This Is What I Realized When I Spent MLK Day At A Trump Rally

by John Haltiwanger
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It would be a tremendous understatement for me to say I'm not a fan of Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump.

In my opinion, Trump is a national embarrassment -- a xenophobic demagogue completely unfit for the presidency.

I find his stances surrounding immigrants, refugees and Muslims particularly deplorable and fundamentally bigoted.

Even if Trump doesn't really believe everything he's saying and is just pandering to a certain segment of Americans, his rhetoric is dangerous and deeply offensive.

If he is actually elected, I believe it would do irrevocable damage to the well-being and international standing of the US.

So it might surprise you to hear I spent Martin Luther King Jr. Day at a Trump rally in Lynchburg, Virginia.

And I took a bus from New York City to my parents' house in DC on Sunday evening, deprived myself of an opportunity to sleep in and woke up at the crack of dawn on Monday to drive 3.5 hours south in order to do so.

Indeed, I spent a national holiday dedicated to a man who epitomizes the notions of tolerance and love listening to the ramblings of a presidential candidate who embraces discrimination and prejudice.

Not only that, Trump was speaking at Liberty University, a fundamentalist Christian institution founded by Jerry Falwell -- a homophobic bigot who supported segregation (and apartheid in South Africa) -- and on MLK Day of all days!

Either the irony of this was lost to Trump or he simply did not care and just desired the publicity.

In Trump's defense, Ted CruzDr. Ben Carson and Senator Bernie Sanders also spoke there in the past year, but none of them did so on MLK Day.

But I digress...

I attended Trump's rally not out of protest or to make some sort of political statement, but as an observer. The purpose of my expedition was to learn.

Like him or not, Trump has struck a nerve in this country. But it would be wrong to assume his momentum is solely a product of his own political philosophy or genius.

No, Trump did not develop in isolation, he's been successful because he's tapped into sentiments already abundant among segments of the American populace.

So I went to Trump's rally hoping to get a better understanding of where these people are coming from -- no matter how much I might disagree with them.

Coverage of Trump's rallies in the media thus far has depicted aggressive and sometimes even violent crowds -- particularly when protestors show up.

And, more recently, much of the nation expressed a mixture of bemusement and concern when a video emerged featuring young girls at a Trump rally performing a song and dance about destroying America's enemies. The video was reminiscent of something one might find in North Korea, or some other militaristic and authoritarian state.

But when I finally arrived at the Trump rally on MLK Day, I encountered nothing of the sort.

The rally was held in the Vines Center, an indoor stadium on Liberty University's campus.

When I entered the event, I was greeted by a massive crowd and was immediately struck by how diverse it was. I admittedly expected essentially every single person in attendance to be white, but that was far from the case.

This could be due to the fact the event was mandatory for students at Liberty University to attend, and most of the thousands of people who inhabited the stadium were students. So while the place was packed, not everyone necessarily wanted to be there.

Packed house for Trump rally. Important to note this event is mandatory for all students. #LibertyUniversity — Elite Daily (@EliteDaily) January 18, 2016

When I entered the stadium, a Christian rock band was on the stage. People in the crowd were singing along and waving their arms in the air. It felt like I'd entered some sort of televangelist event.

After a short video on student service, a video on MLK, Jr. and his "Christian legacy," a statement from the university president, Jerry Falwell, Jr. and a cheesy video on Trump's campaign thus far (which generated a number of giggles in the crowd), the main event finally began.

Trump took the stage and immediately began doing what he does best: talking about himself.

I was more interested in watching the crowd's reaction to his statements than analyzing his words.

So as I listened, I walked from section to section of the stadium until I found what appeared to be Trump's biggest supporters. They were older, and some wore cowboy hats (very stylish cowboy hats, I might add).

As Trump spoke about how Obama's ruined the country and our need to "knock the hell out of ISIS," these individuals cheered louder than anyone. When he talked about needing to build up our military, they roared. When he criticized the "dishonest" media, they screamed and applauded.

