In Silicon Valley, where the political divide lies less between left and right than within liberalism itself, attending a Donald Trump rally feels like stepping into an alternate reality. For Mike Siebenhaar, a 56-year-old conservative from Gilroy, it’s a coming-out, a chance to show his true ideological colors.
“I can’t put a Trump sign out on my lawn,” says the South County business owner, one of thousands of people who flocked to downtown San Jose last week for Trump’s campaign event. “I don’t feel safe doing it. Not where I’m from.”
Hours ahead of the New York billionaire’s scheduled appearance—before the egg-throwing, pepper-spraying, pushing, chasing, punching, traffic cone-throwing and hat-burning that dominated headlines the next day—Siebenhaar and hundreds of like-minded Trump supporters stand in the sweltering heat outside of the San Jose Convention Center’s blue-and-white South Hall on Market Street.
Police barricade a several-block buffer around the venue, allowing only people who registered online past the metal barriers. No anti-Trump signs allowed beyond that point.
A couple blocks away in Plaza de Cesar Chavez, protesters gather, hoisting banners that remind Trump’s followers that they’re an unwelcome presence in a city where some 40 percent of the population is foreign-born. “Mr. Hate, get the fuck out our state,” one banner reads. “Brown ‘n’ proud,” exclaims another.
The massive striped tent, a red-white-and-blue-decked crowd, peddlers hawking bottled water and a cowboy guitarist crooning praises to Trump give the scene a traveling circus feel. Adding to the vaudeville effect are the street vendors who’ve followed the Trump train from rally to flag-waving rally since the Iowa caucuses and set up shop along South First and San Carlos streets.
“We’re like a bunch of carnies,” says 51-year-old, sun-ruddy Florida native Ron Hillyard, who pulls a rolling cart of campaign T-shirts, the ubiquitous “Make America Great Again” hats and various pins blasting ISIS and boosting “hot chicks for Trump.”
“It’s business, you know, but I’m here for Trump, too,” Hillyard says. “He speaks to me and mine.”
Ben Meyer, a 20-year-old Latino college student, shows up well ahead of the rally in what he jokingly calls a disguise: a denim-on-denim ensemble cinched in the middle by a thick leather belt.
“I figured the whole Western look would make me blend in,” says the San Jose native, who watched Bernie Sanders stump in Palo Alto earlier that week. “Do I look the part?”
All but for a “Great Again” snapback, I tell him. Bonus points for rocking a campy button, like the one I saw at least twice in the first hour that read, “KFC Hillary Special: 2 fat thighs, 2 small breasts.”
“Well, there’s one thing they have in common with Bernie supporters,” Meyer says. “They hate Hillary [Clinton] with a passion.”
So it seems. Not much later, a Trumpeteer—Siebenhaar’s 30-year-old nephew, Justin Siebenhaar, incidentally—strikes a pose for my camera in a “Hillary for Prison 2016” T-shirt. Another shows off his a red “Hillary go to jail” number disparage Trump’s presumptive Democratic opponent.
Throughout the evening, supporters say they’ve narrowed their options to either Sanders or Trump—anyone but Clinton. Like the Bernie camp, Trump folk consider the former secretary of state corrupt, the guardian of a status quo that’s brought crushing inequality and stagnant wages to millions of Americans.
Silicon Valley as an industry and a left-leaning enclave may have united in opposition against Trump, whose inflammatory rhetoric about Mexicans, women, Muslims and undocumented immigrants—among others—has stoked racial tensions. But the billionaire businessman’s America-first message resonates with a surprisingly diverse set of Bay Area locals who feel cheated out of the region’s prosperity.
“Without immigrants, this country wouldn’t exist,” says Jaime Abad, a 48-year-old Trump supporter whose family moved to the United States from the Philippines when he was a kid. “When we got here, we started with nothing. My main thing now, what got me to support Trump, is that all these jobs are leaving the country. All the manufacturing is going to Mexico. What’s left for us?”
A couple dozen people I spoke to before, during and after the rally wonder the same. Some fit the type—white, male and middle-aged. But a there’s a sizable number of minorities and first-generation immigrants like Abad.
On the surface, it makes no sense. How can Latinos rally behind a man who unapologetically called Mexicans rapists? How can so many people born abroad join the chorus to “build that wall?”
