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Opinion >  Column

Shawn Vestal: Trump’s fans at Missoula rally start early and stay late

Oct. 18, 2018 Updated Thu., Oct. 18, 2018 at 11 p.m.

MISSOULA – The first rule of attending a Trump tent revival is the same as with any big jamboree, whether it’s Sasquatch or a Franklin Graham rally: Get there early.

Get there with snacks and water. Get there in comfortable shoes. Consider sunblock. Display the T-shirt message of your choice: Adorable Deplorable. Who’s Your Daddy? Finally Someone With Balls. Trump Ain’t a Mistake, Snowflake.

Get there with a Trump sign, in Trump socks and a Trump sweatshirt pinned with Trump buttons, wearing whatever shade of MAGA hat you prefer.

But definitely get there early.

“Shoulda got here earlier I guess,” a state patrolman bellowed at a motorist who was complaining about the creeping line of cars waiting to get into the parking lot for the rally. “You snooze, you lose.”

Thousands of people inched their ways to a thunderous Trump rally here Thursday. Held at an airport hangar west of Missoula’s crunchy liberal core, the event definitely taxed the ability of organizers to manage unusually large numbers of cars and people.

People waited in lines for hours, in cars and on foot, to see the man most seemed to regard in messianic terms. Many of them seemed giddy to be entering a vacuum of like-minded souls.

“It’s got this party atmosphere,” said Shirley Stine, a 49-year-old recent transplant from California to Big Fork, Montana, who drove two hours to the rally with her 12-year-old daughter. “We stood in line for three hours, and I feel like I know those people now.”

Timothy Snyder traveled five hours to the rally from Lewistown, Montana. Snyder, 16, wore a red-white-and-blue tank top and a MAGA hat, and he had a coveted spot in the bleachers behind the stage. By the time Trump was trotting out his greatest hits – immigration panic, Democratic demonization, Fake News, boasting, name-calling and every shade of less-than-true on the spectrum – Snyder could be seen behind him, standing on the back row of bleachers, outlined sharply by the vividly setting sun.

What brought the small-town teenager all this way?

“Just the atmosphere,” he said. “Just being around other people who have the same values as you.”

A lot of the crowd echoed that sentiment. For all of the politics involved in the rally – and there were politics galore – there was also an overriding sense of cultural unanimity, an air of people sharing an absolute and unbroken series of beliefs and presumptions, safe from the ravages of disagreement.

By the time that the headliner took the stage – hours and hours after the first of the fans had gotten their early start on their journey to hear him speak – he noted that there were still people waiting outside.

“A lot of people are still waiting to get in,” the president said at the start of his remarks.

That was, actually, true. The rally was full – at 8,000 people – and others were being turned away.

Grand reception

When the news of the rally was first announced, a lot of people found it interesting that Trump was coming not to a safe conservative city, but to Missoula, perhaps the most liberal spot on the map between Seattle and Minneapolis.

In the event, though, liberal downtown Missoula seemed less than energized, and the rally itself was held at an airport hangar just a short walk from the landing spot for Air Force One.

And fans came from all over the region, from the many places that are much redder than the Garden City.

The rally was staged outside, in front of a vast empty hangar and between two banks of bleachers. One was reserved for the media, seemingly as close as possible to a long bank of Sweet Pea porta-potties below a giant American flag. People began lining up for the 6:30 rally well before noon, and by 3 p.m. the line to get into the parking lot – from where the shuttles ran to the rally site – were as stalled as Seattle traffic on a Friday afternoon.

In the parking lot, the lines for the buses were similarly long. Seemingly everyone who showed up was wearing Trump merchandise. Young people wrapped themselves in campaign banners as capes. Many, many varieties of Trump T-shirts and hats were on display. Random cheers burst forth continually. Tables of merch – apparently unsanctioned – sat near the buses, operated by a group of people from North Carolina whose business is following Trump rallies around.

On a school bus ride to the rally, several teenage girls shouted out the window as if they were cheering for a football team.

“Build The Wall! Build The Wall! Yeah! Build it!”

“Way to agree, Kanye!” added one girl.

“Don’t get yourself kicked off the bus,” an older woman warned them.

At the hangar, rock music played, as if at a concert. It was a fascinating playlist: Elton John’s “Rocket Man,” the Rolling Stones “Sympathy for the Devil,” Guns N’ Roses “November Rain,” Lionel Richie’s “Say You, Say Me,” Survivor’s “Eye of the Tiger”…

As people made their way through security and into the hangar, they bought more merch and were given placards. A handful of Montana politicians glad-handed in the VIP area to the side of the stage, and some people sat on the concrete floor to wait more than two hours for Air Force One.

Jim Hurst was one of the early arrivals. A tall, lean 71-year-old, Hurst said he used to own a lumber company until the forests were “locked up” by environmentalists. He said he had been let down by previous Republican administrations, but was energized by all that Trump was doing.

“This is cool,” he said. “Good to be around like-minded people. A bunch of deplorables.”

Into thin air

The rock concert vibe continued when Trump arrived at last, walking to the stage from Air Force One, which was visible on the tarmac behind him. He immediately began cranking out the greatest hits, to raucous adoration.

Crooked Hillary! Fake News! No collusion!

Kavanaugh! Democratic mobs! Immigrant hordes!

Sometimes he simply repeated the stuff he always says. Other times he tailored the message to Montanans – praising Montana Rep. Greg Gianforte for body-slamming a reporter – and he focused a lot of energy on the Senate campaign that brought him here, praising challenger Matt Rosendale and attacking Sen. Jon Tester.

He was reliably consistent in invoking the childish nicknames.

Crooked Hillary! Sleepy Joe Biden. Pocahantas!

The seedier the insult, the louder the roar of approval. The slipperier the “fact,” the greater the sense of unquestioning belief. The cruder the boast, the more sustained the cheer.

It went on for well over an hour. By the time Trump reboarded Air Force One, it had grown dark outside and the warm autumn afternoon had become a chilly Montana night. The crowds – the people who had come from all over, from Big Fork and Lewistown and Eureka and Vancouver, Washington, and Oregon and Idaho – listened as the rock music blared, and Air Force One prepared to leave Montana for the third time this year.

And then they dispersed, back to their cars, waiting in lines once again.

They’d gotten here early. But now it was getting late.

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