS, NOT GUNS! MOLON LABE!STAND TALL! VOTE! TRUMP! OR LIVE/DIE ON YOUR KNEESOBAMA FROM KENYA IS A CRIMINAL
I knocked on the front door. There was a big metal grill and a sign that said “Security Camera in Use.” No answer. I walked around to the back. Another sign, with a picture of a dog: “I Can Make it to the Gate in 3 Seconds. Can You?” I kept walking. Across a small street, an elderly woman was unfurling an American flag in front of a single-wide trailer. I asked about the building with the signs. “It belongs to Bill Pope,” she said.
I asked what she thought about the messages.
“I don’t like it.”
“Who are you going to vote for?”
“Clinton,” she said. “Oh, definitely.”
In Delta County, in the 2012 election, Barack Obama received twenty-nine per cent of the vote. In the next county to the north, Mesa, which includes Grand Junction, he hardly did any better: thirty-two per cent. This part of western Colorado represents a Republican stronghold, which is why Trump was making a visit. I asked the elderly woman why she was voting for Clinton.
“Because of her policies,” she said. “And I cannot stand Trump. His mouth. What he says about women. Oh right, he says that he likes women. I’m sure he does. Look at how many came forward!”
Her name was June Broome, and she was seventy-six years old. She used to work as a grocery-store clerk, and she told me that she didn’t like the Republican Party because, in her opinion, the leaders neglect the poor and the middle class. She led me around the back of the trailer to meet her husband, who was working in the garden. His name was Orland Broome, which made me think of the actor, except this guy was bigger. At eighty-seven, he was digging into the hard ground with a shovel.
“He’s very radical,” Orland said, when I asked about his neighbor with the signs. “All he can do is say bad things about Obama because he’s a darkie. He goes ballistic if anybody—”
“He’s only half,” June said, interrupting.
“Yes, he’s only half,” Orland said.
“Half what?” I asked.
“Half darkie,” Orland said. “Obama.”
After that had been cleared up, Orland continued to say that, until recently, his neighbor’s building had also featured a big picture that was even more offensive than the current signs. “It was downgrading the colored people in politics,” he said delicately, without going into detail. “People would drive by and stop and take pictures, and finally the authorities came and told him to take it down because it was racist.”
At the time of the last U.S. census, in 2010, the population of Delta was 1.1 per cent African-American. June told me that Bill Pope was home right now. “He’s got bad hearing,” she said. “Just rattle that chain on the gate loud enough and he’ll come out. You should talk to him.”
Since 2007, I’ve kept a home in Ridgway, a small town in Ouray County, which is a couple of hours south of Grand Junction. Traditionally, Ouray was home to ranchers and miners, and residents reliably voted Republican. But in 2008 Obama won a majority of the local vote, and he did so again in 2012. People began to speak of Ouray, and many other parts of Colorado, as having shifted from red to purple. “We’ve been seeing this pattern for a while,” Seth Masket, the chair of the political-science department at the University of Denver, told me recently. “The Democrats will win the front range. And then they’ll win every mountain county with a major ski resort.”
The front range of Colorado includes Denver, Boulder, Fort Collins, and other populous areas. The county where I live doesn’t have a ski resort, but it’s within striking range of Telluride, and, like other mountain areas, it’s attracting younger residents, who tend to be liberal. Colorado is a swing state in which, at least in the west, some of the major political differences can be tracked by altitude: the lower you go, the more conservative the population becomes as a whole. Delta is more than two thousand feet below where I live, and Grand Junction is even lower.
In 2011, I moved with my family to Cairo, Egypt, although we came back for regular visits. This past summer, we returned to live in Colorado full-time. The transition has been so recent that I haven’t changed my business cards, and, when Bill Pope finally appeared at his gate, I decided to give him a trigger warning. I explained that I had just returned after working in the Middle East, and I flipped over the card and showed that the back was printed in Arabic.
“I have to kill you, motherfucker!” he said. “I don’t like Muslim cocksuckers!”
But he smiled broadly—saying these things seemed to make him happy. He was accompanied by a well-behaved Doberman whose name was Lana Turner. Next door, June Broome was puttering near the edge of her yard, clearly interested in observing whatever might come next. Pope told me that George Soros had recently purchased control of all the voting machines in eighteen states. “I just saw that this morning on the Internet,” he said, and then he talked about Trump. “We need somebody like him to wake this country up. We’ve been going down the tubes. Economy, debt, immigration. It’s the goddamn Communist cocksucking President motherfucker.”
