THE BOY BEHIND THE BUS
In Albuquerque, New Mexico, my summer begins with a riot. I’m standing in the middle of the street, downtown, a few blocks from the convention center. It’s dark and hot and it’s too smoky to see much of anything. A few feet to my right stand half a dozen men wearing Guy Fawkes masks — the kind made famous by V for Vendetta. One of them picks up a discarded “Make America Great Again” T-shirt from the ground. He examines it, pulling at the fabric for a few seconds. Then he lights it on fire and lobs it into a crowd of police, screaming, “Fuck Donald Trump.”
Over the course of three months, I found myself at the center of one riot, half a dozen large protests, two nominating conventions, one cloud of tear gas, nine states, an ungodly number of high school gymnasiums and the aftermath of the deadliest mass shooting committed on U.S. soil.
I didn’t pack much: a small suitcase I could trust to fit in any overhead bin, a camera bag, my Canon G7 X, extra memory cards, my laptop, my cellphone, a Yale Baseball cap, my wallet, a monstrous 814-page novel by Hanya Yanagihara, and a toothbrush.
Historians don’t agree on the specific election that gave rise to the campaign embed, a masochistic subspecies of political journalist that turns their back on every comfort known to mankind every four years to travel across the country in the back of a glorified school bus. Many, however, like CNN alum Peter Hamby, point to a 1988 Time Magazine piece by Laurence Zuckerman that heralded a group of 20-somethings following presidential hopeful Jesse Jackson as the way of the future. They weren’t bothered by 4 a.m. wakeup calls. They didn’t mind subsisting on airline peanuts and protein bars. And they were young — free from the duties of serious relationships and family life. While network correspondents were tethered to hefty camera gear and nightly newscasts, embeds could pick up and move at a moment’s notice, traveling across the state or across the country.
In the last 20-plus years, the job has cemented itself within the American mythos. Stories “from the trail” of embeds boozing, seducing and marrying future White House bigwigs inspired Timothy Crouse’s famed The Boys on the Bus and half of all the television plot lines Aaron Sorkin has pumped out in the last two decades. It’s a romantic job. A tough, romantic job — one that tests just how much your body can take while forcing you to grapple with every conception you’ve ever had of this country, its politics and its people.
Three days before arriving in Albuquerque, I was in Boston, waiting in line for a small black coffee inside Logan International Airport. It was already late in the afternoon but I needed to be awake for the entire flight. I had footage to comb through, Airbnb hosts to contact, and an itinerary that seemed to evolve by the hour. Across the terminal, a panel of network news pundits was discussing the 2016 presidential campaign on television. They touched on Hillary Clinton’s persistent email woes, debated recent tightening in nationwide polling and then turned to the California primary. All three remaining campaigns would be descending upon the Golden State for the next few weeks, hoping for a groundswell of voter turnout to carry them into the nominating conventions come mid-July.
I was headed west too, just on a packed United Airlines Airbus A320 instead of a private plane. The plan was to fly to LAX, drive a few hundred miles to meet up with the Donald Trump campaign in New Mexico, and then follow his traveling press corps to San Diego and up the coast of California. It wasn’t much of a plan — more of a quarter-life crisis that Jack Kerouac could write a short, angsty book about. But that didn’t bother me, at least not at the time.
If you grew up in the United States, you’re probably familiar with the phrase “the most important election of our lifetimes.” Talking heads and campaign surrogates resurrect it once every four years, dredging up a maddening degree of party polarization, just so the media has something to cover and voters actually show up to vote. But even though it’s a tired, horribly overused phrase, you’d be hard-pressed to find anyone at Yale who doesn’t think it genuinely applies this time around.
Regardless of who wins in November, Clinton and Trump will go down as two of the most significant characters in American history. One is the first female major-party presidential nominee in the country’s 238 years of existence. The other secured more primary votes than any GOP candidate ever. With light-years between their policy platforms, rhetorical styles and time in government, the pair comprises one of the strangest political odd-couples this country has ever seen. And, chances are, you absolutely, wholeheartedly, 100 percent despise one or both of them.
