Phoenix, Arizona—Even before the awful Brussels terror attacks, the Arizona presidential primary campaign had shaped up as a harbinger of what November will bring: a titanic clash between an angry, xenophobic GOP shrieking and shrinking into itself, and a growing Democratic Party evolving imperfectly toward inclusion, but perhaps unready for the rage of the opponents it will face. That will be the case no matter which candidates lead the two parties. But assuming the ultimate nominees are the Arizona victors, you saw a preview of the general election clash in Donald Trump’s and Hillary Clinton’s campaigns in the metro Phoenix area, and it’s going to be divisive and ugly.
Trump woke up to the Brussels carnage and tweeted, tone-deaf: “I have proven to be far more correct about terrorism than anybody—and it’s not even close. Hopefully AZ and UT will be voting for me today!” Senator Ted Cruz appalled even some Republicans by calling on “law enforcement” to “patrol and secure Muslim neighborhoods before they become radicalized.” (This was before the two GOP rivals began talking about each other’s wives.) By contrast, Clinton and Senator Bernie Sanders avoided hysteria. Despite their foreign-policy differences, most clearly expressed by their eerily timed AIPAC speeches on Monday—an unfortunately pro-Netanyahu nod Clinton delivered in person; a better, tougher, fairer take that Sanders, sadly, did not—both Democrats treated the Brussels attacks with more realism, and I’d say bravery, than their GOP opponents. Their Arizona campaigns reflected the same capacity to grapple with the future without resorting to cruelty or quailing.
I saw both cruelty and quailing at Trump’s Saturday rally in surreal Fountain Hills, where national-media coverage mostly focused on the protesters who managed to stop traffic and block access on the main route in. There were other ways to get to Trumpapalooza, though, and at least 10,000 people did. Fountain Hills, whose residents are 94 percent white, with a median age of 54, was the perfect setting. Designed by Disneyland’s architect (really), its eponymous water fountain, once the tallest in the world, can be seen for miles away. In this parched desert landscape it’s a phallic, Trumpian F-you to the notion of limits and scarcity. But a culture that builds water-needy golf courses and erects huge fountains in the desert is by definition an insecure, paranoid culture, protective of all it has taken, anxious somebody’s going to come take it back. It makes sense that Fountain Hills is the home of Sheriff Joe Arpaio, a major Trump supporter, who boasted that he would provide security at the rally and speak at it, too.
Despite the coverage of the blockade outside, the vibe at the rally was at least partly festive. “It’s kind of like an outdoor concert,” I reassured my daughter on the phone as I walked toward the park (she’d been alarmed by the television coverage). As long as most of the concert attendees were elderly white people, that is. The vast majority of people skipped the cordoned off pen that held the official Trump “rally” and watched from the hillside, which is what I did, too, since my request for a media credential was ignored. I watched an older white man push an even older friend in a wheelchair over a pile of rocks, and then down a slightly steep hill, to get to a lovely green lawn, and I gamely followed. Most people were supporters, some were just gawkers, and a healthy contingent were peaceful protesters. We could only see a big American flag with the backdrop of the fountain, but we could hear the voices of former Arizona Governor Jan Brewer, Arpaio, and Trump loud and clear.
At first, everyone peacefully co-existed, in my corner of the park, anyway. In fact, there were a lot of protesters wearing “COEXIST” T-shirts—you know, the ones that spell out the word with religious symbols—as well as “Prays well with others.” It turned out I’d stumbled upon activists with the interfaith council of Fountain Hills United Methodist Church, and they were the kind of activists you’d find in Berkeley or New York’s Upper West Side. A Jewish Massachusetts native who’s lived in Fountain Hills for 15 years said she’s also a member of the local Islamic Speakers Bureau, as well as the Abrahamic Faith Council. It’s tough being a Jewish peace activist in Fountain Hills, apparently. “The Muslims in our group are so worried for their kids, they think Trump is dangerous,” she told me.
