Midterms 2018: Inside Trump's Tennessee 'Maga' rally on the eve of crucial elections – 'Trump is literally my idol'

Queueing with thousands of adoring Trump fans, it is clear his alarming political rhetoric is working

Lucy Anna Gray
Chattanooga, Tennessee
Monday 05 November 2018 17:30 GMT
Trump acts surprised as singer Lee Greenwood sings at Chatanooga rally

Amid the gold and brown tree-lined streets of Tennessee, red dots begin to appear. Bobbing up the road, “Make America Great Again” hats sit atop grinning faces.

Donald Trump is appearing at one of his last “Maga” rallies before the midterm elections in an attempt to cement what many polls have been calling a toss-up state. A tight Senate race in a usually red state makes Tennessee a key area for the president to give a last-minute campaign push if the Republicans are to keep control of congress this week.

Hours before Air Force One is even due to land – let alone the rally begin – a queue of thousands snakes outside the McKenzie Arena in Chattanooga. Covered in badges, flags, T-shirts, and of course red baseball caps, with many sitting in fold-out chairs eating and drinking, the atmosphere feels much closer to a rock concert than a political event.

“I’m here for my man Trump! I love him so much,” Linda – who did not want to give her surname – tells me. “Oh I hope he brings Melania with him. He’s probably working too fast for her though.

“Trump is the best president we’ve had – and I’m old,” the 74-year-old who hails from outside Chattanooga says. “Compared to the trash, the Destroyer-in-Chief we had before him – that’s what I call him [Barack Obama] – Trump is rebuilding everything he broke ... He can tweet all he wants, he can say what he wants because he is always correct. I love him. We’re all here because we love him.”

The god-like status surrounding Trump seems heightened by anticipation of the imminent elections. As he says himself during the rally, this year’s midterms are “one of the most important elections in our lifetimes”.

Despite being there to throw his weight behind Republican Senate candidate Marsha Blackburn, it is Trump who is the clear centre of attention.

“Like every state, I think the biggest issues are Donald Trump and the state of the American government,” Eric Groenendyk, associate professor in political science at the University of Memphis tells The Independent. “Midterm elections are always referenda on the sitting president, and that seems especially true this year.”

Trump is not just the focus of the midterms, but very much the beating heart of this rally. As one man I spoke to shows, this all-consuming admiration is no journalistic exaggeration. “Trump is literally my idol,” Christopher Hillman, a swimming pool builder from Georgia tells me. “His decisiveness, his ability to go against the norm, to say what he wants to say and not care about the repercussions. I really admire that.”

As people queue outside for hours to hear their leader speak, an army of merchandise sellers line the road. One vendor yells at me: “Come buy a hat and you’ll make America great again. It’s what Trump wants”. T-shirts reading “Cure Liberalism” with a blue version of the Aids red ribbon, pink Women for Trump tops, and reams of shirts reading “If you don’t like Trump then you probably won’t like me, and I’m okay with that”.

It may just be a slogan printed on some cheap polyester, but it is surprisingly representative of the patient crowd. An “I don’t agree with you, I know I’m right and you’re wrong, but that’s OK” attitude makes the extensive waiting a fairly jolly experience. Even as some residents on the closed-down streets half-heartedly boo from their porch, a Trump supporter walking along replies, “Have a nice day!”

But as the day progresses, excitement builds, the hive mentality intensifies. Uniform chants grow and protesters begin to arrive. A few hundred demonstrators against Marsha Blackburn and Trump’s immigration policies stand outside the arena, getting into slanging matches across the police-patrolled barrier.

The horde moves inside and chants of “Build that wall!” and “USA!” so familiar at these rallies greet the president and other speakers. By now Trump and his team know how to play to this crowd. Playing live for the president’s entrance, Lee Greenwood belts out rally favourite “God Bless the USA”, with “from the hills of Tennessee” getting a particular cheer.

The president calls America’s economy “the hottest in the world” during the rally, and touts the rising jobs numbers revealed in new statistics earlier this week. Although, it should not be forgotten that this jobs growth started under Barack Obama – it has been more than 90 straight months of growth.

