‘It’s Kind of Like an Addiction’: On the Road With Trump’s Rally Diehards

A small band of the president’s most devoted fans will do whatever it takes to attend his campaign rallies

Libby DePiero once drove her Ford Focus so far to attend a Trump campaign rally—about 1,000 miles from her home in Connecticut to Indiana—that when she lay in bed that night she thought the twitching in her driving leg was coming from an animal under the mattress.

The 64-year-old retiree, who prefers sparkly nail polish, leopard prints and selfies with Trump campaign officials, is almost always one of the first few people in line at the president’s campaign events, part of the self-described group of “Front Row Joes” who routinely travel to see the president perform. Several, like Ms. DePiero, have attended more than 50 Trump rallies.

She keeps going because she trusts only the president to deliver her the news. “How else would I know what’s going on?” she said.

Mr. Trump has hosted more than 550 ticketed campaign events since 2015, at least 70% of which include his trademark rallies, according to Republican officials. These rallies form the core of one of the most steadfast political movements in modern American political history, a dynamic that has reordered the Republican Party.

Randal Thom showing a ‘Front Row Joes’ bracelet and pin, as well as a Trump flag, in Cincinnati in late July.PHOTOS: LUKE SHARRETT FOR THE WALL STREET JOURNAL

Mr. Trump’s perpetual tour attracts a coterie of political pilgrims who travel across the country and encamp outside arenas for days at a time for the chance to stand in the front row and, for 90 minutes, cheer the man they say has changed the U.S. and, in many cases, their own lives. Somewhere between 5% to 10% of attendees have been to multiple events, the officials said.

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“You go to the rallies, and he basically tells you that you don’t have to put up with ‘the swamp’ and those kinds of people,” said Saundra Kiczenski, a 40-year-old Walmart worker from Michigan who has been to 29 rallies. “Because of him I decided not to pay for Obamacare, not pay the fine. And what happened? Nothing. Before, the quiet me would have paid the fine. But Donald Trump told me that we have a voice, and now I stand up for myself.”

Several of those with jobs live paycheck to paycheck, but constantly offer strangers a cold beverage, sandwiches or their last cigarette.

Some rely on disability payments, like Cynthia Barten, or cut lawns in Missouri, like her husband, Ken Barten. Others sell secondhand items in Kentucky like Jon French, or find odd jobs such as clearing rocks from farmland in Minnesota, like Randal Thom. Kevin Steele quit his job and plans to finance his travels to Trump rallies with the remaining $120,000 from an inheritance.

The group includes Trump aficionados, who have spent decades keeping tabs on his history of political flirtations, tabloid melodrama and star turns on reality television. A surprising number voted for Barack Obama at least once, caught up in the Democrat’s charisma and fed up with Republicans over foreign adventurism and growing national debt.

Ms. DePiero broke up a 700-mile drive to the Cincinnati rally on Aug. 1 by spending the night with Becky Gee, a northeast Ohio dairy farmer she met at a previous Trump rally. She stayed with Barbara Bienkowski in Maryland (they met at Trump Hotel in Washington earlier this year), on her way to the Greenville, N.C., rally on July 17 and stayed in Myrtle Beach, S.C., with Dale Ranney, another Front Row Joe, on the way home.

Two regular rallygoers have already married, and divorced.

All of them describe, in different ways, a euphoric flow of emotions between themselves and the president, a sort of adrenaline-fueled, psychic cleansing that follows 90 minutes of chanting and cheering with 15,000 other like-minded Trump junkies.

Once you start going, it’s kind of like an addiction, honestly,” said April Owens, a 49-year-old financial manager in Kingsport, Tenn., who has been to 11 rallies. “I love the energy. I wouldn’t stand in line for 26 hours to see any rock band. He’s the only person I would do this for, and I’ll be here as many times as I can.”

For many Front Row Joes, the Trump era marks their political awakening. Among the first Americans to identify the resonance and endurance of Mr. Trump’s political appeal, they are reveling in the victory. Like Mr. Trump on stage, each recounts the Election Night triumph without any prompting.

In Orlando, Fla., Trump fans sat in a field adjacent to Amway Center in June, about to get soaked by the second downpour in as many days. Still, they wore sunglasses and smiles as outdoor speakers pumped out “Sweet Home Alabama” and “Hurts So Good.” Head shakes and patronizing laughs greeted questions about which Democrat might beat Mr. Trump.

