It’s 8:00pm on the corner of 10th Street and Biscayne Boulevard, just a few hundred yards from Pérez Art Museum, where President Donald Trump is participating in a televised town hall event. Trump and Biden supporters carrying signs and flags are being held on opposite sides of the street by mounted and bicycle police. Each side has megaphones, chanting, trading slogans, and insulting each other while media records them from the safety of the median.
The Trump crowd is a good deal larger than Biden’s; in it is a major figure in the Trumpian landscape – Enrique Tarrio, chairman of the Proud Boys, a right-wing group known for engaging in political violence. Their profile was recently boosted when Chris Wallace asked the President during his debate with Joe Biden whether he would condemn white supremacist groups, and Proud Boys in particular.
“We’re just a drinking club with a patriot problem,” says Tarrio. “I’m just happy to be out here supporting the President, my guys support the President one hundred percent.” I ask him what he thinks of Gavin McInnes, the original founder of the group, who has repeatedly endorsed violently attacking political opponents. “I believe he’s always been taken out of context when he talks about that,” Enrique replies, calling back to McInnes’ roots as an edgy stand-up comedian. The tape tells a different story: “We will kill you,” McInnes says on his podcast. “That’s the Proud Boys in a nutshell: we will kill you. We look nice, we seem soft, we have ‘boys’ in our name, but like Bill the Butcher and the Bowery Boys, we will assassinate you.” When the current chairman is asked if he believes voter fraud is a factor in this election – a decades-old Republican talking point that has yet to be meaningfully substantiated – he matter-of-factly answers “I think it’s possible.”
As Tarrio attempts to launder his organization’s history on a street corner, Trump is simultaneously doing the same for his presidency to a national audience at his town hall event. Asked whether he would accept the results of the election and commit to a peaceful transition of power if he loses the election, Trump raises the specter of voter fraud just like Tarrio did, claiming that various instances are already “in the news” without giving any further detail. Regarding the recent revelation that he owes more than $400 million, the President assuages all concerns by claiming that his finances are “extremely under-levered” and it’s “not a big deal,” however, he demurs when moderator Savannah Guthrie points out that he could dispel any misconceptions about his finances by releasing his tax returns. Most memorable is the President’s unwillingness to disavow QAnon, a right-wing conspiracy that claims, among other outlandish ideas, that the Democratic party is a cover-up for a massive pedophile ring.
Along with the President, Vice President Mike Pence and Donald Trump’s son Eric also make appearances in different locations to different audiences, each catering to a particular shade of Trump’s voter base. If Trump’s Sanford rally on Monday isn’t a clear enough indication that his campaign sees the state of Florida as a key to victory, this trio of events in the Miami area yesterday should put it beyond doubt.
The first event of the day is Pence’s, held at the Memorial Cubano in Tamiami Park. The midday heat is challenging and there’s not an inch of shade to be had, but the 500-odd supporters present stay put even though the rally is delayed by more than an hour. Thankfully, campaign volunteers are handing out bottles of water and the crowd remains in good spirits, with some dancing to the Stevie Wonder songs played on the speakers. Seniors are the most represented age group here, but this crowd is also clearly more racially diverse than the Sanford rally, with a large Spanish-speaking contingent. While Hispanics tend to break for Democrats on a national level, South Florida is famously home to a large Cuban population that consistently goes against that grain.
The choice of venue is indeed a nod to them, as Memorial Cubano is a monument to those killed by the Castro Regime. “Socialism means hunger, misery, and lack of freedom,” says Victor Fonseca, a Venezuelan-born son of Cuban parents. “In this capitalist system, where there’s work and hope […] we don’t need socialism as represented by Kamala Harris and her gang of delinquents from BLM, who are doing damage right now.” Fonseca goes on to call BLM a terrorist organization. When asked about Trump’s “stand back and stand by” moment regarding the Proud Boys in the presidential debate, he notes that the Trump administration is “the only one to declare the KKK a terrorist organization.” While Fonseca is technically correct that Trump denounced the KKK, they were never declared a terrorist organization, and Trump’s denunciations of the Klan and its ex-leader David Duke followed major backlash against him for making equivocating statements about both.
