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Maga hats, Rambo flags and tattoos: Trump supporters still see him as a hero

At rally in Michigan, Middle East Eye asks president's supporters about Muslim ban, normalisation deals with Israel, and Saudi Arabia
Trump supporters gather at rally in Lansing, capital of Michigan, on 27 October (MEE/Ali Harb)
By Ali Harb in Lansing, Michigan

Trump hats, shirts, bumper stickers, phone covers and even tattoos - the crowd at President Donald Trump's rally in Michigan on Tuesday appeared enamoured with the president and put that admiration on full display.

Flags featured Trump as Rambo holding a rocket propelled grenade with his vest struggling to contain his flexing muscles. Several attendees wore shirts showing the president's likeness on the body of the legendary fictional boxer Rocky from the Sylvester Stallone movies.

Trump's motto, Make America Great Again (Maga) was chanted, put on every visible clothing item imaginable and spelled out by supporters' arms as they danced to patriotic music. 

To the thousands of Trump fans who stood for hours in the rain in near freezing temperatures in Lansing, Michigan, the president is not merely a politician they like; he is a hero and a saviour - a symbol.

Ryan Marston, a 19-year-old college student, portrayed Trump as a deal-maker, praising the US-brokered normalisation deals between Israel and Arab states.

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'Obviously you shouldn't be chopping up journalists. But I think Saudi Arabia is one of the most powerful countries in the Middle East, and I think it's good that them and Israel have a peace deal now'

- Trump supporter

"He's doing a good job with peace deals in the Middle East. I think the media doesn't cover that enough," said Marston, who wore a pink "women for Trump'' T-shirt. 

Asked about the president's ties to Saudi Arabia and his unwillingness to meaningfully condemn Riyadh for the murder of Jamal Khashoggi, Marston said: "Obviously you shouldn't be chopping up journalists. But I think Saudi Arabia is one of the most powerful countries in the Middle East, and I think it's good that them and Israel have a peace deal now."

Actually, while the kingdom's Emirati and Bahraini allies have signed normalisation agreements with Israel, Riyadh is yet to agree to establishing diplomatic ties with the Israeli government. Israel was never actually at war with any of the Arab countries with which it recently formalised relations.

People from across Michigan and neighbouring states lined up to get into the rally at a regional airport in Lansing. Many socialised without masks, with the crowd occasionally erupting in pro-Trump chants. A group of young men drank beer while bashing campaign rival Joe Biden and praising the president.

Virtually everyone, including children and dogs, was in Maga gear. Some supporters even wore wigs resembling Trump's hair along with his famous red necktie and orange tan. It was as if Halloween had arrived a few days early.

Public opinion polls show Trump behind nationally as well as in key swing states, but the president's supporters are confident that he will get four more years in the White House. 

They are wary of journalists and information coming out of the mainstream media. Several of them shouted obscenities and showed their middle fingers to the media section at the rally while walking by.

Trump Michigan MEE
Trump renewed his attacks on Ilhan Omar on Tuesday (MEE/Ali Harb)

'Not a Muslim ban'

Michigan is home to some of the largest Arab and Muslim communities in the United States. Unlike their fellow Trump supporters who have never dealt with immigrants from the Middle East, Michigan Maga folks have been exposed to Arabic culture and the Muslim religion.

Trump won Michigan by a razor-thin margin in 2016.

MEE did not witness any outwardly racist or Islamophobic gestures at the rally in Michigan. Instead, attendees denied vehemently that the president has any kind of bigotry.

"The president is a uniter. He's not prejudiced against anybody, no matter what the Democrats say," said Herb Stricker, who owns a small business in South Lyon, Michigan.

Days into his tenure in 2017, Trump imposed a travel ban on several Muslim-majority countries, and as a candidate in 2015, he called for a "total and complete shutdown of Muslims entering the United States".

Stricker argued that the 2017 ban merely meant to restrict immigration from places where Washington could not vet travellers. 

Asked about the 2015 pledge to ban Muslims, Stricker said he does not believe that Trump's "heart is into that".

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A college student student who identified himself as Gavin Smith also stressed that it was not a Muslim ban. 