President Trump arriving at a rally in Manchester, N.H., in mid-August. PHOTO: CHERYL SENTER FOR THE WALL STREET JOURNAL

Michael Telesca, a middle-school teacher at the front of the line in Greenville, compared the experience to following Bruce Springsteen.

“You come to the show, and you know exactly what you’re going to get—all of the hits and maybe a few surprises, too,” said Mr. Telesca, whose bushy brown hair is graying at the temples.

The surprise in Greenville wasn’t from Mr. Trump, but the crowd as it debuted a “send her back” chant. The chant erupted as Mr. Trump was criticizing Rep. Ilhan Omar (D., Minn.). Three days earlier, Mr. Trump had tweeted that Ms. Omar and three other liberal congresswomen, all women of color, should “go back” to unspecified countries. The four women are American citizens and three of them were born in the U.S.

Before the rally, more than a dozen supporters said they would never use that racist language to denounce minorities. Inside Williams Arena, many participated in the chant that mirrored it. “It was like a tornado when ‘send her back’ started. I was looking around and people were loving it,” Ms. DePiero said.

The regulars who arrived early at rallies—often before campaign officials or local law enforcement—hurried to set up tents and organize their belongings. The Bartens, who drove their Dodge minivan seven hours from St. Louis to be first in line in Cincinnati, unfolded a table and set down a deep-cycle military battery, a camp stove for turkey melts, a string of LED festoon lights and a half-empty pack of Edgefield cigarettes.

They mingled until doors opened, then rushed to the front row on the arena floor. But not necessarily center-stage.

Libby DePiero and husband, Brian, head to the VIP section of President Trump’s campaign event at the SNHU Arena in Manchester, N.H. PHOTO: CHERYL SENTER FOR THE WALL STREET JOURNAL

Some, like, Shane Doyle, prefer the side where Mr. Trump first appears from behind the curtains. “Back in the primary, I used to like being the first one when he came out, because he would sign all my stuff,” said Mr. Doyle, a 24-year-old machinist from Buffalo, N.Y.

Just before midnight on the eve of the Cincinnati rally, about two dozen fans lounged in lawn chairs or leaned on metal bike racks, scrolling through their phones and sipping from cans of Coors Light. A soft brown blanket covered Ms. Barten and her 12-year-old granddaughter, who slept sitting up in her camp chair.

The 57-year-old Air Force veteran’s disability check is reduced by $5 every month by an automatic donation to the Trump campaign.

The Real Problem With Trump’s Rallies

There are a lot of similarities between the president and George Wallace of Alabama. But there’s also one big difference.

President Trump’s political rallies are certainly a spectacle, but a spectacle we’ve seen before. In both style and substance, the president’s campaign appearances bear strong resemblances to the rallies held a half-century ago by Gov. George C. Wallace of Alabama.

There are a number of similarities between the two politicians’ rallies. But there is one significant difference — and it shows how Mr. Trump remains a greater danger and poses a graver threat to peaceful political discourse, especially as we enter a presidential election campaign.

Like Mr. Trump, Mr. Wallace presented himself as the political champion of aggrieved working-class and middle-class whites. As governor, he embodied the cause of segregationist resistance, literally standing in the schoolhouse door to block the first black students at the University of Alabama and figuratively standing against what he called the “civil wrongs bill.”

Yet in his repeated campaigns for the presidency between 1968 and 1976, despite today’s consensus to the contrary, Mr. Wallace didn’t make open appeals to racism. Instead, he couched opposition to the civil rights movement — both his own opposition and that of whites in the North and South alike — in new terms. Taking aim at liberals in government and leftist protesters in the streets, Mr. Wallace presented himself as the champion of ordinary Americans besieged by both. He promised then, as Mr. Trump has now, to restore “law and order” to a troubled nation.

  • hippies,
  • beatniks,
  • civil rights “agitators,”
  • “pointy-headed intellectuals,”
  • both “briefcase-toting bureaucrats” and
  • “bearded bureaucrats,”
  • “lazy” welfare recipients,
  • “anarchists and communists,”
  • atheists,
  • antiwar “radicals and rabble rousers,” and
  • street thugs whom liberals, he said, believed had “turned to rape and murder because they didn’t get enough broccoli when they were little boys.”

While he lacks Mr. Wallace’s background in boxing, Mr. Trump has adopted a similar stance in his own rallies. He’s claimed some of Mr. Wallace’s specific phrases as his own

— most notably the call for “law and order” — and more generally has stoked the same fires of resentment and racism.

