Editor’s Note: The following is a first-hand account by RVBusiness Managing Editor Rick Kessler on President Trump’s rally held May 11 in Elkhart, Ind.
As a working journalist for RVBusiness magazine, I covered former President Barack Obama’s rally two years ago at Concord High School in Elkhart, Ind. So on May 10 when President Donald Trump came to Elkhart for his own rally inside the old North Side Gym, the journalist in me was equally eager at the opportunity to again see history in the making.
It’s the kind of thing that dyed-in-the-wool members of the press live for – even if President Trump referred early on to journalists located in a specially assigned area in the back of the gym as “fake news media.”
That, of course, drew anti-press boos from the crowd and at least one single-finger salute from a grandmotherly type I spotted in the bleachers.
No big deal, though, because I didn’t take it personally. It’s just the nature of the times.
True to form, though, Trump’s political pep rally at the expansive old 7,500-seat gym in North Side Middle School was every bit the spectacle that one might expect as Trump and his supporters continue their drive to “Make America Great Again.”
The spectators, many of them dressed in patriotic colors, certainly showed their approval for the nation’s chief executive with applause, fist pumps and repeated “USA!” chants – especially when the president invoked the names of Hoosier legends like Bobby Knight and Gene Keady. Lest there be any doubt, however, this rally was all about promoting the GOP agenda and candidates for federal and state offices – most notably Mike Braun, who earned the opportunity in a tough, three-way, May 8 primary to take on Democratic U.S. Sen. Joe Donnelly in November’s mid-term elections.
From my vantage point inside what I called the “media corral,” there were plenty of similarities between the Trump rally and Obama’s last visit, at which he extolled the virtues of a resurgent economy and, in the process, underscored his support for then-Democratic presidential candidate Hillary Clinton.
For those of us lucky enough to have attended both of those campaign moments, it was, again, all about party-line politics. Wrap yourself in the flag, motivate the base and get the message out.
And there’s nothing wrong with that. That’s what political rallies – love ‘em or leave ‘em – are for.
Having said that, if you’ve got a moment, here’s a log, a timeline if you will, of last week’s historic event from the perspective of one observant journalist:
2:30 p.m.: Street-side entrepreneurs have begun setting up roadside stands near the rally location off Bristol Street on Elkhart’s north side hawking shirts, hats, tote bags and trinkets – most sporting “Make America Great Again” slogans and otherwise professing support for the Trump/Pence ticket in 2020.
3 p.m.: Officials close Bristol Street in front of North Side Middle School, between Cassopolis and Main streets.
3:05 p.m.: Half-mile traffic jams begin forming around the Bristol-Cassopolis streets intersection.
3:15 p.m.: Early dinner at George’s Gyro Restaurant on Bristol Street with photographer Shawn Spence and Editor Bruce Hampson, who drew the short straw and was not obliged to cover Trump’s visit.
4 p.m.: Spence and I leave the restaurant and head to the rally.
4:03 p.m.: The traffic jams are real.
4:13 p.m.: I clear the media security checkpoint and, with the help of a county sheriff’s deputy who opened a path of people waiting in line to get inside, park in the media parking lot south of the school grounds.
4:18 p.m.: After seeing the long line of people waiting to get in, one man says to his friend that “this is what 30% looks like,” a reference to erroneous polls that suggested Trump would not be elected president.
4:20 p.m.: I thank two Elkhart City Police officers stationed outside one of the two building entrances for arranging the beautiful weather. Both mention how things could have been otherwise because rain had been forecast.
4:26 p.m.: We successfully navigate the media entrance, our names checked, our bags searched and our bodies subjected to a metal detector wand by U.S. Secret Service agents. I joke with a third agent that at least we didn’t have to take our shoes and belts off, like we would if we were at an airport. He smiles and says that could be arranged.
4:31 p.m.: We claim seats in the media corral situated at one end of the building, directly opposite the stage. At this point, the gym is perhaps 25% full but people are steadily streaming in. Some choose to stand on the gym floor in front of the stage, while others select bleacher seats.