"It wasn't a ban on Muslim people. If he was looking to ban Muslims, he would have banned people from Indonesia," Smith said. "It was a ban on immigrants or refugees coming from very unstable parts of the world."

He said he was unaware of Trump's 2015 Muslim entry "shutdown" remarks.

Haig, another young man standing in the same group as Smith, who wished to identify by his first name only, said a ban on Muslims would have targeted Saudi Arabia, which is home to the holiest sites in Islam. 

Trump has strengthened ties with Saudi Arabia, despite growing outcries about the kingdom's human rights record. 

"I don't support Saudi Arabia in terms of how they suppress journalists," Haig said. "But then in terms of their overall role in the Middle East and the cold war that's going on with Iran, I believe that Saudi Arabia is a stable power that can counteract Iran's devilish power."

The rally was almost exclusively white and attracted many college students who would be first-time voters.

"It's not a Muslim ban," Stone Tanner, 20, told MEE. Tanner said he lives among Arabs and Muslim immigrants in Michigan, but that "people should come here legally". 

"They're great people, but I don't see why anyone should get an exception," said Tanner. He also called Trump a peace president, citing the normalisation deals between Israel and Arab countries.

In the crowd, some people showed up with exaggerated displays of affection for Trump - giant Maga hats, a man with a face sticker showing Trump's face on Mount Rushmore, which displays portraits of America's most revered presidents, and a few people with confederate flags on their shirts.

Trump rally MEE
Trump supporter in Michigan dressed as president (MEE/Ali Harb)

Frank Sutton, an 84-year-old retiree who lives in neighbouring Howell, said he was a former resident of Dearborn, the city with the largest Arab concentration, and that he has nothing but love for the state's Arab and Muslim communities.

"He's not against Arabs; he's against radical Arabs," Sutton said of Trump. "I've got Arab friends. I've got Muslim friends. It's not about a religion. It's not about religion. Look at what he's doing in the Middle East, getting peace done."

A man dressed in a suit and a wig mimicking Trump's hair said he knew Trump was his president the moment the real estate mogul came down the escalator in New York to announce his candidacy in 2015.

During that announcement speech, Trump called immigrants crossing from Mexico "rapists", accusing them of bringing drugs into the country.

Asked whether the president is a racist, he said Trump's pledge to build a wall aims to "stop human trafficking" at the southern border.

A woman standing by, who refused to share her name, weighed in. "When they don't have anything else to say, they always fall back on that - they say he's racist or xenophobic or something," she said.

Donald Trump (MEE)
Flag showing Donald Trump as Rambo (Ali Harb/MEE)

Trump attacks Ilhan Omar

After supporters waited for hours in the miserable weather, Trump arrived on Air Force One, the presidential jet, descending on the tarmac metres away from the rally.

Once on the stage, he greeted the crowd that surrounded him in every direction. Standing in a black raincoat, a black suit and blue necktie, Trump opted to be drenched in rain with the rest of the crowd, saying that he refused to be under any form of covering.

He spoke for longer than an hour, enumerating his perceived achievements, attacking the media and hurling insults at his Democratic opponents. 

For the past few weeks, Trump has attacked Muslim Congresswoman Ilhan Omar at almost every campaign rally, depicting her as a foreigner imposing her views on Americans. The monologue is often accompanied with criticism of Biden's pledge to increase refugee admission.

On Tuesday, the president did not spare Michigan these lines, saying that if elected, Biden would turn the state into a "refugee camp".

"One of the biggest issues for Michigan… is the subject of refugees," Trump said.

He warned that Biden would increase refugee admission from countries including Syria and Somalia, adding that the eastern African country reminds him of Congresswoman Omar.

"Omar truly does not like our country... She likes telling us how we should do, how we should run our country," Trump said.

The racist pronouncement casting Omar, who is an American congresswoman, as an outsider imposing her will on the American people earned Trump thunderous applause. 

Andrew Lake, a college student, told MEE after the rally that he does not agree with Omar's views, but he rejects questioning her belonging as an American or her right to serve in Congress. He added that what Trump said was not "explicitly racist", and only those looking for the racist connotations would find the remarks bigoted.

"I disagree with her on policy, but I would never deny her right to be an American citizen. I don't think that's not even a debate. I have no issue with her race or even her right to be in Congress," he told MEE.

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