“How many of you have an easy life?” the speaker asked the audience. To his dismay a handful of people raised their hands. “Well, okay, I guess some of you have it good, but many of you clearly don’t.” His voice could be barely heard and the audience shouted at him to speak into the microphone. They were gathered to express their defiance at the voter fraud that cost Donald Trump the 2020 election. But it took the speaker about half an hour to get to his main point. “There’s things about this election that make no sense. It demands an investigation. But that may take a lot of time. Look at how our government is run. Trump may not win at the end. But do not compromise your integrity because the fight is not over. How can you go from being in this room to being an effective agent for change?”
Once he spoke into the mic, people listened intently. Nobody shouted belligerent slogans or bayed for the blood of Trump’s enemies. I was disappointed. I showed up to the Knoxville Expo Center expecting fascist revolutionaries suited up in military gear ready to take over the government. Instead, I saw old people with MAGA hats pushing their walkers, bratty kids running around poking each other with American flag poles, and people listening to long introductions of Republican politicians who did not even bother to show up to the event but instead sent in their pre-recorded audio clips.
The two and a half hour “Rally for Freedom” seemed more like one long church service than anything else. There was even a greeter at the door—a 50-year-old man with a Trump hat who seemed to take a special interest in every single person that walked into the large event center room. The event was advertised on Facebook just two days before and despite the 244 responses, the event only drew about 60 participants. Everyone was dressed in Trump or American flag paraphernalia, unfurled blue lives matter flags, and proudly held their Trump/Pence signs. The rally kicked off with a prayer, and every speaker which included local and state Republican politicians alluded to God’s greater plan for Donald Trump and his supporters.
The event was sponsored by Tennessee Stands, a non-profit organization that has been holding local protests against mask mandates which the group claims are “unconstitutional.” Recently they launched a lawsuit against the State of Tennessee and Governor Lee seeking an injunction against Williamson County’s mask wearing mandate. The other co-sponsor of the event was Tennessee State Senator Mark Pody, who most recently supported legislation which would allow Tennesseans to object to any vaccinations based on religious belief or conscience.
Inside the Knoxville Expo Center, I ran into a guy I had previously met at local gun shows around town. Kevin was still in his work overalls and instinctively knew better than to talk to me without tying up his bandana around his nose and mouth. He and I made small talk as Lee Greenwood’s God Bless the USA played on the Spotify playlist in the background. “Of course, they are playing this song,” he said and shot me a quick look to notice my reaction. I didn’t take the bait and together we watched as Tennessee Stands Founder and Executive Director Gary Humble approached the stage with six young people trailing behind. He approached the podium and the teenagers lined up behind him. He introduced them as “our future” and together they led the audience in the pledge of allegiance. I had so many questions for Kevin. But I felt awkward asking him because I abruptly stopped talking to him after our first date a few months ago. “Well, there are some militias here,” he noted and pointed them out. There they were seated on the right side of the audience, geared up in their military outfits.
“They came ready for the counter-protestors to show up,” Kevin flatly stated. I wondered if Kevin had also come for the same reason. From our previous conversations, I knew that he followed many of the libertarian groups in East TN and had his own crew of second amendment loving friends he met up with in the woods once in a while and attended gun rights protests with.
I was jolted out of my thoughts by the numbers of blonde white people entering the room grinning their teeth, with no mask in sight. I looked around the room and, predictably enough, only a handful of people were wearing a mask – even as bags full of masks sat on empty tables by the doorway for the taking, and colorful sheets of paper were taped to walls warning people to wear them and to sit six feet apart. I was one of a handful of people wearing a mask, including two cops and the local journalists. People did not stare at me or anyone who wore a mask or give us a hard time, they just ignored my face covering, tried to sit as close to me as possible, and smiled. I got tired of constantly moving my chair away from the person next to me, so I decided to stand by the doorway to get far as far away as I could from everyone inside. Covid is certainly more dangerous than these Trump supporters, I thought to myself. Kevin followed me and took the opportunity to make small chat with the two police officers stationed there.
The Trumpers were happy to see each other. From what I could hear, many seemed to know each other from church. People extended hands and hugged one another, petted kids on the heads and waved when they were too tired or lazy to walk across the giant room. The emcee jumped up and down behind the podium to energize the audience with chants of “USA USA USA.” Throughout the crowd people smiled at the persons next to them, held on to a kid’s hand, and chanted in unison. But besides these fleeting moments of energy, the attendees largely spend their time sitting down in uncomfortable plastic chairs, leaning on their American flag poles, and listening to speeches.
Senator Mark Pody directed the entire event from the sidelines. Here’s is how it went down. The emcee hyped up the crowd and introduced a speaker, who was usually affiliated with the local GOP, often times a lawyer, businessman or an aspiring politician. They usually made a long speech that touched on three key words – God, freedom, and Trump – and then introduced the featured Republican congressman or senator. The three main politicians the crowd had gathered to hear were Knoxville Mayor Glenn Jacobs, U.S. Congressman Mark Green and U.S. Senator Marsha Blackburn.