Yet here they chant, armed with posters and pins declaring their fealty to an unabashed nativist. One such sign catches the eye for its glittery letters and absurd specificity: “Mexican Millennial Woman 4 Trump.” When results for the primary election came in days later, they showed that 36,000 Santa Clara County voters picked Trump as the Republican presidential nominee.
“When you come here legally and you put in the seven years it takes to become a citizen, it makes you angry to see people cut in line,” says Aurora, 63, who withheld her surname for fear of her coworkers finding out she’s a die-hard Trump fan. “I was 15 when my family left communist Cuba, with $400 in our pockets. We worked our way up and never took a dime from anyone. But somehow we’re asked to give more and more and retain less and less of our efforts.”
Aurora and several others who spoke to San Jose Inside decried not undocumented immigrants so much as the tech industry’s reliance on legal H-1B visas, which allow employers to import high-skilled workers from abroad and pay them low wages. Trump’s campaign platform calls for sweeping reform of the skilled-worker visa program.
“My 26-year-old daughter did everything right,” Aurora says. “She went to college, she got a master’s degree. Yet she’s buried in student debt and she can’t compete with these foreign workers, even the legal ones, who will take the same job requiring a college degree for $15 or $12 an hour.”
Danielle Marquez, a 20-year-old Vallejo resident of Mexican descent, says she appreciates that Trump has been so outspoken about business as usual in Washington.
“I wasn’t into politics before, but then he showed me the revolution that’s going on,” she says, sitting cross-legged on the floor an hour ahead of the keynote address. “It’s amazing to see someone speaking out against everything that’s corrupt in the world.”
And what of Trump’s spoken hostility against Latinos?
“Well, my family came here legally,” she tells me. “They all pay taxes. I have no problem with people coming here, as long as they come here legally and by the books.”
An African-American woman from Berkeley, a lesbian from San Leandro and another young Latina from Vallejo tell me the same, that Trump’s rhetoric against minorities—especially Mexicans—doesn’t faze them either.
“He’s an asshole,” Sherri, a gay ex-Democrat who also declined to share her last name, tells me when asked about Trump’s sexist comments about women. “Have you ever said shit about men? I have said shit about every type of person there is when I’m mad. But doesn’t that kind of make [Trump] more human?”
Kraig Moss, a 57-year-old New York state guitarist who has followed Trump to a few-dozen rallies shilling a CD of original pro-Trump songs, acknowledges that his preferred candidate has crossed the line.
“He’s done a few things that make me cringe,” he says. “The mocking the handicapped reporter was in such bad taste. But I also know he’s been under a lot of stress, a tremendous amount of fatigue, and you can see that it was wearing on him.”
By the time the Republican presidential nominee steps onto the stage, Siebenhaar has endured hours of waiting—first in the sun and then in a sweat-soaked crush of bodies camped out by the stage inside the convention center’s blue-and-white tent. He lets out a celebratory yawp with the crowd, holding up his “Trump 2016” sign to welcome the only candidate in his entire life that excited him enough to register as a voter.
“Where are the Hispanics?” Trump bellows. “We love the Hispanics!”
About 20 minutes into his rant against Clinton, his presumptive Democratic opponent, a group of Latino protesters work their way toward the stage. Siebenhaar and a host of others point and shout in their direction.
“Get out,” Siebenhaar yells, nearly knocking me in the face by jerking his arm up to point at the suspected dissenters. “You don’t belong here.”
Unlike at past rallies, where Trump has openly called for violence against protesters, the candidate seems derisively amused by the event crashers.
“All right, don’t hurt him,” he says, joking about how the protesters should stay and enjoy themselves. “See the way I said that? I’ve learned. Don’t hurt him, please.”
“Darling,” Trump says to a woman holding a Sanders poster, “there’s no way he can win, but you keep your sign high.”
No violence erupts inside the event, but the rustle within the crowd continues throughout the next hour, punctuated here and there by the repeated chant to “build that wall” or “go back to Mexico.”
Siebenhaar calls one of the female protesters, a young Latina in a “Brasil” crop top, a “beyotch” and repeatedly tells her to “fuck off” and “go home.”
“This is our rally,” he turns to tell me after the young woman disappears into the crowd. “They should know better.”