And I started to get it.

Trump's campaign is exciting. Even amid his bigotry, his message is inherently positive -- it's about restoring America to glory and bringing these people along for the ride. For people who feel downtrodden and are looking for someone to blame while searching for a savior, it's easy to see why he's appealing.

Yes, Trump might make fallacious and prejudiced statements, but his supporters seem to care more about his restorative message than the substance of his policy proposals.

It's easy to dismiss anyone who supports Trump as ignorant and bigoted, but it's not necessarily helpful. These people aren't all monsters. They simply see the world from a different vantage point than a lot of us.

Have Trump supporters done ugly things at his events? Absolutely, and the individuals involved should be ashamed.

But allowing ourselves to be filled with hatred toward Trump supporters is counterproductive. We won't get anywhere as a country if we continue to try to move forward by yelling louder than the group we disagree with.

I suppose I went to the Trump rally because I needed to remind myself he and his supporters are only human. Like all of us, they are subject to profound flaws. And it felt particularly important to remember this on Martin Luther King Jr. Day.

As I walked out of the event, I encountered two protestors standing near the entrance to the stadium.

One held a sign that said, "MLK = Freedom. TRUMP = Tyranny," and the other held one that said, "Give me Liberty but NEVER give me TRUMP."

Just spoke with two protestors outside Trump rally. Said it's "offensive" they let him speak on #MLKDay. — John Haltiwanger (@jchaltiwanger) January 18, 2016

The two young men told me they were alumni and deeply concerned their alma mater selected Trump as a speaker on MLK Day.

One of the protestors, a 23-year-old named John Gilbert, said,

[Trump's] campaign... is offensive to minorities. Comments like 'we're going to close our borders to Muslims,' or 'Mexicans are rapists' -- no presidential candidate should speak like that.

The other protester, a 26-year-old named David Ricksecker, expressed similar sentiments.

He found it insulting Trump was allowed to speak on MLK Day and a reflection of the university's ignorance surrounding important issues they still need to address as Christians -- including police brutality and the treatment of Muslims.

He stated,

Religious freedom for some is religious freedom for no one... As Christians we need to fight against the infringement of religious or human rights.

As we spoke, someone came up and asked them what they would do if the election came down to Hillary vs. Trump, and one of them explained he could never support a candidate who condones abortion.

Their objection to Trump was not necessarily tied to an attachment to liberal or progressive values, but their religious beliefs -- and the same was true in regard to their rejection of Hillary Clinton.

This was a prime example of how incredibly complex the US is. It's a country made of not only a diverse array of people but a convoluted mixture of political perspectives. This perhaps explains why our government is so dysfunctional, but it's also an important reminder no one's positions are sacrosanct. And we can't move forward until we begin to understand and respect one another's differences.

I'm certainly not saying everyone needs to attend Trump's next rally, but we could all work harder to keep an open mind and engage in civil discourse -- even if we are met with aggression.

As I was driving down to Liberty University, I passed Manassas, Virginia, where the first major battle of the American Civil War occurred.

I began to think about how divided the country was at the time of the war, and how the legacy of that schism continued to impact the US well into the 20th century, which inspired much of Martin Luther King Jr.'s work.

Today, the country is once again deeply divided, and it's still struggling with the legacies of slavery, the Civil War and Jim Crow, many years later.

If we don't work to communicate with one another, nothing will change.

To borrow from Robert F. Kennedy Jr.,

We have to make an effort in the United States. We have to make an effort to understand, to get beyond, or go beyond these rather difficult times... What we need in the United States is not division; what we need in the United States is not hatred; what we need in the United States is not violence and lawlessness, but is love, and wisdom, and compassion toward one another, and a feeling of justice toward those who still suffer within our country, whether they be white or whether they be black.

Kennedy spoke these eloquent words on April 4, 1968, the day Martin Luther King Jr. was assassinated. Decades later, they are more relevant than ever.