The first politician to grace the stage would be Knoxville’s own Mayor Glenn Jacobs. Readers may know him as Kane, the Undertaker’s brother from the World Wrestling Federation. Kevin whispered to me: “He is a big guy, isn’t he?” To my surprise, after two long introductions, Glenn Jacobs appeared on the screen behind the podium. My hopes of seeing him in person were dashed. Apparently, he didn’t deem the rally worthy of his time and energy. The camera focused on his ogre like face, his body almost bursting out of his dressed down shirt, he droned on about his support of Donald Trump to contest the election, and the attempts of the left and extremists to divide America. His remarks were met with applause and some “heck yeas.”
Other speakers spoke about mainstream media’s influence in the fraudulent election while others gave line by line accounts of how the election was stolen. But at the end of their speech, every speaker seemed to accept defeat. “Biden may very well be inaugurated,” one said in a somber tone met by boos from the crowd. Other than the local and state politicians, the other special treat was the constitutional lawyer who projected highlights of lawsuits by the Trump team. He gave a long and drawn-out explanation of the legal fight ahead but his speech ended by extorting the audience to accept the defeat with dignity and to channel their energy instead into organizing local GOP events and to keeping Tennessee red.
“I am sure you see a lot of people from California moving to Tennessee,” one speaker remarked. “Don’t turn them away when you see them walking down the street. They are trying to escape.” The audience laughed. “They want to be in a red state. Keep doing what you are doing to keep Tennessee red. Don’t ever quit, and don’t ever stop.” It was a far cry from inciting the audience to overthrow the government in honor of their fearless leader Donald Trump. In fact, Mark Pody, the State Senator and main organizer of the event told local news that the rally served a dual purpose: to support President Trump but also to encourage Tennesseans to go to Georgia to help campaign in the Senate runoff election. In the next few days, Georgia voters will ultimately decide which party will gain Senate majority. “I have already volunteered to go to Georgia to help with the run-off election in Georgia,” one rally-goer told the masked reporter. “This is literally the last stand of freedom in America.”
I was getting tired and bored of all the long speeches and most importantly feared that my disposable surgical mask couldn’t save me from the potential super spreaders in the room. I told Kevin that I was leaving and he walked with me to my car. As I drove out, I saw a line of cars making their way around the Expo Center honking their horns and loudly blasting YG’s “Fuck Donald Trump.” Kevin texted me “You just missed the protestors.” But, besides one cop and two or three rally-goers who came outside to listen to the honking, the militia did a terrible job of defending Trumpers against left extremists.
I decided to return to the Expo Center and see if the people inside were agitated by the counter- protestors. Instead, I found everyone seated and listening in to more speechifying.
“We must act like the reserves do in the army,” remarked a young white woman tasked with introducing Senator Marsha Blackburn’s pre-recorded message. “We have to use this energy and we have to do something with it. It’s not over. We have to get involved. Tonight, we have politicians, we have the local GOP office, we have young Republicans. Get involved, sign up and do something!” She is a young single mom, she told the audience, fighting for her children and her grandchildren’s future. “When you were asked earlier if your life was good, that was a trick question. I hope you got that. It’s hard out here. We are all trying to survive.” Few people were motivated to get up from their seats. Many were already folding their flags and preparing to go home.
She quickly scanned the room and screamed: “I want you all to get up from your seats. I want to make a video on the spot to share with social media the excitement of what you are fighting for.” Her plea got about half of the crowd to get up, but no video took place. Just some selfies here and there, as people chanted “USA! USA! USA!” a few times and sat back down. She ended her remarks: “Even if people fight with you, continue posting. If you see someone who is posting about Stop the Steal help them out and defend them on social media.” People nodded their heads. The woman began the chant “Stop the Steal! Stop the Steal!” Few people were motivated to get up from their seats. Knoxville’s “Rally for Freedom” was a sad show. The people in the room were hardly fascist revolutionaries—they could barely muster up the energy to get up from their seats to chant for a few minutes.
In the run up to the election many people were expecting civil war to erupt. Liberals and many leftists were gearing up for a Trump led coup and planned counter- protests on encrypted chat groups. None of this materialized of course. Instead, the past month or so has seen one rally after another providing Trumpers with the space to collectively grieve. Before I left for good the second and last time, I scanned the room and saw the most unlikely group of people to ever orchestrate such a bloody defense of their ideas. Instead, the rally was a pathetic attempt by Mark Pody and other politicians like him to steer Trumpers into state politics like the run-off elections in Georgia. Knoxville’s “Rally for Freedom” confirmed for me the disconnect between the fiery speeches that defend Trump’s mandate to govern America and defeat left extremists, and the actual reality of the rally: miserable souls hanging on to their dignity amid loss and humiliation.