Donald Trump returned to Fresno on Friday, this time pursuing voter support for his presidential campaign rather than Redevelopment Agency handouts.
About 4,500 people attended the late morning rally in Selland Arena – not bad for an event cobbled together at pretty much the last minute.
Just about everyone inside the arena cheered mightily and often for the shoo-in Republican nominee. He promised to fix the nation’s perpetual immigration challenges, bring plenty of water to the Valley’s parched farmers, send likely Democratic presidential nominee Hillary Clinton into permanent political retirement, repeal and replace Obamacare and return control of education to local school boards.
But Trump finished his 65-minute speech with the simple themes that in just a few short months have turned him into perhaps the most surprising presidential candidate of any major party in the nation’s history.
“We’re going to start winning again,” Trump said, the words sparking a roar from the audience.
“We’re going to keep winning, winning, winning,” he said as the roar picked up more steam.
“And we’re going to make American great again!”
The roar was enough to make old-timers like me think of Coach Boyd Grant and the glory days of Grant’s Tomb.
But basketball is a game, while presidential politics is serious stuff. Just how serious was reinforced by the hundred or so protestors who gathered on M Street on the arena’s west side. They view Trump as a betrayer of the American spirit, not its redeemer.
In short, nothing got settled on Friday. The primary is June 7. The general election is Nov. 8. In this media-saturated age, nothing will be settled even then.
So, I give you a dozen observations on a day (the last Friday of May) that usually is little more than a springboard to the Memorial Day weekend.
1.) Trump was scheduled to begin speaking at 10 a.m., but TV/newspaper camera crews began setting up equipment in the middle of Selland’s floor at 4 a.m. I got to the Convention Center at 4:30 a.m. The first of what would be many Trump souvenir vendors was setting up shop next to the Convention Center parking garage. Inside the arena, not far from the media camera platform, a dozen or so Secret Service agents went over their game plan one last time.
2.) Trump staffers began issuing media credentials near the southeast corner of Selland at about 6:45 a.m. The line for ticketholders waiting to get inside already snaked from M Street, past Saroyan Theatre and south along the alley separating the Convention Center from the parking garage.
I was wearing a long-sleeve white shirt and red tie. As I made my way past the crowd, a Trump supporter did a double-take.
“White shirt and tie,” he said. “That’s what I like to see.”
Remembering the advice of my dear departed mother – a key to making America great again?
3.) Law enforcement, in particular Fresno police, was deployed in force. At one point during the morning, a city official told me there were another 200 or so officers waiting in nearby Valdez Hall – just in case.
As the first Trump fans trickled into the Arena, Fresno Police Sgt. Rich Tucker gave a final pep talk to a couple of dozen officers gathered at the north end of the main floor.
“Be professional,” Tucker said in conclusion. “And smile.”
4.) You didn’t have to be a Trump supporter to get through Selland’s doors. But authorities definitely frowned on overt demonstrations of anti-Trump sentiment. A relatively small number of people, unable or unwilling to restrain themselves, were escorted out of the building at various points during the morning.
I chatted briefly with six young people – five boys, one girl – sitting at the very top of Section 7. This was about 15 minutes before Trump was introduced.
One of the boys said they were from Edison High School. Another of the boys said they were actually split in their loyalties – three against Trump, three for Trump.
“Are you prepared for a visit from the police?” I said.
One of the boys shrugged his shoulders.
Sure enough, a few minutes later security personnel and police were talking to the students. Pretty soon they were being led out of the arena. Based on their common body language, I suspect all six were in the anti-Trump camp.
The way police officers were constantly scanning the crowd, I also suspect the anti-Trump folks weren’t nearly as inconspicuous as they probably hoped.
5.) KMJ radio talk show host Ray Appleton warmed up the crowd shortly after 9 a.m. with some political uppercuts as only he can deliver them. Local businessman (and Fresno Unified trustee) Brooke Ashjian led everyone in the Pledge of Allegiance.
Police Chief Jerry Dyer made his appearance on the main floor about this time. The crowd in front of Trump’s podium was already a dozen rows deep. More than a few people saw the Chief and rushed over to shake his hand or insist that he pose with them for photographs.
I was told that Dyer also walked into the midst of the protestors outside. He answered their questions. I suspect there weren’t many posed photographs.
Then, when Trump had already left the Convention Center and there were some raw nerves among demonstrators at the intersection of M and Ventura streets, I saw Dyer calmly but firmly escort a beefy and emotionally-charged Trump foe from the middle of the intersection to the sidewalk. It was done without incident.
The new mayor come January may tell Dyer it’s time to retire. Maybe 15-plus years in the Chief’s seat is enough for one man. But as Dyer demonstrated in dramatic and very visual fashion on Friday, the Chief’s job in a city like Fresno isn’t easy. A new chief will have big shoes to fill.
