As I near the entrance to the Oregon Convention Center, a white security guard is in the process of ordering a homeless African American man, lying inside a sleeping bag, to vacate the premises. When I reach the front doors, I’m confronted by a phalanx of roughly 150 protesters: older people, younger people, whites, Latinos. They sing: “Hey hey, ho ho / Bigotry has got to go,” and “No hate, no wall / We are here to welcome all.” The chanting soon tapers off, and the crowd looks around, wondering what to do next. Some drivers honk their horns, either in support of the protest or because traffic is backed up along MLK, but the crowd responds with a few half-hearted cheers regardless. I watch three young white men, faces obscured by black bandanas and black hoodies, in hopeful anticipation. But even they look bored. I turn and head inside the convention center, where the real action is scheduled to take place.
The day before the 2017 Oregon Freedom Rally, while speaking at the annual Conservative Political Action Conference, President Trump repeated his assertion that the media was the “enemy of the American people.” Later that day, his press secretary barred several news organizations—including the New York Times and CNN—from the White House briefing room. Little wonder, then, that attendees at this rally of conservatives eyed me with suspicion when I approached them with my notebook and tape recorder. If I was concerned my Portland Mercury press badge would single me out as the liberal opposition—like a rainbow-colored bullseye pinned over my heart—my concerns were allayed upon discovering that hardly anyone here had even heard of the Mercury. But they had other reasons to be suspicious, since I was a brown-skinned man at a conservative rally in Portland. I was conspicuously out of my element.
This was the fourth Oregon Freedom Rally, sponsored by Oregon Liberty Alliance. Scheduled to speak were freshman Republican congressman from Virginia, Scott Taylor; columnist, author, and conservative political activist Star Parker; Oregon Secretary of State Dennis Richardson; and the keynote speaker, former Arkansas governor Mike Huckabee. I’d come to this rally not only for the speeches, but to speak with Oregon’s conservative residents—those born and raised in Portland, and others who had driven many hours to be here—to try to learn what it’s like to be a self-identifying conservative in a blue state, and to hear their impressions, so far, of the new administration.
They also promised a free lunch.
I walked into the Convention Center’s spacious ballroom to the sound of a jazz quintet, which struck me as a particularly classy and incongruous choice of entertainment. Lunch, however, was reliably disappointing. On long banquet tables, we were invited to help ourselves to fruit salad, potato salad, and cold-cut sandwiches. If I’d actually paid the $35 ticket I would’ve been offended. I skipped lunch and moved on to the rally.
Nearly 100 percent of attendees were white, with an equal number of men and women of all ages. I approached two men in their mid-20s, who, aside from being white, could not have looked more different. With his scruffy brown beard, George Benitez looked like any other coffee-roasting, home-brewing Portlander. His friend, Mark Surrell, looked more like someone who’s been class president his whole life and could patiently explain what a hedge fund is. Referring to himself and his fellow Portland conservatives as the “intellectual minority,” Surrell told me what he appreciated about Trump’s first month in office.
“Whether you agree with him or not,” Surrell said, “He’s committed to what he said he was going to do on the campaign trail.”
“It hasn’t even been 100 days yet,” Benitez added, “and he’s trying to do everything he said he wanted to do. He’s doing everything we voted [for] him to do.”
This was the most common refrain I heard at the rally—the belief that Trump is doing what he said he was going to do. Leaving aside that Trump has not yet successfully accomplished anything he’d promised—and rather than “draining the swamp” he’s fortified the swamp with billionaires like himself—the idea of doing “everything he said he wanted to do” as being a virtue is suspect when Trump, during his campaign, said wildly contradictory and combative things.
Andrea Fair, sporting a red “Make America Great Again” hat, drove from Canby to be at the rally. When I asked her why she voted for Trump, she replied, “law and order.” I asked her to clarify.
“I think he’s a genius,” she said. “I think he knows how to run business. I think our business has gone out the window, and I think he’s going to get order in that direction. I just think he knows how to get order, and he knows how to get help to do it.”
