The mood was tense near the front of the line to get into Donald Trump’s rally, where a Muslim woman was reading out excerpts from the Qur’an. Khadijah Abdul, a 43-year-old IT consultant at Facebook, had come to explain the basic tenets of Islam to anyone prepared to listen.
“If she says ‘Allah Akbar’, get ready to hit the deck,” one man said to his friend.
This was moments after another Trump supporter confronted a CBS News reporter and accused him of taking photographs for the Islamic State.
It was 12.30pm Sunday, and the show had not even got started in the Reno Ballroom, the venue for the Republican frontrunner’s fifth rally in four days.
Trump’s rallies are a political phenomenon. For months, they have been a magnet for pumped-up supporters and critics alike. It can make for a combustible mix.
Shortly before the doors to the auditorium swung open, a large red bus drove past. It was emblazoned with a photograph of Bernie Sanders.
“There were a lot of boos and thumbs-down,” said Deborah Burger, co-president of the national nurses union, which sponsored the bus. She described how a female Trump supporter turned around, pulled down her trousers and “did a fully on moony”.
Trump’s rallies are quite unlike those of any other candidate. They are notoriously raucous, not least because they have been drawing Latino campaigners and Black Lives Matters activists determined to register their opposition to what they perceive to be Trump’s dangerous demagoguery.
‘I come in peace’
Abdul did not plan to disrupt the rally. She wanted an opportunity to engage with Trump supporters and address their stereotypes about her religion.
She decided to come to Reno after watching a video of Rose Hamid, a Muslim woman who was escorted from a rally in South Carolina on Friday . The crowd turned on Hamid and her fellow protester, immigration attorney Marty Rosenbluth, when she stood-up in silence wearing a T-shirt that read: “Salam, I come in peace.”
It was just the latest in a series of altercations to have broken out at Trump rallies, often at the behest of the candidate himself, who feeds off the energy these confrontations bring by further goading the crowd.
The day before Hamid was ejected in South Carolina, a stream of protesters were forcefully removed from a Trump rally in Vermont. “Get him out of here,” Trump said as one was muscled out. “Confiscate his coat. You know it’s about 10 degrees below zero outside.”
In November, when a Black Lives Matter protester was punched, kicked and choked at a rally in Alabama, Trump showed little sympathy. “Maybe he should have been roughed up, because it was disgusting what he was doing,” the billionaire real estate developer told Fox News . “I have a lot of fans, and they were not happy about it.”
Trump is like a white version of Barack Obama. He’s come out of nowhere, he’s got huge crowds, he’s overtaken everyone
Scott Jefferson, merchandise seller
The following month, Trump supporters were overheard shouting “Shoot him!” and “Light the motherfucker on fire” as one heckler were dragged out of a rally in a casino in Las Vegas . This coarse brand of politics is unusual in a country that takes pride in its civic rituals.
Yet the strategy appears to be working. Scott Jefferson, 44, who sells T-shirts, flags, pins and baseball caps at political events, said no other Republican candidate comes even close to generating such excitement.
“Trump right now is like a white version of Barack Obama,” he added, comparing the surge in business of 2008 to the sudden appetite for Trump’s Make America Great Again baseball caps, which he sells for $20.
“He’s come out of nowhere, he’s got the huge crowds, he’s overtaken everyone.”
Jefferson said he could see the appeal of Trump’s outspoken style, but had Muslim friends in his hometown of Cleveland, Ohio and could not support the Republican frontrunner’s ban on Muslims entering the country. It is that policy, Trump’s most extreme, that most riles supporters and opponents alike.
Hamid, 56, the Muslim woman escorted from Trump’s rally on Friday, said she was struck by the sudden “hateful crowd mentality” from people who moments earlier had treated her with respect. It was Hamid’s dignified protest that inspired Abdul, the IT consultant, to come to Trump’s rally on Sunday.
Inspired by what she said were Hamid’s “very laudable ideals”, Abdul drove through snowstorms to get to Reno from Silicon Valley. She said her husband was “nervous” about her decision to attend but she felt compelled to act.
“It seems to me the rabid, anti-Muslim element is becoming stronger, and less inclined to listen than they were even a couple of weeks ago,” she said. “So I think it is time to take a more definite set of actions so it isn’t just complaining on Facebook. Get up, do something.”
Similarly to Hamid, who said people in the South Carolina crowd treated her kindly until she was ejected, Abdul said she had been pleasantly surprised by her treatment. “So far everybody is being very kind, we’re having the kind of ideal exchange that you’d expect in America,” she said.
Yet the conversation Abdul was having with a Ted Cruz supporter named John about the parallels between the monotheistic religions was not what Trump rallies are typically about. Few come to these events for a nuanced debate.
Trump likes to boast he is the only politician that doesn’t use a teleprompter, but the truth is he adheres to a well-rehearsed script in which he is the brash, uncompromising and tough protagonist. Supporters come expecting to see the former host of The Apprentice TV show mock his adversaries and lock horns with anyone who has the temerity to challenge him.
Hecklers, therefore, are an important part of the show. When TV cameras start filming skirmishes in the crowd, Trump argues their focus on the protesters is evidence of liberal media bias.
In a well-oiled routine, Trump encourages the crowd’s anger at hecklers and then channels it towards journalists in the room . He implores the crowd to turn and jeer at the press, fenced in a pen at the back of the room.
Occasionally, he singles out an individual reporter by name, pointing them out to thousands of jeering supporters.
The problem, for Trump, comes on those rare occasions like Sunday when he is not confronted by hecklers.
In Reno, the Republican frontrunner did not conceal his frustration when then there were no interruptions, saying he “wished” there was a heckler in the room.
“Could we have a protester right there in the corner of the room?” he joked.