6.) Stephen Miller, one of Trump’s top policy advisers, arrived at the podium at 10:15 a.m. He task: Introduce the candidate.
Miller until early this year was an aide to Sen. Jeff Sessions of Alabama.
This was not one of those brief “Heeere’s Donald” intros.
“You’re going to hear from the man who’s going to save the United States of America,” Miller said.
All this talk about Trump’s divisive message is pure nonsense, Miller said. Americans regardless of skin color “are going to have a champion” in Trump, he said.
The Democrats have forgotten about the working stiffs of America, Miller said. But that won’t happen with Trump in the White House.
“You’re going to have the toughest fighter of them all in your corner,” Miller said. Hillary Clinton, on the other hand, “has contempt for the working people of this country.”
7.) I must admit my hearing is shot. On top of that, there wasn’t room in the “press pen” for me to personally see much more of Trump than occasional glimpses of his hair. I watched him on the arena’s big overhead screen.
This is my way of saying I couldn’t always understand Trump’s words, and therefore didn’t always follow his message.
Besides, a 65-minute speech is a long speech in my book. My attention span isn’t that good.
But I know Trump began his remarks with a brief reference to his May 2007 visit to Fresno. He had flown into town to do some personal due diligence on the failed Running Horse golf course-residential project on the town’s west side. Trump eventually decided Running Horse wasn’t worth his time and money.
“Some of the best deals are the deals you don’t do,” Trump told his fans on Friday.
8.) Perhaps a more conventional presidential candidate would have used the Running Horse miscue of 2007 and the “deals you don’t do” comment as the foundation for speech about the upcoming presidential campaign.
You know , something along the lines of (my words) “a majority of Americans approved a deal with Barack Obama in 2008 – it wasn’t a deal we should have made – it’s too late to turn back the clock and renegotiate – Hillary Clinton was a big reason why that deal went south – I’m going to give you the Best Deal – here’s how I’ll do it.”
Trump, obviously, isn’t a conventional presidential candidate. His remarks to Fresno didn’t move in a straight line. Truman Capote once said of Jack Kerouac’s work that “it isn’t writing, it’s typing.” Make no mistake, Trump on Friday thrilled his audience. Trump by any measure is a magnetic personality. But Trump for the most part delivered “typing.”
I get it – a campaign rally is different than a campaign speech. But at one point Trump mentioned the chatter in some GOP circles of possibly running a third-party conservative candidate, the editorial policies of The Weekly Standard founder William Kristol and the neocons’ influence on the Middle East policies of President George W. Bush, all in one sentence that itself was a parenthetical thought to the general ills facing our nation.
My head was swimming.
9.) “I want clean air and I want clean water. It’s very simple,” Trump said.
“It’s not a radical agenda. It’s called the Second Amendment. Hillary wants to abolish the Second Amendment,” Trump said.
“He (Russian President Vladimir Putin) is a strong leader, unlike what we have,” Trump said.
“She (Hillary Clinton) has bad judgment. That was said by Bernie Sanders. He gives me my best lines,” Trump said.
“We won in Indiana with the women. I have great respect for women,” Trump said.
“It looks like it will be Hillary (as the Democratic nominee). It’s shouldn’t be Hillary,” Trump said.
“We want people to come to this country. But we want them to come here legally,” Trump said.
“And, by the way, we’re going to build a wall. And who’s going to pay for that wall?” Trump said.
“They will,” the crowd roared.
“I really believe we’re going to win California,” Trump said.
10.) The audience was largely white and seemed evenly split between male and female. But it wasn’t exclusively white. I saw people from many ethnic and racial backgrounds.
Trump took time after his remarks to sign autographs with supporters standing behind the barricade.
The national pundits say Trump is striking a chord with struggling Americans fed up with elitist politicians, arrogant social engineers and Wall Street plutocrats.
I don’t know if the people seeking Trump’s autograph for their red “Make America Great Again” baseball caps fall into that category. I do know it might seem odd to a foreign observer that so many average Americans have put their hope for a new and more equitable civic order in the hands of a billionaire developer.
But what might appear to be foolishness, or even hypocrisy, is actually an essential feature of American democracy. I watched Trump make his way along the delighted crowd and thought of Franklin Delano Roosevelt.
Conrad Black in his excellent biography of the 32nd president, “Franklin Delano Roosevelt: Champion of Freedom,” wrote that much of FDR’s inherited wealth came from his maternal grandfather, Warren Delano II. Mr. Delano earned that money in China in the 19th century.