I spoke with an older man in a cowboy hat who said he was a rancher in Cottage Grove.
“I’d like to see more freedom,” he told me. “Less government in our life, more freedom. Freedom to do business. I like to see people do what they need to do.”
When I asked if I could use his name for this article, he said, “No, you can’t,” then turned and walked away—which was apparently him doing what he needed to do.
Though a few attendees wanted nothing to do with me, most were willing to share their stories, like Susan Blevins and Eli Stephens. The two had met for the first time that afternoon, and were now eating lunch together. Blevins has been a resident of Portland for 37 years. She told me she was once a Democrat, but switched affiliation more than 20 years ago. She had been unemployed back then, with a lot of downtime, and came under the sway of a particular daytime talk show host.
“Because I was unemployed, I had time to listen to Rush Limbaugh,” she explained. “And after about six months of listening I found myself agreeing with him. I was shocked. That’s when some of my friends dropped me, when I said I’d been listening to Rush Limbaugh.”
“Because I was unemployed, I had time to listen to Rush Limbaugh. And after about six months of listening I found myself agreeing with him. I was shocked. That’s when some of my friends dropped me, when I said I’d been listening to Rush Limbaugh.” -Susan Blevins
Blevins explained how, after this recent election, she’s lost even more friends. She came to the rally because she wanted to meet more conservative people in Portland. I asked her if she’d been bothered by the audio that surfaced last year of Trump boasting about sexual assault and using inflammatory language about women.
“I know a lot of guys who talk like that, and they’re my friends,” she said. “I know a lot of guys who use the ‘C-word’ and the ‘P-word,’ and they talk nasty about women. But they’re not misogynists.”
“When Trump did this,” he said, “number one, we don’t really know he did it, but let’s say he did. It was in a privater [sic] setting and there weren’t women around. It was two guys talking. I’m not saying it was right, but locker room talk is locker room talk.”
A small business owner in Pendleton, Stephens has been a Trump supporter since day one, and this was his third year at the rally. Both he and Blevins stressed that they don’t support discrimination, and that the Republican Party isn’t as intolerant as the left says.
“No Republicans I know are anti-homosexual or misogynist or anything like that, or bigoted,” Blevins said. “Some of my best friends are Black. I know a couple of Black gay guys.”
“For us, those aren’t really issues,” Stephens added. “I’ve got a gay guy that works for me. I’ve got a Mexican guy that works for me. I’ve got a Black guy that works for me. They do their job, I give them a paycheck. I could care less, okay? If you want to do something in your bedroom, fine—don’t do it on the job site. I don’t care. It’s none of my business. Just don’t pass a law that says I have to fund an abortion or support gay rights.”
Equal opportunity and anti-discrimination laws might not be issues for these two, but they can be matters of life or death to the millions of people who suffer under bigoted policies. Alas, I would’ve loved to speak with some of Blevins’ Black “best friends,” or Stephens’ “Mexican guy,” but, for whatever reason, they weren’t attending this rally.
Of the roughly 1,500 people inside the ballroom, I counted one man of Southeast Asian descent, three Black women, zero Latinos, and zero Black men, aside from the few young men in bright yellow “Security” shirts. The Convention Center’s half-dozen security guards were composed entirely of young Black men and women, while the police officers—the men standing nearby with guns and flak jackets—were white. I asked one of the young security guards what he made of this event. He shrugged.
“Just another day,” he said.
The two Black women I approached separately were among the most reluctant to speak with me. One woman told me she didn’t identify with any particular party, and she’d come to this rally to listen to Star Parker, after seeing her photograph on the promotional poster. She wouldn’t let me use her name; neither would the second woman I spoke with—a 42-year-old woman with long, braided hair. A mother of five, she stressed that she doesn’t “vote as a Black person or as a woman, but as a Christian, first and foremost.”