I asked if the audio recording of Trump talking about assaulting women bothered him.
“Shit, no,” Pope said. “That’s a man. He’s a man.”
When I asked Pope about the picture that had formerly hung outside his building, he used the N-word, and said it had been a “caricature” of Obama playing cards. “The city came up with some new size regulation,” he said. “Of course, that was started by some liberal cocksucker.”
Out of curiosity, I asked if he had voted for Amendment 64, which legalized marijuana in Colorado, in 2012. “Yes,” he said. “Hell, I grow some.” He escorted me into his yard and opened a gate. “Look at this stem over here. That motherfucker was twelve feet tall. It got blown over in the storm last month. It’s inside drying. It’s all full of seeds. I don’t know what I’m going to do with it.”
I asked him if he would smoke it.
“I don’t smoke the shit,” he said. “I just have fun growing it. It’ll be good training, man, when the revolution and the apocalypse comes.”
I was being careful but my face must have changed—I couldn’t help but think about the combination of the revolution and the disciplinary benefits of growing marijuana. “I’m serious,” he said. “These liberal cocksuckers! It’s about time they have this stuffed down their throats.”
I didn’t know what else to say, so I asked if growing marijuana is difficult.
“It’s an art,” he said, and pointed at the big stem in the ground. “I screwed around and didn’t watch it, and suddenly I had a fucking male. And it fertilized everything around it and ruined everything.” He gave another big smile. “Fucking men! I hate the motherfuckers!”
It’s never easy to predict the trajectory of a western-Colorado conversation. At the rally in Grand Junction, a number of things surprised me, one of them being that Trump supporters seemed to like receiving a business card in Arabic. It had a way of drawing them out—often, they were curious about Egypt, and sometimes they mentioned the Bible and Exodus. One woman gave me a copy of an article that her son had written about Benghazi. Another man told me that he had lived for seventeen years in Bahrain. His name was Jay Vickers, and he was a geophysicist who worked in the oil industry, specializing in advanced imagery.
“I’ve lived all over the world,” he said. He had also lived in China—during our conversation, he broke into Mandarin a couple of times. “I believe the United States should be energy independent,” he said. “I’m not against renewables, but I do believe we’ve taken the wrong path.” He told me that he didn’t like the way the media portrays people who back Trump. “They say Trump supporters are ignorant and uneducated,” he said. “This is far from the truth.” He told me that many of his educated colleagues feel the way he does, but they’re ashamed to talk about their beliefs in public. When I mentioned the Trump audio, Vickers said that he didn’t condone the remarks, but they wouldn’t sway his decision. “I vote on the policy,” he said. “I know human beings are flawed, including myself.”
Vickers was there with his wife, Catherine, an ethnic-Chinese woman who was born in Bahrain. She had recently become a U.S. citizen, and this would be the first election in which she could vote. “I’m still in the thinking stage,” she said. She explained that she didn’t like Hillary, but she also couldn’t dismiss Trump’s tape. “The things he says about women put me off,” she said.
There seemed to be no standard response to this question. With other issues, such as energy extraction or Clinton’s e-mails, people invoked common themes, often using the same vocabulary. But, even when defending Trump against the charges of sexual harassment, they did so in very different ways, which suggested that somehow this issue inspired more of an individual reaction. Some people told me that they didn’t believe the charges; others said they weren’t important. One man explained that if a woman allows you to get close enough to grab her genitals, then there has already been a degree of consent. A retired nurse told me that this was something that happened eleven years ago, and she believed in redemption. She said she even prayed for Obama every day. She also prayed for Hillary’s health, despite hating her policies. “She’s a grandma, and I’m a grandma, too,” she said. “You’ve got to be human.”
At one point, while we were waiting for Trump to appear, somebody who had seen my business card brought over an Algerian man named Abdel Jabbar. He was short, dark-skinned, and fine-featured, and he began speaking in Arabic, adjusting to the Egyptian dialect for my benefit. A few people stood nearby, listening curiously. One of the first things he said was, “Ana mish ma’ hom”—I’m not with them.
I asked what he meant by this.
“Ana mish mowafe,” he said. “I don’t agree. I don’t support this candidate. I saw the debates, and I don’t like what he said about ISIS—the way he says, if you’re not with us, then you’re with ISIS.”
