GREENVILLE, N.C. — Mark and Nancy Dawson think Muslims should be removed from the United States.
The couple drove an hour and a half from Seaboard, North Carolina, for Wednesday’s campaign rally for President Donald Trump. They arrived early, setting up some lawn chairs in the shade of a tree as temperatures climbed toward 100 degrees outside Williams Arena.
“I think Muslims should be kicked out of the country because Sharia law is not conducive to the Constitution, period,” said Mark, a retiree in a camouflage “Trump 2020” baseball cap and a T-shirt emblazoned with the words “United States of America: Love It or Leave It.”
“I don’t hate them,” Nancy, a retired IBM programmer, said of Muslims. “I just think they should go back where they can be together and have their own country and their own religion.”
The Dawsons’ vision of mass deportation didn’t feel like much of a fringe position at Wednesday’s “Keep America Great” rally in Greenville. When the president took the stage, he reupped his call for four Democratic congresswomen of color, all four of whom are American, to “go back” to the countries they came from.
When the president attacked Rep. Ilhan Omar (D-Minn.) — who came to this country as a Somali refugee before becoming a citizen — thousands of people inside the arena broke into a chant of “Send her back!”
It was an arresting scene: a predominantly white crowd of thousands, many in red “Make America Great Again” hats, encouraging a receptive president to illegally deport one of his political opponents, who is a black, Muslim American woman.
To scholars of fascism — who have been ringing the alarm bells since Trump began his climb to power in 2015 — the rally in Greenville felt like an escalation. Like the U.S. just made another leap toward outright fascism.
“I am not easily shocked. But we are facing an emergency,” tweeted Jason Stanley, a Yale University philosophy professor and author of the book “How Fascism Works.”
“Journalists must not get away with sugar coating this,” Stanley wrote. “This is the face of evil.”
Ruth Ben-Ghiat, a history professor at New York University who is an expert on fascism and propaganda, saw historical parallels in the Greenville rally.
“Trump has created a corps of supporters fanatically loyal to him who turn his latest racist messages into group rituals (chants, slogans) and who hate the people he tells them to,” Ben-Ghiat told HuffPost.
“All of this is consistent with the leader-follower relationship of fascist regimes.”
“Oh yea, it’s a fascist rally,” said Shane Burley, author of the book “Fascism Today: What It Is and How to End It.”
“I think that this rally is a rhetorical and political escalation for Trump, establishing him firmly to the right of his 2016 election,” Burley told HuffPost in a text exchange. “Which is what he wants to do because he wants to double down on his base for support, and he is doing that by playing on racist populism to create that motivation.”
This strategy, Burley said, will ensure that Trump supporters will “escalate their political behavior, which can be expressed violently, as we have seen with the rise of groups like Patriot Prayer.”
“I think that the rhetoric he chose to use, both about the congresswoman and with regards to the antifascist left, will have the result of inspiring violence.”
Inside the arena Wednesday, Trump supporters cheered on a brief act of violence. When a protester briefly interrupted the president’s speech, he was tackled by security guards and arrested. The crowd roared, breaking into a chant of “U-S-A!”
Trump, of course, has already inspired much more serious political violence, especially toward Somali-Americans like Omar.
In January, three Trump supporters, who belonged to a militia group called the “Crusaders,” were each sentenced to 25 years in prison for plotting to massacre Somali Muslims in Garden City, Kansas. That same month, two other Trump-supporting militia group members pleaded guilty to bombing a Somali mosque in Minnesota.
Among Trump supporters in Greenville on Wednesday, anti-Muslim bigotry was ubiquitous.
“Islam is not a real religion,” Bud “Wizzard” Harrell, a 61-year-old resident of Bear Grass, North Carolina, stated falsely. “It’s a religion of wars is what it is. Read the [Quran]. I’ve read a little bit. All I’ve seen is hateful stuff in there, vile, hateful stuff.”