“I don’t consider myself a Republican,” she said. “I just consider myself a conservative person, and I would rather vote for someone who is going to do more of what I truly believe than not. And when you look at them side-by-side, or what they’ve done in the past—because we all have a past—it’s about who’s going to vote according to God’s will, who’s going to do for our country according to God’s will, and that would be Donald Trump.”
If a twice-divorced businessman who brags about sexual assault, boasts of marital infidelity, mocks the disabled, and condemns refugees is God’s will for our country, then I worry what that says about God.
She told me that she, too, was attending this rally to see Star Parker—the conservative author and political activist. Parker—a 60-year-old African American woman—has long been open about her early years as a drug addict and recipient of government assistance before having a literal “come to Jesus” moment in the 1980s. She has since made a career of accusing liberals of everything from child murder to modern-day slavery. Parker lives in Washington, DC, where she’s the founder of the Center for Urban Renewal and Education (CURE), a nonprofit think tank that promotes free-market alternatives to address poverty—which, to my understanding, is code for “let poor folks get a job or go hungry.” She has authored four books, the first of which she titled Pimps, Whores, and Welfare Brats, just so you know where she’s coming from.
“I told one of my friends I was coming to Portland, Oregon, to talk to some conservatives, and he said there’ll be five people there,” Parker began her speech, to much laughter from the audience. “I see more than five.”
Indeed, the number of conservatives attending the rally was estimated at 1,500, which sounds like an impressive number, until you remember that, once a year, nearly 10,000 Portlanders come together to ride bicycles naked through the city.
Parker went on to decry the eternal wars on religion, marriage, and babies.
“Women are being maimed and molested and murdered at some of these so-called ‘safe, legal, rare’ abortion clinics,” she said, without offering one fact to back up this chilling claim. “And yet we can’t find the political will to take 520 million tax dollars away from the biggest abortion provider in the country—Planned Parenthood.”
Uttering the dreaded name brought a standing ovation from the audience. Parker went on to deliver haunting statistics about how families are falling apart, the holy institution of marriage is under threat, and how women (particularly feminists and other loose women) are largely to blame, by engaging in and promoting premarital sex.
“When women say no, they get married,” she said, which inspired another round of laughter and applause. After citing divorce rates and the number of mothers having babies out of wedlock, Parker then lamented how 500,000 orphans are currently languishing in the foster system—yet she failed to see the irony in bemoaning half a million uncared-for orphans, while at the same time condemning family planning.
“Irony is the gaiety of reflection and the joy of wisdom,” said Anatole France in the late 19th century. This audience was in possession of neither.
With his Second Amendment T-shirt and his bushy, nicotine-stained mustache, Anthony Gaudio—a 75-year-old white man from Klamath Falls—voiced to me his support of Star Parker, and echoed her theory that “inner cities” are the present-day equivalent of Southern plantations.
“They put the Black people on plantations,” Gaudio told me, without clarifying or considering who “they” were. “They keep them in cities. I grew up with Blacks. Black people that are conservative? They’re more patriotic than whites or anybody else. I’d like to be called an Uncle Tom. Have you ever read the book about Uncle Tom? He was quite a guy, wasn’t he? You see what I’m saying?”
In fact, I had no idea what he was saying, but that didn’t stop him from continuing.
“What I don’t understand about the Black people,” Gaudio went on, “I used to go to Oakland a lot. Black people used to have lots of businesses. Even in Seattle and in Portland. Look what’s happened to them. They’re on the streets. Blacks and whites on the streets, homeless. You see many Mexicans homeless? Not many. The Black people of all the people have suffered. They have a legitimate complaint. But there’s a right way to voice your problems. Black people are starting to realize that there’s a better thing for them—that living in projects and getting welfare and all this other is not the answer. And I really truly believe, and I hope in my heart that Trump, like he says he’s gonna do, is gonna go into these areas and help these people.”
