A week ago, Joe Biden came to Atlanta, where I live, for a drive-in rally. Among the several hundred attendees was a Black man named Ed—a retired salesman who, like most of the Biden supporters at the event, was wearing a mask. “I’m here because my father was in World War II, and it’s reported that this President said that those that served in the military were ‘losers’ and ‘suckers,’ ” Ed told me. “That hit me hard.” Ed was wearing camo pants and desert boots and a large blue placard that read “VOTE DEMOCRATIC.” “He’s a racist,” he said, referring to Trump. “I have no respect for him.”
I met Ed near a separate crowd at the Biden rally: Trump supporters, many of whom arrived early to tout their support for the President, chanting “Four more years!” and shouting questions about a laptop belonging to Joe Biden’s son Hunter. One young man was in costume as a shirtless Hunter Biden, a look derived from a photo reportedly found on the computer in question. This group, maybe a hundred strong, was predominantly white. Initially, a street effectively divided the Trump and Biden supporters, but Ed crossed it, walking toward the Trump camp, and I followed him.
Ed raised his hands in victory as he strode among his political opponents. He let out a joyous yawp. “Let’s go!” he shouted. A chant of “Four more years!” grew louder. Ed raised his voice through his mask: “He’s racist as hell!” He was undaunted by the hostility this triggered; if anything, he might have been enjoying it. A middle-aged white man in Trump duds and a mask stood watching, and, after a few minutes, approached me. He seemed to think that Ed and I were in cahoots. “You think you’re cool, with your stupid fucking friend?” he said.
I had an audio recorder with me, which I held near the man as I asked him for his name, explaining that I was a reporter. He told me that it was Steve Allen. I asked him what the problem was. Partly, he said, it was Ed. And me. “You guys, like, fucking pushing shit, but then, when it comes down to it . . . right? You want to antagonize, but you’re a fucking little faggot.”
I’ve reported from Trump rallies before; Allen’s rhetoric, though reprehensible, was not especially surprising. I reminded him that I was a reporter and that what he said might be published. I added that I was standing in a public place and again asked what his problem was. “You,” he said. “You’re a fucking little wise-ass.” I asked if I could take a picture of him, and he gave me the bird as I snapped it. Then, leaning quite close, he said, “I’ll punch your fucking face.” Meanwhile, an older man near us had begun shouting at Ed, “Black Lives MAGA.” “You’re damn right we do,” Ed replied. “B.L.M. is a Communist organization,” another white man, in sunglasses with a Confederate emblem, said. Allen continued standing close to me, muttering about ways he could hurt me. It can be hard to differentiate bluster from real threats, particularly when the possible blusterer is behind a mask, but he seemed capable of making good on his promises.
Then a woman approached, and I recognized her. I had spoken to her a week before, while reporting a story about the state of the races in Georgia. Her name is Debbie Dooley, and she’s a local Tea Party activist. I first talked with Dooley a few years ago, at the suggestion of a friend of my mother’s, a lobbyist who works on environmental issues—Dooley, an advocate for solar power, had become an unlikely ally.
I gave her a side hug and motioned toward Allen, addressing him by name and describing a bit of what he’d been saying. She looked shocked, and confused. So did Allen. “That’s my boyfriend, Jason,” Dooley said. “Jason,” she said, turning to the man. “Did you really say that to Charles?” She proceeded to scold him a bit, telling him to be nice to me.
I went elsewhere, but Jason found me a little later. “My mask was irritating my beard,” he said, by way of explanation. “And I’m really sweating in this flannel shirt.” I reminded him what he’d called me. “Did I say that?” he said, laughing. “I don’t think I said that. Why would I say that?” He went on, “I don’t really like all this politics stuff. It just makes people crazy.” He’d only come because of Dooley, he said. He was once “a cage fighter,” he added, but he wouldn’t have hit me. I told him I appreciated that, and said I hoped it applied to other people, too.
Dooley spotted me as I headed to my car, and walked up to me. “I can’t wait until this election is over,” she said. I saw a truck pause in the road, and several Trump supporters climbed out; one of them stumbled and fell on his way to the curb, and a few folks on the Biden side of the street laughed. Biden started speaking shortly afterward. Most of it was hard to make out over the honking horns and the shouting, but I heard him repeat the word “opportunity.”