TOLEDO, Ohio — It was the first Donald Trump campaign event that either Ann Miller or Karen Connors had ever attended, but from the moment they arrived, the two friends felt right at home.
“It’s what I expected, what I hoped for,” said Miller, 68, who like Connors had lived in various cities across the US before retiring in Toledo. “Nice, calm crowd. Good people excited to hear what he has to say.”
The crowd, was, like Connors and Miller, largely white and middle-class. I walked the 2,000-person-room three times, but couldn’t find a black, Hispanic or Asian person in attendance. This was a room comfortable in the warm embrace of its sameness, of white voters tired of feeling like their country had been led astray by Washington insiders catering to foreign governments, and of middle class families who said they were tired of feeling scared of radical Islamists, illegal immigrants, and inner city youths. It was a room made for what Trump repeatedly called “his movement.”
“Trump is speaking for the people. He’s bringing up things that people are genuinely scared about and have been worried about for years,” said Connors.
Miller chimed in, “he feels like the only candidate thinking the way we are thinking.”
The two women had, in their lifetimes, voted both Republican and Democrat. Both have always seen themselves as independent voters, though they admit that the last three elections have seen them cast their ballot for the Republican nominee.
Miller had always known she would vote for Trump. She had seen him at trade shows and on TV and liked what he stood for. Connors took more convincing. She was nervous, she said, about the bluster and pomp that surrounded Trump during the primaries. He seemed too aggressive, she said. She’s only come around in the last two months to what she calls a “softened” version of Trump, one she can see as being “very presidential.”
“I like this softened version, this softened way of speaking. I like his ideas but now you can hear them more,” said Connors. “I know what people say about him, that he lies, but I don’t think he does. I hear about Hillary [Clinton] lying more. I trust her less than I trust him.”
I ask what they think about Trump’s stance on women, and they answer that it is better than Clinton. What about the comments he’s made about Hispanics and the African American community? They were misunderstood, and largely misconstrued by the media, the women say. They know there have been scandals about some things, Connors recalls questions over the functionality of Trump University, but neither woman says she believes what she reads regarding the case in the mainstream media and say that the jury is still out.
“We aren’t racist. I like everyone. The mainstream media makes his supporters seem like violent racists, but we aren’t. We think his policies are going to be good for all Americans,” said Miller. She doesn’t believe, for instance, that Trump will force all undocumented immigrants to leave the US, (she has a cousin married to an undocumented immigrant, she confides, and can’t imagine her being forced to return to Mexico.) She also doesn’t think he will stop taking in all refugees. “I think those are just positions he’s taking during the elections. I think that’s what you do during elections, and I don’t think he’ll really do anything nearly that extreme.”
Trump finally appears, almost two hours late. Connors and Miller are tired, but after all this time, still excited to hear him speak. They listen closely as promises tax reductions, child care, and the repeal of the Affordable Care Act. But it’s not until the Republican nominee starts talking about his security policies that the crowd really gets excited.
"My first day in office, I will immediately suspend the admission of Syrian refugees," Trump said. He talks about recent attacks that have happened across the US, and adds, “these attacks like so many others were made possible because of our extremely open immigration policies."
He throws out some numbers, including one in which he claims that Clinton would accept more than 620,000 refugees during her first term in office (which isn’t exactly accurate, she could take in as many as 620,000 according to an estimate made by one Republican subcommittee but she hasn’t been on the record in saying she would do so.) Trump also says that the US is accepting the refugees with little vetting (something which various groups have repeatedly pointed out is not true, the US employees a strenuous vetting process) and that Pew research shows that “in many of the countries where we draw large groups of refugees extreme views about religion are common.” The most recent Pew research found that so far in 2016, the two largest groups of refugees have come from Burma (Myanmar) and the Democratic Republic of the Congo.
Connors and Miller say that terrorism (committed by those who enter the US illegally) is among their top concerns. It doesn’t faze them that many of the mass shootings in recent memory were committed by people born and raised in the United States, the real threat, they say, is from extremists looking to target the US.
“We don’t want to see the US become Syria,” said Connors. “Something needs to change fast. This doesn’t feel like a safe country anymore.”
The rally ends with Trump walking through the front of the crowd, pressing hands. Hundreds try and press to the front of the room to shake hands with the candidate and chant, “Trump, Trump, Trump,” as he crawls through the crowd.
Connors and Miller both say the rally reaffirmed their support of Trump, and how nice it was to be among like-minded people. They are used to being attacked for their support of the candidate.
“I’m afraid to put up a Trump sign in my front yard,” said Connors. “I’m afraid people will attack it or egg it or something.”
Trump supporters, she argued, are constantly being attacked for their stance. “I know a lot of people who are nervous, who are embarrassed to admit they support Trump, because of what they think people will say.”
That’s why she believes Trump will get far bigger numbers in Ohio than the 5-point lead he was given in a recent Bloomberg poll.
“There are lot of people secretly, quietly supporting Trump. I think people will be surprised on Election Day,” said Connors. “There are a lot of people like us, coming to rallies for the first time and liking what he has to say.”
Sheera Frenkel is a cybersecurity correspondent for BuzzFeed News based in San Francisco. She has reported from Israel, Egypt, Jordan and across the Middle East. Her secure PGP fingerprint is 4A53 A35C 06BE 5339 E9B6 D54E 73A6 0F6A E252 A50F
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