What's Your Beef? You’re So Brave!
"You’re So Brave!" That was the comment I heard over and over after a girlfriend and I decided to head straight into the belly of the beast and attend the September MAGA rally at Billings’ MetraPark Arena. We decided not to protest (our usual role) but to simply witness the event from the inside, with the express goal of not “outing” ourselves as part of the resistance. As curious students of human behavior, we looked at it as a kind of social experiment. What would it be like inside the lion’s den, instead of poking the cage? Unfortunately, the comment about being “brave” is indicative of the state of our union and raises a question: Why does watching our President speak in person require an act of ‘bravery’?
As we pulled up to the arena, we saw groups of protesters lining the streets. We honked in support but felt guilty for lazily giving a thumb’s up instead of being part of the protest. It wasn’t a huge group, and as we passed I felt a brief twinge of hopelessness at how easy it must be for those who choose to ignore demonstrators to do so from inside a moving vehicle. My heart went out to whomever was wearing the giant dinosaur costume, aimed at mocking Greg Gianforte’s creationist beliefs. An eye-catching statement, but certainly one requiring more dedication and stamina than holding a cardboard sign.
As we walked to the arena from the parking lot, we passed a number of “MAGA 2020” merchandise vendors, fueling our queasiness and unease. I suppose it was a bit of cold comfort to realize the merchants themselves clearly had zero commitment to the cause.
They were simply trying to make a buck, not caring if it was by selling products made in China emblazoned with “America First.”
Once inside, we made our way to the ground level because the arena was filling up fast. We wandered toward the media area in back and spotted the lovely and whip-smart Chris Jansing, our MSNBC ally. Looking like she’d rather be having a root canal, we gave her a wink and a nod and thanked her for being there.
The atmosphere was fairly surreal: part rock concert, part cult gathering, part bizarro right wing carnival. Classic rock and roll blared from the loud speakers, from bands like The Rolling Stones and Queen. I imagined Freddy Mercury rolling in his grave. Nothing quite like a classic rock anthem by a (now) famously bisexual musician played at maximum volume to pump up a homophobic crowd.
I counted at least a half dozen “Trump University” tee-shirts, worn un-ironically (proud grads?). There were veterans in wheelchairs wearing MAGA gear, looking wearily hopeful, and throngs of older women dressed for a Big Night Out, hair piled high and sprayed stiff, lots of make-up and sporting glitzy, Vegas-worthy tee-shirts, his name spelled out in sequins and jewels. And the kids.
Lots of kids. I saw a pair of young girls about 8 or 9 years old wearing matching head-to-toe MAGA outfits. I couldn’t help myself and said to them, “Well, he’s not exactly Lincoln, huh?” They stared blankly as I attempted to clarify, “You know, ‘Honest Abe?...I cannot tell a lie’?” They looked at me as if I might be a psychopathic kidnapper/child-killer (or worse, a Democrat) before they skittered off to find their parents.
Actually, the crazy-outfitted fans weren’t even the scariest. I expected that. Scarier still were the regular, non-MAGA-wearing, every day-looking people; folks who look like your neighbors, teachers, grocery store clerks, moms and dads. They’re the ones I wanted to shake to see who was in there and shout, “Do you understand what you’re doing to our democracy by supporting this person??!!” It was like a combination of “Night of the Living Dead” and “The Stepford Wives.” Eerie and scary, and no happy endings.
My friend thought the peace symbols emblazoned on her Danskos might give us away as elitist-libtard-snowflakes even before we found seats, but we spotted a couple of empty chairs and asked people sitting nearby if they were available. We received a friendly affirmative and grabbed the seats. At that point, I was sure we could keep it together for the duration and “blend” with the diehard fans in our section. Easier said than done. Before the event began, I decided to test the waters to see what would happen if I engage with someone in a way that might require of them a small amount of thought and reflection. I chose the 30-ish woman on my right wearing a 2020 button but otherwise looking relatively lucid. With my actor training in full gear, I turned to her, smiled and said, in a friendly tone that implied I was looking for a response, “You know, one thing I find it hard to get past with him is all the lying.” Looking as if I had just asked her how she felt about pierced nipples, she sort of squirmed, shrugged, half-chuckled and gestured toward her boyfriend standing next to her, as if the whole thing was his idea and she had absolutely no say in their plans that evening, and if it had been up to her, they would be home watching “The Bachelor.” It briefly crossed my mind that perhaps I was witnessing a socio-political domestic hostage situation.
