My week inside the Donald Trump campaign: Sheriff Joe, Sean Hannity and behind the scenes at an Arizona rally and Trump HQ

Build the wall! End Common Core! I embedded with aggravated Trump supporters and emerged knowing who they are

Published April 3, 2016 10:00AM (EDT)

 (AP/Ross D. Franklin)
(AP/Ross D. Franklin)

Trudging the sidewalks of Fountain Hills, it was easy to fall in emotionally with the parade of aggravated Trump supporters. No one was happy about walking three miles in the sun to the rally. Wearing weather-inappropriate jeans and socks, I was maybe unhappiest of all. I knew my near future involved chafed thighs and ointments, and it was easy to mutter along with the chorus of conservative complaint: Liberals don’t have any arguments, so they block trafficThis is what welfare people do — make chaos and ruin the weekends of people who work for a living... I heard it was mostly Latinos that blocked the road — why didn’t the police stop them when they drove in?

It was a fair question: What’s the point of passing the nation’s gold-standard in Nurembergian racial profiling legislation if you can’t prevent a caravan of activists from wreaking havoc in Sheriff Joe Arpaio’s own damn suburb, on the morning of a widely expected protest, no less?

On Saturday morning, four days before the Arizona primary, protestors formed a blockade of parked cars on the highway leading to an outdoor Trump rally co-starring Arpiao and Governor Jan Brewer. After towing the cars and arresting three, Arpaio’s deputies blockaded both entrances to the adobe Scottsdale suburb of Fountain Hills, directing arrivals to park along the shoulder of Highway 87. The resulting migration looked like the parking lot trek to a desert music festival, maybe one that culminated in the symbolic torching of a giant wooden Mexican.

Early into this walk I met Danny Riggs, an affable Scottsdale native, Trump supporter and recent Georgetown graduate. Riggs was twice angry: about having to walk, but more about his mother, a Fountain Hills resident who’d been blocked by protestor and police blockades from using her car. The inconvenience, he said, had accomplished something her son and husband could not. It had pushed Mrs. Riggs into Trump’s camp. “My mom wasn’t sure about him before all this, but now she’s into it,” he said. “She’s getting a T-shirt and everything.”

I told him there was a debate on the left about the ethics and strategy of trying to shut down Trump events. He said he thought the protests would only bring in more recruits like his mother.

“The protestors say Trump is dividing the country, but they’re the ones stopping us from exercising our rights. We came to see a conversation. Now we’re an hour late. Trump’s late. We’re walking two and half miles. My car’s parked on the freeway. A group of protestors blocks you in your own home? I’m not saying ‘violence,’ but I’m sorry, you’d be shot for that in a lot of states.”

It’s not clear if Riggs means “states” as in the Nutmeg State, or nation states. Before I can clarify, Trump’s motorcade rolls past us toward the rally grounds. At its center is the black SUV holding the candidate and the governor, fresh from a live-audience recording of “Hannity” at the Phoenix Convention Center. Arpaio had joined them onstage, but left early to oversee rally security in Fountain Hills.

“There they go,” said Riggs, gesturing at the motorcade. “That’s them, if you want to tape it, or something.”

I dutifully took a picture with my phone, but the only thing worth recording about Trump’s Arizona limousine was the backseat conversations he likely had during his visit with Arpaio, the 83-year-old sadist-avatar of his immigration platform, whose grip, Arizonans have begun to murmur, ain’t what it used to be. Did Sheriff Joe, serving a sixth term on the slimmest electoral margin of his career, coach Trump on how to win with the hardline in an age of darkening demographics and civil contempt hearings? Did he share Cosmo-style tips on How to Arouse the Maricopa County Republican Lurking Inside Every Moderate East Coast Retiree? More likely, the student has become master, and Trump has nothing left to learn from Arpaio. If Trump wanted any lessons from his Arizona friends, it was help in understanding why everyone keeps talking about the dead Arizona senator with the Jewish name, the one with the thick glasses, who they say once dropped a Trump-sized turd in the Establishment punch bowl, sending packing Nelson Rockefeller, the Jeb Bush of his day, only to get crushed by the Democrat because everyone pretty much agreed his election would mean dealing with a global thermonuclear holocaust.

It’s possible Brewer was telling Trump not to worry about the comparison with Barry Goldwater, or the fact that his widow and son had just excoriated the frontrunner as a “cowboy” and “authoritarian,” when the pair arrived at Fountain Hills Park and was greeted by many thousands of people, many carrying bullhorns and protest signs. Between the fenced-off rally area and the rest of the 60-acre park, a long white wedding tent shaded dozens of armed deputies in tactical vests. Above it all in a sky of cloudless blue hovered enough police choppers to monitor unrest in a major city.

