Three months ago today, the Trump campaign begrudgingly announced that it would suspend the president’s signature mega-rallies “out of an abundance of caution” as coronavirus crisis bore down on the nation. It didn’t take long, though, before Trump was champing at the bit to get back in front of his adoring crowds. And on Tuesday, after two weeks of nationwide protests in the wake of George Floyd’s death, Trump decided the moment had come. By Wednesday, a date was set: June 19, in Tulsa, Oklahoma.
“Americans are ready to get back to action and so is President Trump,” campaign manager Brad Parscale said in a statement. “The great American comeback is real and the rallies will be tremendous.” Deputy campaign communications director Erin Perrine tweeted out a slick video of footage from former Trump rallies. “This month, we’re back,” it exulted.
That footage—cheering, shouting people packed into every seat of monster arenas—is the kind of thing to make some epidemiologists wake up in a cold sweat. But the president’s biggest fans have been longing for this to happen for almost as long as rallies have been suspended.
A few weeks ago, I spent an afternoon hanging out with a group of those superfans from around the country—over a Zoom video call, naturally. Over the last several years, these folks, who call themselves the Front Row Joes, have developed a reputation as the most diehard of the president’s rallygoing supporters.
For enthusiasts, Trump rallies aren’t just a way to see a favorite politician up close. They are major life events: festive opportunities to get together with like-minded folks and just go crazy about America and all the winning the Trump administration’s doing. That goes triple for the Joes, who have built a close community around their shared passion of going to every Trump rally they possibly can.
Their de facto ringleader is Randal Thom, a Minnesota man who has been religiously attending the rallies since the ancient year of 2015. “My first rally was in Spencer [Iowa]; we went, I was impressed. I said ‘Wow, I like this guy.’ So I decided to go to a second one, and then I said I really like him, and then by the third one all of a sudden we started seeing the same people. Started saying, ‘Hey, are you going to the next one?’”
They take the “Front Row” part seriously, too, frequently camping out in line for days to ensure they’ll get the best seats in the house. A Trump rally is a party for anyone who goes; for the Joes, it’s an honest-to-God MAGApalooza.
Unsurprisingly, then, the rally cancellations have upended their lives more than most. I wanted to ask how they were taking it—and whether they’d hesitate to hurry back if the pandemic was still raging when they resumed. For the latter question, most of them were resolute: When the rallies start, they’ll be there.
“My dream and hope is they’ll rent a big stadium,” Thom said. “If that happens, then we are all going to be down there come hell or high water. We’ll all meet, and we’ll get there three, four days ahead of time.”
Of course, the Joes have missed the rally experience. But it’s more than that: Several of them spoke as though they had a sense of personal duty to the president to attend.
“I know our president needs to see his base, and the base needs to see him,” Thom said. “We love him, we do. He inspires us, and we know when we’re at that rally, our job is to inspire him. We can tell that he’s missing interacting with us. I mean, they’ve had him locked away from who he’s fighting for. Having to be around these swamp creatures, Fauci and Birx and stuff—it’s eating at him. We know that it’s eating at him.”
Cindy Hoffman, who owns a tool-sharpening business with her husband in Hudson, Iowa, and takes most of the group’s pictures, agreed.
“I can’t imagine how—I’m not going to say depressed—but how much he must need a rally,” she said. “I mean, he just beams with excitement when he sees us all there. He just comes alive. And I just feel so sorry for him, every day, every day all this crap they’re doing, no matter which way he turns.”
It isn’t that they’re unconcerned about the virus. Any chance of that came to an end after “one of our dear close members,” a young man named Ben Hirschmann, died of COVID back in late March. Hoffman was choked up as Thom talked about him: “He was the epitome of what we are as Front Row Joes. … It was love at first sight, as far as friendship.”
But Hirschmann’s death didn’t push them to pay more attention to what public health authorities have said about the virus. Just the opposite: They maintain that their friend died a preventable death because of telehealth orders put in place earlier that month by Michigan Gov. Gretchen Whitmer, which led him to be misdiagnosed until it was too late.
They were further jaded by the tiff over hydroxychloroquine, the anti-malarial drug that Trump touted, and which the Joes believe was squelched by a Trump-deranged medical community. (A number of studies have shown hydroxychloroquine to be ineffective at treating COVID-19, although a study alleging it to be harmful to COVID patients was recently retracted.)
“The malaria drug—here it’s illegal for doctors to prescribe it, the drug stores won’t give it to us,” said Libby Earle of Connecticut. “Trump came forth and said he takes it every day, as a precautionary measure. … The doctors here have forgotten about the Hippocratic Oath. It isn’t about their oath anymore, it’s Trump Derangement Syndrome. Anything he mentions, they’re not going to use.”
When it comes to the best way to avoid the virus, the Joes showed some rare disagreement (rare for our talk, anyway; they say they argue all the time). Thom, Hoffman, Cynthia Barton of St. Louis, and Diane Ventura, a Pennsylvania pro-Trump activist, all agreed they wouldn’t wear masks, albeit all for their own reasons.
