The Austin Chronicle

A Not-That-Undercover Austin Look at Donald Trump’s Roadshow

The House. The Senate. “Our” country.

By Maggie Q. Thompson, May 20, 2022, News

Whatever I tell you next about the American Freedom Tour's stop in Austin, it should be absorbed in this context: When a former president of the United States speaks, journalists should be there. But, in this case, as Donald Trump put it himself at the May 14 event, "We didn't want the press to come so we kept them out and they went crazy."

If getting a general audience ticket and spending nine straight hours at a Trump event is your definition of "went crazy," he's got me there. This day started with me busting out my only pair of low-rise, bootcut, bedazzled-ass jeans and a pair of non-flashy cowboy boots, to be inconspicuous, I thought. This turned out to be too lively a look. For most of the day, the Convention Center was quiet and the seats were about 50% occupied, with rows of Jumbotrons evenly spaced so each speaker was projected all over the place.

One younger man who was also there alone and also wearing cowboy boots (and probably not a reporter in disguise?) leaned across from his seat to mine early in the day and said, "I feel like these events need a younger energy. It feels like a boomer show," to which I responded by offering a chuckled "yeah" before inconspicuously, like a normal person would, typing up what he just said into my phone.

After clapping as quietly as possible at a few stupid jokes (Hollywood conservative dude Kevin Sorbo bragged about meeting President Obama at a golf thing and told him, "I'm sorry sir, you golfed more than any other president," to which everybody unironically guffawed), I hopped into an hourlong line for lunch with a woman I met whom we'll call Tammy. Very nice woman. Very dedicated to her family. Gave me a very solid pot roast recipe. Anyway, Tammy was also there alone and snuck me into a nicer seating area. I did tell her I "work in editing" and, when she asked for more detail, I admitted "for The Austin Chronicle." That didn't seem to ring any alarm bells, and by that point I'd learned about all her family drama and divulged a few embarrassments myself.

Approximately every other speaker came with an in-person infomercial. One guy told a heartfelt story about memorizing the names of every troop killed in Afghanistan. He was selling a course on how you too can memorize names better. One guy sold "inner circle" lunches with former Secretary of State Mike Pompeo. (It wasn't Pompeo himself, who also spoke.) One guy sold courses on playing the stock market and another put up a QR code for everybody to subscribe to The Epoch Times, the far-right news outlet from the Falun Gong religious movement.

When the crowd had swelled to its peak – an hour or so before the event was set to end – came the 15-minute hard-sell spiel to donate to Trump, also via QR code. "Freedom is not free. Think about that. Think about it. What is the cost of freedom? Everyone here today can help with at least $20. … You have to give with all you've got. … I see people all around the room with their phones out. [If your neighbor's isn't out] tap them on the shoulder. … Everyone should have their phone out. Did you come here today to watch or participate?" To the crowd's credit, some people started booing after a few minutes of this. But others pulled their phones out. "The president needs you now. … We need you now more than ever. We're all here right now because we're called to be here. … It takes money to win the hearts and minds of people across the country."

In between the infomercials, the marquee talent did its warm-up acts. Pompeo said, "We are the most exceptional nation in the history of the world." Rocker Ted Nugent encouraged the crowd to "just go berserk on the skulls of the Democrats" and reminded folks that "you stop violent crime" by "keeping them locked up or giving them two in the chest when they come for you."

Kimberly Guilfoyle – former prosecutor, Fox News personality, Don Jr.'s girlfriend, Gavin Newsom's ex-wife – is frighteningly good at what she does. She used an expertly repeating cadence with the same melodic shape of an air raid siren (sliiiiiide up, speak in tense monotone, sink at the end, and repeat). When Guilfoyle wasn't on one of those rolls, she said fun, not-at-all-culty one-liners like, "Your MAGA king is coming." Overall, she was absolutely hypnotizing and seemed to be the chosen bearer of doomsday messaging – probably because, as Tammy pointed out, "she's so beautiful."

Guilfoyle said things (again, think air raid siren) like, "Trump knew the importance of standing up to China. … If China controls Taiwan, they own the global economy almost overnight." And other things like, "The Paris Climate Accord doesn't hold China accountable and puts us at a disadvantage."

Don Jr. followed his girlfriend with dad jokes, walked about onstage, and excused Joe Biden for his soft policies – the border, the Afghanistan withdrawal – because, he said, it's really his team making those decisions. "It's not Joe Biden. He doesn't remember where he is 50% of the time. … It'd be funny if he wasn't the leader of the free world. It'd be funny if he didn't have the nuclear codes." He then talked about toddlers being taught "intimate details of sexuality" (everyone booed) and posited that Joe Biden's administration is "so insane, maybe it's a wake-up call."

When Donald Trump took the stage, everybody's phones came out to capture him and I obviously got up to take a picture of the crowd, because I was being a not-that-covert reporter. Some others in the back-middle of the room appeared to be actual fans, but I made eye contact with one guy in a Hawaiian shirt with an iPhone poking out of the breast pocket (clearly recording). He looked terrified of me, and I figured he was also a reporter. (The Hawaiian shirt, popular with racist "boogaloo boys," might have been his attempt to go undercover.) And then I started thinking maybe I should be scared too.

That's when Trump made the "we kept them out and they went crazy" comment, and then, while I lifted my phone 2 feet above my head for a full crowd shot, he continued, something along the lines of, "but we know they snuck in with their phones back there."

"HAHAHAHA," I maniacally laughed to show how not-reporter-ish I am, before speed-walking back to my seat with Tammy.

Trump spoke for about an hour, detailing what he considered some of the best hard-ass, America-first, taxpayer-money-saving deals of his career, plus some statements of grandeur such as, "We created peace in the Middle East," and "We had the most secure border in the history of our country," and "We brought down drugs to the lowest point it's been in decades."

Through all of this, I was standing when other people stood and sitting when other people sat, just like I did in church as a kid. Then Trump had something more to say about the media – or, as he said pointing to the back where I had been, "these fakers." About 25 male heads in the crowd turned. Some stood up and walked toward them. I heard the repeated bangs of the doors opening and closing. I don't think there were any altercations, but the risk is obvious (even to folks who are honest-to-goodness Trump fans just trying to livestream for their families).

So what did we learn that day? Tammy is a hardworking mom. War with China is scary. Russia is scary. Iran is scary. Mexico is scary. Don Jr. is kinda funny and his girlfriend is a powerful demigod. Trump wants your money, and so do all the people helping him with this tour. But most of all, they're working really hard to get Republicans to the polls. Trump talked about a million things, as he likes to do, but his most clear message was this: "Get ready to work, get ready to fight, get ready to win and win like never before. We will take back the House, we will take back the Senate and we will take back our country."

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