Riggs and I arrived at Fountain Park just as Trump was taking the podium, his voice dying against a white noise of dueling chants. The most common duel had Trump supporters screaming “U-S-A!” against Trump protestors screaming “Trump Is Hate!” The three-syllable scream-offs contained both menace and a comic undercurrent, as the scene looked like a pretty tight parody of “Taste Great! Less Filling!” Roving packs of pros and antis grew and shrank as people gathered, drifted off, or took breaks after going hoarse. Some of the screaming contests winnowed into dyads, leaving two people so far into each other’s faces they looked as likely to French as fight. Snatches of Trump’s speech poked through the vitriol: Build the wall… End Common Core… Smart trade… George Patton… End Obamacare… The CEO will call me in 10 minutes… Rebuild our military… Win with the military… Winning… So much winning…

As passions rose and spread, it looked like it could be The Day. The kind of day remembered as Bloody Saturday, or the Arizona Beer Commercial Riots. The biggest story in the country was the atmosphere of violence that had come to define Trump campaign events. Just a few days before, a Trump rally in Chicago had been cancelled after street scuffles broke out, followed by reports of a nascent Trump militia called the Lion’s Guard, a group of volunteer brown shirts retailored in red, white and blue. Fountain Hills seemed too posh a venue for real bloodshed, but this was Arizona, where border politics is serious business, and the pieces were in place for some kind of mayhem. Both sides had numbers. There was plenty of space. The police were hanging back. A bloody afternoon brawl seemed a logical progression for recent events, even a perfect one.

But the pot never boiled over. After the speech, Trump supporters drifted off with more chants and parting comments like “Go back to Mexico” and “The entitlements office is that way.” But drift off they did. One guy who’d been bellowing “U-S-A!” at the top of his lungs in protestors’ faces walked over to his antagonists and quietly said before leaving, “You guys do know that you’re fucking idiots, right?” Some of the scream-offs cooled into something resembling conversations. I saw two men go from the brink of fisticuffs to a bonding session over their shared revulsion for Ted Cruz and Hillary Clinton.

Later that afternoon a similar script played out in Tucson, Trump’s last Arizona appearance before voting: Road blockade, chanting, confrontations, some chest bumping. But no blood. The protests may also have minted a few Trump supporters like Danny Riggs’ mom. After returning from the rally, a black Tucson police officer named Brandon Tatum posted a video chastising protestors for being overly aggressive and “hateful.” The video fueled the debate about how to protest Trump, how and whether to engage his supporters, and the ethics and efficacy of trying to stop his events from taking place altogether.


On Monday, two days before the primary, I took a long city bus ride up Cave Creek Road, passing roughly 700 strip malls, to Trump’s Arizona headquarters in a two-story office complex in North Phoenix. The operation, on the bleak outskirts of the city, wasn’t much: two modest rooms with a dozen two-person tables for phone banking. The scene was quiet and the energy flat. The campaign staff were in their early to mid-20s, mostly from outside the state. The volunteers were older, most of them over 50, and all white, with the exception of a tiny Latina woman who arrived with her husband, a taciturn fellow in a cowboy hat.

The staffer who set me up at a table was from New Orleans, friendly in a way that suggested the presidency of a Southern fraternity. Arizona is a closed primary, so I spent the day telling registered Republicans about the importance of voting for Donald Trump, “the only candidate who will put America first.” Most people had already voted early for Trump. Only a few hung up at the mention of the candidate’s name. One woman seemed to be trembling in anger when she said, “I will never vote for that man.” One guy said he liked Trump, but was upset about the breach with his favorite Fox News personalities. “Listen,” he told me, “you need to sit down with your candidate and tell him he needs to straighten up and fly right. He’s way off base going after Megyn Kelly.”

For several hours, I shared a table with Lynn, a talky New York transplant in khakis and a yacht club polo shirt. She knew Trump would win Arizona, but worried about establishment shenanigans behind the scenes. “Who is counting the votes? That’s the question. I don’t trust John McCain. He’s a snake.” She didn’t trust the media, either, and was curious to gauge my knowledge of anti-Islam sentiment in Europe. “The French just had another huge protest against the Muslims. They don't want ’em. But you didn’t hear about it in the media. It’s like a communist country.”

At lunchtime, a Domino's deliveryman showed up with a stack of pizzas, care of the Trump campaign. As he entered the room, Lynn demanded to know if she could count on his vote on Tuesday. “Well, uh, I’m really more of a Bernie guy,” he said, backing away like someone who’d taken a wrong turn into the “Aliens” egg chamber. “A Bernie guy!” Lynn exclaimed. “So the pizzas must be free, right? I hope nobody paid for these pizzas.” When her joke was met with silence, Lynn explained it to the room. “Get it? They’re communist pizzas, so you don’t have to pay for them. You just get them for free.”