Mr. Wallace’s words electrified crowds of working- and middle-class whites. “Cabdrivers and cattle ranchers, secretaries and steelworkers, they hung on every word, memorized the lines, treasured them, savored them, waited to hear them again,” noted an Esquire profile. “George Wallace was their avenging angel. George Wallace said out loud what they nervously kept to themselves. George Wallace articulated their deepest fears, their darkest hates. George Wallace promised revenge.”

Mr. Trump has tapped into that sentiment, winning over white voters with a willingness to buck “political correctness” and voice their anger and anxieties directly. “He says what we’re thinking and what we want to say,” noted a white woman at a Trump rally in Montana. “We wish we could speak our mind without worrying about the consequences,” explained a white man at a Phoenix event. “He can speak his mind without worrying.”

Mr. Wallace’s rallies regularly erupted in violence, as his fans often took his words not just seriously but also literally. Mr. Wallace often talked about dragging hippies “by the hair of their head.” At a Detroit rally in 1968, his supporters did just that, dragging leftist protesters out of their seats and through a thicket of metal chairs. As they were roughed up, the candidate signaled his approval from the stage: “You came here for trouble and you got it.”

Mr. Trump’s rallies have likewise been marked by violence unseen in other modern campaigns. At a 2015 rally in Birmingham, Ala., for example, an African-American protester was punched, kicked and choked. Rather than seeking to reduce the violence from his supporters, Mr. Trump rationalized it, saying “maybe he should have been roughed up, because it was absolutely disgusting what he was doing.”

This leads us to the significant difference between Mr. Wallace and Mr. Trump. Mr. Wallace’s targets were, for the most part, presented in the abstract. Though he denounced broad categories of generic enemies — “agitators,” “anarchists” and “communists” — he rarely went after an individual by name.

Mr. Trump, in pointed contrast, has used his rallies to single out specific enemies. During the 2016 campaign, he demonized his political opponents in the primaries and the general election, and also denounced private individuals, from Megyn Kelly, the former Fox News anchor, to the former Miss Universe Alicia Machado and the federal judge Gonzalo Curiel.

At recent rallies, he has targeted four Democratic House members who have criticized him and his administration — Representatives Ilhan Omar, Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, Rashida Tlaib and Ayanna Pressley.

Participants at Mr. Trump’s rallies have been moved to attack individuals he’s singled out. For most rally participants, the attacks have been confined to ominous but nevertheless nonviolent chants — from the 2016 cries of “Lock her up!” to the recent refrain of “Send her back!” But a handful have gone further, targeting the individuals named by the president with death threats and even attempts at violence.

In late 2018, a Trump supporter, Cesar Sayoc Jr., mailed pipe bombs to high-profile Democrats and media figures who had criticized the president and whom the president had denounced in return. After his arrest, Mr. Sayoc explained that Mr. Trump’s rallies had become “a newfound drug” for him and warped his thinking. “In the lead up to the 2018 midterm elections,” Mr. Sayoc’s lawyers added last week, “President Trump warned his supporters that they were in danger from Democrats, and at times condoned violence against his critics and ‘enemies.’”

Since the midterms, Mr. Trump’s rhetoric and the threats from his supporters have only intensified. In March, a Trump backer in New York was arrested on charges of threatening to “put a bullet” in Ms. Omar’s “skull.” In April, a Trump supporter in Florida was arrested on charges of making death threats to Ms. Tlaib and two other Democrats. This month, two police officers in Louisiana were fired over a Facebook post suggesting that Ms. Ocasio-Cortez should be shot.

As the 2020 campaign heats up, the president’s rhetoric will as well. It’s long past time that he started worrying about the consequences of his words.

Making Acosta a Federal Case

Question: What does CNN’s Jim Acosta crave more than anything? If you said “attention,” go to the head of the class. It’s a mystery why the White House has given Acosta way more than that. By yanking his “hard pass” after last week’s press conference (don’t ask who was obnoxious; they all were), Acosta has literally become a federal case. CNN filed suit claiming that its reporter’s First and Fifth Amendment rights were violated. More than a dozen news organizations, including Fox, have filed amicus briefs supporting CNN, and even Trump-friendly Fox News judicial analyst Andrew Napolitano has opined that Acosta has a strong case. Mr. Showboat is just where he wants to be — the center of attention — but thanks to President Trump’s gratuitous swipe, he is also a free-press martyr.