Photos by Maggie McConnaha and Dr. Robert Pyne
With its commitment to open dialogue and radical hospitality, St. Norbert College welcomed controversial Republican candidate Donald Trump to its Walter Theatre for a “town hall” on Wednesday, March 30. Rather than an endorsement of his views, college president Thomas Kunkel said in an email to students and staff, “We simply see our role as helping facilitate these important exercises in democracy, while in the process exposing our students to the day's political issues. . . . If you cannot have a public discourse on a college campus, where CAN you have it?”
Supporters and those who were simply curious began lining up for the open forum before 5:30 a.m. Silent protestors gathered across from the venue starting at 6:00 a.m. with signs that declared “I have decided to side with love” (MLK Jr.), “Radical hospitality for all, don’t build a wall!” and “Trump loves Nickelback,” which is about as combative as student protest leaders allowed their followers to get.
Other students took the opportunity to send messages of peace and understanding. The night before, despite the threat of rain, several students – armed only with colored chalk – wrote words of encouragement and peace along the sidewalks where all attendees would come. Trump supporters from the college and the community objected as they walked by. One passerby told a student she was “disgracing our campus.” Not one message mentioned Trump or any other candidate.
My experience of town hall meetings may only come from Gilmore Girls, but I expected an open dialogue from the members of the audience and Donald Trump. The event could not have been further from a town hall meeting. Twenty minutes after the advertised start time (two hours after the doors opened), Donald Trump strode on stage to the blaring strains of “Get Ready for This,” making the audience feel like they were about to watch a great sporting event. Standing and clapping, the crowd roared.
Trump asked the students if they really wanted to hear about politics, and then, in his next sentence, explained that we didn’t want to hear about policies, foreign issues, and his seven-step healthcare plan (actually many of us would have liked to hear about that). Instead, he launched into a motivational speech about success. His main piece of advice for the college students in the room: “Always sit with people who are less successful than you.”—a hint for inflating your own ego.
The most disturbing moment came when Trump mentioned the video of his campaign manager grabbing reporter Michelle Fields, for which he was charged with assault. Trump initiated a call-and-response with the crowd, which was now loudly on his side. “Did she go down?” he asked, “Did she even go a little bit down?” “Did her facial expression change?” The crowd answered a resounding “No!” each time. I felt alarmed as I sat in the middle of the excited mob.
Trump then asked: “Is there anyone here who disagrees with me?” Yes, me! I thought to myself. “If you disagree with me, stand up. Come on, stand up!” It was a challenge. A threat. Anyone who stood up would be torn to shreds—probably not literally—by the crowd, and most likely by Trump himself.
I couldn’t stand up. And I hated myself for it.
This is the Trump campaign. It’s all about instilling fear: fear among his supporters of Muslims and terrorists and immigrants from Mexico. But there is also a fear in those who do not support him— the fear of being the one person to stand up for someone else, someone not even in the room to defend herself, and understanding that no matter what choice you make, it alone will not make a difference.
The event ended hours ago, but my stomach is still aching. This is the call for independents, activists, moderates, and all Americans with a conscience: it does not have to do so much with being the most vocal at rallies, getting kicked out during protests, or starting the most creative anti-Trump campaign. It depends on the strength it takes to remain committed to a more hopeful vision of the common good after seeing such a demonstration of hatred and division.
We were not invited to ask questions.
Maggie McConnaha is a student at St. Norbert College studying English and Peace and Justice Studies. She is an intern at the Norman Miller Center for Peace, Justice, and Public Understanding where she organizes and leads educational events focused on peacebuilding.