In the Heart of America, Trump Supporters Are Hard to Find

Dispatches from the site of the 2016 debate.

In the Heart of America, Trump Supporters Are Hard to Find

These pieces originally appeared in Esquire who cares.

ST. LOUIS—The University of Washington St. Louis has hosted more than its share of debates over the years, including some remarkably outside the norm characters, from Ross Perot to Sarah Palin. But's it's probably an understatement to say it will be a while before anything like this circus rolls into town again.

I was curious what people here, where the campus has been turned into a weekend-long festival-like atmosphere, thought about the waning few weeks of this interminable election cycle, and whether any of them had had their minds changed in the past few days.

"I'm pretty enthusiastic about her," Emily Richardson, a junior told me of Hillary Clinton on the edges of one of the campus's sprawling lawns amidst the towering Collegiate Gothic buildings. "It's been a growing process, and she's really been transparent."

Nearby a goofball in a dinosaur costume ran back and forth along the quad, trying to get on camera in front of one of the many cable news stages set up for live broadcasts. The FOX News stage was sparsely attended at the time, looking something like the absolute least popular stage imaginable at bizarro Coachella. He's voting for giant meteor 2016 he said.


Kelly Atkinson, a sophomore in a bowtie, was something even rarer than a Tyrannosaurus: an undecided voter. He tried to articulate his thoughts as the dinosaur kept biting him. "I'm not sure. I'm really waiting for one of the candidates to really wow with me having their act together and focus on the issues rather than other things."

He was dissuaded somewhat by Trump's comments this week, but it didn't really surprise him.

Zach Persing, a young Republican holding a "Drop Out Donald Free the GOP" sign, was firmer in his opposition to Trump. "Whenever I tried to open up to him he would do something or say something that would make it impossible. I have several policy disagreements with him, but I would be able to overcome those if I thought he was man of high moral character. But his comments alienating women, minorities, veterans, have proven him to be anything but. I feel like I have no choice to stand up to what the Republican party should be.""Until a couple days ago I was going to bite the bullet and vote for Trump," a sophomore named Abby Baka said. It will be both of their first times voting in a presidential election. "But he crossed the line too many times. I'm absolutely done with him. I'm not sure who I'm going to vote for, which I hate saying, but I can't bring myself to vote for either candidate. I think he's disgusting. I can't let either of them run our great country."

A young couple across campus posted up in front of the CNN stage were gearing up for their first vote as well. Neither were Bernie supporters, they said. "I'm a Republican and I don't like Trump," Jeff Rosenthal, a senior added while the crowd behind them hooted at Wolf Blitzer's back, perhaps expecting him to break out the guitar and do an encore. "I never liked him. He just doesn't have the demeanor or intelligence or behavior or any of the characteristics required for the presidency of the United States." He laughed. We all laughed.

"I can't bring myself to vote for either candidate. I think he's disgusting. I can't let either of them run our great country."

Matt Heiken, a sophomore in a Make America Great Again hat was staying firm in his support of Trump. No, the pussy-grabbing comments didn't bother him, he said. "It was a personal conversation 11 years ago. A lot of people make those kind of comments, and although it was a mistake, a lot of people do it. It doesn't change my opinion of him as a leader."

It's not easy being a conservative student here he added. "I'm a little out of my comfort zone wearing this in public."

Walking east, down a beautiful set of steps, and through yet another series of gorgeous buildings, I passed a group of young men joking about how Trump Did Harambe. Nearby another group were trying get their Ted Cruz is the Zodiac Killer sign on camera. The kids out here got old memes. We need to immediately divert funds to getting America's youth access to new memes.

All five were for Clinton. The omnipresent dinosaur jockeyed for position nearby. "I feel like I'm kind of being given the choice between someone who will screw me over in a way I can predict, and someone who will screw me over in a way I can't," Greer Gurewitz, the young woman holding the sign said.


Leaving the expertly manicured confines of campus, I found a somewhat different atmosphere at the Rehab Bar, a gay hipster dive. One drinker, who actually works for the DNC and asked not to use his name, said he was an undecided voter, who'd been supporting Trump because he owns a number of small businesses himself. What was the tenor at the DNC this weekend, I asked. "Let him speak. That's the mantra right now. Let him do his own damage."

"He reminds me too much of Hitler," Mitch Perry, a local said. "I'm surprised by the amount of damage it's doing," he said of the video. "There's got to be more out there."

