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What I Heard At A Trump Rally Speaks Volumes About The State Of The States

Whoever wins office this week inherits a country deeply divided.

08/11/2016 6:16 AM AEDT | Updated 08/11/2016 6:16 AM AEDT
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Carlo Allegri / Reuters
A child covers his ears before Republican presidential nominee Donald Trump appears at a campaign rally in Sioux City, Iowa, U.S. November 6, 2016.

There's a carnival-like buzz in the air as I walk along the crowded, dusty perimeter of the Florida Showgrounds. Stalls line the walkway as folks tout their goods on mega-phones and people buy caps and shirts by the armful. Pick-up trucks sporting freedom loving bumper-stickers swerve into the car park as people hurry towards the entrance. They're eager not to miss their chance to see the man they believe will Make America Great Again.

I notice an African-American woman selling Trump paraphernalia and wander over. She's draped in an American flag halter neck and denim cut-offs; she has the look of a woman whose seen a few things in her time. We get chatting and when I feel the conversation has warmed up I can't help myself.

"What's it like supporting Trump as a women?" I ask, referring to the Trump tapes.

"Oh. that's nothing new, just locker room banter," she laughs. "I've worked around men who talk like that all my life."

I decide to probe further.

"Sure," I venture, "but does that make it okay?"

"Oh honey, let me tell you a secret. All men are bastards!" She cackles, slapping me on the shoulder conspiratorially as she turns to a customer. Her response is similar to that of a younger white woman I spoke to a Pence rally a couple of days earlier.

"I've grown up with brothers," she offers by way of explanation as to why Trump's 'boy humour' doesn't bother her. Sexism runs so deep that Trump's demeaning comments somehow bring these women closer to him; he's 'one of the boys' like their brothers and colleagues.

Conflicting reactions to these comments about women between Hillary and Trump supporters are but one marker of a country deeply divided.

Jonathan Ernst / Reuters
Supporters of Republican U.S. presidential nominee Donald Trump attend a rally in St. Augustine, Florida, U.S. October 24, 2016. REUTERS/Jonathan Ernst/File Photo

As I head through the security screening (I'm relieved to learn guns must be left in vehicles unlike most polling stations where you can 'carry' while watching your fellow citizens vote) I'm swept along by the crowd to a grassy hill, overlooking a large stage.

A small dog dressed in a home-made Trump jacket yaps excitedly while a woman maneuvers her pram through the crowd. The boy in front of me is wearing a t-shirt that reads 'Ban idiots not guns... 'Merica'.

Despite the County Fair feel in the air, this is a highly stage-managed event. Hundreds of bright pink placards passed out by the campaign team dot the crowd declaring 'Women for Trump.' I can't help but notice the crowd around me consists predominantly of white men.

A small plane circles the stadium with a banner that reads 'Chinese-Americans for Trump' as an African American woman is introduced to the stage. After voting Democrats for 35 years, we're told she's now rooting for Trump. She tells the crowd she grew tired of feeling 'shut out' by the Democratic Party. 'And then you folk welcomed me with open arms!'

It's hard to know how much of the overall fanfare is legitimate. But it doesn't matter -- the image projected to the unquestioning eye (and believe me there's many in this crowd) is that Trump's supported by a broad spectrum of the American population; he's a winner that everyone's on board with.

The rally is flavoured by strong overtones of aggressive nationalism; long and loud chants of 'USA' pepper Trump's stump speech which involves the usual attack on 'Crooked Hillary', how the system is 'rigged,' and that that the 'American people are the real victim' (a claim met with loud cheers).

Although I've read about his standard attack of the press corps at rallies, I'm surprised by how quickly and viciously the mood changes when he invites the crowd to turn towards the reporters and boo. Tension feels raw and real as members of the crowd swarm in on lone camera men dotted around the stadium yelling abuse and waving their fists. Trump has whipped the crowd into a frenzy with little effort -- a mob mentality is at his command. The woman selling shooting targets featuring Clinton's face as I leave the stadium does little to calm my nerves.

Across town a day later the vibe at the Clinton rally is decidedly different. Aside from what you'd expect (more women and people from diverse backgrounds) there's less of an 'edge' to the feeling in the air. Talking to people, it's undeniable that not everyone is a Hillary fan, which may explain the less intense feeling of anticipation in the crowd, but they're united in their fear of Trump. "Deciding not to vote is a luxury WE don't have," an older African American woman tells me.

Everyone seems pretty mellow, so I'm slightly surprised by the reaction of the teenage girl standing next to me when Hillary finally appears. Having passed the waiting time looking bored and Googling pictures of Justin Bieber, she breaks into uncontrollable sobs as she grips the railing for support.

Brian Snyder / Reuters
U.S. Democratic presidential nominee Hillary Clinton greets audience members at a campaign rally in the rain in Pembroke Pines, Florida, U.S. November 5, 2016. REUTERS/Brian Snyder

Hillary speaks about the need for sensible gun regulation, equal work for equal pay, action on climate change and supporting migrants.

These themes are echoed a few days later by Obama as he addresses a massive crowd at a music stadium in Charlotte, North Carolina. The audience is primed as he takes the stage, having worked up a sweat dancing to Beyoncé, Miley Cyrus and Pharrell Williams (a stark contrast the the dated white-man folk Trump's team pumped out at his rally).

The strategy for Obama's involvement here is astute, and his message is simple: if you like me and the things I've done, you've got to vote for Hillary to preserve my legacy. At one point Obama seems to directly address the fact that Hillary, as well as Trump is unpopular -- they're the most unpopular candidates in living memory. "There's no point feeling depressed and curling up in fetal position although we may want to...You gotta get out and vote!"

As Obama hi-fives his way off the stage under a massive campaign banner reading 'Stronger Together', my mind is cast back to the crowd at the Trump rally cheering wildly in response to his claim that 'we are the movement of the future'.

Whoever wins office this week inherits a country deeply divided. While Trump would likely seek to further emphasize difference to assert his power early on, should Hillary be successful, then addressing this rift will be an unavoidable first challenge; the difficulty of which remains to be seen.

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