Yalies aren’t shy about their political beliefs; it’s often one of the reasons students are drawn here in the first place. I was the weird seven-year-old who opted for Meet the Press and The McLaughlin Group over Nickelodeon on Sunday mornings growing up; I’d plop myself on the living room couch in pajamas and eat breakfast watching Pat Buchanan and Eleanor Clift call each other sociopaths.
Trump and Clinton have transcended their roles as political standard-bearers, though, becoming de facto symbols of America’s evolving culture war. And, as such, they’ve become the two most disliked and distrusted candidates to ever get so close to the White House, demonized to such a degree that 27 percent of American voters in a Public Policy Polling survey said they would rather see a “giant meteor of death” hit Earth than vote to elect either major-party candidate.
Looking back to the beginning of the summer, no one had any idea who would win come November — and recent CNN/ORC polling suggests that the pair is still on relatively even ground. At print time of this article, Ohio, Florida, Pennsylvania and a number of other swing states were all too close to call.
There’s a sense among the traveling press that they’re watching history, that nothing like this race has ever happened before (in retrospect, no, Barry Goldwater was not a billionaire real estate tycoon turned reality show host turned major-party candidate). And, perhaps more interestingly, that it will likely never happen again. Data from the Pew Research Center shows Americans are more racially and ethnically diverse than ever before, and the country will see even greater demographic shifts in the coming decades. The “Trump train” — a voting bloc of primarily white, male, middle-class, high school-educated voters — may never again hold as much power as it has in this election cycle.
In short, 2016 isn’t just a referendum on the Affordable Care Act, or the settlement of Syrian refugees or even the last eight years of Obama’s presidency; it will serve as perhaps the last competitive battle between a populist wing of the old Republican base — reinvigorated by Trump’s signature Trumpiness — and a growing Democratic coalition of women, millennials and people of color.
I met a young Black Lives Matter activist outside Cleveland’s Public Square before the second night of the GOP convention. Her braids were dyed bronze to complement a sleek pair of sunglasses, and she wore a shirt that read Brown As Fuck. She told me she identified as a Democrat, but didn’t love Clinton. I followed up by asking if she thought the race would still be competitive come November. “I think it’s going to be close,” she said, “but if we win this one, we’ll never lose again.”
Traditional presidential campaigns tend to announce rallies, fundraisers and sometimes even diner meet-and-greets days ahead of time; it allows journalists to adjust their schedules to easily follow candidates. Press coverage and media exposure equal a rise in poll numbers when most of the electorate is still undecided. That’s why many argue Trump’s estimated $2 billion worth of “free advertising” first vaulted him to the top of the GOP primary pecking order more than a year ago. Coverage is so valuable that campaigns charter buses and planes so major outlets can hire a cover-every-event traveling reporter. But the patriarch of America’s House Lannister decided to ignore this practice. Trump spent the summer hopscotching between cities on his Boeing 757 instead, announcing his plans often less than 24 hours ahead of time and leaving his press corps to fight over last-minute American Airlines tickets. As a result, veteran political operatives and one Yale freshman were constantly glued to their phones. Every moment of not refreshing the “Make America Great Again” homepage was one I could find myself stranded and left behind by the campaign.
Despite the constant chaos, routine on the trail still develops rather naturally. Mornings generally start the same way. You wake up at some ungodly hour before the sun rises, shower if you have time, and skim through the dozens of emails and AP updates you’ve received overnight. Breakfasts are fast and simple: coffee and cheap protein bars. Then the day is spent in a constant state of motion. You’re sprinting to catch the Democratic National Committee press bus to South Philly or hunched over in the back seat of a graveyard-shift Uber pretending to sleep. You’re headed down the tarmac on a flight headed for Orlando or editing stories on a SoCal Amtrak train, glancing out the window every few minutes at the Pacific Ocean. And in the rare moments of calm (during days both Trump and Clinton are out of reach or nights you make it to a motel at a reasonable hour) … well, you spend those moving, too: carpools to rooftop bars on Cleveland’s famed East 4th Street, midnight food pilgrimages to 7-Eleven, track workouts at public parks in West Hollywood. Tiny shifts in your schedule are the only things that keep days from blurring together.
