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'It's Kind of Like an Addiction': On the Road With Trump's Rally Diehards

The Wall Street Journal. logo The Wall Street Journal. 9/7/2019 Michael C. Bender
a person standing in front of a store: The Trump aficionados have kept tabs on him for decades. © Cheryl Senter for The Wall Street Journal The Trump aficionados have kept tabs on him for decades.

Libby DePiero once drove her Ford Focus so far to attend a Trump campaign rally — about 1,000 miles from her home in Connecticut to Indiana — that when she lay in bed that night she thought the twitching in her driving leg was coming from an animal under the mattress.

The 64-year-old retiree, who prefers sparkly nail polish, leopard prints and selfies with Trump campaign officials, is almost always one of the first few people in line at the president’s campaign events, part of the self-described group of “Front Row Joes” who routinely travel to see the president perform. Several, like Ms. DePiero, have attended more than 50 Trump rallies.

She keeps going because she trusts only the president to deliver her the news. “How else would I know what’s going on?” she said.

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Mr. Trump has hosted more than 550 ticketed campaign events since 2015, at least 70% of which include his trademark rallies, according to Republican officials. These rallies form the core of one of the most steadfast political movements in modern American political history, a dynamic that has reordered the Republican Party.

Mr. Trump’s perpetual tour attracts a coterie of political pilgrims who travel across the country and encamp outside arenas for days at a time for the chance to stand in the front row and, for 90 minutes, cheer the man they say has changed the U.S. and, in many cases, their own lives. Somewhere between 5% to 10% of attendees have been to multiple events, the officials said.

“You go to the rallies, and he basically tells you that you don’t have to put up with ‘the swamp’ and those kinds of people,” said Saundra Kiczenski, a 40-year-old Walmart worker from Michigan who has been to 29 rallies. “Because of him I decided not to pay for Obamacare, not pay the fine. And what happened? Nothing. Before, the quiet me would have paid the fine. But Donald Trump told me that we have a voice, and now I stand up for myself.”

The Trump rally die-hards — a few dozen men and women who have been to more than 10 rallies — are almost exclusively white. Many are recently retired with time on their hands and little to keep them tied to home. A handful never had children. Others are estranged from their families.

Several of those with jobs live paycheck to paycheck, but constantly offer strangers a cold beverage, sandwiches or their last cigarette.

Some rely on disability payments, like Cynthia Barten, or cut lawns in Missouri, like her husband, Ken Barten. Others sell secondhand items in Kentucky like Jon French, or find odd jobs such as clearing rocks from farmland in Minnesota, like Randal Thom. Kevin Steele quit his job and plans to finance his travels to Trump rallies with the remaining $120,000 from an inheritance.

The group includes Trump aficionados, who have spent decades keeping tabs on his history of political flirtations, tabloid melodrama and star turns on reality television. A surprising number voted for Barack Obama at least once, caught up in the Democrat’s charisma and fed up with Republicans over foreign adventurism and growing national debt.

Rally regulars stay connected through Facebook and text messages, pinging one another to see who is attending the next rally, who can carpool and who wants to split a hotel room.

Ms. DePiero broke up a 700-mile drive to the Cincinnati rally on Aug. 1 by spending the night with Becky Gee, a northeast Ohio dairy farmer she met at a previous Trump rally. She stayed with Barbara Bienkowski in Maryland (they met at Trump Hotel in Washington earlier this year), on her way to the Greenville, N.C., rally on July 17 and stayed in Myrtle Beach, S.C., with Dale Ranney, another Front Row Joe, on the way home.

Two regular rallygoers have already married, and divorced.

All of them describe, in different ways, a euphoric flow of emotions between themselves and the president, a sort of adrenaline-fueled, psychic cleansing that follows 90 minutes of chanting and cheering with 15,000 other like-minded Trump junkies.

“Once you start going, it’s kind of like an addiction, honestly,” said April Owens, a 49-year-old financial manager in Kingsport, Tenn., who has been to 11 rallies. “I love the energy. I wouldn’t stand in line for 26 hours to see any rock band. He’s the only person I would do this for, and I’ll be here as many times as I can.”

For many Front Row Joes, the Trump era marks their political awakening. Among the first Americans to identify the resonance and endurance of Mr. Trump’s political appeal, they are reveling in the victory. Like Mr. Trump on stage, each recounts the Election Night triumph without any prompting.

In Orlando, Trump fans sat in a field adjacent to Amway Center in June, about to get soaked by the second downpour in as many days. Still, they wore sunglasses and smiles as outdoor speakers pumped out “Sweet Home Alabama” and “Hurts So Good.” Head shakes and patronizing laughs greeted questions about which Democrat might beat Mr. Trump.

Michael Telesca, a middle-school teacher at the front of the line in Greenville, compared the experience to following Bruce Springsteen.

“You come to the show, and you know exactly what you’re going to get — all of the hits and maybe a few surprises, too,” said Mr. Telesca, whose bushy brown hair is graying at the temples.

The surprise in Greenville wasn’t from Mr. Trump, but the crowd as it debuted a “send her back” chant. The chant erupted as Mr. Trump was criticizing Rep. Ilhan Omar (D., Minn.). Three days earlier, Mr. Trump had tweeted that Ms. Omar and three other liberal congresswomen, all women of color, should “go back” to unspecified countries. The four women are American citizens and three of them were born in the U.S.

Before the rally, more than a dozen supporters said they would never use that racist language to denounce minorities. Inside Williams Arena, many participated in the chant that mirrored it. “It was like a tornado when 'send her back' started. I was looking around and people were loving it,” Ms. DePiero said.

The regulars who arrived early at rallies — often before campaign officials or local law enforcement — hurried to set up tents and organize their belongings. The Bartens, who drove their Dodge minivan seven hours from St. Louis to be first in line in Cincinnati, unfolded a table and set down a deep-cycle military battery, a camp stove for turkey melts, a string of LED festoon lights and a half-empty pack of Edgefield cigarettes.

They mingled until doors opened, then rushed to the front row on the arena floor. But not necessarily center-stage.

Some, like, Shane Doyle, prefer the side where Mr. Trump first appears from behind the curtains. “Back in the primary, I used to like being the first one when he came out, because he would sign all my stuff,” said Mr. Doyle, a 24-year-old machinist from Buffalo, N.Y.

Just before midnight on the eve of the Cincinnati rally, about two dozen fans lounged in lawn chairs or leaned on metal bike racks, scrolling through their phones and sipping from cans of Coors Light. A soft brown blanket covered Ms. Barten and her 12-year-old granddaughter, who slept sitting up in her camp chair.

The 57-year-old Air Force veteran’s disability check is reduced by $5 every month by an automatic donation to the Trump campaign.

“We’re not rich by any means,” Ms. Barten said. “But I’ll tell you what: When we’re rich in our hearts with our country and our president, we’re richer than anybody.”

Write to Michael C. Bender at Mike.Bender@wsj.com

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