Then a group of male Trump supporters walked over to challenge the women. “Boko Haram, Al Shabab, ISIS, Al Qaeda—they’re all murdering and kidnapping!” a tall middle-aged man shouted at the smaller, older women. Wearing a “Make America Great Again” hat, he’s the bad cop of the group; one of his well-dressed friends pulls me aside to reassure me that he’s a reasonable independent who mainly supports Trump because he’s concerned about the federal deficit. When I asked him how Trump will pay for a tax plan that will cut $10 trillion in revenue over 10 years, he tells me, “He’s gonna bring the budget in line.”
Suddenly, we were interrupted by shrieking police whistles and pounding horses’ hooves. I didn’t get to ask my new friends’ names; we were abruptly divided by cops on horseback, blowing whistles and galloping intimidatingly through the crowd. I saw a big white man wearing a Tempe Police Department badge, dressed all in black, riding a huge black horse. The Fountain Hills United Methodist Church interfaith council ladies all leapt one way; I leapt another. It was a tiny bit scary.
I wound up next to a young man in a Navy cap who I first took to be a Trump supporter, as did most of the Trump supporters around us, I think. Then he quietly unfurled a banner reading “Vets to Trump: Stop Hate Speech Against Muslims,” and suddenly his Navy cap didn’t matter to the crowd anymore. A 20-something white guy in a faded American flag-patterned button-down shirt over turquoise shorts, an outfit I took to be hipster-ironic, began yelling at him, “Get a job! Get a job!” He was pushing toward the Navy vet, chest out, and I shouted “Hey, he’s a veteran, what are you doing?” A young blonde woman came along and grabbed Flag Dude and apologized for his bluster.
Her name was Chauncey, she told me; she didn’t want to give her last name. A student at Arizona State University, she had Ubered over from Tempe with Flag Dude and two other big young men, all of whom smelled of liquor at 11 am. Chauncey was wearing a Trump hat and T-shirt over shorts, but denied she was for Trump. “It’s, like, history’s being made,” she told me. “Remember when Obama won, and you’d want to be able to tell your child you saw him, even if you didn’t, like, vote for him? It’s like that.” It was all maybe hipster-ironic, except the anger of her guy friends didn’t seem fake.
The veteran with the banner folded it up, and came over to say hello. His name is Nate Terani, and he’s an Iranian-American who grew up in New Jersey and is a practicing Muslim. The Navy vet was also the first Muslim to serve in the Presidential Honor Guard. He was there more as a veteran than as a Muslim, he told me. “I took an oath to support the constitution, which upholds freedom of religion, and that oath doesn’t have an expiration date.” Terani had been inside the official Trump rally, but when he unfurled his banner there, he was surrounded by angry Trump supporters and quickly escorted out, by private security officials who were then joined by Arpaio’s deputies. And contra Angry Flag Dude, he does have a job; he works for a nonprofit that helps veterans suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder.
Terani thanked me for supporting him in the crowd of Trump backers; I thanked him for his service. Flag Dude had gone away; I saw him shouting “Get a job!” to the Fountain Hills interfaith council ladies, who were all past the retirement age, as I walked to my car. I hadn’t met anyone who fit the increasingly common profile of the Trump voter: an aging, down on his luck, angry working class white guy. Most of the Trump supporters I saw in Fountain Hills were angry, wealthy-looking, middle-aged white guys, and angry, wealthy-looking, young white guys like Flag Dude. They did have anger, and gender, and race in common, obviously.
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Two days later, in a heavily Latino neighborhood in Phoenix a world away from Fountain Hills, Hillary Clinton met a multiracial throng of supporters in a crowded, under-air-conditioned gymnasium at Carl Hayden High School, named for the long-serving Democratic Arizona senator. It’s also the school made famous a decade ago when a team of Mexican immigrant students entered a college robotics contest and won; the Massachusetts Institute of Technology team came in second. As a lifelong Democrat, it’s the kind of space I’ve spent my long life waiting in.
