The Trumpian Divide

The 2016 campaign has revealed an America of stark division and mutual animosity.

Mike Blake / Reuters

ANAHEIM, Calif.—The police form a column that stretches across eight lanes of road and two sidewalks. There are dozens of them—Orange County deputies in olive-green uniforms and helmets with shields. A group of cops on horses occupies the middle of the street; they are flanked on either side by several rows of police on foot, holding their truncheons forward and yelling, over and over, “DISPERSE! LEAVE THE AREA!” as they march forward.

The cops are here, at the Trump rally, to prevent trouble.

A black man in a wifebeater shirt is waving a brightly colored homemade poster that reads, “LATINOS FOR BERNIE.” He is arguing heatedly with a middle-aged white man in a yellow hard hat with TRUMP written on it. Most of the other Trump supporters have been held back by police a block up the road.

“Drop him! Get that motherfucker!” somebody yells.

A styrofoam soda cup with a lid flies through the air, hitting someone. The police advance, step by step. An announcement sounds from a helicopter: “I HEREBY DECLARE THIS AN UNLAWFUL ASSEMBLY,” it blares. “IF YOU DO NOT LEAVE NOW, YOU WILL BE ARRESTED.”

On the far side of the street there is a wall. On the other side of the wall is Disneyland. The struts and rails of the California Screamin’ roller coaster are visible over the wall, behind a row of palm trees.

Perhaps 100 yards away, inside a giant convention center, separated by many layers of concrete and glass and metal, Donald Trump has just finished speaking.

“The cops are on their side!” yells a young brown girl with a large German shepherd on a leash. She’s waving a black flag spray-painted with the “A” symbol, for anarchy.

“Fuck Donald Trump!”

“Fuck him!”

“Fuck outta here with your racism!”

The police keep moving. They push the protesters down the road, through a closed-off intersection. They sweep the bakery on the corner. Suddenly, on an unseen signal, seven black-uniformed Anaheim police break through the front line, tackle a slender black man to the ground, and handcuff him with plastic ties.

The line advances again.

Some of the protesters seem to want to escalate the situation, while others want the opposite. The man in the wifebeater leads a group to surround a car, and they start to shove it, even as others in the group yell, “No violence! No violence!” When someone lights a trash can on fire, others start dumping mulch and Gatorade into it to put it out.

It is early afternoon. As protests go, this doesn’t seem like much: There are perhaps 100 protesters at the peak of the action, a fraction of the number of police. Trump speeches in Albuquerque, Chicago, and elsewhere in Southern California have drawn bigger and more aggressive crowds. It is also, though, not something you see at other candidates’ campaign events—the counterpoint to Trump’s rapt throngs of fans. This is the other America, the one that is as unsettled by Trump’s message as his supporters are in thrall to it.

I strike up a conversation with two high-school seniors from Orange. “Fuck that nigga Trump. I hate that nigga Trump,” says Zachary Portis. “I’m half Mexican and half black. Trump is against all of us.”

“He’s disrespecting people,” says Lucas Covarrubias. “I’ve heard people say they hope he gets elected, because he’ll get assassinated right away, like JFK. I’m not saying that’s right, but that’s what people say.” Covarrubias muses that shared animosity toward Trump might even resolve L.A.’s long-running black-on-Latino gang wars.

A breakdancing circle briefly breaks out, then breaks up as the police push down the street. We are two blocks down now, past the Denny’s, and I have watched four people be tackled to the ground and handcuffed, including the man in the wifebeater.

Militarized cops forcibly arresting angry young minorities in the shadow of Disneyland as Donald Trump rages nearby: Sometimes, America in 2016 seems like it’s trying too hard to be a metaphor.

The girl with the German shepherd yells at the police, “Fucking chorizo! We will not be silenced!” Then she turns and addresses no one in particular. “If Trump is elected, this is what you’ll see every day!”

Earlier, inside the arena, Trump was busy unifying the Republican Party.

“Poor Mitt Romney,” he said of his predecessor as presidential nominee, the subject of an ongoing draft effort by conservatives hoping for a third-party Trump alternative to enter the race. “He begged for my endorsement! And now all he does is badmouth me … You know, once a choker, always a choker … And now he walks like a penguin onto the stage—like a penguin!”

The man largely spearheading the draft-Romney effort, Weekly Standard editor Bill Kristol, was the subject of an extended riff. “Why do you keep putting a guy on television that’s been proven to be wrong for so many years?” Trump asked. “All the guy wants to do is go to war and kill people!”

Trump could not resist a jab at his onetime rival Jeb Bush, whom he memorably deemed “low-energy” throughout the primaries: “No, Jeb hasn’t endorsed me yet,” he said. “He will get a burst of energy and he will do it, believe me!”

Onetime opponents who’d now joined Trump’s bandwagon were not spared, as he derided them as hypocrites: “Rick Perry, good guy. He said the worst things about me!” (Perry had called Trump “a cancer on conservatism.”) “This politics is a dirty business, I have to tell you,” Trump said gleefully. “I’ve never seen people able to pivot like politicians!”

(In fairness to Trump, he didn’t only attack Republicans. Hillary Clinton, Bernie Sanders, Joe Biden, and Elizabeth Warren also got a heaping of insults.)

Since Trump’s remaining Republican opponents dropped out at the beginning of this month, making him the presumptive nominee, the party has rallied around him with astounding speed. He now has the support of 85 percent of Republican voters nationally, according to a recent poll—a 10-point swing since March. The continued misgivings of a small hard core of establishmentarians and intellectuals on the right—and the House speaker, Paul Ryan, playing hard to get—just don’t count for much with the party’s rank and file, it turns out.

