Starting Monday morning in Milwaukee at the Democratic National Convention and then making my way up to Oshkosh, Wis., for the 4:30 p.m. Trump rally, the two campaigns’ competing strategies were obvious. The Democrats, citing public-health concerns, had chosen a quiet, virtual presence — my observations on which you can read about here. In stark contrast, the president gathered a group of his supporters at the usually mothballed Wittman Airport in Oshkosh for a pep rally — the likely purpose of which was to distract from the DNC and make it clear that he would show up to compete for a state eschewed by the Democratic nominee in 2016 and, thus far, in 2020.
Compared to Milwaukee, Oshkosh is a sleepy, fairly conservative blue-collar town on the shores of Lake Winnebago with a population of 66,000. While the physical footprint is small, the name might strike some of our readers as familiar, for two reasons:First, Oshkosh Truck, the defense contractor and manufacturer of a plethora of military vehicles, calls this particular city home. Second, the Oshkosh Air Show, an aviation extravaganza that hosts over half a million people per year, is hosted here. With name recognition, an accessible location, and empty runways most of the year, Oshkosh made for an easy, limited-notice stop for the president.
Driving in, I was unsure of what I would encounter. It wasn’t until I was two blocks north of Wittman Airport that I met with traffic of any sort. After parking my car on Delaware and 18th Street, the first thing that greeted me upon exiting was the noise, a substantial amount of it. To someone coming from enervated Milwaukee, Oshkosh was crackling with political energy. As I fished my camera gear from the backseat, there appeared a procession a block to the south, moving east on West 19th Street.
As I joined the throng of a hundred or so people, who I could now tell were protesting Trump, the duality of the situation was striking. The chants from the protesters were the same as those that I had heard during my time in Portland, Ore. The left-wing classics, “No Trump, No KKK, No Racist USA!” and “No Justice? No Peace!” were belted out lustily. But instead of downtown Portland, this was a modest 1950s-era neighborhood with people in lawn chairs enjoying cold brews, Packers flags, and well-kept lawns abutting ranch-style homes. It was an alien fusion, neither good nor bad; simply bizarre.
The protesters themselves were an assorted bunch, an assortment that did not fall easily into categories, and made all the more so by the many Trump supporters who were walking home from the rally that had just let out. To my amusement, a guy carrying an American flag on the sidewalk was given the thumbs up by another man driving behind the protesters in a Dodge Charger R/T. The man in the car shouted to the flag-bearer, “I’m glad to see we have people who respect the flag out here, not like” — gesturing to the protesters in front of him — “these ‘fill in the plural pejorative of your choice.’ ” The flag-bearer then informed the driver that his flag-bearing self was part of the protest and that one could love America while supporting BLM. Their exchange devolved from there into unpleasant asides about one another’s masculinity and sexual orientation. The episode was a useful example of how difficult it was to assess which “side” people came down on. This uncertainty would come up a few more times as the protest wended its way through the residential streets.
There were of course your generic, white, college-age types; given the demographics of Oshkosh — in the words of Bill Burr, “shockingly Caucasian” — and its public university, this was to be expected. However, there were a fair number of those marching who were well beyond the age of 40, along with approximately ten African-American participants. One gentleman had my immediate attention upon my seeing what was strapped to his chest. He was in his mid-twenties, African American, and open-carrying a long rifle — likely an AR platform, but I can’t say for sure — along with a holstered sidearm. A group of guys walking on the sidewalk in front of me shouted out, asking what the armed gentleman was there for. He responded that he was protesting the president and exercising his First and Second Amendment rights simultaneously. An armed middle-aged white man on a bicycle joined the open-carrying black man, as if they were a body guard for the protesters.
It seemed at first glance rather excessive to be open-carrying in the middle of Oshkosh, but these men were by all indications extremely responsible, and the actions of some particularly obnoxious Trump supporters made me increasingly sympathetic. I had mentioned previously the man in Dodge Charger. He stayed behind the protesters all the way to the end, revving his engine for reactions and to drown out the protesters’ voices. However, the most egregious act of incivility came from a red truck that pushed itself into the middle of the procession and laid on its horn for minutes on end.
One fellow stood in the truck bed with a shirt that read, “I Put Liberal Tears on My Cereal,” while his buddy in the cab just kept blasting on his truck horn with all the passion of Carlos Kleiber but the ear of a deaf man. An officer who was standing on the corner eventually went up and issued the men a citation, and the protest moved past them. The last I saw of these two before moving on was their sh**-eating grins as they received the ticket, content after “owning the libs.” I was ashamed for them and their inspired political outreach.
