I was the Mexican-American at a Donald Trump rally

Liberal Massachusetts, far from the border -- what explains the Trump fans? And would they be nice to me?

Published November 20, 2015 6:33PM (EST)

  (AP/Mary Schwalm)
(AP/Mary Schwalm)

I brought a tape recorder to the Donald Trump rally this week in Worcester, Massachusetts, but I turned it off as soon as Trump took the podium. It was his show, but like most successful showmen, candidate Trump doesn’t do anything surprising anymore.

He said plenty of outrageous things, of course. In a 40-minute speech at the DCU Center — a small-city arena bursting with more than 10,000 Trump fans — the real estate magnate gave a list of raping, murdering “illegal immigrants”; he yelled insults as a protestor was removed from the hall (“no one will ever have him”); he crowed that his hair is nicer than Marco Rubio’s.

Surprising though? Not really. He spoke a lot about Ben Carson. Which caught me off-guard maybe only because I didn’t expect Trump, the New Hampshire front-runner, to spend much time delivering a conventional-sounding political speech.

It is extraordinary to hear a billionaire draw such extended and granular attention to his own wealth. But Trump has made a habit of walking audiences through his financial disclosures, explaining that they prove him to be richer than anyone dreamed. Surprising for a human being: yes. Surprising for Donald J. Trump: no.

So I wasn’t so interested in what Trump was saying. I wanted to hear what the man’s supporters thought of his marquee issue, the original hobby horse that put him on the political map: Mexico and Mexicans.

What could a bunch of Massachusetts Republicans — so far from the frontier, so safe here in New England — have to say about the border threat? And why, I asked them, does Donald Trump talk about Mexico so much? Would they be nice to me, a Mexican American?

The Trump line was in the air as the crowd streamed out of the arena and toward Worcester’s downtown Applebees: America is weak right now (Obama has made it this way), and we have to take care of ours first. I approached most folks, but one trio sought me on the sidewalk, brushing up from my right in a post-happy hour daze. “Our country’s in the dump! Vote for Trump!”

“What’s Trump’s hangup with Mexico?” I asked. “They cost so much money, and there are so many people coming into the country…,” said the man. One of his two companions chimed in: “Illegally, let’s get that straight!” The man continued. “And we’re responsible for paying for them. We’ve got to sustain our country before we can help other people grow.”

Another man, who had established himself on a busy corner after the rally, said that Mexicans in America failed to assimilate and that Trump’s leadership may make it possible for him to “press 1 for English less by the time I’m an old man." Classic Trump, even here in blue Massachusetts.

But, unlike Trump himself, talking with Trump fans about Mexico became surprising rather quickly. Many folks’ opinions went beyond xenophobia and zero-sum competition. Others found a distinction between the people coming from Mexico and the government that might be pushing them over the border.

One young man from Rhode Island said Trump “talks about Mexico so much because there’s a lot of political unrest in Mexico” making it a “disorganized community…a failed state.” The self-described “small town American” said he’s in favor of legal immigration but he wants Trump to build that wall.

So does the most surprising woman I found in the crowd last night. She’s a mom from Panama, grateful still for Reagan’s intervention against Noriega. When her tiny kids finished with my microphone, the Panameña explained why she supports Trump and getting tough on Mexico. “The new immigrants…52 percent are coming from Mexico. Doesn’t that tell you something about that government?”

She said that, instead of having a welcoming immigration policy, “we need to go back to [Mexico’s President] Peña Nieto and we need to ask him, ‘Listen, it’s time for you to stop the corruption.’ And we need to be able to…put some pressure through the United States government…for that [Mexican] government to start taking care of its own people.”

And she’s kind of right about Mexico, which is a nice sort of surprise. For every person I found seeking to avenge an “abused” America, there was another – like the Panamanian mom – who wanted to talk about the powerful forces that push Mexicans to emigrate.

It’s not a shock, of course, to find thoughtful Trump fans. But it is a challenge to find average Americans who are so in touch with just how dire things are in Mexico – on human rights, economic opportunity, and corruption.

A portion of the left has a clue about Mexico; they blame the drug war and NAFTA for misery south of the border. And they might be amazed to discover how much agreement they would find at a Trump rally about the “push factors” causing migration right before the conversation veered out of control.

Particularly here in “liberal” Massachusetts, Donald Trump’s political support is a complex sociological phenomenon. The people I met last night in Worcester were passionate and indignant, but not angry in a scary way. Many were bigoted, especially when some of them realized that a packed arena absorbs all kinds of ugly shouts. But, one-on-one, they were polite. They were, yes, nice to me.

As a group, they let Trump work them up with his rhetoric. At one point during the rally, it seemed all 10,500 were joined in the same loud chant: “BUILD THE WALL.”

But – unlike the proto-facist masses they’re often compared with – the Trump crowd seemed to derive the most erotic satisfaction from being in on the joke. During his rant on Mexico, Trump paused to reassure the Worcester crowd that he will build that border wall and it will be “beautiful.” The candidate spaced out the riff, winking a bit at his signature project. The knowing laughter in the crowd seemed to acknowledge that the wall itself is a joke and an intentional one; a big, imaginary laugh-line between two nations.

That moment was a preview of the real surprises I got outside the rally talking with people who are fed up and definitely conservative but who seemed to know that migration itself is a complex sociological phenomenon. From his wide podium, Trump himself didn’t speak any of those points – surprising observations from good, New England people.

He moved, instead, to the next outrage and off of the stage without ever asking anyone for their vote.

By Pat Tomaino

Pat Miguel Tomaino is a journalist and radio producer in Boston. He tweets at @pmtomaino.

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