Two women seated at the bar together inside were similarly aghast. "It turned my stomach. The thought of him being president is abhorrent. That we could have someone like that in office is terrifying. Think about what the rest of the world will think about us if we have him in office."

"Let him speak. That's the mantra right now. Let him do his own damage."

At bars throughout the Grove neighborhood, and over into East St Louis, where the demographic skews toward gay and African American, unsurprisingly, it became harder to find any modicum of support for Trump.

Alpha, a recent immigrant from Guinea by way of France, was excited about Hillary, but dismissed much of Trump's rhetoric as posturing. "Hillary worked a lot of years, she knows a lot of politics, he said, apologizing for his English, which I assured him was much better than my French. "Trump, he doesn't know nothing political. Donald, just does it for the campaign. If he is president he can't do anything. Nobody can change the Constitution. All politicians, they lie, but they can do nothing. I prefer Hillary, but Donald is a good man too."


Back across the river at the Fortune Teller Bar in Gravois Park, I figured I'd get to the bottom of things. Tables full of twenty somethings and their dogs smoked cigarettes outside on the patio, while loud music blasted inside. I walked up the steps to the fortune teller's alcove, ready to have my cards read. She turned over a card with a man stabbed to death by ten swords. "Is that…good?" I asked.

Never mind my life, I said. I wanted to know who was going to win.

Nicky, the fortune teller, was reluctant. "I have an idea in my head. What scares me more is how close it's going to be. I think it's going to be scary either way. Honestly, I think Hillary will win, but it will be close. I don't think it's what anybody wants. I think we're all being played for fools."

Did Any Students Actually Learn Anything From Sunday's Debate?

ST. LOUIS—It's been quite a few years since I graduated from college, and I don't remember much. That's the way it goes though, right?

I had watched the debate in the bowels of the university field house with hundreds of other members of the media. It was oddly isolating, alone in a sea of people who do the same job as you. For a while before things began, the feed from inside the hall went silent. It was the only peaceful moment of this campaign I can recall.

About an hour in, as Trump harrumphed and lurked about the stage like a spite-hardened wraith, proclaiming he'd have Clinton thrown in jail. I'd had enough. You don't need to finish every book you start. You can put it down.

I wandered over to the media catering building. Sponsored by Anheuser-Busch, the space was filled with branding. Media types devoured trays of lukewarm food at picnic tables while TVs blared the news that many inside were themselves responsible for producing. I opened a lunch box packed with an Italian sub sandwich, and, for some reason, an entire lemon. (They each came with a whole lemon.)

The bar top was noticeably void of any stray dollar bills. I asked the bartender how many of the hundreds who'd been through had left a tip. Maybe two, she guessed.

Outside, the school's football field stood empty under the lights. A helicopter buzzed overhead, and teams of heavily armed men lurked in the distance. This college campus was now a fortress of sorts, where all but a few students selected to go inside—many of whom reside here for almost $67,000 a year—weren't allowed anywhere near. Nearby, rows and rows of television news trucks stood idling, sending out their signals of collective noise through their towering spires.

I wondered if the students inside the debate hall felt better informed after all was said and done.

"I thought both candidates hit each other very hard. They're two of the most controversial candidates possibly in the history of democracy,' Max, a freshman independent told me outside the hall. He claimed to be an undecided voter.

"I thought the debate was a lot of mudslinging, and a lot of personal remarks were made," Carolina, also a freshman, said. "I do think Hillary made some excellent points, but so did Trump. I'm leaning more toward Hillary, especially as a woman, and a Hispanic. In my opinion, the 'Stronger Together' slogan is much more important to me than the division."

"It's hard for me to answer how Trump did because I don't respect him as a candidate at all," Ellen, a sophomore, told me. "At the beginning, it seemed like he was sinking a lot, especially when he didn't answer any of the questions." In the second half he seemed to regain momentum. "Members of the audience applauded him, which probably gave him confidence," she said. "I thought that was pretty unfair."

So was this decisive either way?

"I think Hillary will win, I have a lot hope that she will, but if she doesn't, you kind of have to reevaluate the way you see the nation."

Nearby, eight majestic clydesdales stood by, shitting in their own cages, unembarrassed. Now the whole operation packs up and heads to Vegas. Did anyone on campus learn anything? Did anyone watching from home?