A devoted if docile crowd of at least 2,000 waited for Clinton in 96-degree heat to get into the gym, which held 1,300. Hundreds then milled outside bravely, in the hot late afternoon sun. Outside a few Trump supporters waved “Hillary for Prison” placards. Phoenix was the first place I’d seen Sanders fans protesting a Clinton rally, waving “Not With Her” and “Students Against Hypcri$y” signs in the hot sun.
Indoors, the sunstruck crowd was to be forgiven for seeming listless for a while. But in Phoenix, as in Fountain Hills, mentioning Sheriff Joe Arpaio got a rise out of the crowd. Only here the wild applause came when warm-up speaker, and increasingly prominent Clinton surrogate, Labor Secretary Tom Perez boasted of suing Arpaio when he was at the Justice Department. “I’m proud of the fact that we sued Sheriff Arpaio and won,” Perez told the cheering crowd. He called Clinton a “dreamer, a fighter and a doer.” Perez ably whipped up the hot, tired crowd, validating the increasing loud (and who knows how plausible) vice presidential buzz about him lately.
Former Arizona Congresswoman Gabby Giffords and her husband Mark Kelly followed Perez, and ignited the crowd in their own way. Clinton has made gun control a potent issue against the somewhat more gun-friendly, rural state-representing Sanders, and Giffords’s lilting if halting pro-Clinton speech reminds us why it works: These last few years have seen shocking gun carnage of the kind that nearly killed Giffords, with no commensurate political response, and Sanders has been unprepared for the potency of the issue with the Democratic base—even if he’s led its shift left in so many other ways.
Clinton was introduced by Gila Tribal Leader Steven Roe Lewis, and it was good to finally see Democrats battle over Native American voters. Sanders spoke at the Twin Arrows Navajo Casino Resort last week. Polling has been so unreliable Fivethirtyeight refused to make a forecast. But a sense that the race was tightening in its closing days motivated Sanders to another Flagstaff rally Monday night. He also outspent Clinton on advertising. Sanders targeted northern Arizona, especially the area around Northern Arizona University; Clinton and her surrogates mostly stuck to the heavily Latino southern half of the state.
But they both targeted Trump’s pal Joe Arpaio. “We are a nation of immigrants and of exiles. When I see people like Sheriff Arpaio and others who are treating fellow human beings with such disrespect, with such contempt, it just makes my heart sink,” Clinton said, “We are better than that.” At his Flagstaff rally hours later, Sanders also bashed Arpaio. “It’s easy for bullies like Sheriff Arpaio to pick on people who have no power,” he told the crowd. “If I’m elected president…watch out, Joe.”
Eerily, Clinton emphasized her national-security credentials in her Phoenix speech. “Only the hard choices get to the president’s desk,” she said. “Only the hard choices end up in the situation room. If it’s easy, it gets made somewhere along that path.” She talked about her role as part of the “small group” that counseled the president about the raid that killed Osama bin Laden. Lefties don’t like Clinton’s hawkishness, and even I, a self-declared supporter, have declared that I don’t like it either. But on Tuesday I found myself thinking: If she weren’t somewhat hawkish, she’d probably be thrown off the public stage in this war-dominated political climate. (Did anyone count the women on cable news Tuesday? I did.)
In the end, the front-running candidates, Clinton and Trump, won Arizona. On the GOP side, little is likely to change from here. I’m old enough to remember when some people thought the November 13 Paris attacks would focus Republicans on “serious” candidates and hurt Trump. Paris helped Trump with Republicans, and Brussels will, too. I thought at the time Paris helped Clinton, by highlighting her national-ecurity credentials, and her opponents’ comparative shortage of them (back then, she had four opponents). I continue to wonder if Sanders missed an opportunity to highlight his genuine foreign-policy differences with Clinton in the course of this campaign. In the wake of Brussels, there’s still time, though not much.