MILWAUKEE — At a campaign rally here Tuesday evening, as President Donald Trump touted his decision to assassinate Iranian Gen. Qassem Soleimani, a protester behind the president held up a sign that read, “NO WAR.”
The protester screamed too, though the message was largely inaudible to the crowd of some 10,000 Trump supporters inside the UW-Milwaukee Panther Arena. Trump paused his speech. Loud jeers from the crowd turned into rapturous cheers and applause as security officers removed the protester.
Trump gestured at the journalists in the arena. “So here’s your headline tomorrow: ‘Protesters Disturb The Rally,’” he said. But it was only “one protester,” Trump argued, with a “very weak voice.” The crowd laughed.
But there wasn’t just one protester with a weak voice Tuesday night. Outside the arena, hundreds of protesters gathered in the cold. “No more war!” they chanted, as cops in riot gear looked on. “Money for jobs! Not for war!” And some 350 miles west, on another stage in Des Moines, Iowa, six Democratic candidates for president lashed out at Trump for recklessly bringing the U.S. to the brink of war with Iran.
The competing political events highlighted deep divisions in the U.S. over Soleimani’s assassination. While many see the escalation in tensions with Iran as potentially leading to a greater armed conflict and further instability in the Middle East, the president’s supporters, with a uniform and cultish devotion, saw Trump’s decision as further evidence of his strength and leadership.
Barbara Finger, 69, stood in line outside the arena in Milwaukee before Tuesday’s rally, wrapped in a long coat. “NAVY VETERAN,” was sewn on the front, “ARMY MOM” on the back.
She’d served in the Navy, she explained to HuffPost, and her son had been deployed with the Army to Afghanistan, where she says he was seriously wounded by an improvised explosive device. Finger, who now works in retail in Oconto, Wisconsin, was glad the president ordered the airstrike that killed Soleimani.
“To have let him live would have signaled weakness on our part,” she said. “It would’ve further emboldened our enemies, and there was very strong evidence he was planning attacks on four more embassies.”
Last week Trump claimed, without offering any evidence, that Soleimani, head of Iran’s Quds Force, a group the U.S. designates as terrorists, which had worked to counter American influence in the region, had been planning imminent attacks on four U.S. embassies. But Trump’s own secretary of defense, Mark Esper, and his secretary of state, Mike Pompeo, both declined to confirm the president’s assertion.
The president further undermined his own claim on Monday that Soleimani posed an imminent threat — the legal threshold required to justify the assassination — by tweeting that “It doesn’t really matter because of his horrible past.”
The administration had also emphasized Soleimani’s role in planning attacks throughout the Middle East in recent years, leading to the deaths of some 600 U.S. troops in Iraq, where America has had a military presence since 2003, after it illegally invaded that country, leading to a war that has since killed hundreds of thousands.
Chris Lewison, a 47-year-old Iraq War veteran, stood outside the arena Tuesday with a clipboard, cheerily asking fellow Trump supporters to volunteer for the campaign. His right hand was in a cast. He had gotten stressed out recently and punched a table, he explained to HuffPost. “It’s just PTSD,” he elaborated. “I got some issues with that.”
Asked about Soleimani’s assassination, Lewison offered this: “It’s not a bad thing to kill one of the top terrorists in the world. It’s a pretty darn good thing actually.”
Lewison argued that Iran has been steadily escalating its aggression “towards our interests in the Middle East, and it just reached a point where they hit sovereign American soil,” referring to the recent attack by militia groups — widely regarded as proxy forces for Iran — on the U.S. embassy in Baghdad.
Trump though, critics say, bears much of the blame for rising tensions with Iran. In 2018, he pulled out of a deal with Iran, negotiated under President Barack Obama, to stop the country’s nuclear program. Trump has also ramped up devastating sanctions against the country.
Meanwhile, at the Democratic debate in Des Moines Tuesday night, presidential candidate Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.), was asked about his opinion of Trump’s approach to Iran. “We cannot keep acting unilaterally,” he argued.
“The nuclear deal with Iran was worked on with a number of our allies,” Sanders said. “We have got to undo what Trump did, bring that coalition together, and make sure that Iran never gets a nuclear weapon.”
Sanders also warned that Trump is risking a greater conflict with Iran, which bombed U.S. bases in Iraq after Soleimani’s assassination.
“We have a president who is lying again and could drag us into a war that is even worse than the war in Iraq,” Sanders said.
Former Vice President Joe Biden said he, too, thought Trump “flat out lied about saying the reason he went after [Soleimani] was because our embassies were about to be bombed.”
And Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.) said the U.S. needs to get our troops out of the Middle East and instead use economic and diplomatic tools to bring peace to the region. (Trump sent 3,000 more troops to the Middle East after the killing of Soleimani.)
“We have to stop this mindset that we can do everything with combat troops,” Warren said. “Our military is the finest military on Earth, and they will take any sacrifice we ask them to take, but we should stop asking our military to solve problems that cannot be solved militarily.”
Back in Milwaukee, Trump lashed out at Democrats for “being outraged that we killed this terrorist monster.”
“Great percentages of people don’t have legs right now and arms because of this son of a bitch,” he said. “And the Democrats should be outraged by Soleimani’s evil crimes, not the decision to end his wretched life.”
As Trump supporters filtered out of the arena after the rally, there were some minor skirmishes with protesters in the street. Mohammed Mustfa, an 18-year-old Palestinian-American student, was part of the protest. He told HuffPost one Trump supporter tried to get him to convert from Islam to Christianity.
“He was talking about how the Quran is bad and corrupt and tells people to kill Americans, to behead Americans when you see them,” Mustafa recalled. “I didn’t know how to respond to such a stupid comment, so I walked away.”
Islamophobia has been a driving force of the Trump administration’s hawkish stance towards Iran. On Monday, Trump retweeted a photoshopped image of Sen. Chuck Schumer (D-N.Y.) and House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) wearing a turban and a headscarf in front of an Iranian flag. The corresponding text read: “The corrupted Dems trying their best to come to the Ayatollah’s rescue #NancyPelosiFakeNews.”
(In response, Sen. Warren tweeted: “Circulating images of Democrats in hijab or a turban as a way of insulting them denigrates the faith of millions of Muslims and Sikhs.)
And Donald Trump Jr., in the days following the assassination of Soleimani, posted images of himself to Instagram at a gun range. The images showed that his assault rifle was emblazoned with the Jerusalem Cross, a symbol of the Crusades, when Christians invaded the Middle East as part of a holy war.
Also engraved on the gun were the words “Deus Vult,” which translates from the Latin as “God wills it.” The phrase, which also has origins in the Crusades, has gained popularity in recent years among far-right and white supremacist circles as a way of calling for violence against Muslims.
At the hotel bar inside Hyatt Regency Milwaukee Tuesday night, just across the street from where Trump spoke, dozens of Trump supporters wearing Make America Great Again red hats ordered drinks from two bartenders. “Four more years!” they chanted.
In the neighboring hotel lobby, two muted televisions showed the Milwaukee Bucks beating the New York Knicks. Two other televisions, however, were tuned into CSPAN. The volume on these TVs were on.
A table of Trump supporters watched and listened to CSPAN footage of Democratic members of the House, during a congressional hearing Tuesday, interview Iran experts, including former Deputy National Security Adviser Avril Haines, about the pitfalls of Trump’s decision to assassinate Soleimani.
“These guys are so full of shit,” one of the Trump supporters grumbled.