(M. Peter Rothpletz)
As time goes on, most weeks end with the feeling you’ve both conquered the world and achieved absolutely nothing. You may have traveled halfway across a state — or even halfway across the country — but you’ve also been forced to listen to the same poll-tested, focus-grouped applause lines for the umpteenth time. Speeches rarely change. Gaudy spectacle gets tired. Celebrity testimonials are annoying. The same playlists drone out of high school gymnasium speakers on repeat (Clinton likes Katy Perry and Rachel Platten, Trump prefers Elton John and The Rolling Stones). And campaign slogans and party chants (Build the Wall, Dump Trump, I’m With Her, Lock Her Up) bludgeon themselves into one crazed, self-righteous cacophony.
The people make it interesting, though. Not Trump or Clinton — they’re special in their own way — but their supporters: The waitresses and obstetricians and truck drivers and retired teachers that form a line before dawn for the chance to post a single, blurry Snapchat story of their hero. I conducted more than a thousand individual interviews over the course of the summer, and every person manages to surprise you.
At my second Trump event in San Diego, I was still learning the ropes of the traveling press corps. I hadn’t woken up early enough to get screened into the media pen, so I was forced to enter with the 7,000 supporters that had poured into the city overnight. It was easy enough to make it to the front; people see a lanyard press pass with a camera and they literally run in the opposite direction. No one likes the press. Perhaps that’s the best lesson I learned this summer. The notion of a “neutral” observer doesn’t exist any more; journalists aren’t allies, or particularly “objective” witnesses. Anything they see may ultimately be tampered with, spun and polluted into some Frankenstein’s monster of a hit piece. You’re not necessarily the enemy, but you’re not welcome either. People look at and treat you like a hyena — a mangy scavenger that circles from a distance, waiting to snatch away just enough to write a story.
By the time I made it to the front of the convention center, Sarah Palin was onstage delivering an impassioned call to arms like only she can. She stuck to her usual talking points: Obama’s “apology tour,” the oppressive tax system, moose. The speech wandered a bit, but the crowd loved her. One young woman in particular, a short, fair-skinned brunette wearing a Spiderman sweatshirt, hung on every word. She erupted with glee any time Trump was mentioned by name, jumping up and down and screaming “Build the wall! Build the wall!” And she was so infatuated with Milo Yiannopoulos (the controversial Breitbart Tech editor) that when he walked onto the dais she almost started crying.
(M. Peter Rothpletz)
I asked her, casually, what she thought of his comments on feminism. She responded flatly, citing earlier remarks by Yiannopoulos, “I believe in equal rights, it’s just that feminism is worse than cancer.”
I dropped the topic and moved on to Trump. She thought his lack of time spent in Washington was a clear-cut asset, and when I followed up by asking if it might hamper his policy work, she countered, “It doesn’t matter. He’s a genius, all you have to do is look at his businesses.”
We talked a bit more about the real estate tycoon. She loved his children, especially Ivanka, and couldn’t wait to vote in November. It didn’t bother her that I was a reporter — or that I didn’t express agreement (or disagreement for that matter) with anything she said. “I don’t mind people who are neutral. It’s just that no one is really neutral. There’s a reason people call it the ‘liberal media.’” Donald Trump took to the stage then — the crowd exploded, of course — and I didn’t manage to ask her another question until after the rally ended.
We were walking out. She had removed the red, white and blue bows from her hair and was tossing them into the air on beat with Elton John’s “Tiny Dancer.” I asked her what she planned to do should Trump lose. She didn’t answer right away. The question didn’t puzzle her, she just couldn’t find the words she wanted. Then she looked at me and smiled, “That’s the thing, though. He’s not going to lose.”
