Humans of a Southwest Virginia Donald Trump Rally

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When Donald Trump visited Radford University, the Dedmon Center became an ideological battleground.
By Erica Corder, Editor-in-chief Contact the Editor

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Donald Trump, surrounded by supporters at a Feb. 29 rally in Radford, Va.

Donald Trump, surrounded by supporters at a Feb. 29 rally in Radford, Va. Photo by David Greenawald.

When Kathy Siron dressed for the Donald Trump rally on Feb. 29, she draped her grandfather’s dog tags around her neck and pinned her other grandfather’s Purple Heart onto her shirt. Her grandfather received the Purple Heart, she said, after being shot in the head on the beaches of Normandy. He survived. And if he were alive today to see the corruption of career politicians in Washington, D.C., she said, he’d be shocked.

“Our entire country is broken. The Democratic Party is broken. The Republican Party is broken,” said Siron, a postal worker from Staunton, Virginia, from a family of veterans herself. “Nobody represents the people.”

For her, Donald Trump, real estate mogul and the GOP’s front-running presidential candidate, is the solution. He’s set to walk onto the stage in front of her around 12 p.m. to deliver a speech and rally potential voters. This was the first time she’d be seeing him in person, and she prepared for the occasion with six decorated signs bearing slogans like “BRING BACK GOD,” “DEPORT -N- EXPORT,” and “TRUMP 2016.” She was ready for Trump.

She wasn’t alone.

Thousands flocked to the 3,800-seat Dedmond Center at Radford University this past leap day to have a chance at hearing Trump speak—a location wisely-chosen by the campaign. By Trump’s estimate, “15,000 amazing supporters” were in attendance for the hour-long rally. And while many passionate supporters like Siron attended, his opposition also made their way into the arena. Outside, a lengthy line of would-be ralliers wound around the nearby parking lot and down the road. They watched on a large screen outside.

Inside, people took seats in the stands and lined the front of the stage. It was hard to pick out any opposition as the uninterrupted Trump supporters cheered each other on loudly throughout the room, starting chants and waving signs.

His crowds of fervent supporters have helped define the Trump rally experience. For Gabriel Miranda, a junior in mechanical engineering at Virginia Tech, aside from the free tickets, the supporters were why he came out to the event. Though not a Trump supporter, he wanted to hear other, “pretty interesting” opinions. And he did, even while standing in the massive line outside.

“They all seem pretty passionate,” Miranda said of the event’s attendees.

Passionate, indeed, across the spectrum—it’s hard to find anyone who doesn’t have a strong opinion about the consistently polarizing candidate. Anticipating tension, the campaign prepared everyone with instructions over the speakers not to harm protestors, and instead to chant over them should they interrupt the event. This drew a laugh from the crowd.

Donald Trump, surrounded by supporters at a Feb. 29 rally in Radford, Va.

Kathy Siron wears her grandfather’s Purple Heart, and her other grandfather’s dog tags. Photo by Scott Beaubien.

Pastor Mark Burns addresses the crowd before Trump arrives.

Pastor Mark Burns addresses the crowd before Trump arrives. Photo by David Greenawald.

Before the rally began, several performers and high-profile Trump supporters took to the stage to keep the crowd animated while awaiting their candidate’s arrival. Pastor Mark Burns was a crowd favorite. He’d been on the campaign trail backing Trump, he said, and in the process had started losing his voice, which gave his fiery testimonial a scratchy, aggressive edge.

He touched on all the major talking points: the wall Trump wants to build on Mexico’s border (to be paid for by Mexico, Trump insists), now-former presidential candidate Marco Rubio—who Burns said would “pay for what he said about Donald Trump,” in no specific terms—the impending primaries, and “All Lives Matter,” a common rhetorical response to the “Black Lives Matter” movement.

That last one was Burns’ crowd-pleaser. Cheers erupted when he carefully pronounced those words—“all lives matter”—and a man holding a sign that read “blue lives matter” ran around the center waving his sign and shouting to the responsive crowd, a majority of which wore bright orange stickers boasting that “guns save lives.”

The whole event was a spectacle—appropriate for such a controversial and brash candidate who starred in popular reality television show The Apprentice, consistently has the most talking time during debates, and dominates media coverage nationally to the chagrin of other candidates—but to the delight of his supporters.


Forrest Surber, a concert planner from Pulaski, Virginia, is one of many who find Trump’s “larger-than-life” presence a benefit to the party.