After lunch, Lynn left for the day and was replaced by Gracie, a subdued soccer mom type who spoke in a whisper that made everything sound like a secret. “You know, this Cuba trip?” she said to me in a hush. “Obama taking his whole family to Cuba? He says his daughters are interested in this and that, but you know it’s just another vacation. That’s all it is.” Later, she asked if I knew Obama was trying to give himself an 18 percent raise. “Can you believe it? A raise for all ex-presidents, for the rest of their lives. Trump won’t need to do that,” she said. “He’s rich.”

The next morning, primary day, I went back for the final push. News of the Brussels bombing was fresh, and I expected to find the room buzzing with talk of tactical nukes and lakes of Islamic State glass. That previous morning, during an interview with the editors of the Washington Post, Trump had pointedly refused to rule out just such a policy. But nobody at Trump HQ seemed to care or even know about the Brussels attacks. My fellow volunteers, who now included a black woman named Toni, were still talking about Saturday’s rally in Fountain Hills. My tablemate, a retired advertising executive from Chicago named Nancy, was still in shock over the lack of mass arrests. “I can’t believe they didn’t arrest them all,” she said. “They just towed the cars away! I took pictures of the protestors [at the blockade] and offered them to the police. They did nothing. To be honest with you, I was a little surprised at Sheriff Joe.”

Nancy had a lot of ideas of her own for making America great again. “I think people should have to pay an income tax to vote,” she told me. “Except maybe old people. Maybe they’re too poor or whatever.” She was also something of an amateur historian. She thought Trump’s recent speech at AIPAC had been a tour de force, but knew it was lost on American Jews. “I did a study,” she said. “I used to be confused that my Jewish friends were so liberal. So I researched it. It’s because back in the 1880s, after all the pogroms, the Jewish industrialists, Guggenheim and Singer and guys like that, they funded all these kibbutzes in Israel, which were communist. And now, people still hear about it from their grandparents.”

Not long after, I excused myself, thanked the staffers for the pizza, and left to catch a bus back to town. At the bus stop, I was staring at a dive called Larry’s Cocktails when I realized I needed a drink. My neighbor at the bar was a tatted up, bandana’d native Phoenician named Anthony Holston. His sleeveless biker jacket read “Independent Wounded Veteran” in gang script across the back; a patch on the front read, “Heroes don’t wear capes, they wear dog tags.”

The TV in the corner had on news about the election, and I pointed at the screen. “You got a dog in this fight?”

“Trump. I voted for Trump,” he said.

When I asked what him why, he said something about the national debt and the country needing a businessman in office. But it wasn’t very convincing. Nor was Holston especially agitated over immigration, though he thought the Wall was a good idea. Over a few rounds of Bud Light, I learned that Holston’s issue was the Veterans Administration. A career Army soldier, he’d served in Kosovo, Afghanistan and Iraq, where he was wounded by an RPG and took two bullets. In 2005 he returned to Phoenix plagued by a raft of chronic physical and psychological injuries, including PTSD. The most important institution in Holston’s life is the local VA hospital, and he said he has no love for the people who sent him to war and oversee what he says is a dysfunctional and underfunded VA system.

When Trump criticized John McCain for not being a “hero” and for letting vets down, pundits in D.C. thought it might be game-over for his campaign. In Arizona, it went far toward locking up the vote of Holston and other vets who struggle with Arizona’s scandalized VA system. Trump may be a Manhattan billionaire who dodged Vietnam balancing on a silver spoon, but his veterans platform is more detailed than Bernie Sanders’. Holston also appreciated it when Trump bluntly stated that many vets were “living in hell.”

Holston was open about the depths of his own hell. He says alcohol is the only thing that helps with chronic pain and lets him get to sleep, even if it can’t keep the demons at bay. He spends a lot of his time at the bar, self-medicating with other vets. His brother, with whom he served in Iraq, also suffered PTSD before committing suicide.

“It’s hard to work because I drink all day long to deal with what I went through,” he said. “I did what I had to do over there, what they told us to do, but some things…. I can’t look at my kids sometimes. I’ve lost four wives because of this. I woke up one night in a cold sweat choking my ex-wife. She hit me with a broomstick because I was choking her out. Then you go down and tell the VA, and they give you pills that make you a zombie, and they go, ‘You’re good.’ The pills make me stupid. I’m not a stupid person. So I drink. It’s the only way I can fall asleep. It’s a horrible life.”

He didn’t mind when Trump broke a Republican taboo and accused George W. Bush of lying to sell the Iraq War. “Trump was right,” he said. “Bush Jr. was trying to clean up for his daddy and their friends. They were all in business together, and they all still own shit over there. They’re all making money off of our fucking loss. And now the ones that lost are the ones going further and further in the fucking hole.”

That night, Trump won Arizona by 22 points.

By Alexander Zaitchik

Alexander Zaitchik is a journalist living in New Orleans.

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