The traveling press corps combines “the incestuousness of a New England hamlet with the giddiness of a mid-ocean gala and the physical rigors of the Long March,” or at least it did for Crouse and the reporters who covered the 1972 presidential race between Richard Nixon and George McGovern. As Katy Tur explains in an essay chronicling her year as an NBC campaign embed, life on the road has evolved to some extent. For starters, the culture has become distinctly more professional. Journalists spend less time drinking and more time debating objectivity — what it means to strive for balanced coverage in the age of Trump. Not everything has changed, though. Flying, driving and running after the future president is still a family affair. Over the course of the summer you recognize more and more of the usual suspects: Nancy Cordes from CBS, Brianna Keilar from CNN, Jennifer Griffin from Fox News. Awkward conversations get started. They turn into normal conversations, which in turn produce introductions and more awkward conversations.
I met Alex Stone, a national correspondent for ABC News, in the middle of a Trump protest in downtown San Diego. The rally had just ended — it was the one where he questioned U.S. District Court Judge Gonzalo Curiel’s impartiality because of his Mexican heritage — and Trump supporters began flooding into the street. Waiting for them was what Reuters later estimated to be nearly 1,000 demonstrators.
In the heat of a protest — or even a riot — a press pass and camera garner you some protection. You’re generally safe from the line of fire. Bottles and rocks are lobbed at police and rally-goers. Sucker punches, tear gas and smoke grenades are thrown back. People claim different sections of the street, barricade themselves around one another and test just how much the other side will take. Arguments over who is more un-American escalate into screaming matches which erupt into fist fights. Then officers clad in riot gear sweep in as a unit, herding people into smaller, more controllable pockets. Only the press move freely.
Stone and I found ourselves interviewing a SDPD officer. A police helicopter had just announced overhead that the protest had been deemed an “unlawful assembly.” We both wanted to know if officers planned to use tear gas on the hundreds that refused to leave. He declined to comment.
Reporters and cameramen began taking precautionary measures, passing out impromptu gas masks jerry-rigged from the facial screens surgeons use in hospitals. The crowd was getting more volatile: A Trump doll had been hanged in effigy from a lamppost. A group of men wearing military camo responded by hoisting a Confederate flag into the air.
(M. Peter Rothpletz)
I recorded, by happenstance, a neighborly couple in their late 40s walk up to a young woman with olive skin. The man — who was dressed so much like a “typical dad” it scared me — thrust his middle finger into the girl’s face, screaming “Go back to your country! Fuck you and fuck Mexico!”
I looked to Stone, who was also there, also recording. I can remember saying I couldn’t believe this was happening in our country. Political unrest of this scale was something you saw on the news, but never in person, never in a commercial district of San Diego.
All around us massive, faceless men cloaked in Kevlar were throwing people to the ground, wrapping their hands with plastic cuffs. It wasn’t working, though. For every arrest made, three more protesters would brandish masks and rocks and bottles. Everyone was filled with anger, and they didn’t need much provocation to act on it. Nearly as soon as the rally ended, one boy, no older than 16, was screaming for help. His face was covered with blood. He kept shouting, “I don’t even support Trump! Why did they hit me!?”
San Diego and Albuquerque were the two worst protests I witnessed on the road, but they weren’t the only ones. Demonstrations followed both Trump and Clinton all the way to their respective nominating conventions, fluctuating in intensity and violence. I’d greet them nearly every time I walked out of a campaign event, and every time I would be received differently. Some days I would be allowed to take pictures. Other days — especially if I was wearing too much red or blue — they’d curse at me, cover their faces with signs, scream that I was a racist or a socialist or a communist or a bigot.
I’d curate the stories I sent back to my parents. Calls home were light and happy: I’d rave about West Coast weather and discuss the latest episode of Game of Thrones; mentions of tear gas exposure, sucker punches, flying bricks, and the like were edited out. They were only a small part of the summer anyway. What mattered more was simply being on the campaign trail, seeing firsthand what everyone else glimpses on television. It’s tiring. And frustrating. But you keep going because you love it. There’s something incredible about meeting people who are so passionate about the state of their country. You may disagree with their politics, you may disagree with their methods, but that doesn’t matter. You’re there for the adventure, to watch and to report on history.