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What I saw at Trump's homecoming rally

On Long Island, a raucous vision of "New York values."
Republican Presidential Candidate Donald Trump interacts with supporters following a campaign rally on April 6, 2016 in Bethpage, N.Y. (Photo by Andrew Renneisen/Getty)
Republican Presidential Candidate Donald Trump interacts with supporters following a campaign rally on April 6, 2016 in Bethpage, N.Y.

BETHPAGE, NEW YORK – It was only right that Donald Trump held his first New York rally not in lofty Manhattan, which he now calls home, nor even in the earthier borough of Queens where he was raised, but on Long Island.

Ancestral homeland of Fox News primetime hosts Sean Hannity and Bill O’Reilly. Minutes from where, as the Republican front-runner remarked on Wednesday night, he played rounds of golf at Bethpage State Park. Three miles away from Levittown, the archetypal American suburb whose early leases restricted the homes to “members of the Caucasian race.'' Driving distance from the more rural Long Island enclaves to the east where anti-immigrant sentiments once flared enough to draw the Minutemen Civil Defense Corps and, in 2008, a teenager convicted of a hate crime for murdering an Ecuadorean man in the course of what his friends calledMexican-hopping.”

Those, and not just the liberal decadence implied by Sen. Ted Cruz’s insult, are New York values, too. This reporter should know, having grown up just down the Hempstead turnpike.

“White Lives Matter,” read the handwritten sign. The Trump campaign had warned supporters not to bring unofficial signs. But when a burly man waved it, followed by a woman in camouflage who climbed on his shoulders, the crowd twice erupted in delight. Dozens of phones and iPads were gleefully raised.

Was the sign, a blunt rejoinder to the Black Lives Matter movement, waved by a Trump supporter or a protester trying to make a headline? As this reporter tried to get a closer look, thwarted by a barricade, a group of rowdy young men stared silently at the notebook. “I didn’t see any sign,” shrugged one of them. Seconds earlier, he had been pumping his fist at it.

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Nearby, there were young children in brand-new t-shirts that read “Build the Wall,” teens too young to remember Nixon with “The Silent Majority Stands With Trump" signs (those looked official), silver-haired and stocky men in FDNY and NYPD regalia, and polite grandmothers with fuchsia nails each filed into a peak. But there were many young men who had the barely coiled, slightly menacing energy of tipsy sports fans spoiling for a bar fight. They chanted “a**hole” the loudest each time a protester was escorted out, like Yankee fans at a Red Sox game, their fingers pointing down purposefully, shouting, “Get ‘em!” 

The young men who hadn’t seen the sign (but had) began forming a tighter circle. One friend mounted the back of another and loudly proposed that they should all surround a supposed Hillary Clinton supporter, out of view of this reporter. Warned that the media was watching, he abruptly slid down his friend’s back in silence. That was the end of that.

The Trump campaign is premised on defying political correctness. But at this event, even the most defiant ralliers knew they were being watched, and they were being careful. 

Some Trump supporters defied stereotypes. Samir Desai, who emigrated from India 10 years ago, told MSNBC he is in the process of becoming a citizen. “I’m hoping it will come in time for me to vote for Trump,” he said.  

As it happens, Desai came to the United States on an H1-B visa, a non-immigrant specialty worker visa on which Trump has taken multiple positions, usually against. That doesn’t bother him, he said. “Trump is a businessman,” he said. “You are going to need manpower.”

Desai is now the CFO of a hospitality company based in nearby Uniondale. Didn’t the hospitality industry rely heavily on undocumented labor? Desai paused for a long time. “If they left, it would hurt the business,” he said, “but I’m sure they’re going to replace them somehow. Trump is a businessman.”

According to the U.S. census, African-Americans make up between 12 and 13 percent of Nassau County. Not so much at the Trump rally held there.  But Julien, a 22-year-old electrician, and his friend Jerome, a 21-year-old firefighter, are both black, undecided Republican voters. “We’re trying to represent our culture,” Julien explained.

Protesters, mostly white, who had made it inside had hand-lettered t-shirts with “F**k capitalism, f**k racism.” That was not at all Julien and Jerome’s style. What did they think of charges that Trump, with his demand for Obama’s birth certificate and calls to temporarily ban Muslims, is racist?

“I can’t call it,” Julien said, “because I don’t personally know him.” Jerome said patiently, “I don’t listen to everything I hear on the news.” They both stopped to greet their former high school Spanish teacher.  

From the back of the rally, it was hard to hear, exactly, what Trump was saying as he ad-libbed in slightly briefer fashion than usual. The crowd shifted restlessly, its energy ebbing. Some people started to leave. They said they had work in the morning or had dinner plans. In the lull, people intermittently shouted, “Hillary for prison!”  

“It’s great to be home,” Trump had told the audience. “I love these people! These are my people!”

His people included a quartet of Orthodox Jews from Borough Park, Brooklyn. The rally had left them in good spirits, one half-singing a song the campaign had blasted, the Rolling Stones’ “You can’t Always Get What You Want.”

Was Trump good for the Jews? “How bad could he be if he let his daughter convert?” demanded Moshe Friedman, publisher of a Jewish politics website, with a twinkle in his eye. Nachman Caller, who last year ran unsuccessfully for the state legislature on the Republican line declared of Trump, “He’s among us. New York is a Jewish city.”

Brenda Vogel, 52, who had picked up a bright pink Women for Trump sign off the floor, also identified with Trump as a New Yorker. “He’s from Queens and I’m from Queens, and you gotta be a fighter,” she said. Being raised in “such an ethnic mix,” she said, “I feel like I can be more brazen, I can’t explain it.” In Trump’s defense, she said, their upbringing didn’t always translate: “I feel like we can come across as a little more arrogant.”

Standing beside Brenda was her son Jeff, 28 and clad in a Make America Great Again t-shirt. He grew up not in Queens, but just south of here, in Wantagh. His mother teased him that he was soft. 

But they were both angry, they said, because people who deserved government entitlements weren’t getting them. Instead, Jeff said, benefits were going to “the single mom with twenty-something kids, living in a motel with her Obamaphone.” He had not personally met such a woman. “I’ve seen them on TV,” he said. “They exist. And I’ve seen people with legitimate illnesses struggle.”

What did he want America to know about Trump supporters? “We’re not racist,” said Jeff Vogel pointedly. His mother agreed. “We just want to feel safe again,” she said.

On stage, Trump said that Cruz had referred to New York values "with scorn on his face" and "with hatred." He reminded everyone of the heroism of first responders on September 11, 2001.

Joanne McFarland, a 72-year-old administrative assistant in Bayview who had come with her granddaughter, said she had been offended by Cruz’s remarks. “There’s bad people everywhere,” she said.