Supreme Court Justice Brett Kavanaugh gets a mention, who Trump claims was the victim of a Democrat “smear campaign”, much to the delight of his adoring crowd. Mr Kavanaugh has faced accusations of sexual assault and misconduct from a number of women, all of which he denies.

Eventually Donald Trump moves on to the hot topic – immigration. He hits Democrats for wanting to “erase America’s borders” and let the migrant caravans in. Unsurprisingly this is met with an almighty boo, followed by a huge cheer when Trump calls it an “invasion”.

Through the vague but immovable adoration for Donald Trump, two key topics are fast apparent for people at the rally: the economy and immigration. Comments made by the red-hatted masses almost exactly mirror Trump’s midterm buildup campaign. The migrant caravan is full of dangerous people, look how great the economy is, build that wall, drain the swamp, jobs jobs JOBS.

The president’s response to thousands of asylum seekers heading to the US-Mexico border strikes a chord with his Tennessee supporters.

Seventy-four-year-old Linda – whose “main man is Trump” – says: “I want so many troops on that border, when a horde of people come through carrying their flag, well that’s a sign of invasion if you were in the battlefield. If Isis came towards you with a flag you’d shoot them. So I don’t care what Trump does, he just will take care of it.”

When pushed on this point and asked about the hundreds of people in the migrant caravan who are children, many of them fleeing poverty, Linda replies: “So what? There are people fleeing poverty all over the world. They have people guarding those borders and fighting those battles in other countries, so it’s time we did too. I’m tired of these people killing and raping our people.”

Immigration is a big reason for mother of four, Leslie – another who asked her surname not be used – being here today. The 29-year-old says: “I’m here because of the whole beliefs of Trump and the wall and keeping America safe for not just us as adults but for our children.” She points at her son as if to emphasise the point. Although raised in a Democrat family in Chattanooga, Leslie is a staunch Trump supporter, so much so her and her children did not sleep the night before the rally because they were so excited.

There seems to be genuine sympathy among many Trump fans for the thousands of people walking north to the border, but it does not stretch far.

John Shelton, from Trenton, Georgia, queueing with his wife and 9-year-old son, says: “Once you have a house, you gotta build four walls. You protect yourself. Your country should be the same way. I feel sorry for the people coming, my heart goes out to them, but if you let 10,000 people come in there’ll be more after that, so you have to stand strong.”

As would be expected, there was widespread, unyielding negativity to Democrats. Melded with a deep distrust of the press, conversations were quick to turn to “evil Hillary’, with vague accusations that all Democrats are “in bed with the media and all sorts of bad people”.

Mr Shelton says: “The problem we have in America is the press because they’re in bed with the Democrats. If you watch it on TV you can clearly see it. You never hear one good thing about the president.” This Tennessee father was one of many to echo similar sentiments to me, and the exactness of the repetition from complete strangers is unnerving.

Of course it’s not just journalists to feel the president’s fast-typing wrath. His tweets, speeches and interviews have targeted Democrats, individuals, Muslims and immigrants, to name but a few.

As people are so keen to talk about the media, I mention the mail-bombing scandal, which saw a series of pipe bombs posted to politicians, CNN and Democrat donors.

When asked about this Mr Hillman – whose “idol is Trump” because the president “doesn’t care about the repercussions” – says: “I don’t think he [Trump] created violence, the other side does, they do. He really just speaks his mind and he’s never told anybody to send bombs to anybody, to kill anybody, he’s never told anybody to do this or that, not like the media tries to.”

The repetitive answers are dizzying, but this merry-go-round ride isn’t quite over. Trump still has three rallies left in Ohio, Indiana and Missouri before Tuesday’s elections.

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Despite loyal support from thousands of people here, the president seems nervous. In the last few days Trump has toned down his rhetoric on Republicans keeping control of both chambers of congress and says “who knows” will win at the Chattanooga rally.

Recent polls edge the Democrats closer to taking the House of Representatives, but it all depends on a few key states. Tennessee’s race between Marsha Blackburn and Phil Bredesen had been painfully close for months, but a recent Republican surge suggests the results are only going one way.

The president may be hedging his bets with this uncharacteristically cautious language, but there is no doubt in the mind of this faithful crowd; Trump is their president, their mighty leader, and they will do whatever they can to stop that from changing.

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