“And also I see, just like what’s happening to Europe, they’re trying to do here: invade our country and get enough people in to have voting power to take over and control our country, and that’s what it is, an invasion,” Harrell said of Muslim immigrants, in a perfect recitation of the white supremacist “Great Replacement” conspiracy theory, which motivated a shooter to massacre 51 Muslims inside two New Zealand mosques this past March.
Brian Innis, a military veteran from Roanoke Rapids, North Carolina, said he supported Trump’s 2016 proposal to ban all Muslims — 1.7 billion people — from entering the U.S.
“Hardly no terror attacks being performed in the world by Christians,” Innis stated, incorrectly. “I wouldn’t say it’s called profiling, but you have to direct the issue where it’s coming from, and that’s where it’s stemming from.”
Trump supporters here also refused to entertain the idea that the president was racist when he told the four congresswomen of color — Reps. Omar, Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-N.Y.), Ayanna Pressley (D-Mass.) and Rashida Tlaib (D-Mich.) — to “go back” to their own countries.
Telling people of color to “go back” where they came from is a foundational white nationalist insult in American history. (When nine black teenagers integrated a school in Little Rock, Arkansas, in 1957, a mob of a thousand white people heckled them with screams of “Go back to Africa.”)
Danny Sills, a 50-year-old truck driver from Williamston, North Carolina, said the president’s remarks about the congresswomen were “absolutely not” racist.
“If they wanna come here and assimilate and be Americans, they’re fine to be here,” he said of the congresswomen. “If they’re gonna try and destroy this country from within, they need to be somewhere else.”
As at every Trump rally before it, there was a widespread hatred of the press in Greenville, a well-documented characteristic of fascist movements.
Trump, after all, has spent his entire presidency calling the media “fake news” and “the enemy of the people.” It’s a view his supporters have embraced wholeheartedly.
As people stood in line outside the arena, MAGA merchants hawked “CNN sucks!” T-shirts while a band of teenagers in MAGA hats played a song called “CNN sucks.”
As this HuffPost reporter conducted interviews outside the rally, with supporters who wanted to answer questions, he was approached by a police officer, who warned him that there had been complaints he was “threatening and harassing” event attendees. The cop warned that if he received more complaints, this reporter would be removed from the rally.
When some reporters in the press pit stayed seated during the pledge of allegiance and the national anthem, Trump supporters angrily yelled “Stand up, media!” from the stands.
And of course, when Trump attacked the media in his speech, the crowd went wild.
“I don’t listen to Fox, I don’t listen to CNN. I don’t listen to any of ’em,” said Allicyn Steverson, a 57-year-old teacher from Florence, South Carolina. “I listen to Trump’s tweets and his QAnons.”
QAnon, or simply “Q,” is an anonymous poster, or posters, on message boards like 8chan, who claims to be a government official with high-level security clearance. Followers of Q believe that this anonymous poster is secretly working with the Trump administration to arrest Democrats en masse. QAnon is, in essence, a pro-Trump conspiracy theory — one with a large following.
“We had Q shirts on and [the Secret Service] made us take our shirts off,” Steverson said.
“They said they were given orders that if anyone had a Q shirt on they had to take it off, so we had to go buy these,” Steverson added, pointing to brand-new Trump T-shirts she and her friend were wearing.
Steverson said she wasn’t mad though. She was sure the Trump campaign had its reasons.
Inside the arena in Greenville, the devotion to Trump was complete. And it seemed like the president could feel it.
“Just returned to the White House from the Great State of North Carolina,” Trump tweeted Wednesday night. “What a crowd, and what great people. The enthusiasm blows away our rivals on the Radical Left. #2020 will be a big year for the Republican Party!”
Omar, however, had a tweet of her own, posting a verse from the poem “Still I Rise” by American poet Maya Angelou.
“You may shoot me with your words / You may cut me with your eyes / You may kill me with your hatefulness / But still, like air, I’ll rise.”