Hoffman: “It’s ineffective, and it just makes you look like you’re a sheep following what they tell you to do.”
Barton: “I suffocate with them; I have asthma.”
Ventura: “Science tells us that when you breathe your own carbon, it is not as good as breathing oxygenated air. … We are smart enough to know that God has created our immune system to get viruses, and you’re stronger on the other side of it. … Keep wearing a mask, do me a favor, put a plastic bag over your head too to make sure the mask stays on.”
Libby Earle, a pro-mask outlier, took issue with that last bit. “You know, I think that’s kind of a little bit unfair. I put my mask on and I leave it there the whole time, and my gloves. And I don’t consider myself an idiot. My husband has cancer, and I’m compromised as well. We’re both in our 60s and I’m taking it real careful. Don’t call us idiots.”
For his part, Thom had his own reason not to worry about a mask: He’s pretty sure he already went through COVID after coming down sick at a Trump rally back at the end of January. “I was messed up. It was so early they didn’t have any of the tests.”
Earle agreed: “I’m sure Randal had it. I called Randal during that time; he was so goddamn sick I thought he was going to die.”
Thom has not, however, taken the antibody test that can confirm a previous COVID infection: “I don’t want to be part of their statistics.”
As we talked, it became clear that the Front Row Joes weren’t just missing the rallies for Trump’s sake—they were missing the experience of their community, too. You can form pretty deep friendships over a mutual enormous investment in a passion like chasing a political campaign around a country, and the Joes undoubtedly have. They call and text every day. When Cindy Hoffman’s mother died a couple years ago, Thom and a few others surprised her by trekking out to attend the funeral. They planted a tree in her yard and signed the wall of her home, up above where she’d hung a bunch of canvas prints of pictures from the rallies: “In memory of your sweet momma. Love you Cindy. Front Row Joes.”
Thom misses being a minor celebrity at the rallies, too. He regaled me with stories of brushes with Trump, with his sons, his staffers. His picture is in official campaign literature.
“The rallies are really deep for us,” he said. “We live for it, I mean. … At one time in my life I was a crack addict. Candidate Trump gave me a whole new thing to really strive for and be involved. He’s changed my life a lot. It’s been a fun, positive thing. I’ve met so many great people from around the country. I mean, all across the country, where they come up and they go, here’s Front Row Joe!”
“I don’t know who they are; they’ve been following me, watching my posts. And how much I help influence them, I didn’t realize that. It’s cool, you know, that’s an interesting thing. It gave me a lot of buoyancy to know that, me being me, has been able to be somebody.”
After the announcement about the rallies this week, I texted Thom to check in. He was fired up.
“We will call them protests to keep the liberal MSM from melting down,” he said, “cause we sure as hell ain’t going to worry about social distancing and masks, either.”
According to the New York Times, he shouldn’t have a problem getting in: “Trump campaign officials are unlikely to put into place any social distancing measures for rally attendees, or require them to wear masks,” the paper reported Wednesday, on the grounds that Oklahoma is “so far along in its reopening.”
I left Thom in the thick of planning his trip to Tulsa, 600 miles away by van—a friend from Florida is flying up to make the drive with him, and they’ll meet another from Ohio to caravan with on the way. He’s heading out Sunday, which will give him plenty of time to camp out.
One who won’t be in attendance: Libby Earle. As she’d said on our call, she’s playing it careful: “It’s just not the risk time right now. Not for me. For others, yes, and when I was younger I sure did, a real risk-taker all my life. Not right now.”
At the time, she’d been holding out hope for a reprieve: She’d just taken the antibody test the day before and was waiting on her results. “I’m gonna go wild if I have an immunity to it. But then all your hopes are there—because if I’m not, oh God, then you’re back to the drawing board again.”
She and her husband, like Thom, had been sick earlier in the year, and were desperately hoping it had been COVID.
“It’s more than just me, you know? Because I also have to worry about him. And the idea, like if I came home and then suddenly he’s sick, you know. And with my lung condition too. … I’m just hoping I do have the antibodies, because then man, I’m on the road, I’m in the car, I’m going. I want to go visit Randal, probably go to New York and meet Diane for Flag Day. I’m gonna do it all. But I just gotta have that little—I’ve just got to know.”
I checked back in with Libby later over email. She hadn’t gotten the result she wanted. “Homebound. Still.”
In the meantime, she’s finding ways to keep busy: “I like to paint. Van Gogh. I started about 2 yrs ago. But I like rallies more!”
And she hasn’t given up hope that she might have had the virus. She wasn’t sure whether the antibody test was from the company she’s heard is reliable. And she’s heard that if you test negative, you should try again three weeks later; she plans to do exactly that. Her life, she hopes, might be only that far away.
Photo by Tom Brenner/Getty Images.