ORLANDO, Fla. — President Donald Trump announced the formal launch of his 2020 re-election campaign on Tuesday evening at a rally in Orlando, attracting thousands of supporters — including many far-right extremists — to a city that mostly detests him.
The president’s fans showed up hours before the rally began, standing outside the Amway Center in the sweltering heat and the pouring rain. Many sported “Make America Great Again” hats or T-shirts with slogans like “Make Democrats Cry Again” and “Deplorable Lives Matter.”
There were also about a dozen men wearing black Fred Perry polo shirts, the uniform of the violent neo-fascist gang the Proud Boys. “We are the Proud Boys, baby!” one very proud boy yelled into a megaphone, attempting to recruit new members among the MAGA crowd.
“When you come out here, it’s a brotherhood. It’s a family. It’s like being at a revival, man,” Joe Biggs, a Florida-based Proud Boys member, could be heard telling another right-wing activist about the Trump rally.
A short time later, journalists filmed the Proud Boys in much larger numbers as they marched through the streets, chanting, “Pinochet did nothing wrong!” The slogan, popular among white supremacists, is a reference to former Chilean dictator Augusto Pinochet’s practice of murdering leftists by throwing them out of helicopters.
The Proud Boys, known for violently attacking leftists themselves, then attempted to confront counterprotesters in downtown Orlando, but they were stopped by police.
“The Trump campaign is well aware of the organised participation of Proud Boys rallies merging into Trump events,” an unidentified GOP operative told New York Times reporter Trip Gabriel Tuesday night. “They don’t care. Staff are to treat it like a coalition they can’t talk about.”
Trump’s 2016 campaign and the first 2 and a half years of his presidency have emboldened a far-right, white nationalist movement in the United States, leading to outbreaks of political violence. His 2020 campaign launch Tuesday portended more of the same.
Fascists and conspiracy theorists were not fringe figures among this massive crowd of Trump supporters, but represented a large segment of the people, offering up a sobering look at the voting base the GOP has cultivated for itself. It’s why so many people in Orlando, a decidedly liberal city, never wanted this rally here at all.
“I definitely feel disappointed and frustrated and angry,” Christopher Furino, a 27-year-old queer, non-binary labor organiser and activist in Orlando, said of the rally. “Particularly because it feels very much a slap in the face to LGBTQ people on the heels of the three-year anniversary of Pulse, and that we’re in Pride Month as well.”
On June 12, 2016, a gunman who pledged allegiance to the self-described Islamic State shot and killed 49 people inside Pulse, a gay nightclub. At the time, Trump used the massacre to justify his proposal to ban an entire religious group, Muslims, from entering the U.S.
Yet, the Trump administration itself is very much part of this country’s anti-LGBTQ movement, Furino said. They pointed specifically to the deaths of transgender inmates inside the administration’s concentration camps for immigrants on the southern border.
“I think Trump and the right in general are trying to use a particular narrative that is intentionally divisive and vilifies trans people,” Furino said.
Rasha Mubarak, 34, a Palestinian American Muslim activist and a national committeewoman with the Florida Young Democrats, said Trump’s visit to Orlando was “disruptive, irresponsible and triggering beyond belief.”
“Just yesterday, Trump threatened to deport thousands of immigrants, and next week we are reminded that it’s been one year since the Supreme Court decided to uphold the Muslim ban,” Mubarak said, adding that the president’s “discriminatory and divisive policies will never be welcomed nor housed by our City Beautiful.”
Ahead of the rally, the Florida Democratic Party released a new poll: Roughly 70% of Orlando-area residents disapprove of Trump’s job performance, and only 28% said they would vote for Trump if the election were held today.
But the Trump campaign has singled out Florida as a must-win state in 2020, and packing Amway Center was aimed at consolidating the president’s base in the middle of the Sunshine State.
Among those who traveled from afar to the rally were the followers of the unhinged pro-Trump conspiracy theory surrounding QAnon.
QAnon, or simply “Q,” is an anonymous poster on various online message boards, namely 8chan, who claims to be a government employee with high-level security clearance. Followers of Q believe, among many other things, that this anonymous poster is working with the Trump administration to mass arrest the president’s political opponents for running a global pedophile ring.