“Living in projects and getting welfare and all this other is not the answer. And I really truly believe, and I hope in my heart that Trump, like he says he’s gonna do, is gonna go into these areas and help these people.” -Anthony Gaudio
As a person of both white and African American descent, I listened to Gaudio without interrupting him, waiting to see if at any point he would stop and ask for my experience or impressions, but I soon realized I didn’t fit into his narrow idea of what “these people” looked like. Either that, or he just wasn’t interested.
The next scheduled speaker was Congressman Scott Taylor. A former Navy SEAL and first-year congressman out of Virginia, Representative Taylor had in recent weeks been on the receiving end of chaotic and often wrathful town hall meetings with his constituents. Before taking the stage, I asked what he expected from this audience.
“This obviously is going to be a hell of a lot friendlier than my town halls,” he laughed.
What did he make of those town halls? Did he believe they were disruptive, or a healthy example of participatory democracy?
“The energy ebbs and flows for both parties—that’s the beauty of our democracy, isn’t it?” he said. “There’s this push/pull constantly, but we seem to make it work.” About the protesters, he added: “Information lives in reason; emotion lives in action. And they’re very emotionally charged. When you’re overtaken with emotion, reason comes second.”
Rep. Taylor was introduced and took the stage, buttering up the audience with one-liners like “things never to say to folks from Oregon” (#2: “Where’s your umbrella?”). The beauty of democracy, he’d told me moments ago, was in its mercurial trend to ebb and flow, to push and pull, and to swing, pendulum-like, from one extreme to the other. Emotion, he’d said, is anathema to reason.
It is always the winning team who make the greatest philosophers.
I spoke next with two young, clean-cut white men, born and raised in Portland. One was a nursing student at Mt. Hood Community College; his brother was a student at Portland Community College. They both voted for Trump. I wanted to know if they’d experienced any aggression from their fellow students for their political views. They both nodded their heads.
“If I wear my Trump hat, they’ll just say ‘F Trump,’” the PCC student said. “They’ll never want to engage in a discussion. If they’re going to start a conversation by saying ‘F Trump,’ we’re not getting anywhere. If they want to engage in a conversation of policies and what they disagree with and why I support him, sure, but a lot of times they’ll just say ‘F Trump.’”
I asked what they thought so far of the new administration. They were supportive of most policies, but they wanted to stress one important distinction: “Trump’s not a conservative,” the nursing student said. “He wants to put a tariff on goods coming in from Mexico, to build the wall. That’s a tax on the American people. If you tax goods coming in from Mexico, that means you and I are going to be paying more. That’s not free market. Reagan was for the free market.”
Not all conservatives are alike, of course, in the same way not all progressives agree on every issue. Even elected officials in the Republican Party will often disagree on—and openly contradict—executive proclamations, as evidenced by Oregon Secretary of State Dennis Richardson. The first Republican to win a statewide election in Oregon in nearly 15 years, Richardson wrote a letter to Trump in February, laying out in no uncertain terms that, despite the president’s claims of election fraud, there was no evidence of illegal voting in Oregon.
I asked Secretary Richardson why he was compelled to pen this letter.
“It interferes with my ability as secretary of state,” he told me. “His director [John Kelly] is apparently supporting this ‘critical infrastructure’ designation with DHS over states, without even talking to the states, without even doing the research. They just did it. And since it involves elections, that’s why I spoke out.”
During his speech, the Vietnam veteran further distinguished himself from many of his fellow party members. Sharing anecdotal stories about Vietnamese refugees who, following the war, crossed the South China Sea in leaky boats—and Cuban migrants floating across the Florida Straits, risking their lives to escape persecution—Richardson appeared to be making not-so-subtle criticisms of the administration’s anti-immigrant sentiments. Many of the people here at the Freedom Rally, Richardson continued, had ancestors who made a similar voyage.
“Whether it was 10 years ago, 100 years ago, or 200 years ago, or they arrived on the Mayflower, they were leaving the land of their ancestral home,” Richardson said. “Why? Because they wanted to be free.”
There was a detectable lack of applause following this line.
