It’s 4pm in Eau Claire, Wisconsin. Donald Trump is due to speak on stage at this small university campus in two hours’ time. Outside, under sunny November skies, a couple of hundred loud, angry students chant, “Pussy Grabs Back!” “You can’t comb over racism” reads one of their many signs.
A young woman with pink hair and Ray-Bans tells me fellow students who aren’t white have been verbally abused by members of the group lining up opposite them. Snaking down the path on the other side of the small road are Donald Trump’s supporters. “They shouldn’t be allowed here on campus,” she says. “They’re all just mean and bigoted.”
“Racists! Racists! Racists!” they shout – drowning out the return of boos and heckles from the Republican candidate’s fans. “We paid for this campus!” screams one woman in a “Hillary for Prison” t-shirt. “Don’t raise your middle finger to me you little fucker!” she yells, while the man next to her in a stars and stripes shirt hollers: “Did your liberal arts degree help you write those signs?” “Yeah – what’s your degree in?” a female student shouts back.
This pretty much embodies the tone of this election – the college-educated, ethnically-diverse who are appalled by Donald Trump versus the white working class who see him as America’s salvation.
It’s time to pick up our press credentials and head inside where things are generally no less charged. I’ve been following Trump for over a year now. For a while during the primaries and caucus, his campaign barred us from his events for not sticking to the designated media areas and trying to speak to Trump’s supporters or worse still, the man himself. In their eyes, foreign media break the rules and simply aren’t worth the hassle. Instead we went in as members of the public, which offered a far better insight than standing on a media platform.
It’s easy to lump Trump’s fans into that one basket of “deplorables”. They absolutely exist. The other day during the ubiquitous chant of “Lock her up!”, I was standing next to a young boy, probably around seven years old, perched on his father’s shoulders. “Execute her!” the child cried. No chastisement for inciting murder for this young man. Instead, his family shrieked with delight – almost dizzied by what he’d come up with all by himself.
But that’s not the full story. Over the past months, I’ve sensed a genuine feeling of loss and vulnerability from his supporters who, pre-Trump, didn’t know where to turn. Then this rich guy from the TV came along, totally different from the ruling class they felt betrayed by, promising to make it all better.
We enter the rally to that now familiar soundtrack. I’ll never hear the Rolling Stones’ “You Can’t Always Get What You Want” without thinking of a Trump rally. People often interpret it as a nod to the possibility he won’t win, but Trump would never express such a lack of confidence. It’s not clear what his music is trying to say – the choices seem random and pretty nonsensical, like the recent addition of an anodyne Backstreet Boys number.
There are hardworking single mums in here; elderly, infirm couples battling their physical limitations to find a good spot to hear their guy; divorced, laid-off dads deeply disillusioned with the country they once loved.
I’ve put it all to them – the failure to denounce the KKK, the calls for banning entire religions from coming to America, rows with the Pope, tax dodging, lawsuits, boasts and accusations of sexual assault. They are unbending. Call it wilful ignorance or outright racism. They call it devotion and absolute loyalty to the man who many see as their last hope.
Wearing a media badge at a Trump rally can feel like having a target on your back. Trump’s attacks on the media have always been an act in his show but recently they’ve intensified. “Look at them back there – the media – the most dishonest group of people you will ever meet. Horrible people,” he says, prompting the crowds to turn and face us journalists herded in our pen.
Standing at the front I feel the full force of the routine tirade that follows. For some Trump fans this is all a gleeful pantomime. Between jeers and boos they laugh – dutifully affirming their master’s displeasure with all those nasty lies we spin to stop him becoming president. One woman who 30 minutes ago kindly offered me her place in the queue, is now delighting in joining in with the taunts.
Others are more aggressive. “Liars! Liars!” spits one man. “Do your goddamn job, motherfuckers.” “Fuck you! Fuck you!” booms another, repeatedly in my face. On four hours sleep, it makes for a pretty surreal end to a long day on this toxic campaign trail. “Thank you for doing your job,” says a sweetly smiling woman, clearly embarrassed.
That sort of emotional whiplash reflects Trump’s relationship with the media. When things are going well for him, individual journalists can be “terrific” – not so well and they’re “absolute scum”. His attacks on the media aren’t just nasty; they’re irresponsible with no care for possible consequences.
Trump is raising the temperature among his supporters whose trust of the “lamestream” media was already in tatters. He’s pushing them further towards the sidelines of society into the arms of right-wing conspiracy-leaning outlets – “real truth tellers” like Breitbart and Infowars. If he wins the presidency, the freedom of the press could be in real jeopardy. Even if he loses, the toxic levels of contempt he has sown for it will not simply evaporate on 9 November.
Amanda Walker is US Correspondent at Sky News. Sky News’ US election night programme “Clinton v Trump: America Decides” begins at 10pm (UK time) on Tuesday 8 November.