WASHINGTON – Glendale resident Tahnee Gonzales admits she wasn’t thrilled that President Donald Trump negotiated with Democratic leaders last week on immigration – but that wasn’t about to keep her from traveling across the country to support her president.
Gonzales was one of hundreds who turned out for what was billed as the “Mother of All Rallies” Saturday, a gathering on the National Mall that aimed to “send a direct message to Congress, the media and the world that we stand united not divided to protect and preserve American Culture.”
On a warm and cloudy September afternoon, they gathered wearing Make America Great Again hats, waving American flags and Trump banners. While the event fell far short of its organizer’s goal of 1 million attendees, what the crowd lacked in numbers it made up for in enthusiasm.
“We have our Constitution, we have our Christianity, we have something special and we don’t want to give it up … for anything,” said Jim Griffin. The former Arizona resident was at Saturday’s event dressed as Captain America and carrying a 12-by-18-foot American flag and a 6-by-10 Marine Corps flag.
“We’re here now to tell the world that we’re tired of taking it and that being an American is special, it is exceptional and it is positive,” said Griffin, a Tea Party organizer who now lives in Maryland.
Much of the day was given to criticism of illegal immigration and concern that Trump, as president, may be backing away from the get-tough policies of Trump the candidate.
“If you’re an American citizen and you believe in your Constitution, why, why, why would you let illegals, why would you let immigrants, why would you let those kind of people walk on you?” a Bikers for Trump speaker asked from the stage.
Gonzales said Trump risks alienating his base if he continues working with Democrats on a deal that would preserve elements of DACA, the Obama-era Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program that he said he would revoke by March.
“As a Hispanic American I stand for no DACA and no amnesty,” Gonzales said. “The American taxpayers can no longer afford to support illegals who are crime-ridden – that’s what they want to do and it’s not fair to the American taxpayer.”
While they came from across the country to support the president, the discussion often turned to Arizona, with harsh words for the state’s Republican senators and praise for Trump’s decision to pardon former Maricopa County Sheriff Joe Arpaio.
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Gonzales echoed the criticisms of Arizona Republican Sens. John McCain and Jeff Flake – both of whom have sparred with Trump – labeling McCain a “traitor” for his vote against a partial repeal of Obamacare and vowing that she and other “Arizona deplorables” will back Flake challenger Kelli Ward in his re-election bid next year.
Deplorables – after Democratic presidential nominee Hillary Clinton’s description of Trump supporters as “a basket of deplorables” – was a phrase that those at the rally wore as a badge of honor, seemingly alternating it with patriot.
Speakers went late into the afternoon and included political candidates from Pennsylvania and Florida, along with representatives from the groups Latinos for Trump and Gays for Trump, among others. In between speeches, the crowd was often led in the Pledge of Allegiance or treated to a rendition of “The Star-Spangled Banner” from the stage in the shadow of the Washington Monument.
The crowd was enthusiastic but the event was largely peaceful, despite a number of competing events on the Mall and the watchful eye of people like Bruce Gaumer, who had been in Charlottesville, Virginia, last month when clashes erupted at a Unite the Right rally.
Gaumer held a sign memorializing Heather Heyer, who was killed when a car drove through a crowd of counter-protesters in Charlottesville. He said he felt compelled to “stand up” to Saturday’s rally and to call for an end to the violence and bigotry displayed in Charlottesville.
“Growing up in Virginia as a white person, I had many black friends and friends of different races and it seemed like racism was kind of going away,” Gaumer said. “But when Trump came in it started to rear its head again…. I want them to know that we’re watching them and they’re not going to ever take over this country.”
But rally organizers made a point of banning flags other than the U.S. flag, and condemning “racists of all colors.” Whenever things started to get tense Saturday, speakers would urge the crowd to stay civil and not create a scene that would dominate the news from the event.
When a group of Black Lives Matter activists showed up, they were invited on stage to share their message – a message that was largely greeted with jeers and heckling from the crowd, but no violence. Reporters, who Trump often says refuse to show large crowds at his events, were invited on stage Saturday to get photos of the crowd on the Mall.
If anyone at the event was disappointed with the size of the crowd, they weren’t letting on. Gonzales said it felt good to be around hundreds of other like-minded folks for a day. And Griffin said the fight will continue long after the one-day rally.
“I’m not stopping for anything,” he said. “I’m not stopping till I’m in the ground and when I go, I’ll be a proud American in the ground.”