Secretary Richardson then explained how he’d recently met with the Urban League of Portland to celebrate Black History Month, and to honor the Black Parent Initiative. He even went so far as to explicitly acknowledge his white privilege—a bold move, considering this audience.
“We need to be more inclusive,” he told the crowd, “if we’re going to make the progress that our state desires to have.”
This was followed by a smattering of polite applause.
If Secretary Richardson failed to excite the audience with his speech, it may have also been partly because everyone was eager for the next guest, the star of the show—former Arkansas governor, evangelical minister, twice-failed presidential candidate, and Fox News pundit Mike Huckabee.
Looking like a frumpy Frank Underwood, Governor Huckabee delighted the audience with thick-as-grits Southern charm, folksy wisdom, and good ol’ fashioned Hillary bashing, which never fails to elicit a cheer. It’s no secret that Huckabee didn’t support Trump in the early stages of his candidacy, even publicly speaking out against him. However, after seeing which way the wind was blowing, Huckabee got on board, and is now among Trump’s most ardent supporters—likely still holding out for a coveted cabinet position.
During his speech, Huckabee called Trump’s victory (in which he lost the popular vote by 2,864,974 votes) a “bloodless coup d’état.” Huckabee went on to defend the president’s vilification of the media. Demonstrating his unmatched gift for witticisms and puns, he referenced the “New York Slimes” and the “Washington Com-Post,” and declared he is “awfully glad that somebody has the guts to push back” against, apparently, investigative journalism and a free and independent press.
“More and more Americans are gonna see a president who does something we’re not used to seeing,” Huckabee said. “A president who campaigns and says, ‘Here’s what I’m gonna do,’ and then he gets there and, by golly, he does it.”
That “by golly” line had the crowd hooting. They were firmly in the palm of Huck’s outstretched hand.
The last person I spoke with at the Freedom Rally was a 32-year-old man wearing a black suit, vest, and Stetson-style hat. His mustache was curled at the ends, with a thin goatee drawing a line from his lips to his chin. He looked more like a Hollywood gunslinger than a typical Republican, but Xander Almeida is Vice Chairman of the Young Republicans of Oregon, and a Republican Precinct Committee Person. He was quick to tell me, however, that he was only attending this rally because a friend bought him a ticket as a birthday gift, and not because he considers himself a social conservative. Though an active member of the Republican Party, Almeida does not support many of the views of Trump or his cabinet—or, for that matter, many of the attendees at this rally.
“I don’t feel like the religious influence on the GOP is a good thing,” he said. “I feel like faith can be a good determining factor in your belief. I feel like faith can be a great factor in your life, but when you start wanting to implement religion as the sole reason of policy, I have an issue with that.... But if you can give me a good reason that something that is faith-based is good policy, other than ‘the Bible said so,’ I will listen to you.”
Citing the “80/20” adage popularly attributed to Ronald Reagan (“my 80-percent friend is not my 20-percent enemy”), Almeida told me that, while a longtime Republican, he differs with many of the current widespread opinions of the party.
“I feel like the 20 percent I don’t have in common with the GOP is primarily social issues,” he said. “When it comes to fighting for LGBT rights, I’m there, I’m fighting for that. I want equality for everybody. I feel like that is a conservative value.”
Almeida, who is of Mexican descent, criticized many of his party’s recent policies, from deportation, to the travel ban, to abortion. Considering this, I asked him again why he chose to attend this rally.
“My friend bought me this,” he said again, almost apologetically. “And they said there was free lunch. But it’s a very white bread lunch.”
The Freedom Rally was wrapping up. I put away my notebook, turned off my tape recorder, unclipped my press badge, and headed for the exit. Four hours had gone by. I was tired, hungry, and sorely in need of a drink. When I walked outside, the sun was shining feebly behind gray clouds. The protesters outside had all packed up and returned home. The homeless man sleeping on the sidewalk had also gone elsewhere—in search of shelter, or someone who could offer something of benefit.