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The city of Minneapolis wasn’t ready for Dan Nelson.
Mr. Nelson, an engineer from Spring Lake Park, Minnesota, was so early to President Donald Trump’s rally that local security kept giving him conflicting directions about where to start the line. Each time, he would repack his backpack, heavy with three days’ worth of supplies: coffee, water, crossword puzzles, a Bible, a change of clothes, and a couple of sandwiches his wife made. He forgot a pillow, but that’s OK. He says he’ll probably be too excited to sleep.
“It’s really all about watching the hype build,” he says.
For many mega-MAGA fans, the pre-rally festivities are just as important as the actual event. They sleep in lawn chairs; share Subway sandwiches, cigarettes, and water bottles; and swap stories about the fake news media and Democrats’ incessant witch hunt of the president.
It’s like tailgating before the Big Game, but so much more – a multiday sleepover that, for participants, blends passionate allegiance to a cause with a sense of connectedness that’s increasingly rare in modern life.
“We were all strangers, but now we’re lifelong friends,” says Jennifer Petito, a retired nurse who’s come all the way from New York City. “We’re family.”
Like Neil Armstrong planting the American flag on the moon, Dan Nelson unfolds his lawn chair and digs it proudly into the gray carpet of the Minneapolis Skyway. He takes off his shoes and sips coffee from his silver thermos. He twitches his toes inside his striped blue socks while watching commuters with briefcases speed past.
Now, Mr. Nelson, a process engineer at an electronics company from Spring Lake Park, Minnesota, has to wait. Not just for President Donald Trump’s rally to begin in roughly 36 hours – but for his fellow rally attendees to arrive. For that, he doesn’t have to wait long.
Mega-MAGA fans frequently travel across the country, arriving days before rallies in an effort to secure front-row seats. For many, the pre-rally festivities are just as important as the actual event. They spend days together sleeping in lawn chairs, and warmly greeting friends they’ve met online in Facebook groups. They share Subway sandwiches, cigarettes, and water bottles, swapping stories about the fake news media and Democrats’ incessant witch hunt of the president.
The experience is about more than politics, or even Mr. Trump himself. Attendees say the rallies – while condemned by Trump critics as displays of intolerance and hate – are really all about fellowship and camaraderie. It’s like tailgating before the Big Game, but so much more – a multiday sleepover that, for participants, blends passionate allegiance to a cause with a sense of connectedness that’s increasingly rare in modern life.
“We were all strangers, but now we’re lifelong friends. We’re family,” says Jennifer Petito, a retired nurse who’s come all the way from New York City. She guesses this is her “20th-something” rally, but she’s lost count. Ms. Petito has a VIP ticket, so she could have arrived right before Mr. Trump was scheduled to take the stage and still gotten a front-row seat. But she chose to arrive days in advance to camp out.
“I couldn’t miss this. This is the best part,” says Ms. Petito, gesturing to the dozen other attendees who have lined up behind Mr. Nelson in the Skyway. “Like, we could be at Thanksgiving dinner and not have this much in common with everyone.”
36 hours out
The city of Minneapolis wasn’t ready for Mr. Nelson.
He was so early to the event – for which he’d taken three vacation days off work – that local security had not yet agreed on where to start the line. At least three times Wednesday morning, he crisscrossed the Minneapolis Skywalk, a network of fluorescent-lit hallways that hover above the city’s cold streets, dutifully following the conflicting directions of city police, Skywalk security, and Target Center security. Each time, he would unpack and repack his backpack, heavy with three days’ worth of supplies: coffee, water, a fruit and vegetable smoothie, some crossword puzzles, a Bible, his cellphone and charger, a toothbrush, toothpaste, deodorant, a change of clothes, and a couple of sandwiches his wife made. He brought two chairs: one for himself, and an extra just in case his friend from Facebook needs one. He forgot his pillow, but that’s OK. He says he’ll probably be too excited to sleep.
“It’s really all about watching the hype build,” he says.
By Wednesday afternoon, more than a dozen mega-MAGA fans have joined Mr. Nelson, moving between their encircled lawn chairs to catch up with friends from previous rallies. Mr. Nelson, Ms. Petito, and the others take turns trying to describe how much they value this sense of belonging. Back home, red hats can attract heckling, one of them says to the nods of others. But here in the rally line, around a proverbial campfire of overnight bags and MAGA gear, they’re celebrated.
“I might not know your name. But I know about you,” says Randal Thom. A self-employed painter from Lakefield, Minnesota, Mr. Thom has earned a reputation as one of the president’s most ardent supporters. He’s been suspended from Facebook – twice – for posting what he describes as Trump-related news 7 to 10 times a day.
This is Mr. Thom’s 56th rally. He drives to almost all of them; for the Montana rallies he clocked 22 hours in the car. A big man with a gray handlebar mustache and a gravelly voice, he is known in the MAGA fan community as the founder of the “Front Row Joes.” Anyone is welcome in the group, he says, gesturing to two other men sitting beside him with #FRJ monogrammed baseball jerseys, as long as they “love America, love President Trump, and bleed red, white, and blue.”
Since announcing his presidential candidacy in 2015, Mr. Trump has held about 400 rallies. Unlike other modern presidents, he kept up his rally schedule after winning the election. In 2018 alone, Mr. Trump held 40 rallies. By comparison, President Barack Obama had held 10 rallies from the start of his presidency in January 2009 through mid-October 2010.
