In April of 2016, Donald Trump, who was then a candidate for the Republican presidential nomination, held a campaign rally at the Crowne Plaza Hotel in Warwick. Standing in front of four American flags and wearing his signature red tie, the 69-year-old former reality star addressed a “huge” crowd of hundreds of supporters.
What followed was a typical Trump speech: a rambling, unfocused, self-aggrandizing, and hateful rant, punctuated frequently with insults. He spoke about the wall he intended to build on the U.S.-Mexico Border. (“It’ll go up fast and it’ll be big and it’ll be high and strong and it’s going to help stop the drugs from pouring into Rhode Island where you have a big problem.”) He called members of the news media the “most dishonest people in the world.” He complained about the amount of time President Barack Obama spent on vacation and playing golf. He touted his recent endorsement from the infamously ruthless and racist Arizona sheriff, Joe Arpaio, whom he called “a great guy.” He criticized the recent increase of the number of Rhode Islanders on food stamps, and disparaged the fact Syrian refugees were reportedly being resettled here. “We have our incompetent government people letting them in by the thousands,” he said of those refugees. “And who knows, who knows maybe it’s ISIS.”
After forty minutes, he brought his speech to a close with a familiar promise about the success that awaited Americans if they elected him. “Some of you may get tired of winning,” he said. “You may say, ‘Please, please, we can’t take it anymore, Mr. President…’ And you know what I’m going to say, ‘I’m sorry we’re going to keep winning.’” As he left the stage, the crowd screamed and chanted “Trump!…Trump!…Trump!”
Later in the year, after Trump had secured the Republican nomination, his running mate, Mike Pence, made a visit to the Ocean State for a private fundraiser at a five-acre, $17.5 million mansion in Newport owned by a retired partner from Goldman Sachs. The event, for which tickets ranged from $1,000 to $25,000, took place days after the publication of Trump’s “Grab ‘em by the pussy” tape by the Washington Post, but Pence reportedly assured RIGOP Chairman Brandon Bell that “we’re going to get through this, we’re going to be OK.’” Bell later said that about 75 people attended the event and contributed a combined total of around half a million dollars.
I mention these two events because, amidst the barrage of news that followed Donald Trump’s campaign kickoff in June 2016, it can be easy to forget that the twisting, ugly story of his rise to the presidency winds through our little corner of the country. But it did — and beyond those visits from Trump and Pence, Trumpism came to Rhode Island as well. This may have come as a surprise to those who still think of Rhode Island as, to quote City Journal in 2014, “a blue state in its purest form.” But these are facts worth facing if we’re ever going to properly move on from this dark era.
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Trumpism’s presence in Rhode Island was most visible in voting numbers. Despite his lifetime of grift, shameless self-promotion, dishonesty, business failures, wage theft, and sexual misconduct allegations, and a norm-shattering campaign that featured astonishing displays of racism and ill-fitness for the presidency, Trump pulled in 180,543 votes in Rhode Island’s 2016 presidential election, which was 38.9% of the votes cast. Four years and hundreds of should-have-been-disqualifying actions later, he received 199,843 votes in Rhode Island. For perspective: that’s enough voters to fill McCoy Stadium nineteen times over. It’s more people than live in Warwick, Cranston, and Newport, combined.
But you didn’t have to look at election results to find local shows of support for the 45th president. In Rhode Island, the Trump years brought rallies at the State House, boat parades in Narragansett Bay, car caravans that traversed the state, and the opening of a pro-Trump merchandise store in Smithfield. Two separate bookstores — one in Middletown, one in Barrington — hosted book events for Sean Spicer after the release of his White House memoir, which even the right-leaning Wall Street Journal panned. (Spicer and his fellow disgraced Trump-admin alum, former National Security Advisor Michael Flynn, are now reportedly neighbors in Middletown.)
That support for Trump was echoed by various local public office holders. Cranston Mayor and two-time Republican gubernatorial candidate Allan Fung attended Trump’s inauguration, where he wore a Trump hat and posted a smiling, thumbs-up photo to Facebook. And, this year, Fung’s wife, Barbara-Ann Fenton-Fung, who toppled House Speaker Nicholas Mattiello in a major state-rep election upset, confirmed to The Public’s Radio that she would be voting for Trump. Meanwhile, four years of Trump apparently weren’t enough to dissuade former RI House Minority Leader Brian Newberry from continuing to support Trump. He told the Boston Globe that Trump had won his support due the tax-reform package he passed, and his roster of judicial appointments. The following month, Newberry tweeted, “Trump is a jerk. But a vote for president, more than any other office, is a vote not just for one person but for hundreds of appointees. I want a GOP cabinet, judges etc. With Trump I ignore what he says. It’s often ridiculous. I look at what he does and it’s been pretty good.”