“The latter-day Roosevelts, including Franklin, were not happy that much of their inherited millions came from the derring-do of the Delanos in the opium trade,” Black wrote.
Warren Delano’s grandson on March 4, 1933 rallied a nation mired in the Great Depression with a stirring inaugural address that included these lines:
“The money-changers have fled from their high seats in the temple of our civilization,” Roosevelt said. “We may now restore that temple to the ancient truths. The measure of the restoration lies in the extent to which we apply social values more noble than mere monetary profit.”
America believed FDR in 1933. So maybe it’s not unreasonable for Americans of 2016 to believe the builder of Trump Tower when he says, as he did Friday at Selland Arena, “I love coal miners.”
11.) The scene outside Selland after Trump left Downtown was lively. Police officers, standing shoulder-to-shoulder across M Street at Ventura, made sure anti-Trump demonstrators didn’t advance north toward Inyo Street.
I couldn’t figure out the tactical reason for this. Maybe the cops knew the demonstrators merely wanted a confrontation with authority – just about every civilian was snapping photos and taking videos with her cell phone – and figured it best to confine the all-too-human fondness for rebellion to this relatively isolated intersection.
Still, as my video shows, the meeting of pro-Trump and anti-Trump partisans was often abusive. The video shows a young Hispanic man, a Trump supporter, standing his ground as several anti-Trump Hispanics cuss him out.
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My brief walk through the area suggests the anti-Trump folks were far more confrontational than the pro-Trump folks.
There’s a rap song with a line that goes: “F— Donald Trump!” Two men in a car repeatedly played that song on their stereo at full blast. They drove slowly through Downtown streets next to the Convention Center.
Another young man played the same song on a recorder in his backpack. He stood at the corner of Tulare and P streets as Trump supporters, holding “Farmers For Trump” signs, quietly made their way to their cars. The young man was standing with a woman old enough to be his mother.
I bumped into a man about my age (I’m 66) wearing a Trump shirt and walking south on L Street, on the west side of the Double Tree by Hilton Hotel.
“Don’t make a left on Ventura,” I told him.
“There’s trouble over there,” I said, pointing to the madhouse at M and Ventura.
“One of them came up to me over there,” he said, pointing over his shoulder toward Inyo. “He said, ‘I’m going to kill you if I ever get you alone.’ What’s wrong with these people?”
12.) Some will say it’s all part of American democracy. Certainly our 240-year history suggests as much.
I prepared for Friday’s Trump drama by spending part of Thursday morning at Fresno County’s Elections Warehouse/Training Facility on Hamilton Avenue, south of the Big Fresno fairgrounds.
County Clerk/Registrar of Voters Brandi Orth was kind enough to invite me to be a member of the Citizens Election Observer Panel for the June 7 primary. There are about a half-dozen people on the panel.
We started our orientation on May 16 with a fascinating tour of the privately-owned ballot printing facility (called The Presort Center) on G Street, south of the City Yard. The company prints election ballots for Fresno County and customers as far away as the government of Puerto Rico.
You wouldn’t believe the complexity that goes into printing ballots for a fair and honest election. For example, Fresno County covers more than 6,000 square miles. There are dozens of jurisdictions holding governing elections at various times. The electorates in these jurisdictions sometimes overlap; sometimes they don’t. Every voter must get a ballot, whether vote by mail (absentee) or at the polling station, that includes everything she is legally entitled to vote on, but no more. And every voter needs to get her ballot on time.
Orth, her staff and the folks at The Presort Center surmount this and a hundred other challenges to ensure that we in Fresno County have ballots worthy of our great country.
Then on Thursday (May 26) Orth gave the Election Observer Panel a tour of the place where our votes are counted – the Elections Warehouse/Training Center. Here, too, complexity and system are the name of the game. It’s sufficient here to note that county officials go to extraordinary lengths to ensure that all valid votes are tallied accurately and speedily.
The integrity of both processes – ballot printing and counting – is guarded in more ways than I can list.
What I saw on Friday in Downtown Fresno is one side of the coin that is democracy in action. The other side of that coin is the unsung but vital work I saw at The Presort Center and the Elections Warehouse/Training Center.
Registrar of Voters Orth during both tours encouraged panel members to ask questions. We dug into all sorts of details. As are all voters, we were most concerned about possible corruption of this most basic of American rights.
But I regret now that I didn’t ask about possible corruption of the voting process at the polling station itself. I’m talking about intimidation of voters.
If what I saw in Downtown Fresno on Friday is a trend, then I can see a potential for the bullying of pro-Trump voters as they head to polling stations across America on June 7 and especially on Nov. 8.
They came to call 1964 “Freedom Summer.” How ironic if 2016 came to be called “Freedom Autumn.”