Fonseca’s background and opinions are very much reflected in the speeches leading up to Pence’s arrival, like Ernesto Ackerman (also Venezuelan) and Lieutenant Governor Jeanette Nuñez (of Cuban parentage). Most notable is Pedro Fuentes, an ex-political prisoner from Cuba, whose speech immediately precedes Pence’s as they share the stage. He shares a Victor’s disdain for Kamala Harris, calling her “que mala,” a joke that goes over well with the crowd.
Despite his Indiana roots, Mike Pence ably plays to this crowd, calling for “quatro años mas” for his administration. While this audience responds most to anti-communist and socialist rhetoric, there is room here for religious conservatism as well, especially as it relates to Supreme Court nominee Amy Coney Barrett. Pence seizes upon senator Dianne Feinstein’s comment from a confirmation hearing in 2017 that “the dogma [of religion] lives loudly within” Barrett, turning it into a powerful slogan for religious conservatives: “that dogma lives loudly in me, that dogma lives loudly in you, that dogma lives loudly in the constitution.” A punchy line, rewarded with chants of “AMY! AMY! AMY!”
This kind of overt appeal to religiosity is, expectedly, far more prevalent at Eric Trump’s event later that afternoon at Segadores De Vida, a Non-denominational Christian church in Southwest Ranches. The dynamic is familiar to anyone who has ever been to a megachurch or seen a televised evangelical sermon – encouraging shouts of “Yes!” and “Amen!” from the crowd to positive statements, a live piano accompaniment that lulls and soars with the rhetoric for emphasis. Pastor Todd Lamphere MC’s the event, bookending each preacher’s speech with a captivating avuncular energy. “I feel ready to take on Hell with a squirt gun!” he jokes after one of the many rousing speeches.
Eric Trump is third to speak, following Journey keyboardist Jonathan Cain, who shares a song he wrote for the occasion, with the refrain “our nation cries out to you, Lord, in the name of Jesus!” Eric thanks divine intervention for his father’s victory in 2016 and claims that he “really believe[s] God has his hands in this election.” He plays to the locals, praising Segadores de Vida’s bishop for not closing during COVID-19 (“More people need to do that!”), much to the delight of the flock. After departing the stage to chants of “USA! USA!” Lamphere returns and throws MAGA hats into the crowd.
Despite his wide recognition, Eric Trump is not the most high-profile speaker here this afternoon. There are at least two names that loom larger than his. First is Ralph Reed, arguably the most famous and effective Christian political strategist of our era. He uses exactly the same “dogma lives loudly” line that Pence did earlier that day, to similarly powerful effect. He reminds the crowd that Trump enjoyed an impressive Christian turnout in 2016, 40 million strong, and demands another this time around: “Let’s see the greatest victory for godly biblical values in the history of our country!” Second is Paula White Cain, spiritual advisor to the Trump family for nearly 20 years and senior advisor to President Trump throughout his presidency (and wife to the Journey keyboardist). She has story after story detailing what a great father Donald Trump is, what a big heart he has, how benevolent he is. She slowly drifts into her political relationship with him, insisting that she was reluctantly thrust into it. The speech culminates in a rapid-fire listing of his accomplishments in office as the live piano, which has been gone since the opening of the event, joins in again and swells. At least a few of these accomplishments are embellished at best, or falsehoods at worst, like the claim that Trump “got 5.4 million people off of food stamps in his first year” – the implication is that he helped them to the point of not needing food assistance anymore, when in reality those millions of people lost access despite their need when the program was cut.
But the music is soaring and matching her break-neck pace, and soon a guitar, bass, and drums fill out the sound even more – there’s hardly time to dwell on any particular point. Cain is joined on stage by all of the other speakers and distinguished guests as Lamphere calls for the flock to join them to pray over: “She is the senior advisor to the President. Did you hear what I just said? She is the Senior. Advisor. To the President!” The flock’s hands are raised in prayer. “God is going to give us four more years! […] Let’s give God a great big round of applause.”