Lori Bray, a retired schoolteacher from Ocala, Florida, wore a QAnon T-shirt to the rally.
“I believe there’s a lot of witchcraft and evil things going on,” she said of those deep state actors that she believes Q will one day expose.
“A lot of people involved in child pornography and the sale of children — not just children, but other people too,” Bray said. “And I believe that they’ve been trying to destroy our country for a long time. They’ve been trying to bring down America so that we will become part of the one-world government, trying to weaken us.”
Throughout Tuesday’s rally, HuffPost spotted many QAnon believers posing for photos and selfies in front of the stage, all wearing Q shirts and hats. One campaign volunteer posed for a photo while holding a Q sign.
Also in front of the stage inside the Amway Center were multiple members of Bikers for Trump, a motorcycle and activist group with a large social media following. Earlier this year, Trump suggested that these bikers were among the “tough people” who would support him if his political opponents went too far in their investigations of his alleged crimes. The bikers, the president said in what seemed like a threat of violence, could make things “very bad, very bad.”
“We’re not out there looking for a fight, but we’re certainly not gonna back down from one either,” said Chris Cox, the South Carolina-based founder of Bikers for Trump.
Standing near Cox was 37-year-old Daniel McQuarrie, a Disney employee wearing a T-shirt emblazoned with “INFOwars.com” on the sleeve — a reference to the far-right conspiracy website and video channel run by Alex Jones. (Trump himself has appeared on Infowars.)
“Sandy Hook was a hoax,” McQuarrie said, parroting Jones’ cruel and unfounded conspiracy theory that the massacre of 13 children at a Connecticut elementary school was staged. “He’s got proof.”
Standing near McQuarrie was Anna Connelly, a 62-year-old house painter from Inverness, Florida, who was wearing a National Rifle Association T-shirt and holding a sticker someone had just given her. “Assume the news media is lying,” it said. “You want it?” Connelly asked HuffPost.
After arguing, falsely, that most newspapers in the US are owned by communists, Connelly then railed against immigration in explicitly white nationalist terms.
“If you don’t stop immigration now, the illegals, it’s gonna change the demographics of our country. And when you change the demographics of the people of the country, then you change the government of the country, and I would not like to see what goes on in Europe go on here,” she said.
Connelly also had particularly bigoted words for Muslims. “Look at what they did to their countries,” she said. Whereas America is “still trying to progress,” she argued, Muslims are “still living in the past.”
In seats near Connelly sat 52-year-old Sheryl Tumey and her grandson. Both wore T-shirts blaring the logo for the III% United Patriots, the Florida-based chapter of the 3 Percenter militia movement.
“Here in Florida, we have over 1,700 members and we support the Constitution,” said Tumey, who works at a gun shop in Eustis, Florida. “We are not a hate group, a racist group. All of those things are false. We’re an inclusive group that believes in the Constitution of the United States of America.”
Earlier this year, three members of a 3 Percenters group in Kansas were convicted in a plot to massacre Muslims.
When Trump finally took the stage Tuesday evening, at around 8 p.m., the crowd of 20,000 inside the stadium went wild. He used his speech to lash out at the media in the arena, repeatedly denigrating them as “fake news.”
“Tell the truth!” the crowd started to chant, pointing their fingers at the designated press area.
As Trump’s speech wore on, some in the crowd filtered out early. It had been a long day. Tumey, the 3 Percent militia member, left the arena with her grandson. When his speech eventually ended, a Proud Boy stepped outside and lit up a cigarette. Down the block, an Infowars host conducted an interview with two men in MAGA hats.
Further down the block, a 33-year-old protester named Willie Tillman stood among a sea of Trump supporters leaving the arena. He sat on a bike holding up a sign that read “Fuck Trump” on one side and “You gotta be kidding me with this bull shit,” on the other.
Tillman, who works at a nearby bakery, didn’t see any neighbours among those passing by, heckling him with shouts of “Trump 2020!”
“I stay on this side of this town,” he said. “I don’t know where they come from.”