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A look inside the alternate universe that is a Trump rally

AILSA CHANG, HOST:

Many of the headlines out of a Trump rally focus on what the former president says, for example, his recent dehumanizing language about migrants and comments about a, quote, "bloodbath" should President Biden win a second term. But for the majority of people in the crowd, the rhetoric is a small part of the Trump rally experience. NPR's Danielle Kurtzleben takes us inside.

DANIELLE KURTZLEBEN, BYLINE: It is 6:30 or so, still dark in Rome, Ga. It's one of those things where it's raining, but it's not raining. And I'm curious if people will be out and lined up already.

(SOUNDBITE OF CAR PASSING)

KURTZLEBEN: They were lining up already - nearly 12 hours before Trump was set to take the stage, and at the very front of the line, waiting in a camp chair under a blanket, was Sharon Anderson.

How many Trump rallies is this for you?

SHARON ANDERSON: Number 50.

KURTZLEBEN: Why do you go to so many?

ANDERSON: I want to show my support for the best president in the history of this nation.

KURTZLEBEN: Anderson and some friends were all wearing shirts reading, Front Row Joes, a team of Trump superfans who get right up front at rallies.

Let's say someone is listening to this radio story, and they've never been to a Trump rally. How would you describe a Trump rally to them?

ANDERSON: It's very uplifting, encouraging, exciting. You just can't describe it verbally.

KURTZLEBEN: Many Americans won't share Sharon's experience and will instead witness Trump events through viral clips of his, at times, violent, anti-democratic rhetoric. But nine years in, these surreal events still say so much more about the Trump phenomenon. They feel like a hybrid of an all-day pep rally and a megachurch service, except with Trumpism as the religion. The rallies are places where a movement largely defined by grievance can be together, away from opposition and assertions that Trump lies and is harmful to democracy. Not far away from Sharon, maybe 20th in line was Lauren Tucker. This would be her first rally.

LAUREN TUCKER: Everybody here, all the people that were in line before us, they have been so amazing all night long. They told us exactly what to expect. They helped us get our little buttons, and they've just been wonderful. It's almost like a little family.

KURTZLEBEN: Tucker is the mother of six, and her 6-year-old son played on a tablet next to her.

TUCKER: It was very important for me to have my kids be here because this is something that A, they're going to remember, and B, this is going to be talked about for years. For the next hundred years, this is going to be talked about, and my kids will be able to say, hey, I was there. My mom took me to that. I saw that man.

KURTZLEBEN: Tucker was wearing red, white and blue eyeshadow and an American flag cowboy hat. People dress up for Trump rallies, and merch sellers like Amber Johnson add to a growing sea of Trumpwear (ph). Johnson is a Trump supporter herself and compares the rallies to rock concerts. She speaks from experience.

AMBER JOHNSON: It's kind of the same vibe. So I followed Dead & Company and Phish around all summer, and now I'm out here doing the same thing but selling political merchandise.

KURTZLEBEN: Then again, the merch reflects a combativeness that doesn't exist at a Phish concert. One man nearby sold T-shirts so vulgar that most can't be read on the radio. Among Johnson's tamer shirts was one that read - F JB - with JB standing for Joe Biden. Carli Godfrey is 16 and came with her grandmother in matching T-shirts. She read the defiant phrase they wore.

CARLI GODFREY: (Reading) I'm still a Trump girl. I make no apologies.

KURTZLEBEN: I asked Godfrey what that means. Does she think people want her to make apologies?

CARLI: Being in high school, so some people are like, why are you doing that? I mean, a lot of people - this is going to sound really sad, but a lot of people don't stand for the flag. But I do. I always will.

KURTZLEBEN: The aggressive merch suggests that wearers expect, even relish, opposition. And Trump rallies have perhaps a more confrontational feel than ever amid his four indictments and his insistence that he won in 2020. All the voters I asked about 2020 also think Trump won that election. He didn't. Midmorning, a few hundred deep into the line, Angie Patrick told me she has her own way of fighting for Trump.

ANGIE PATRICK: I'm a digital warrior. That means sharing things that perhaps, maybe, the mainstream media doesn't necessarily share with the public.

