At New England rally, Trump campaign accentuates deep divide

Some love him, others hate him, as anti-immigrant populist message appeals and repulses in the same Massachusetts town

Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump at a rally in Lowell, Massachusetts, Jan. 4, 2016.
Melina Mara/The Washington Post/Getty Images

LOWELL, Mass. — Lisa Sefarian smiled and laughed with her family as she walked out of Donald Trump’s rally at the Paul E. Tsongas Center on Monday night.

She went to the event skeptical of Trump, the longtime front-runner in the race for the GOP presidential nomination. But, she said, he won her over.

“I just thought he was really good. He’s very charismatic. He’s very positive. And it’s just nice to see positivity,” said Sefarian, a 58-year-old teacher from Wayland. “I think he would bring the country together instead of dividing it.”

She was not alone. Many supporters said Trump’s unapologetic style and tough attitude were exactly what they believe is needed to overcome dysfunction in Washington and restore America’s reputation around the world.

Yet not everyone felt the positivity. Protesters at and outside the rally accused Trump of making crude comments about women, undocumented immigrants and Muslims that amount to hate speech. “We have a huge diversity of students here on our campus,” said Ture Carlson, 19, a student at the University of Massachusetts at Lowell, where the Tsongas Center is located. “It’s not fair to them to have this sort of hate speech directed toward them on our home turf.”

Trump’s rally in Lowell amply illustrated the dual nature of his campaign. On the one hand, his blunt rhetoric and willing embrace of extreme political positions drew widespread support, especially in a hardscrabble city like Lowell, which has long endured economic hard times that have hit its working-class residents especially hard.

On the other hand, many of those working-class residents are immigrants and thus feel demeaned by Trump’s casting them as outsiders in America. Far from unifying the American electorate, as Sefarian believed, Trump’s stop in Lowell seemed to show how deeply he was dividing it.

Certainly Carlson believed so. He created a Change.org petition asking university administrators not to allow Trump to speak on campus. The petition called him “racist” for accusing the Mexican government of sending criminals to the U.S., saying thousands of Muslims celebrated in New Jersey on Sept. 11, 2001, and proposing that Muslims be barred from entering the United States.

The Trump campaign’s first TV ad, released on Monday, doubled down on his promises to build a wall along the Mexico-U.S. border and to ban Muslim immigrants. His popularity has increased during the past few months, to a national poll average of 35 percent, according to Real Clear Politics. Trump’s closest rivals, Sen. Ted Cruz and Sen. Marco Rubio, are polling at 20 percent and 11 percent, respectively.

In a statement released in response to Carlson’s petition, UMass Lowell Chancellor Jacquie Moloney said the university supports free debate of ideas but also praised the spirit of the petition.

“It is in the academic tradition to speak out on behalf of what we believe is right, and I have no doubt some members of our community will do so in the days ahead,” she wrote.

‘Dump Trump’

As thousands of supporters lined up in single-digit weather to see Trump speak, some 300 protesters held banners and chanted “Dump Trump” in an icy “free speech zone” set up by police on the other side of Martin Luther King Jr. Way.

The rally was sponsored by Community Advocates for Justice and Equality, Black Lives Matter and the ANSWER Coalition. But Carlson credited the petition with bringing a lot of people out.

“I didn’t expect that it would explode like it did, at all, and get the kind of attention it did. It really got a lot of people riled up,” he said. “It’s a reason, I know, that a lot of the people are here.”

Rana Nashi, 25, moved to the U.S. from Iraq with her family when she was 9 months old. While her family is not Muslim, she said Trump’s comments are racist and that they hurt all immigrants.

“Donald Trump, he wants to bring hatred,” said Nashi, a senior at UMass Lowell studying nutrition. “We say no to hatred.”

Crystal Gomez, 18, grew up in Lowell and said she worries about the impact Trump’s rally will have on her community. The city’s population is 17 percent Hispanic and 20 percent Asian-American, according to 2010 census data, and it has one of the largest Cambodian populations in the United States.

“This city, this entire city, was built on immigrants,” she said. “America was built on immigrants. Here, there’s no room for Trump. There’s no room for his supporters. That’s why I’m here.”

Many protesters slipped into the arena, among thousands of Trump supporters. Groups stood up and began chanting at least six times during his speech, though supporters quickly drowned them out with cries of “Trump!” and “USA! USA!”

Disruptions have become a fixture at Trump rallies, and the candidate’s supporters have sometimes reacted violently. In the most widely known confrontation, Trump supporters at a rally in Birmingham, Alabama, reportedly kicked, shoved and punched Mercutio Southall Jr. when he began shouting, “Black lives matter.”

At Monday’s rally, organizers asked those in attendance not to “touch or harm” protesters. Trump has asked his supporters to be gentle with protesters. But he seemed to mock that approach during Monday night’s rally, as security removed one group of protesters from the arena.

“See, in the old days, you wouldn’t have that, because it would be pretty rough when they take them out. Nowadays we have to be politically correct and take them nice and easy,” Trump said. “‘Sir, would you please come with us?’ In the old days, this wouldn’t happen.”

‘Use a little bit of tact’

Trump has made being politically incorrect a cornerstone of his campaign, and his supporters often cite it as one of the key reasons they support him. “We gave up on political correctness, because we don’t have enough time,” he told supporters on Monday. “We don’t have enough time.”

That message appealed to Debbie Martin, 53, a case manager from Dracut, Massachusetts. In between bites of pizza at the arena’s food court before the rally, she talked about her hopes that Trump could turn the country around. She is fed up, she said, with politicians in Washington.

“Truth and honesty, saying it like it is — I just really appreciate that,” she said. “So many people are just too politically correct. Granted, he could use a little bit of tact. But he speaks the truth, I think, in a lot of ways, even though it doesn’t come out pleasant.”

For Connor Gatto, what’s most important is Trump’s business experience and how he would handle the economy. Sitting with a friend before the rally, Gatto spoke favorably of Trump’s plan to raise taxes on the wealthiest 1 percent and praised his stance on education. Next to those issues, Gatto said, Trump’s brusque demeanor takes a backseat. It is an economically populist stance that strikes a chord in places like Lowell, which has a poverty rate of 19 percent, almost double the Massachusetts average, and whose once vibrant manufacturing industry has long since disappeared.

“Trump’s harsh sometimes. But when it comes down to it, he focuses on the true issues that we as a country need to face,” Gatto said.

When asked about Trump’s controversial comments on Mexican and Muslim immigrants, Gatto said the United States needs to take care of its native-born citizens first.

“We don’t need these other people coming when we’ve got people in the inner city who don’t have jobs and don’t have a good education,” he said. “Those are the people that need help, not foreigners.”

Other supporters spoke of Trump’s campaign as a protest vote against the establishment in both parties, which they said has turned its back on conservatives like them.

Mike Marion, 60, went to the rally, he said, “to see if he’s real.” A business owner, he is still deciding between Trump and Cruz but said he would support whoever wins the Republican nomination.

“I’m not on the establishment side,” Marion said. “I’m a conservative.”

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