4:36 p.m.: Two patriotically dressed ladies wearing USA sunglasses find their husbands on the gym floor. I realize I have on a blue jacket and a white shirt, but nothing red and suddenly feel naked.
4:43 p.m.: Chat with Elkhart Mayor Tim Neese and Art Decio, a legendary Elkhart businessman who grew Skyline Corp. into one of the nation’s leading manufactured housing and RV builders. Decio says Trump is doing an “excellent job” and that the president as a GOP primary candidate “kicked the hell” out of all of his primary opponents who “needed their asses kicked because they didn’t do their job.”
5:07 p.m.: The crowd, awaiting the rally, chants “U-S-A” for the first time.
5:08 p.m.: I try to count the number of TV cameras at the rear of the media corral and quickly give up. There are 40 to 50.
5:09 p.m.: The rally’s technical crew, also stationed in the media corral, play “Keep on Rockin’ in the Free World” by Neil Young.
5:17 p.m.: My first sighting of someone wearing a “CNN is Fake News” shirt.
5:18 p.m.: A recorded announcement informs the crowd that the president supports the First Amendment (free speech) as much as he does the Second Amendment (right to bear arms), which brought a hearty roar. The announcement continues, saying that the rally was a private event paid for by the Donald Trump for President campaign, so a secure area (outside the building, on the other side of Cassopolis Street) had been arranged for protestors. Furthermore, the recording asks those in the audience not to engage with protestors, but to merely point them out to law enforcement officials. “Thank you on behalf of Donald Trump to ‘Make America Great Again,’” it concludes.
5:23 p.m.: “My Way” by Frank Sinatra plays.
5:25 p.m.: The Wi-Fi network made available for the rally grinds to a halt.
5:28 p.m.: “U-S-A” chant No. 2.
5:30 p.m.: People with signs saying “Keep America Great” and “Women for Trump” – both handed out at the entrances – try to make it into the background of live TV shots.
5:35 p.m.: Now comes another chant, “Lock Her Up,” referring to Hillary Clinton, followed by a rendition of “Skyfall” by Adele.
5:38 p.m.: A “Build That Wall” chant surfaces, with stomping on the bleachers for added effect.
6 p.m.: Three Republican state legislature candidates take the stage to lead the crowd in an opening prayer, reciting the Pledge of Allegiance and singing the national anthem. There is no need, in this audience, to remind the men to remove their hats.
6:05 p.m.: Indiana GOP Chairman Kyle Hupfer addresses the crowd, saying Indiana under Republican leadership has gone from a $2 billion deficit to a $2 billion surplus. A former Manchester College basketball player, Hupfer notes the GOP has assembled a great team of candidates for the November election. He also reviews the Democratic team’s scouting report indicating that they “tend to go to their left – way, way, way to their left” and suggests that I.U.’s Bobby Knight ought to coach the GOP’s team
6:11 p.m.: Indiana Attorney General Curtis Hill takes the stage and reminds everyone he is a native of Elkhart, that he went to North Side Middle School and grew up a mile away in the house his late father built and where his mother still lives. Touting the Republican Party’s “power of conservative principles,” Hill, professes his belief in the U.S. and says: “If America is ever to be destroyed, it will be from within because of policies that don’t put America first. Our future is not only to make America great again, but to make America greater than it’s ever been.”
6:20 p.m.: Air Force One touches down at South Bend International Airport.
6:21 p.m.: A cheer goes up for the aide who affixes the U.S. Presidential Seal to the front of the podium.
6:31 p.m.: Elkhart Fire Department personnel mention that maximum occupancy for the event is set at 7,500 people, and agrees with me that air conditioning is a good thing.
6:37 p.m.: “Hey Jude” by The Beatles plays, with the crowd using the flashlight functions on their cellphones for ambience.
6:39 p.m.: “U-S-A” chant No. 4.
6:42 p.m.: Next comes “We Are The Champions” by Queen, which becomes a sing-along.