KURTZLEBEN: She mentioned multiple conspiracy theories she believes in and said she had been kicked off of Twitter 31 times. To Patrick, Trump is beleaguered and bullied but also massively powerful. It's a careful needle he has managed to thread with his followers.

PATRICK: I think he's beaten the odds, and I like an underdog. Although, I don't think Trump is an underdog. I think he's definitely the front dog.

KURTZLEBEN: A lot of Trump supporters themselves feel like underdogs economically and culturally.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #1: Yeah.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #2: That's right.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #3: Do you guys like (inaudible)?

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #1: Oh, no (inaudible).

KURTZLEBEN: By midafternoon, people were taking their seats in the city arena. One of them, college student Zachary Wright, said he feels economically strapped.

ZACHARY WRIGHT: And not only that, what's so frustrating is that the leftist wing focuses so much on minorities that it feels like me, as a white man, that I am the minority.

KURTZLEBEN: All afternoon, people queued for concessions and restrooms, chatting with their fellow Trump disciples. But the mood darkened as Trump's opening act took the stage - a run of right-wing politicians. Their message was that the Trump movement has an endless string of enemies outside the arena. Representative Marjorie Taylor Greene, for example, repeatedly referenced a nameless they.

MARJORIE TAYLOR GREENE: We said build the wall. And they were offended. We said back the blue. And they were offended. Right?

KURTZLEBEN: At a Trump rally, even the rioters who attacked the Capitol on January 6 are recast as victims of anti-Trump forces.

UNIDENTIFIED ANNOUNCER: Please rise for the horribly and unfairly treated January 6 hostages.

KURTZLEBEN: Trump's indictment for his actions on January 6 looms over his campaign, and yet he also embraces that day. Trump took the stage after a recording of the national anthem sung by those jailed for that attack.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

UNIDENTIFIED PEOPLE: (Singing) ...Proudly we hailed at...

KURTZLEBEN: Trump started speaking at around 6 p.m., about an hour late. He would remain for nearly two hours. As usual, the demonization of undocumented immigrants was a key focus and drew loud cheers.

DONALD TRUMP: We're going to fix it. We're going to fix it fast. We're going to have the largest deportation in history. But...

(CHEERING)

KURTZLEBEN: Even when his particular wording doesn't make headlines, Trump's speeches are full of false and sometimes strange rhetoric about migrants.

TRUMP: They always say - suburban housewives, they want something that's very important - security. They don't want illegal immigrants coming into our country. They don't want illegal immigrants knocking on their front door and saying, I'm going to use your kitchen, and I'm going to use your bedroom. And there's not a d*** thing - and that's one - that's the nice ones, OK? That's the nice ones. They want safety.

KURTZLEBEN: The speech went beyond immigration, though, meandering toward many more of Trump's grievances - yes, against Joe Biden, but also Megyn Kelly and Martha Stewart, to name a few. In addition, he praised Hungarian autocrat Viktor Orban and North Korean dictator Kim Jong Un. After it all, the evening ended with a familiar benediction.

TRUMP: And we will make America great again.

(CHEERING)

TRUMP: Thank you very much. Thank you, Georgia. God bless you all. Thank you.

KURTZLEBEN: And the crowd dispersed. Just outside, Tynisha Williams said she had a great time. She added, paradoxically, she thinks Trump's divisiveness will unify the U.S.

TYNISHA WILLIAMS: It's time for kid gloves to be taken off. You need to know the hard truth. And the hard truth is we need to come back together as a country. We need to get this country back together, and we got to unite. We got to unite. We got to make this country great again. It's simple as that.

KURTZLEBEN: It's not clear how Trump would unite the nation, however. A week later, at another rally, he would say that some undocumented immigrants aren't people. Danielle Kurtzleben, NPR News.

(SOUNDBITE OF BADBADNOTGOOD SONG, "SOUR SOUL") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

Danielle Kurtzleben is a political correspondent assigned to NPR's Washington Desk. She appears on NPR shows, writes for the web, and is a regular on The NPR Politics Podcast. She is covering the 2020 presidential election, with particular focuses on on economic policy and gender politics.