“Trump is a media-driven candidate, in a media-driven culture,” Surber said.

He explained that today everyone is on Facebook, Instagram, Twitter, and the like, constantly consuming media. Despite the overload, Surber says Trump can “cut through the fray.” Meanwhile, Rubio and Ted Cruz, though probably good guys, Surber acknowledged, are like “wet rags.”

Surber was doing his part to help with Trump’s presence by dressing up as the candidate. The Trump costume, which Surber wore for Halloween in Roanoke, Virginia last year, attracted ralliers who asked for photos with Surber throughout the event.

“I didn’t expect all the media attention, but if it helps support the cause, I’m all for it,” Surber said.


Trump’s personality preceded him at the rally — for better or worse.

The candidate is known for speaking without restraint, a habit that tends to gain him extra airtime. He’s been known to make polarizing statements that go viral, like his comments about Mexican immigrants being “rapists,” his call to bar all Muslims from entering the country, and his comments about Fox News’ Megyn Kelly, to name a few. Trump is presented in the media via sound bites, but the rally provided a chance for people like Radford University student Kaela Orr to hear him speak in full.

“Since he’s coming into town, I really wanted to see his viewpoints for myself because I’ve seen things in the news and things that he says,” Orr said. “I wanted to see the things that he says for myself and form my own opinion.”

Orr came to the rally simply to hear Trump out, though she acknowledged she already had a bias against him, especially considering Trump’s comments on minorities and her perspective as a Black woman. She said she felt he didn’t address certain issues, especially those within Black communities, like Black Lives Matter.

“I feel like he’s not in touch with that, and I feel like that’s something that’s very close to home for me,” Orr said.

But for Rob Franklin, a retired fashion designer from Farmville, Va., Trump is a candidate worth following—so much so, Franklin said he’d been to 11 rallies: five in Virginia (counting Radford’s), four in South Carolina, and one each in North Carolina and New Hampshire.

Franklin started following Trump’s career in the late 1980s and has been involved with the GOP since 1964, working on Republican Party campaigns including a 1968 gubernatorial. And despite all of his experience with the GOP, Franklin finds the Trump campaign to be momentous.

“We’re looking at history today,” he said.

Forrest Surber poses for a selfie with another rally attendee.

Forrest Surber, impersonating Trump, poses for a selfie with another rally attendee.
Photo by Scott Beaubien.

Rob Franklin, a trump supporter

Rob Franklin believes Trump and his supporters are making history. Photo by David Greenawald.

Trump’s populist message has driven voters to the polls in unprecedented numbers as Americans seek to disrupt the current political system. Though Trump has faced serious opposition—even from within the GOP—he was greeted in southwest Virginia with a warm welcome as he took to the stage. Here, the establishment’s scorn only translated into more support for Trump.

Take it from Frank Pruitt, a Virginia tech junior studying civil engineering. Pruitt said he believes Trump “can’t be bought off” because he self-funds his campaign, unlike other politicians from across the aisles. He also doesn’t spend nearly as much, Pruitt said—he referenced the campaign spending of Mitt Romney and President Barack Obama four years ago and Hillary Clinton today as prime examples of excessive campaign spending.

Compared to Hillary Clinton, Ted Cruz, and Bernie Sanders, Trump has spent the least in this election, though with the help of the free press, he’s dominated the airwaves anyway. Trump’s bid has a comparatively meager $27 million price tag, with $25.5 million of that being spent by the Trump campaign. Still, Trump isn’t entirely self-funded — obvious if you visit his website with its prominent “Donate” buttons. Roughly 34 percent of Trump’s campaign is funded by individual donors, each of whom may donate up to $2,700 per candidate per election.

“Most politicians going into the game, they’re good people, they want to make a difference, but you need money to finance your campaign,” Pruitt explained. “So, when someone donates to your campaign, they essentially own a part of you. They’re not going to call in that favor for maybe years and years… most certainly the American public doesn’t know what’s going on.”

And yet there’s a more personal component to the admiration Pruitt has for Trump because they have one thing in common, he said: both are builders.

Pruitt comes from a family that works in construction, building houses. Later on, he said, he wants to get into land development. “I like how Trump takes something, and he turns it into something big, whether that be Trump tower, a golf course, or casino,” he said.

It’s this belief in what Trump is capable of that propels his candidacy. And as a builder, Trump has enjoyed great success. Elsewhere, his business acumen has come under fire, with critics citing failed business ventures and his familial contributions that jump-started his career—so where does the successful businessman image originate?