As the time of his arrival drew near, I could sense the crowd’s growing anticipation. There were nearly 10,000 in attendance and, even though at least a portion were paid to be there via a local Craigslist ad, tension and excitement were reaching a fever pitch. I felt like a member of a cult awaiting our leader who would undoubtedly perform some “yyyhuge” miracle right before our very eyes.
When he finally made his grand entrance, the crowd went nuts. And of course he basked in the glow, milking the moment for all it was worth to his fragile and needy ego. A young man behind me burst out with a robust, “Grab ‘em by the p- - - -!!” I instinctively turned and glared at him, letting my MAGA mask drop momentarily. “Really?!” I asked. He looked like a kid caught stealing candy and said, “Sorry, I couldn’t help myself!” I replied, “Oh, I think you could’ve.”
This was probably the first crack in our facade, but we tried to keep quiet and maintain at least a neutral appearance. Much to my surprise, the crowd in the floor seats didn’t sit down. Ever. For 90 long, rambling minutes. They were in rapt attention, hanging on his every word. And they weren’t waiting to cheer on any perceived administrative successes. They were waiting to sneer. And jeer. And snarl. And chant. And laugh that smug, mean, clueless frat boy Brett Kavanaugh/Mark Judge laugh.
As the speech wore on, my friend and I had difficulty stifling our own laughter at the sheer ridiculousness of what we were hearing. Lies about everything from the Russia investigation being a Democratic hoax to his boasts of creating the “Greatest Economy in US History!” and the ubiquitous chants of “Lock her up!” by disciples of a man whose own administration is being indicted and hauled off to jail daily. When he brought up the “beautiful” 2016 election results for the THIRD time, we pretty much lost it. By then our cover was blown, but we didn’t much care. We agreed we had never been in a room full of so much hate. It was sickening and dispiriting, to say the least, and laughter was our only defense from absolute despair at our surroundings.
Incidentally, I wasn’t aware of Plaid Shirt Guy until the next day, but my guess is he was getting the boot at about the same point my friend and I were being discovered as traitors by our seat neighbors. I attempted civil communication one last time, asking a woman behind me, “Would it be too much to ask to have a President who unites us, instead of always trying to divide us?” The reply came in the form of “A sphincter says what?”-type snark, “I’m sorry, what? I can’t hear your bull- - - -. What?”
As the daughter of a fearless community organizer and as a tried-and-true rabble rouser in my own right, my secret goal that night was to yell out something during his speech, something simple, akin to Sen. Joe Wilson’s, “You lie!” shouted at Obama from the senate floor. Just enough to make him pause, throw him off his game, disrupt what I’m sure he expected would be smooth sailing in red Montana. But as the speech wore on, I actually lost my fire. What began as a fire in my belly became a deep and overwhelming sadness in my heart; a mournful sense of loss for our country and what we have become. Toward the end of the brutally long 90 minutes, my heart and stomach literally ached for our distorted and crumbling democracy. How can we possibly move beyond this spiraling abyss and reunite as one nation?
So, I didn’t yell out to him; I kept quiet. Not out of fear for my personal safety from those around me, but out of fear for what my country has become. I felt shell-shocked by the hate and questioned my very status as a U.S. resident. Is this still the country in which I belong? Is this the country with so much potential and so much to offer the world, that has, not always but often, been an example of fairness, decency, respect and justice?
As the lights came up and he took his last victory lap with the throngs shouting and chanting their messiah’s name, my friend and I made our way toward the door. I suppose the deafening adoration lit my fire once more and, channeling my inner 8th grader, I looked right at him, flipped him the bird and shouted, “You suck!” It was weak, at best, but felt like a decent primal purge at the time. A few people noticed my final battle cry and my friend said, “Let’s get out of here. The parking lot’s dark!”
Indeed, it’s a dark time for our nation. The rally didn’t offer any surprises, except the overwhelming sadness I felt leaving the arena. And as for the comment I’ve heard from friends, the United States may still be the land of the free but, sadly, to attend our President’s rally, we must also be the home of the brave.
Cara Wilder is an actress, teacher, activist and local troublemaker. She hopes for great changes for our country on November 6.