Speaking of politics, Trumpism was also on display in the crop of Trump-y candidates who tried to bring his blustering, arrogant, and cartoonishly macho brand of right-wing politics to Little Rhody. There was state rep Michael Chippendale, who called one of the survivors of the Parkland, Florida school shooting a “dummy” on Twitter. (He later apologized.) There was gubernatorial candidate Giovanni Feroce, who arrived on the campaign with an armful of litigation-and-business-failure baggage, answered reporter’s questions with belligerent nonsense, dismissed Trump’s predatory comments in the Access Hollywood tape, and once called himself a “smart motherfucker” and boasted “there is no one that has more experience than me in this fucking world.” There was the former state representative, Joseph Trillo, Trump’s 2016 Rhode Island honorary campaign chair, who supported Trump’s Muslim ban, called his fellow gubernatorial candidate “pansies,” and issued a gratuitous press release blasting Starbucks for racial sensitivity training. In the weeks since the 2020 election, five losing Republican candidates, including one who lost by more than 44,000 votes, have questioned the validity of the results. Providence Journal reporter Patrick Anderson called this “The Trump effect.”
Feroce and Trillo’s campaigns may have fizzled, but Trumpism seeped into our lives in other ways, including the media we consumed. The month after Trump’s election, WPRO talk show host Tara Granahan tweeted a photo of a Muslim man praying in a local parking garage, asked, “Would you be suspicious…?” and encouraged people to call in with their thoughts. On local TV, WJAR anchors Alison Bologna and Frank Coletta took part in Sinclair’s “Orwellian” must-run segment on “biased and false news” that echoed the Trump administration’s journalism-bashing talking points. Even the ProJo wobbled, with an election-day announcement that, in its “Biden Claims Victory” wording, undermined Joe Biden’s victory and gave needless credence to false allegations of voter fraud. (To his credit, Journal executive editor Alan Rosenberg explained his thinking behind the decision.)
But perhaps the ugliest evidence of Trump’s local influence were the acts of hatred, prejudice, and intimidation that took place within our state’s narrow confines. The Trump presidency saw hate crimes rise to record levels in the U.S., and Rhode Island, too, saw its share of ugliness. There were swastikas scrawled publicly at a synagogue in Pawtucket, a stadium in Cranston, and a bathroom at the Rhode Island School of Design.Anti-Muslim graffiti scrawled on a mosque near in University of Rhode Island was so unsettling that it was denounced at the national level by the Council on American-Islamic Relations. Last year, a 30-year-old North Kingstown man was arrested for sending “graphically violent and threatening emails to a college professor” who had expressed support for abortion; he also admitted to leaving dozens of threatening voice mails at a women’s health center in the state. Later in 2019, Congressman David Cicilline shared a voicemail he had received during which the caller warned of an upcoming civil war, threatened Cicilline, and said “You’re my enemy. You’re trying to impeach my president, punk.”
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The point of this exercise isn’t necessarily to name and shame those who supported Trump despite his manifest unfitness for public office. Although I do think it’s important to hold local officials and other powerful people to account for their past and current positions, to ask them pointed questions about why they supported Trump, and to make sure they don’t wriggle out of their past positions due to political convenience.
I present these facts more because I think it’s important to wrestle with the questions they raise. Among them: Which communities and people in Rhode Island were most affected by Trumpism? What can we do to help them? And what do we do when almost two fifths of the state’s voters support an openly and unapologetically fascistic politician? What does moving forward from this look like? And is it even possible?
More than anything, as we venture into a Biden presidency, I think it’s important for Rhode Islanders to reject any self-flattering delusions that the Trump years happened somewhere else. Sure, Rhode Island was never swallowed whole by Trumpism in the way other states were. But Trump and Pence campaigned here and received roars of approval and bags of money. Key figures in the Trump administration grew up here and then returned here after their stints in Washington. Trump was praised, defended, and mimicked by politicians here, and he received almost two hundred thousand votes, which was enough to carry nearly a dozen cities and towns. And, throughout it all, we witnessed flashes of the hatred and division and anti-democratic, non-reality-based political positions that are an inextricable part of the 45th president’s political brand.
These facts may make us uncomfortable, but that doesn’t make them any less true. We ignore them at our peril.
[An earlier version of this piece linked a swastika-painting incident at Providence College to support for President Trump. But a WJAR report on the incident, based on an interview with an unnamed source, indicates that the suspect in that case may have been motivated by anti-slavery and/or anti-American sentiment. To avoid any confusion, the reference has been removed.]