Perhaps from Trump himself. In his 1987 memoir and business advice book The Art of the Deal, Trump explains that his media promotion strategy requires bravado.

“I play to people’s fantasies. People may not always think big themselves, but they can still get very excited by those who do,” Trump wrote. “That’s why a little hyperbole never hurts. People want to believe that something is the biggest and the greatest and the most spectacular.”

 

Donald Trump making a joke

Trump cracks a joke during the rally. Photo by David Greenawald.

“We’re going to have a lot of fun today,” the candidate said as he took the podium. From there, Trump listed the latest poll from CNN and his endorsements, with New Jersey Governor Chris Christie, Alabama Senator Jefferson Sessions, and former Alaska Governor Sarah Palin being the most notable.

The next portion of the tangent-filled speech was, essentially, a roast.

“I saw an almost complete meltdown,” Trump said of “lightweight” Rubio at a Republican debate. “He was soaking wet like he just got out of a swimming pool with his clothes on.”

From Rubio the “choke artist,” Trump continued the speech, touting his stance on guns, the second amendment, and repealing Obamacare in the span of two sentences. Then, he turned his attention on the media, who he said were “amazingly dishonest.”

 

The rally began to shift as Trump wound his way to his most notable issue: Mexico, and the border wall he wants to build.

He began with a criticism of Vicente Fox, Mexico’s president: “How about Vicente Fox? He used the F-bomb, right? Can you imagine if I used that word?”

Trump then delved into the logistics of the wall. To his detractors, he pointed to the Great Wall of China as evidence that huge border walls can be built, and that the U.S. only needed 1,000 miles of wall, while China needed 13,000. Trump didn’t mention that the Great Wall of China was more successful psychologically for protecting China than it was actually effective in keeping outsiders from invading—it was never a successful barrier, though it does represent symbolically the strength of China.

“It’s going to be the most beautiful wall, because you know what’s going to happen? They’re going to say let’s name it the Trump wall, and I want it to be really good-looking,” Trump said. “Most importantly, it’s going to work.”

To supporters like Mateo Carrasco, a sophomore studying economics and international business at Tech, Trump’s wall is a necessity.

Carrasco said that though he is Hispanic himself, he finds Trump is right in tackling illegal immigration through his methods, which Carrasco acknowledged might seem extreme.

Regardless, Carrasco put his trust in the candidate, and in the Republican party, which he has supported for the past two years. Ultimately for him, it comes down to independent thinking: He doesn’t want to be told how to think, especially when it comes to the wall.

“I definitely don’t support illegal immigration. It does a lot more damage than good, and he definitely knows what he talks about. Like, being a successful businessman means you’re smart—and he went to [University of Pennsylvania]—he knows what he’s talking about,” Carrasco said.

As an economics major, Carrasco finds the wall feasible, though he acknowledged that mass deportation would be a slow process. “It’s definitely useful, and it’s definitely proactive,” he said.

Though Mexican leaders have disagreed, Trump has already decided that Mexico will pay for the wall. He knows this, he says, because he has “a great relationship with Mexico” and with “Mexico people and with Hispanics.” In fact, he said, “I employ tens of thousands of people, tens of thousands of people.” He didn’t have time to clarify this statement before the first of the rally’s detractors began to protest the candidate.


Rally attendees hold their phones up to capture Trump as he arrives at the podium.

Rally attendees hold their phones up to capture Trump as he arrives at the podium. Photo by David Greenawald.

Radford student Michael Marmol wasn’t expecting he’d be kicked out of the rally. But when Trump said he’d employed thousands of Hispanics and Marmol yelled “illegally” from his spot in front of the stage, Trump supporters quickly surrounded him. From behind the podium, Trump peered into the crowd.

“Who’s protesting? Anybody?” he asked.

It took Trump a mere five seconds to find the source of the commotion. “Get out of here. Get him out. Get him out,” he called. Security responded, taking Marmol away. His only regret, Marmol said, was that he would like to have stayed longer to have more time to “troll people.”

“I knew it’d be hilarious [to attend] and it would be a spectacle. And it’s a once in a lifetime opportunity. You’ll never experience this again,” Marmol said.

Other protestors took a different approach. A few disruptions later, after several groups and individuals had been escorted out of the center, one group stood from their seats in the stands with their hands raised above their heads, clasped together in solidarity.

Compared to the volatility of the other demonstrations, this protest was reserved—comparatively quiet in its approach.

