Political Punch

After taking a beating at a Trump rally last year, protester Bryan Sanders reflects on what The Donald's presidency means for America

Editor's Note: In May 2016, Bryan Sanders was protesting against Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump until security moved to hustle him out of the Tucson Convention Center. As he was being led out, an audience member stood up and began punching and kicking Sanders. Now that Trump is in the White House, Sanders wrote an essay reflecting on his experience and what it means for the country.

The first thing we must deal with is: the very public beating I took when I was attacked by a Donald Trump supporter while protesting inside a Trump campaign rally. To deal with the public beating I took, we must first deal with the reason for the rally and the reason for all of the special fuss: Donald J. Trump.

For as long as the Constitution and its First Amendment protection of free speech remains law, feel free to say whatever you like about Donald Trump. Whatever you say about him, he is certainly capable of causing quite a special kind of fuss. Trump's special kind of fuss is a brand(ed) new national sensation.

To a certain type of Trump voter, there is literally nothing he can do wrong, and the appropriate response to all of the #Russiagate hype and the things that people say about Trump's lack of fitness for the job is: yawn, you lost, get over it, snowflakes. To another group of a certain type of (currently confused and terrified) American voter, it is already quite obvious that there is simply no precedent for Trump's branded voodoo circus and the all-consuming way in which it has absorbed the entire country into its ominous tornado of information and invective and innuendo and investigation.

Even way down here where I live, in the flyover wasteland of Arizona, it doesn't take a great deal of reading to get a subjective sense that much of New York City has despised Donald Trump since he bluffed his way into Manhattan on a cloud of his father Fred Trump's money and connections a few decades ago—the elder Trump himself having been immortalized as a slum lord in a Woody Guthrie song.

Over the years, Donald Trump has been good friends with people like original political dark artist gangster Roy Cohn and Cohn's protege Roger Stone and has a "record of repeated social and business dealings with mobsters, swindlers, and other crooks," in the words of Trump biographer David Cay Johnston. The two decades since his most recent bankruptcy proceedings saw Trump court the favor of unsavory people with a distinctly Russian locus of movement, partially explaining the current legal imbroglio he finds himself in.

All of this biographical information is some of what made Trump a special candidate for president at the time of his Tucson campaign rally in late March, 2016: Trump has perpetually been a person worth paying attention to. I didn't watch his reality shows, but I've always been intrigued by the rarified class of talented American con artists we refer to rather euphemistically in this country as "the 1 percent"—many of these citizens are fantastically talented and impressive and productive to our collective quality of life, many more are none of these things.

Many of "the 1 percent" are members of a very special class of American indeed—those special, privileged souls who are somehow able to skirt through the suffering and blood and pain of it all: endlessly taking their corporate entities into bankruptcy and litigating and paying fines for illegal behavior and generally pulling off swindles on a massive scale.

Trump is certainly not even the most successful of American con men, and would be unable even to pick up a bar tab if surrounded by the greatest con men of them all, American hedge fund managers. Yet Trump is everlastingly flamboyant in his schemes and lies, and in his special everlasting flamboyance Trump always finds an audience waiting to consume his offerings: America. Trump has been conditioned very well indeed to believe that the American public is always there and will always be there, waiting for him expectantly, ready to be wowed and contorted and corrupted.

Trump was so special in his unique odiousness as a potential President that I personally found it uncontroversial that I would choose to make my way into his public campaign rally at the Tucson Convention Center last March, with a sign featuring the "stars & bars" of the confederate flag superimposed on Trump's face and the words "BAD FOR AMERICA" in big, bright letters. I never would have considered this action for Mitt Romney, as silly and backward as he is, or even the warmonger John McCain or the little invader boy George W. Bush.

Trump is very special.