As the demonstration entered its final stretch, the white fellow with an AR bicycled past. Protesters who were seemingly unaware of his security efforts on their behalf called after him asking if he was “compensating for something” and calling his armament “a cute toy.” An odd way to say, “thank you,” but there you are.
Finally, the protest made its way over to a strip-mall parking lot near a Kwik Trip — Wisconsin’s gas station of choice — and, after a few more cheers and chants, began to fragment as people wandered home.
Seeing there was little else to observe of the protest, I started westward, down West 20th Avenue toward the airport where the rally had taken place, with the intention of speaking with attendees. About a third of the way there, I came across a trailer selling Trump merchandise of various sorts. I asked a young man, “Daniel,” who was holding a flag and T-shirt that he had just bought, what he likes about the president. He told me about how the past two presidents had committed U.S. forces to various wars in Libya, Syria, Iraq, and Afghanistan, and how he really appreciated Trump’s reticence to add to that list.
The other shoppers were similarly bedecked in American colors and Trump couture, and there was an air of giddiness as husbands turned to their wives to express delight at flags and T-shirts with the visage of Trump, and finding their spouses agreeable, quickly ran up to purchase said items. This energy seemed derived in equal parts from the president’s proximity, the political vigor in this area of the city, and because they were among people who they agreed with. The need for tiptoeing around one another’s political views was, for a time at least, no longer necessary.
Having found no rally attendees among the shoppers there, I crossed to the north sidewalk on West 20th Ave. as I spied four well-built men in suits standing on the corner of Michigan and 20th, across from the airport. Since Oshkosh men rarely wear suits on a residential street corner for fun, I figured they had attended the rally and were waiting for their spouses. I asked them if they had been to the rally; they had. I asked them if they enjoyed it; they had. When you’ve grown up around the taciturn descendants of Germans and Scandinavians, monosyllabic answers can be common. Upon further inspection, however, I noticed these gentlemen had badges on their hips, slightly concealed carry, and the palpable whiff of federal-agency arrogance. Whether Secret Service, FBI, or some other outfit, I know not; but there they were, accosted by and grouchily answering queries from a gangly and bespectacled liberal-arts student.
Noting how unwelcome I was, I excused myself and crossed the street to the airport where a couple hundred people clad in red were lined up waiting to board charter buses. I approached a friendly-looking woman and asked her if she had attended the rally. She told me she had, and how excited she was to hear from the president himself. I inquired about what Trump had spoken about, and she told of his warning about the dangers of a Biden presidency and how those who were attending were important for victory in November.
I asked how she had come by the tickets to get in, as I had tried through many channels to get into the event with no success. She told me of how she worked in the Sturgeon Bay — a Cape Cod-esque portion of Wisconsin — Republican office. Further questioning confirmed to me that tickets were almost exclusively given to party workers, and seeing how there were a tightly controlled number of admittances — something like 100 — few outside of those got in.
This lady and her friends went on to tell me about how the demand for Trump yard signs is well above what they saw in 2016. They figured this was primarily because folks are less afraid of being judged for supporting Trump and partly because yard-sign vandalism is all too common. But mostly, they thought excitement for Trump was at a level not seen four years ago, and this was evidenced by yard-sign demand months before they are typically displayed.
The ladies’ bus was soon to leave, so I thanked them for their time and observations and wished them all the best. With the protests over and done and the rally-goers off and away, I walked up to the little airport where all the hullabaloo had centered. The terminal building was the size of a basketball court; the paint was peeling, and it made me stop to think of all the dinky little towns, rest stops, and union halls that politicians both now and in the past have had to win over, only to go on and do it again the next stop. I took a moment to appreciate the humble backdrops we force those who would wield power over us to use in this democracy of ours.
My last stop out of town was the Oshkosh post office, just west of the airport. While in Milwaukee, I had checked the post offices to ensure that red-hatted ruffians had not halted the delivery of mail, and here, too, I saw not a sight of illicit mail stoppages. If you think about it, how genius would a presidential visit have been as a distraction while the VP — like Wile E. Coyote — used ACME products to burrow into the USPS and steal the stamps, thus ensuring electoral victory or somesuch. But this ingenious escapade had failed to transpire, and so I made for home.
Milwaukee slumbered and Oshkosh was electric. What it might mean for the election, who can say, but were I an RNC operative I’d be happy with how Monday played out. What worried me most about all that I observed, however, was the complete disdain each side had for the other. That Americans can foster little mutual respect is cause for concern looking at November and beyond.