It was by design.

Donald Trump mimes searching the crowd for a disruption.

Donald Trump searches the crowd for the source of a disruption. Photo by David Greenawald

Michael Marmol is escorted from the Dedmon Center after disrupting the rally.

Michael Marmol is escorted from the Dedmon Center after disrupting the rally. Photo by David Greenawald.

Mariah Brooks, a senior marketing major at Radford University and treasurer of the Diversity Awareness Programming Board, was one of the students involved with the demonstration. She said it was planned down to the minute, coordinated in the weeks prior to the rally.

The group brought no signs “out of respect” and dressed in business professional attire, Brooks said, because they wanted no additional difficulties, which they anticipated and planned for. They only wanted to use their voices and their bodies, she said.

When the time came to stand and protest, Brooks and her group held hands and chanted “No more hate, no more hate, let’s be equal, let’s be great.” She said the point of her group’s protest was misconstrued by some, like CNN: it was not necessarily a Black Lives Matter protest, (though they did chant this once they were outside of the Dedmond Center), but a general protest to speak for equality and unity, especially in the promotion of minorities, something Brooks says Trump refuses to do, though he calls himself a unifier.

The group was removed from the center by security into a more supportive area with other protesters outside, but not before facing screams and having torn-up Trump signs thrown at them. Brooks said she saw angry supporters yelling at her out of the corner of her eye as she was escorted out.

Despite the anticipated negative response inside, Brooks found the support of those outside of the arena and from her university faculty, administrators, and fellow students empowering. She said she and her fellow protestors couldn’t allow Trump to speak at their school without somehow showing disapproval. Inaction, to Brooks, would equate to a form of support, and Brooks didn’t want prospective students and others to associate Trump with Radford.

“For a guy to… come to our university and say what he was saying, it was kind of like, we have to do something,” Brooks said.

 

Protesters stand and chant while onlookers record them with cell phones.

Protesters stand and chant while onlookers record them with cell phones. Radford University student Mariah Brooks was one of the many involved in the demonstration, which had been planned well in advance of the rally. Photo by David Greenawald.

After the last protest, Trump wound up his speech, rambling his way past terrorism and a century-old parable about General John Pershing killing terrorists with bullets dipped in pig’s blood.

“We’re not a country that wins anymore,” Trump concluded. “We lose at everything.”

Getting tough with those who would do America harm was Trump’s solution to America’s losing problem. But here, with the speech now over and the crowd roaring, Trump was much gentler, departing from the event with an emphatic “I love you.”

The region showed their love for the candidate in the Super Tuesday vote the following day, with Trump winning 32.3 percent of the vote on the Republican ticket in Montgomery County—though it was a close call at the time, with former candidate Rubio trailing at 32 percent. Statewide, Trump again topped his rivals, winning 17 delegates with 34.7 percent of the Virginia vote.

Nationwide, Trump has succeeded in picking up the most delegates for the nomination so far—749 to be exact, with 905 up for grabs—as Cruz trails in second with 455. Still, Trump isn’t totally in the clear: over $60 million in attack ads have run and continue to run as the #NeverTrump movement gains momentum and even hacker group Anonymous joins the fight.

But here, in Southwest Virginia, supporters cling to their hopes—and their signs—despite the mounting opposition. For Siron, the woman wearing her grandfather’s Purple Heart, it’s a deeply personal hope, especially when it comes to Trump’s deportation policies and antiestablishment stance.

 

“I’ll tell you another thing I have a problem with: first time drug users in jail. My child is in prison but yet all these people in the government that break the law don’t go to prison,” Siron said. “All these people that come across the border illegally—get welfare outta my damn paycheck—don’t go to prison. I think we should let the first time drug offenders out of jail and arrest the illegals and either deport them or put them in jail.”

Regardless of how far Trump goes in this election, it’s evident he’s struck a sensitive nerve in the American people, both supporters and detractors alike. And if Radford’s rally proved anything, it’s that the people in Southwest Virginia on both sides are passionately fighting to the same end: to disrupt the political system.

Aidan Hughes and David Greenawald contributed to this report.

Kathy Siron holding a sign that says 'deport n export'

Kathy Siron holds a handmade sign. Photo by Scott Beaubien.

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About the Author

Erica Corder

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Erica Corder is the co-founder and editor-in-chief of The Pylon. Corder grew up in different states across the U.S. and spent three years in Germany before eventually winding up at Virginia Tech. She graduated with a double major in English and political science.


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