EL PASO, Texas — As thousands of Donald Trump supporters lined up outside the El Paso County Coliseum Monday afternoon, waiting to see the president hold his first official re-election campaign rally near the U.S.-Mexico border, the MAGA merchants were in a frenzy.
Some vendors pulled carts full of red or camouflage “Make America Great Again” hats, yelling, “Ten dollars, cash or credit!” Others made elaborate displays of flags for sale. The new Trump 2020 flag was popular. So was the flag with an illustration of Trump holding a gun, standing atop a tank, in front of an American flag, next to a flying bald eagle.
Then there were the T-shirts: the new Trump/Pence 2020 shirt, the old “Hillary sucks but not like Monica” shirt, and a “We are Q” shirt, a reference to QAnon, the absurd and ever-evolving pro-Trump conspiracy theory that holds that the president is on the verge of destroying a pedophile ring that has been secretly running the U.S. government for years.
As Trump supporters poured into the gated area outside the coliseum, music blared from the loudspeakers, a playlist that included Elton John’s “Candle in the Wind,” Lynyrd Skynyrd’s “Free Bird” and “Memory” from the Broadway musical “Cats.” The music was interrupted intermittently by announcements, including one pleading with Trump supporters to “not hurt any protesters” who might show up to ruin the night’s fun.
On the giant screen outside the venue, a Trump campaign message implored fans to follow the president on Twitter, Instagram and Facebook. “Your source for Real News,” the message screamed.
HuffPost was not granted press credentials to report from inside the coliseum. Outside, an overflow crowd of some 6,000 people stood in the cold desert night to watch the screen and cheer on Trump.
Trump’s rally in El Paso was in support of his border wall. In his State of the Union address last week he claimed, falsely, that border fencing that was built south of the city in 2010 transformed El Paso from a dangerous place into a safe one.
Its Republican mayor lashed out at the president last week for his falsehood. El Paso’s declining crime rate started well before the border fencing was built.
But Trump repeated the lie Monday night. And for his audience, the lie was now the truth.
“Once they built that wall, it was amazing how statistically the violence started going down,” 39-year-old El Paso resident Michael Blanco, who owns an accounting business, told HuffPost outside the coliseum. “I’m a complete witness of it. Seen it growing up.”
Henri Rafael, a 58-year-old El Pasoan wearing a black Trump 2020 hat, said that even though the mayor corrected Trump, “I know for a fact that the crime was high back in the ’70s and ’80s, and when they built those walls, [crime] has dropped.”
In fact, violent crime increased in El Paso in the two years after the wall was built, according to a study from the El Paso Times.
Trump periodically paused his speech Monday for chants of “Build the wall!” and “USA!”
When he talked of the “fake news” media, the crowd jeered. At one point, a particularly inspired Trump supporter attacked a BBC journalist:
The crowd also jeered Beto O’Rourke, the Democratic El Paso native and former congressman who nearly defeated Sen. Ted Cruz in last year’s Senate race. O’Rourke, a potential presidential candidate, held a protest a few blocks from Trump’s rally Monday night.
The president taunted O’Rourke from the stage, claiming that the O’Rourke rally attracted a paltry few hundred attendees. El Paso police later estimated that well over 10,000 people attended.
Trump spoke for over an hour — about special counsel Robert Mueller’s investigation, about Hillary Clinton, about the Green New Deal and about how “America will never be a socialist country.”
Nick Martin, an investigative reporter at the Southern Poverty Law Center, watched the speech and noticed someone he recognized sitting in the front row, wearing a baseball hat and an eye patch: Elmer Stewart Rhodes.
Rhodes is the founder of the far-right militia group the Oath Keepers. The SPLC lists the Oath Keepers as an anti-government extremist group because of the wild conspiracy theories its members promote. Rhodes recently claimed he was setting up paramilitary training camps across the U.S. to prepare to fight antifa, or anti-fascist, groups.
(Also reportedly standing in the front row at the Trump rally: a woman wearing a QAnon symbol over her shirt.)
Eventually, Trump finished his speech and left the stage to cheers on his way to a sit-down interview with Laura Ingraham of Fox News, who had traveled to Texas for the rally.
The crowd filtered out through the gates of the coliseum. There they were met by a small group of teenage protesters carrying signs reading “Trump is a lying corrupt racist” and “Abolish I.C.E.”
Many Trump supporters cursed at the teens, yelling, “Fuck you,” and started a loud chant of “Trump! Trump! Trump!” At least one Trump supporter yelled, “Go back to Mexico!” at the teens, most of whom were Hispanic.
Another Trump supporter ripped the “Abolish I.C.E.” sign from a teen’s hands and ran off with it. Then another threw water at the teens’ faces.
One of the protesters, 17-year-old Arianna Ginichan, told HuffPost she didn’t let such vitriol get to her. It’s all “normal because it’s what’s happening to America right now,” she said. “And it’s what’s going on. And you just kind of brush it off.”
She expressed sadness over seeing so many Hispanics in the MAGA crowd. “I think they’re kind of close to brainwashed, if not brainwashed,” she said. “Kind of like disappointing to see that they’re supporting someone that talks down on them.”
A few hundred yards away, riot police announced over a megaphone that a separate group of 50 or so Trump protesters standing on a streetcorner needed to disperse. They refused. Trump supporters dipped in and out of the protest, taunting them. One shouted to the crowd that they all needed to subscribe to Pewdiepie, referring to the world’s most popular YouTuber, who has promoted white supremacist content to his millions of subscribers.
Antoine Williams, a 36-year-old MAGA vendor from South Carolina, stood on the sidewalk and packed up his merchandise, looking on at the mayhem. “They’re askin’ for it,” he said of the protesters, who eventually dispersed.
He said he goes to every Trump rally to sell his goods. Asked if he’s also a Trump supporter, Williams responded, “Till the death of me, bro.”