CINCINNATI — Donny Hedge, a 42-year-old lineman from Eaton, Ohio, smoked a cigarette Thursday while waiting to get inside U.S. Bank Arena for his first ever campaign rally for President Donald Trump. No, he said, there’s no way the president is racist.
“Look at the support he’s got just from other races. If he was legitimately racist, he wouldn’t have this gentleman right here,” Hedge said, pointing to an elderly black man walking by. “And all these other Chinese, and there’s a multiple different types of races that are standing here in this line to see him. And I believe if he was truly racist, you wouldn’t see that.”
The elderly black man Hedge pointed to was not, in fact, a Trump supporter. Joseph Early, 64, told HuffPost he comes to the arena to sing gospel songs anytime there’s a crowd around. As he sang Thursday afternoon, the overwhelmingly white line of Trump supporters applauded and put spare change into his plastic cup.
Asked what he thought of the president, Early said: “I ain’t got nothing to do with that because I’m with Jesus, that’s my man.”
In Cincinnati, Trump supporters both strongly denied that they are part of a racist political movement, and eagerly pointed to the few nonwhite people in attendance as a way of absolving themselves of such accusations.
The rally took place during a particularly heated moment of Trump’s presidency. Two weeks ago, he tweeted that four congresswomen of color, all of whom are American, should “go back” to their own countries. When a crowd at a campaign rally in Greenville, North Carolina, chanted “Send her back” about one of those congresswomen, Rep. Ilhan Omar (D-Minn.), a black Muslim woman who came to the U.S. as a refugee from Somalia, Trump stood and watched, later calling the crowd “incredible patriots.”
In a series of tweets this week, the president lashed out at Rep. Elijah Cummings (D-Md.), who is black, calling Cummings’ majority-black district in Baltimore a “disgusting, rat and rodent infested mess” and a “very dangerous & filthy place.”
At Thursday’s rally, Trump supporters lined up for hours in the summer sun, excited to see the president put on his show. No one, it seemed, was the least bit bothered by his latest series of racist remarks.
When the crowd finally packed inside the 17,500-seat arena, they loudly cheered on a dozen or so black Trump supporters holding up T-shirts emblazoned with the words “Trump and Republicans Are Not Racist.” And when Trump finally took the stage a little after 7:00 p.m., he too acknowledged the tiny group of black supporters, looking over at them and briefly applauding. The arena broke into another raucous cheer.
It’s a familiar dynamic at Trump rallies. As New York Times reporter Astead Herndon noted in a tweet Thursday: “Some of the most popular people at Trump rallies are the small collection of nonwhite folks. In Greenville last week one black guy was holding a small selfie line for literally no other reason than he was a black Trump supporter.”
Two 2016 Trump campaign officials have also admitted that they used to position someone they called “Michael the Black Man” behind Trump at rallies in order to fend off accusations that the president is a bigot.
The Trump campaign, in another effort to shake the racist label, has developed a talking point: liberals are just abusing the term “racist” as a cheap way to score political points.
“Using racism has become the easy button of left-wing politics,” Donald Trump Jr., the president’s son, told the crowd before his father took the stage in Cincinnati. Sure, racism is “still an issue,“ Trump Jr. argued, but liberals make a “mockery” of the term by using it too much.
The president used his own speech to once again degrade Baltimore, and then insult other “inner-city” communities that have Democratic representation in Congress. “We can name one after another, but I won’t do that because I don’t want to be controversial,” the president said to laughs. “We want no controversy.”
As for the four congresswomen Trump told to “go back” to their own countries, the president didn’t name any of them Thursday night, but did he did call them “left-wing extremists who reject everything that we hold dear.”
Allie Salerno, a retired schoolteacher from Cincinnati wearing a “Women For Trump” T-shirt, told HuffPost she thought liberals had “devalued the use of the word ‘racist.’ What a horrible accusation. What a terrible thing to say to someone. To call everybody a racist. We’ve been called racist. Why?”