The mega-MAGA fans typically learn about upcoming rallies by searching and refreshing DonaldJTrump.com. As soon as a new one is posted, they communicate with one another on Facebook and Twitter, coordinating carpools, hotel rooms, and supplies. They also spend a lot of time on Facebook at the rally, livestreaming for friends who couldn’t make it.
There’s a competitive element to some of it. Rally attendance and arrival times are currency among this group, signaling depth of support for the president.
“Dallas next week?” Richard Snowden, a former nightclub owner from Las Vegas who has attended 56 rallies, asks a man walking by. The man responds with a sad shake of his head.
“I’ll be there,” says Mr. Snowden, proudly. “Each time, I say this is going to be my last one.”
Having attended only two other rallies, a fact that he reveals reluctantly, Mr. Nelson was determined to be one of the first attendees in line at the Target Center.
“Man, I don’t do nearly as much as you do,” Mr. Nelson tells one of the regulars who works with Mr. Trump’s campaign. “I just do some stuff on Twitter and give a little money. But you’re great, man. I appreciate it and I know Trump appreciates it.”
The night before
As the afternoon transitions to evening, Mr. Thom announces to the group assembled in the Skywalk that it is time for a “flag drop.” Everyone becomes visibly giddy, pulling hats, flags, and other MAGA gear from their bags. After securing “Trump 2020” flags to the ends of fishing rods, they head outside.
Despite all the talk about feeling ostracized for their political beliefs at home, the “flag drop” is an unapologetic bid for attention. As the MAGA fans march down the sidewalk waving their Trump flags, some drivers and pedestrians cheer in support – but others yell profanities out their windows. Several pedestrians tell the group they are not welcome in Minneapolis; one person throws a Pepsi can at them.
Mr. Thom then announces a plan to head to a nearby bar where someone had seen a massive inflatable “Trump baby” earlier. When the group arrives at The Saloon, which describes itself as “the cornerstone of downtown Minneapolis nightlife and gay life,” they are denied admission by the bouncer. So, they walk to the back of the bar, where patrons are mingling on an outdoor patio.
Many mega-MAGA fans say it’s like they’ve found their team. And while individual team members may be strangers, they’re ready – eager, even – to defend the team with all their might. For about half an hour, the Front Row Joes and Saloon patrons hurl insults back and forth, as bystanders record videos. Finally, the Front Row Joes leave.
But why go there in the first place? The bar patrons were minding their own business and catching up with friends – just as Mr. Thom and the other megafans had been doing.
Mr. Thom thinks quietly for a moment before answering, ripping off a piece of teriyaki beef jerky with his teeth.
“If we didn’t go there, they’d think we were scared,” he says. “We wanted to show them that just like they have their rights, we have ours.”
The big day arrives
By Thursday morning, the line behind Mr. Nelson’s gray folding chair stretches into the thousands. It snakes to the end of the Skyway’s first floor and wraps down a parking garage stairwell. The rush occurred between 4 a.m. and 8 a.m., say the Front Row Joes, who spent those hours taking turns napping in cars and engaging in “late-night shenanigans,” such as putting on a big dog’s head mask and waking unsuspecting sleepers.
As the collective energy builds, so does the hallway’s temperature. Condensation builds up on the Skyway’s windows and it begins to smell like sweat. To pass the time, fans play card games and watch videos on their phones. Many make their way up to the “Line Starts Here” sign to see who claimed the first spot. Strangers congratulate Mr. Nelson, shaking his hand or giving him high-fives.
“Everyone wants to talk to the first person in line,” says Mr. Nelson, who has put on a baseball hat that says “God Wins” and changed into socks with red, white, and blue stars. “But that’s not what it’s about. It’s about him.”
He signals to a life-size cardboard cutout of Mr. Trump, propped up against a traffic cone, smiling with two thumbs up.
As at other MAGA rallies, the snaking line pulses with a small economy. Mr. Thom sells Front Row Joes “packs,” complete with a red vest, Trump flag and fishing rod, sign, and “a small surprise,” for $50. He says he’s saving up to buy a Front Row Joes RV to drive to rallies, picking up friends along the way. Several people walk up and down the line selling neon yellow “MAGA-sota” shirts for $20. Mr. Snowden, the retired nightclub owner from Las Vegas, has sold out of everything he brought: 1,000 pins ($1 each), 25 big pins ($3), and 10 posters ($10).
Just as the rallies themselves have predictable rhythms and rituals – from “Lock Her Up” chants to booing the “fake news” media – so does the pre-rally routine. Mr. Thom paces up and down the line, leading chants of “USA!” and “Four more years!” and “Trump, Trump, Trump!” from his bullhorn. The line erupts in cheers, and fans take selfies wearing Trump paraphernalia.
A little before 2 p.m., security begins to usher the line into the Target Center. Mr. Nelson proudly leads the thousands of other fans behind him. They walk slowly with big smiles, savoring the moment for which they have planned and waited so long. But it’s a touch bittersweet. Soon, it will all be over and everyone will head home, back to their real lives, away from their team.
As the rally gets underway that evening, Mr. Trump’s son Eric Trump takes the stage. He points to someone in the crowd.
“I see a hat down there that says ‘God wins,’” he says. “God does win.”
Mr. Nelson later says he “cried tears of joy” when the younger Mr. Trump called out his hat.
“I knew then that they know who I am, and they know how much I thank them and love them,” says Mr. Nelson.
“It was one of the most powerful moments of my life.”