I asked why he had come to the rally.
“I want to see how democracy works,” he said. “I’m here on a visit and my friend took me here to show me. We don’t have this kind of thing in Algeria. I like it—everybody is happy, all of the people are talking, and they can come here freely and see the candidate.”
Nobody around us seemed suspicious at hearing the strange language. And Jabbar wasn’t wary or cautious; later, I saw him standing on a chair, smiling broadly while he took pictures with his cell phone. And I realized he was right—if you were to analyze the mood of the event, without thinking about the actual principles of the campaign, it felt friendly and open. People were eager to talk to strangers, and, even when they complained or criticized, there wasn’t any sense of anger, at least not until Trump appeared.
Earlier in the day, I had stopped at Colorado Mesa University, which is also in Grand Junction. I struck up a conversation with a young man who was sitting on a bench, and, when I handed him my business card, he responded in a way that was completely unexpected. He stood up, shook my hand, and said, “Thank you for your service.”
I had been hearing so many complaints about press bias that I didn’t know how to respond. “No, that’s a service,” he insisted. “It’s important for people to know what’s going on over there.”
He was a veteran who had served as a medic in the Navy for six years. He had been posted in Yemen and other parts of the Middle East, where he witnessed some of the violence of the Arab Spring. Now he was attending college on the G.I. bill. He was twenty-seven years old, and he said that Trump was tapping into a vacuum in people’s lives. “I think Trump is speaking to a certain population in our country that hasn’t had a place to belong for a long time,” he said. “I think it’s the depressed population that focusses on Trump, because it gives them a sense of purpose. But what happens when this purpose is in the White House?” The young veteran said that, originally, he had planned to support Trump, until the comments about women became public, and now he didn’t plan to vote at all.
He declined to give his name, because he didn’t want to be publicly attached to this election. He felt that most of his classmates would vote for Trump, but their commitment was shallow, in his opinion. After his time in the Middle East, he had concluded that Americans don’t really understand what an uprising is. “They’re talking about a revolution,” he said, of Trump supporters. “But they’re too lazy. Americans are too lazy. They’re fine with a rally. But they’re not up for a real revolution.”
The rally was held in an airport hangar, where the media were confined to a section at the back, with a low metal fence separating us from the crowd. All of my conversations were conducted over this barrier. After Trump appeared, the audience faced the stage at the front, but people turned around every time the candidate mentioned the press. “The failing New York Times, and it is failing, it won’t be in business, in my opinion, in three or four years,” he said. When a few protestors interrupted his speech by chanting, he told the crowd that the Democratic National Committee paid these people fifteen hundred dollars each and gave them new iPhones, just for disrupting his rallies, and yet the mainstream media wouldn’t report it. “They just want to cover fictitious stories about me,” he said. “The media, you have to remember, is an extension of the Hillary Clinton campaign,” he continued. “There’s a voter fraud also with the media, because they so poison the minds of the people by writing false stories.” Near the end of the speech, he shouted, “The press is fighting, crooked Hillary is fighting.” He pointed to the media at the back: “They’re lying, they’re cheating, they’re stealing. They’re doing everything, these people right back here!”
There was a rhythm to these references, and, in the course of the forty-odd-minute speech, they served a purpose. Most of the time, Trump ranted about Clinton or Obama, and the crowd responded in set ways. They booed any reference to Obamacare; the e-mail scandal prompted chants of “Lock her up! Lock her up!” People seemed to enjoy venting, but these targets were distant and somewhat abstract, and I sensed that the routine would have become boring without the more immediate presence of the media. We were available at a lower level of abstraction: all of us were right there, with faces and expressions clearly visible, but, once the rally began, the barrier meant that we weren’t quite close enough to touch or talk to. And Trump worked the rhythm brilliantly: he made a media reference every few minutes, pausing to give the crowd time to react. Eventually, people started leaning over the barrier to shout, “Crooked press! Crooked press!,” and at one point a man on crutches became so frenzied that he tried to squeeze through a gap. He banged his crutches against the metal, shouting angrily; finally, a policeman escorted him away. After the rally was finished, a nice-looking blond woman made her way down the fence, shouting, “Journalism is dead! Journalism is dead!” But, when I stepped forward and asked her to explain what she meant, she immediately calmed down, and we had a pleasant conversation.