Salerno said it was in no way bigoted for people to chant “send her back!” about Rep. Omar. “She’s a migrant,” Salerno said. “She’s from Somalia. That doesn’t mean she’s American. She was not born here.” (Omar is a U.S citizen.)
Ultimately, Salerno argued, she’d tell anyone she thinks hates this country to leave. “If it was a white European talking that way about our country,” she said, “I would feel the same way. With the Irish descent that I am, if it was an Irish person, I would say the same thing.” (Trump has lashed out at his Democratic opponents constantly over the course of his presidency, but reserved the “go back” comments only for the four congresswomen of color.)
Austin Greg, 24, thought the president’s “go back” tweets were funny. “He’s a rascal dude,” Greg said of the president. “He’s mischievous and he’s a rascal and I kinda like that.”
Greg, who traveled to the rally from Columbus where he said he’s working as a young entrepreneur, wore a Trump 2020 flag as a cape. He argued that the “send her back” chant at the Greenville rally — where a predominantly white crowd encouraged a white president to illegally deport one of the president’s black, Muslim political opponents — was just some “friendly banter.”
“If you can’t handle someone saying that against you, how are you going to handle the emotional stress of being a politician in the first place?” he said.
Greg said people like Omar need to be more grateful.
“That’s one thing that bugs me man,” he said. “I don’t like it when people shit on America because you know, even if you’re a brown woman you have more opportunities in this country than in any other country. I don’t like identity politics that much.”
Of all the Trump supporters HuffPost interviewed Thursday, only one really expressed reservations about the president’s “go back” tweets. David Jenkins, a 22-year-old senior at Bowling Green State University, where he’s a member of the College Republicans, said he “didn’t care” for the tweets because all four of the congresswomen targeted are Americans.
Still, Jenkins said he didn’t believe the tweets were racist.
“I think he just does it more to keep his base fired up,” he said of Trump. “It’s more foolish on his part than anything but I don’t think it’s racist.”
Jenkins wore a Reagan-Bush T-shirt to the rally. Asked about a recently unearthed audio recording of President Ronald Reagan calling African diplomats “monkeys” who are “still uncomfortable wearing shoes,” Jenkins expressed disappointment but said he was reserving judgment.
“It takes away from the man but you know by today’s standards, Lincoln would be racist, more than likely, so I try not to judge people in the past too harshly,” Jenkins said.
Trump finished his speech a little before 9 p.m. There had been some brief interruptions by protesters in the crowd, including one who held up a sign that read “Immigrants Built America.” A Trump supporter ripped the sign away and tore it in half.
The arena emptied quickly, with Trump supporters walking to their cars in parking garages along the Ohio River, as MAGA merchants made last-ditch efforts at selling them Trump merchandise.
Some walked west along Second Street East, past the National Underground Railroad Freedom Center, a museum dedicated to preserving the stories of American slaves and those who helped them escape to freedom.
“TEAM TRUMP” and “STOP GETTING OFFENDED” read some of the T-shirts walking past the museum.
There was also a lone, black protester walking past. A 38-year-old man, who only gave his first name, Brandon, carried a sign that read “Impeach 45” on one side, and “Deport the Racist” on the other.
He’d just left a 40-person counterprotest outside the arena, where he said Trump supporters had heckled him and his fellow protesters. “I was expecting that,” Brandon said. “It triggered them.”
Trump supporters, he said, try to make the president’s racist comments sound like their “normal things to say, but even at my job, if I said what he says to another employee, I’d be fired.”
Brandon, who works manufacturing car parts, said his company is diverse. “It’s one of the reasons I like working there. People from all different kinda countries, races, religions and you know, I believe that’s what makes America better, and it seems like the Trump people want it to be less diverse.”
Brandon said he’s worried things are just going to get worse.
“I never grew up in the ’60s, in Jim Crow days, but I don’t know, I feel like I’m getting a little taste of what that might’ve been like. I couldn’t imagine how racially tense it was back then, but it seems like it starting to get that way now. People just at each other’s throats.”