On 22 September 2016, in a movie studio near the city of Chester in Pennsylvania, at the far end of a small stage with a campaign poster in the backdrop, stood a statue of Rocky, made in the likeness of Donald Trump, the Republican Presidential nominee. Rocky, the titular character that the actor Sylvester Stallone played in the eponymous movie series, is a boy from the working-class neighborhood of Philadelphia who goes on to conquer the world of professional boxing. Clad in a white T-shirt that said, “Trump-Pence 2016”, the statue struck a victorious pose with its hands in the air. Later that day, Trump would walk on stage to the film’s theme song, ‘Gonna Fly Now.’ The use of this trope was a nod to the location of the rally, just 22 miles away from Philadelphia, in Pennsylvania. The state of Pennsylvania is a battleground this election—both Hillary Clinton, the Democrat nominee, and Trump are tied in the polls here, making it crucial in determining the final outcome.
Nearly 75 percent of Chester’s population is black, and about 33 percent of the town lives in poverty. Over the last few weeks, Trump’s campaign has evolved its messaging to black voters—an attempt to varnish the virulent rhetoric that had underlined the campaign until recently. Some of this rhetoric is on blatant display in a video that was compiled by The New York Timesin August. It features unfiltered voices from Trump rallies, which include racial, sexist and violent slurs.
The support for Trump amongst the black community remains dismal. The average of four national polls put it at 2 percent, behind not just Clinton, but also the two minor party candidates. In early September, the Republican nominee made a bid to mend fences and addressed a black congregation at a church in Detroit, in Michigan, and gave a sit-down interview to the pastor. But as I witnessed during the Trump rally I attended, his supporters and him have a long way to go to bridge the racial divide.
That afternoon, I took a 30-minute train ride from Philadelphia to get to the small station in Chester, about 15 minutes away from the venue. A young black woman picked me up in a slick blue BMW sedan, which stood out in stark contrast to the dozens of shuttered shops and boarded-up houses we crossed on our way to the movie studio at which the rally was being held. Outside the venue, a frail 70-year-old white man stood with a sign that read: “I Love Walls” and “Democrat for Trump.” I watched as another man passing by in an SUV, slowed down, gave the old man a thumbs-up sign, and said, “Thank you, buddy.”
I reached the venue at about 3.45pm, by which time long queues of people had already formed despite the sweltering heat. Trump was scheduled to arrive only by 7 pm. For all of the candidate’s recent nods to black voters, the crowd was almost entirely white. Most of them had come from neighbouring counties that have a predominantly white population. I saw several people wearing campaign gear with messages of varying levels of offensiveness—from “Trump that Bitch,” to “Build the Wall,” to “Les Deplorables.”