This reminded me somewhat of public events in Egypt during the difficult years after the revolution began on Tahrir Square, in 2011. At Islamist rallies, I had seen effective speakers who shifted between targets that were distant and targets that were nearby, working the audience into a frenzy. And I had always been struck by how, even in the most tense situations, with the most violent rhetoric floating around, it was still surprisingly easy to talk to people on a personal level. It took no time at all for most individuals to snap out of the trance. I had seen young men scream anti-American slogans with a look of absolute fury on their faces, and then it was as if somebody threw a switch: they showed no negative reaction to my identification card, which listed my nationality, and they politely answered my questions. In this respect, I was sensitive to the way that Trump supporters were offended by Clinton’s description of them as “deplorables.” There were certainly some hardened racists and sexists within the crowd, but they probably represented a small minority, and most people behaved with remarkable decency. Their anger didn’t precipitate until the great man stood in the front, coaching them on.
And eventually his conspiracy theories will probably serve another purpose. In Egypt, as the revolution collapsed, and the dreams of Tahrir faded away, the talk of international plots became darker and more frequent. It was a way of coping with frustration and lack of control, but it was also a way of disengaging. As the veteran had told me on the college campus, a real revolution requires commitment—if you’re determined to overthrow Mubarak, then you have to stay on the square and fight his minions until it’s finished. But there’s no way to fight the vast international conspiracies of the Jews, the Turks, and the Americans. In the same way, when Trump talks about how the election is fixed, and how the State Department covers up scandals, and how the media spreads lies, he’s not necessarily preparing his followers for resistance or violence after November 8th. He’s showing them how to give up without giving in.
Inside the rally, I saw only one black man and one black child, neither of whom I was able to speak to. But outside there were a few black people who were selling Trump paraphernalia. One of them wore a heavy beard and a camouflage baseball cap that said, “Trump: Make America Great Again.” He was selling buttons for five dollars each, and T-shirts for twenty-five, and he said that business was good. “I did the last three elections,” he said. “The last two, I did the Democrats. This one, I’m doing the Republicans.”
I asked why he had switched parties.
“No particular reason other than economics,” he said. “The venders are saying that Hillary people are not spending this year. I don’t know why. The Trump people spend more.”
Later in the evening, he planned to drive to Las Vegas, so he could sell things during the last debate of the campaign. He also sold shirts and hats after sports teams won championships, and this year he had been able to travel to Cleveland for the Cavaliers’ victory and then stay on for the Republican National Convention. He referred to this event as simply “the R.N.C.,” and he still had a bunch of R.N.C. hats that he was trying to unload for five bucks each. He said that some of the people at today’s rally had been annoyed by them. “They were talking about Ryan not liking Trump or something,” he said. “They told me not to sell those hats.” When I asked the vender if he had experienced any racism from Trump supporters, he shook his head firmly. “They’re good people,” he said. He’d had more problems in Cleveland, because black people sometimes got on him for wearing the Trump hat. “I told them it’s just a hat!” he said. He said he hadn’t yet decided whom he’d vote for, because he had heard that Hillary doesn’t believe in God, which concerned him. But he had been inspired by Obama’s elections. “That gave me a lot of hope,” he said.
When I gave him my business card, he looked at it and greeted me in rudimentary Arabic. His name was Saleem Mohammed, and he was from South Central Los Angeles. I asked if he had grown up as a Muslim.
“I reconverted in 1988,” he said. “Reconverted, not converted. We are all originally Muslim. All babies are the same. All babies are born Muslim.”
While we were talking, a steady stream of attendees passed by. Two middle-aged women, who were in high spirits, stopped to ask Saleem a question. “I have an idea for a T-shirt,” one of them said. “It should say, ‘I HAVEN’T BEEN GROPED BY TRUMP, BUT I’VE BEEN SCREWED BY HILLARY!’”
“Wouldn’t that be great?” her companion said, laughing uproariously. But Saleem was serious. “I don’t know if that would be popular,” he said slowly. “The Trump people are not going to like that. They are not going to buy a shirt like that.”
The women left, slightly chastened. I enjoyed the strangeness of the scene: the Muslim black man in a Trump hat, drawing the lines of political decency for white Coloradans. You can make America great, but you’ll never make it straight. Before I returned to the mountains, the bearded man shook my hand and said, “Salaam Aleikum.”