Perhaps what Trump understood from the beginning is that practically nobody liked Republicans, or the Republican Party, to begin with. People didn’t like the GOP platform, so Trump ran against it. People didn’t like GOP politicians, so Trump insulted them rather than play the suck-up game. People certainly didn’t like the fussy, richie-rich party elites. About 60 percent of Americans view the Republican Party with distaste, according to a polling average, while just 29 percent see the GOP favorably—a near-record low. In one recent survey, more than a third of Republican primary voters had a negative view of their own party.

And so Trump has unified the party by turning it upside down, and few find much to mourn. In the Anaheim convention center’s enormous central arena, which was not quite packed to the rafters, the country-club crowd mingled with the Trumpenproletariat, trying to figure out if they could get along.

When I asked one neatly dressed pair of attendees whether Trump had been their first choice, both of them made you’ve-got-to-be-kidding-me faces while drawing their chins sharply back into their necks. “Oh no, no, no,” said Katie, a 26-year-old who wore a pink-and-blue dress printed with elephants and gold elephant earrings, her shoulder-length blond hair tucked behind her ears. “Or second, or third, or fourth, or fifth.” (Katie did not want to give her last name because she was afraid Trump supporters might come after her for speaking her mind about the candidate.)

“I’m a Republican that wants to see face to face what this is all about,” said her companion, Brian Rauso, 49, who would have liked to see Jeb Bush atop the ticket instead. Both were hoping to see a different Trump than they’d read about and seen on TV—kinder, gentler, one they could bring themselves to vote for.

“It’s scary, but it’s what we have,” Katie said with a sigh. “It’s like when you’re going to break up with someone and you make a list of pros and cons. Sometimes one list is only one tick longer than the other.”

Behind them, a knot of matching white T-shirts read, “Chinese Americans (Heart) Trump!” A nearby section of seating was occupied by activists wearing shirts printed with the faces of people killed by illegal immigrants.

“Just because I’m gay doesn’t mean I’m going to vote for Hillary,” Aaron Mendoza, a 38-year-old business owner from South Beach, told me. He switched parties to vote for Trump and didn’t see himself as a “typical Republican.” “For me, this is like a whole new party,” he said approvingly.

His husband of 17 years, Mike Mendoza, added that he approved of Trump’s stances on guns, terrorism, and immigration. “When my great-grandfather came from Italy to Ellis Island, they made sure he wasn’t a criminal first,” he said.

The Mendozas saw Trump as accepting of gay rights; a few yards away stood Kevin Smith, a 47-year-old inventor and Christian worship leader, who believed the opposite. “As Christian Americans, getting rid of same-sex marriage, that’s huge for us,” he said. (In fact, on gay and transgender issues, Trump has been all over the map.)

Smith told me he’s been married for 21 years to a Mexican woman who immigrated illegally but now has a green card. “I love Mexican culture. I’m like half Mexican,” he said. But his wife did not accompany him to the rally. “She doesn’t like him—she finds him too abrasive,” he sighed. Smith agreed with Trump about building a wall on the border.

As Trump began to speak, I looked around. I was standing next to an older man with thick gray mutton chops and a black military-veteran cap, and a guy with an eyepatch, a cowboy hat, and a Disney T-shirt bearing the slogan, “Every Day Is a Grumpy Day.” Whatever else he accomplishes, Trump has made the GOP weird again.

In 1994, California’s Republican governor, Pete Wilson, backed a ballot initiative known as Proposition 187 to deny public services to illegal immigrants. The successful referendum drove a furious Latino backlash against the Republican Party, arguably driving the GOP into continuing irrelevance in the increasingly diverse state. Today, most of California’s political fights are between bickering Democrats, Republicans reduced to a pitiful, carping, perpetual minority. Some Republicans now wonder if Trump will do to the party nationally what Wilson did to it in California.

But Trump has the opposite view. “We’re going to make a big, big play for California,” he assured the crowd in Anaheim. The only Republican since Wilson to win the governor’s mansion was Arnold Schwarzenegger. This year, Schwarzenegger will take over the Celebrity Apprentice television franchise started by Trump.

The Trump people and the protesters get along best when they don’t mix, but a few rabble-rousers always make it past the gates. So before every Trump rally a recorded “free speech announcement” plays:

Some people have taken advantage of Mr. Trump’s hospitality by choosing to disrupt his rallies by using them as an opportunity to promote their own political messages. While they certainly have the right to free speech, this is a private event paid for by Mr. Trump. We have provided a safe protest area outside the venue for all protesters.

If a protester starts demonstrating in the area around you, please do not touch or harm the protester. This is a peaceful rally. In order to notify the law-enforcement officers of the location of the protester, please hold a rally sign over your head and start chanting, ‘Trump, Trump, Trump.’ Ask the people around you to do likewise until the officer removes the protester.

Thank you for helping us make America great again.

As Trump began to speak in Anaheim, it became apparent that his followers had taken this up as a challenge. Spotting infiltrators and rooting them out had become a game. When a young man in a Dodgers cap silently held up a Mexican flag atop a set of stairs, I could see the people in the adjacent section elbowing each other and pointing, then trying to get the chant going and looking exasperated as security took some time to respond. As they hauled him away, the protester didn’t struggle or rage—he shrugged.

“Get ’em out!” Trump shouted. “Out, out, out. Don’t hurt ’em! See what I say? I say it for the TV cameras: Do not hurt ’em. Even though he’s a bad person, folks. A bad person.”

The crowd cackled and whistled and cheered. It’s good to have a common enemy—a scapegoat. And if Trump can truly make himself the candidate for every American with a chip on her shoulder—everyone who has suspected, at one point or another, that he’s getting screwed—everybody who has ever found herself in need of someone to hate: Well, who’s to say he won’t get 100 percent of the vote?