6:44 p.m.: A man wearing an olive golf shirt and khakis and a white USA baseball cap covering hair more salt than pepper walks into the gym with a big grin. As the scene unfolds, he comes to a stop and his grin is replaced by wide-eyed wonder. His chin drops and he mouths a silent “wow.” Seconds later the grin returns even bigger as he finds a spot on the gym floor.
6:45 p.m.: Ryan Krenek, sales manager at Krenek RV Super Store in Coloma, Mich., stops by the press corral for a quick chat. Krenek, an emerging face in industry circles, says he and a friend had made the one-hour drive to Elkhart to show their support for the president.
6:52 p.m.: Another cheer as the gym lights brighten.
7:02 p.m.: The doors to the gymnasium close. Other journalists tell me between 2,000 and 7,000 people were still standing outside.
7:07 p.m.: U.S. Rep. Jackie Walorski and her security detail walk past the media corral to make their way to the side of the stage.
7:09 p.m.: “U-S-A” chant No. 5.
7:10 p.m.: Hill, the state’s attorney general, retakes the stage and announces, “The President of the United States is in the house,” which is met by thunderous applause. He then introduces Vice President Mike Pence, saying the Columbus, Ind., native and former governor is a “man of “courage, a man of commitment, and a man of faith.”
7:12 p.m.: “U-S-A” chant No. 6.
7:13 p.m.: Pence addresses the crowd, saying, “It’s great to be back home again.” After giving a shout-out to Braun, Pence tells everyone how great it is to be working for Trump. He said Trump is “a man of his word and a man of action,” then adds “how about all the actions this week!” in reference to Trump’s efforts in getting the American hostages released from North Korea, withdrawing the U.S. from the Iran nuclear deal, and announcing the opening of the new U.S. embassy in Jerusalem. “This president embraces his role as leader of the free world,” he adds.
7:16 p.m.: “U-S-A” chant No. 7.
7:16 p.m.: Pence continues, saying none of the progress would have been made without the “strong, clear, resolute leadership” of Trump, and then lists several more accomplishments including the relentless pursuit of ISIS (prompting “U-S-A” chant No. 8), providing law enforcement with the “resources and respect they deserve” and beginning construction on the border wall (“Build That Wall” chant No. 2).
7:20 p.m.: Pence then addresses the economy. “Since Indiana voted to send this man to the White House, businesses have created more than 3.3 million jobs, including 33,000 new jobs here in the Hoosier State alone,” he said. “Manufacturers (nationwide) have added more than 315,000 good-paying jobs. In fact, there’s been 8,000 new, good-paying manufacturing jobs just here in Elkhart, Indiana. The unemployment rate hasn’t been this low since the year 2000. In fact, Elkhart County has the fifth lowest unemployment rate in America.
“As I stand before you today, Hoosiers,” he concludes, “I say with absolute confidence: jobs are coming back. Confidence is back. Under President Donald Trump, America is back and we’re just getting started.”
7:27 p.m.: Pence introduces his boss, President Donald J. Trump, and the crowd goes nuts.
7:28 p.m.: Trump kicks off his remarks by saying “this place is packed” and giving a quick rundown of the robust state of the economy. “All of these things are happening because America is being respected again,” he added.
7:31 p.m.: “U-S-A” chant No. 9.
7:32 p.m.: Trump relates a story of how, after having met with the Americans freed by North Korea at 2 a.m. that morning, he was offered a chance to cancel his Elkhart trip. “I said, ‘You just don’t know the people of Indiana. I don’t have the courage to cancel.’”
For the rest of his hour-long speech, the president reviews his administration’s achievements on an array of issues both foreign and domestic, and the crowd reacts with loud approval dozens of times. (See RVBUSINESS.com May 11 coverage: “Trump Supports Braun, Touts Agenda in Elkhart”)
“After years of rebuilding foreign countries,” said the former reality show host, “we’re finally rebuilding our country. We’re finally putting America first.”
8:30 p.m.: Trump concludes his speech and exits the stage to deafening applause and shouts of support.
9 p.m.: Not wishing to be accosted as members of the “fake media,” we wait a while before we make our exit and remove our media credentials, too, just in case we run into that finger-waving grandma who so eloquently made her feelings known earlier in the evening.