The political dynamics of Tennessee are usually based on an east-west divide. Any Democrat attempting to win a statewide campaign has to run up their numbers in West Tennessee, especially the population centers of Memphis and Nashville, in order to offset the Republican base of East Tennessee. Central to doing that is connecting with African-American voters, who comprise almost two-thirds of the population in Memphis. However, like a lot of urban-suburban divides in areas around the country, the city of Memphis is surrounded on all sides by white enclaves which are more rural and home to conservative elements that vote Republican. The poverty rate for black people in the Memphis area is 34.4 percent, for Latinos it’s 45.5 percent, but for non-Hispanic whites it’s 13.5 percent.
This division of race and class within Memphis can be seen in the governmental structure, where there are separate city and county governments and any attempt to simplify and unify is usually fought tooth and nail. One of the most contentious issues in recent memory was the unification of the Shelby County and Memphis City Schools. The county schools were generally well-regarded, while the city schools were plagued with problems for years, both in terms of performance and the quality of education being offered. Even into the aughts, there were times when some city schools would go half days because of the lack of air conditioning in facilities. Add into this that around 85 percent of the students in the city are African-American, and about 87 percent are considered "low-income," whereas in the county schools only about 38 percent of the students are black and the median family income averages almost six figures.
About five years ago, the city school board dissolved its charter in order to force the county to absorb the city schools. The county government fought it in court until they couldn’t fight it any longer. While the merger eventually happened and created a unified school district, six of Memphis’ surrounding areas — Collierville, Bartlett, Germantown, Arlington, Lakeland, and Millington—used state law to form their own individual, municipal school districts. One of the leaders in denouncing the merger and pushing Millington’s municipal school district was Terry Roland, who’s Shelby County Commission chairman and honorary chairman for Donald Trump's campaign in West Tennessee. Roland is an ambitious hothead who made his money owning a gas station and tire shop in Millington, and has been controversial in the county government and criticized for making racially insensitive remarks.
Millington is the home of a Navy base that has been partially converted into a private airport. The town underwent an economic downturn after the Navy moved most training operations to Florida, and the overall impact of the recession took its toll over the last 10 years. From 1989 to 2011, the town was represented in Congress by John Tanner, a Blue Dog Democrat. When Tanner retired, Tennessee’s eighth congressional district went red, and characters like Roland have taken advantage of the underlying dynamics in the area to play on people’s fears and biases.
I bring all of this up for context given Trump’s decision to stop in Millington. So let me go through what I experienced as it happened.
All week I’ve heard people talking about Trump’s rally around town. At about 1:00 PM on Saturday, I received a text from the daughter of a family friend asking if I was going. She’s a junior in college, studying to be a teacher, and cannot be talked out of being a Trump fan. The rally is being held in an aircraft hangar, and I arrive around 3:00 PM for an event that isn’t scheduled to start until 6:00 PM. There was already a significant stream of people going in, with the area outside looking like a bad flea market selling Donald Trump’s books, flags, signs, and accessories. As I walked past a vendor screaming as loud as he could to buy his “BOMB THE SHIT OUT OF ISIS BUTTONS!,” there were 7-year-old Girl Scouts selling cookies 15 feet away. All I could think about is that these are the same people that are always saying Democrats don’t have “family values.”
Once inside the hangar, I made my way to a good spot up front. The crowd, which Trump people claimed to be 15,000 but news reports pegged at about around 10,000, was 99 percent white. It’s a combination of mostly the elderly and middle-aged, along with some 20-somethings that fit the stereotypical look of being the frat or sorority types. I think I saw maybe four or five African Americans total inside the hangar, with those four or five being older and male. Standing around me are three middle-aged women. They are very nice people, although it seemed like they might have been drinking before arriving. These ladies try flirting with an attractive Secret Service agent. When I ask the women why they like Trump, their response hits on familiar phrases like “telling it like it is” and “change.” The general sentiment from them and others in the crowd is disgust with Republicans like Marco Rubio. Before long, all they’re concerned with is taking pictures and letting all their Facebook friends know they’re at a Trump event.
Just as the sun begins setting, the event kicks off with Shelby County Commission chairman Terry Roland giving an introductory speech, where he took shots at Marco Rubio and introduced South Carolina preacher and Trump supporter Mark Burns to give an opening prayer. Burns uses the prayer to call people who abort fetuses “murderers,” and claims Trump is going to put a stop to it and bring about a new moral America where marriage is between one man and one woman. He also brushes aside Trump’s past pro-choice stance and history of fucking around by saying Jesus can change hearts. I don’t know whether to laugh or cry.
Let me make a case that the star of a Donald Trump rally is not really Donald Trump. It’s his fucking 757. The people around me loved everything about that damn plane, and wouldn’t stop talking about it. Trump’s wealth and status as a “businessman” was repeatedly a common refrain for why many in the crowd think he’ll be a great president. One woman started talking about it as a mark of Trump’s greatness that he had his own jet, while the other candidates were flying commercial or using a bus. But if bragging about bling and material goods was the basis for electing a leader, then Ric Flair should of been president of the United States. Since Trump is an egotistical maniac who has to put his name on the side of everything, when the plane landed and the Trump logo became visible, the crowd went wild and it was better than any opening act could possibly be. However, Chris Christie came out and gave it his best shot. In auditioning to be Trump’s VP, he did his best to be an attack dog while contradicting everything he said while he was a candidate.
Trump begins his speech. For the most part, it’s a rambling mess that hits the usual applause points seen in most interviews. The most popular lines with the crowd were:
- Building the Mexican wall, which seems to get 10 feet taller in every speech
- Deporting any Syrian refugees and blocking the arrival of any new ones
- Any criticism of Hillary Clinton
- Defending the conduct of law enforcement
- Making fun of Marco Rubio
However, it should be noted that even though I thought the speech was all over the place, I never thought Trump lost the crowd. I’ve been to political events where people show up out of ideological curiosity and solidarity, and you get polite and even generous applause. But this wasn’t that. The people in that hangar were eating this shit up.
A protester with a sign that says “Trump Makes America Hate Again” is thrown out of the event. Trump stops his speech and says: “Get him outta here!,” and then starts complaining that the media will focus on the protester instead of his supporters. And when the crowd gets restless, Trump tells the people, “Don’t hurt him.”
After the speech is over, people begin filing out. At the exit, about a dozen Black Lives Matter protesters are standing with signs, chanting “history repeats itself.” The crowd of Trump supporters begin yelling slurs and barbs. A man screams “all lives matter.” Another yells “go home.” While this is going on, the same vendors I waded through on the way in are still selling their crap, and pestering everyone that comes through to buy overpriced t-shirts and buttons.
All in all, I leave thinking about many better ways I could have spent my Saturday.