I wore an American flag shirt to drive home the point that Trump the candidate and Trump the president have a very special political ethos which is irrevocably un-American. The point, which is quite obvious to many of us, that Trump's politics are loathsome to the basic genetic code of a fragile constitutional democracy which in practice is not more than 40 years old. The point that Trump is un-American because he is a woman-hating new racist menace in the tradition of George Wallace, an essentially malignant spectacle threatening everything which makes the country worth a damn.

I was in an American flag shirt and I stood 30 feet or so away from Trump and held up the sign and repeatedly shouted the word "liar" at him. We locked eyes for a moment. I have no doubt that he heard me as he would later say that my voice reminded him of Pavarotti (Seriously. It's been a strange 18 months).

It turns out that those of us who held these opinions about Trump would be proved absolutely correct by Trump himself after he won the electoral college and assumed power, but that's not an especially interesting or surprising aspect of the story.

One interesting part of the story from a meta-personal perspective was the lies Trump told about me personally in the immediate aftermath of the rally.

You may have seen the video of the beating at the time, or in endless stock footage replayings since: there I am, holding the sign my buddy Jimi G. had created depicting Trump as a new white supremacist nightmare, surrounded by thousands of people screaming, "Trump! Trump! Trump!" and other less savory epithets, as one of the security guards hired by the Trump campaign leads me up a flight of stairs.

As this is going on, candidate Donald J. Trump himself is on the PA system shouting something like "get him out of here, he's a disgusting guy" and the crowd is going completely insane. None of this madness around me is registering in real time—it is true that adrenaline is a hell of a drug.

This is the part of the Trump rally experience where a man I had never seen before steps forward from outside my vision, grabs the anti-Trump sign out of my hands, rips it up, and sucker punches me. My whole life would change as a result of this few seconds of drama.

The man continues to punch and kick me until Tucson police intervene and lead him away. It turns out the man who assaulted me was a Trump supporter named Tony Dantrez Pettway: he just happened to be an active duty airman at Davis Monthan Air Force Base. The circumstances of it all were further complicated by the fact that Pettway is black.

Pettway's race would become central to the issue in Trump's retelling of the assault over the days and weeks after the rally in Tucson. Trump told the Washington Post editorial board a series of lies about what had happened: that I had insulted Pettway using racial language; that I had worn a KKK hood; that I had dragged the American flag on the ground and physically assaulted people during the rally. Trump told George Stephanopoulos that I was a "professional agitator" who had been paid by George Soros or other shadowy leftist figures to disrupt Trump in any way possible. He was busy lying about me when he made his infamous "my African American" remark at a campaign rally in California weeks later.

None of the things Trump said about me were true, but no matter. Trump has boldly taken the entire country into a post-factual reality. He offered to pay the legal bills of people who violently attacked his political opponents and then abandoned those poor souls dutiful and foolish enough to comply, people like career Air Force man Tony Dantrez Pettway.

In fact, I ended up offering Pettway what is called a misdemeanor compromise after learning that he would be facing multiple years in prison for the assault that Trump encouraged and inspired.

Sitting President Donald Trump has gleefully told lie after lie about what he has done or not done or intended to do and what other people have said about him or done and what words mean. He has told lies about the lies he has told and the lies he intends to tell. He has called the news media "the enemy of the American people" even as he parades his special lying tornado circus to willing supplicants at Fox News and Infowars and Zerohedge and Breitbart.

The lies Trump told about me amount to little in the grand scheme of the world; the lies Trump may tell us in the future, about a war or the reasons he must deploy a nuclear bomb or whatever the particulars of the case may be—those lies may have disastrous ramifications for the country and the world.

Trump fired the FBI director who wouldn't kowtow to him and he has threatened to fire the special investigator looking into the illegality of his and his associates' activities before, during, and after the 2016 campaign.

Through all of this, the only constant is the sensation of Donald Trump lying and the persistence of his audience in consuming the special lying tornado circus he surrounds himself with.

Whether you hate Trump or love Trump or some strange mixture of both: this is going to be a long, special four years in America.