It is hard to imagine a good reason for President Trump to hold a rally as planned this week. So clear are the risks of contracting the novel coronavirus in crowded indoor arenas that the Trump campaign has included a legal notice limiting its liability should anyone who attends become ill.
Worse still —and equally as deliberate, given the calls for him to change locations— was the campaign’s initial decision to hold the rally in Tulsa, the site of what appears to be the deadliest race massacre in U.S. history. The campaign changed the rally’s date from the 19th to the 20th, likely to avoid the “bad optics” of holding a rally on Juneteenth, the holiday that marks the end of slavery. Even so, the campaign’s perceived “good optics” will remain: tens of thousands of supporters in red MAGA hats and no masks cheering a president who has called white nationalists “very fine people,” halted immigration from many parts of the world, and called Black Lives Matter protesters “thugs.” All this in a city where almost exactly a century ago white residents murdered as many as 300 of their black neighbors.
As troubling as the event in Tulsa no doubt would be, a more difficult truth faces white Americans who would never even consider attending a Trump rally. Since his Electoral College victory four years ago, Trump supporters across the country, even in the bluest of states, have begun to hold their own rallies, sometimes consciously and sometimes with the privilege of not realizing they are doing so.
As they reach into every community and are rarely seen as political events, these little rallies everywhere demonstrate Trump’s wide-ranging cultural influence. Some are new and easy to spot. Others seem familiar; perhaps “just the way things have always been.” Either way, given the events of the last month and the stakes for our democracy, Americans must stop organizing and attending these little rallies just as surely as they must reject the president in November.
It’s easy to see the politics of some of these ersatz Trump events when they are held in red states –the huge annual biker rally in Sturgis, South Dakota, for example. Each August the bikers thunder into town to crowd bars, strip clubs, and concert venues; vendors hawk “lock her up” tee shirts, American and Confederate flag apparel, and Trump merchandise of all kinds. This year, even as the country battles the coronavirus, many will be back, having pledged to return even if the city tried to cancel the rally. Concerned about public safety, the city of Sturgis will likely exclude some vendors and limit indoor capacity; southern rock and country stars, for example, will be replaced by cover bands. But if #sturgisison, the full-throttle expression of Trump-era culture will still be on too.
Although quite a bit smaller in scale, Trump rallies also take place in blue states. The shoreline towns of Connecticut, for example, are well known as white enclaves, although some are far less well-heeled than others. Only a handful went for Trump in 2016. Even so, reports sprinkled into local papers as early as the first week of April that groups of residents were gathering on local beaches without wearing masks or making any attempt at social distancing. They were untroubled by, and perhaps even welcomed, the hostility that greeted them. Yet throughout the spring, whenever it wasn’t raining –and sometimes when it was– many of these little rallies continued.
Other little rallies on the shoreline have mimicked the President’s outspoken white nationalism. For example, a homeowner has built his own wall: a chain link fence that blocks a walkway to the waterfront, seemingly in direct violation of Connecticut statutes preserving public beach access. These statutes themselves were the outcome of years of local civil rights protest to “save America’s beaches.” It is impossible to know why the homeowner built the fence. But we can surmise that it has nothing to do with the goals of creating equity and justice in their town.
If whites can see that these overt displays of white nationalism and anti-statism work to embed and normalize the president’s values in even the bluest of communities, we should consider seeing more ordinary events through new eyes too. Is that all-white summer cookout your neighborhood holds every year a fun tradition or a relic of redlining? Is your team at work all white because “it has been so hard” to recruit or retain people of color or because no one has tried? Is that school, pool, gym, club, or team where few or no African Americans attend or belong really as “good” as everyone says?
I would never attend a Trump rally. Neither would most of my friends, professional colleagues, or neighbors. But perhaps it is time for white people to recognize the fact that Trump’s values, particularly on race, are on display in many other places and in many other forms. Time to tear up our tickets.
In the context of the lived realities of African Americans and other people of color from 1619 to this very day, any gathering that is not explicitly working toward healing and equity is a Trump rally by another name.
Catherine McNicol Stock is the Barbara Zacceho Kohn ’72 Professor of History at Connecticut College. She is the author of Rural Radicals: Righteous Rage in the American Grain and Main Street in Crisis: The Great Depression and the Old Middle Class on the Northern Plains.