Thousands poured into Minden and Henderson for one of the few in-person campaign events expected to take place in the Silver State during an election cycle altered by coronavirus, braving smoke in the north and unrelenting summer sun in the south for a chance to hear the president speak amid a close race between Donald Trump and Joe Biden.
Cars and trucks plastered with Make America Great Again stickers and proudly flying American flags filled dirt lots in both Northern and Southern Nevada, overflowing into surrounding neighborhoods and even parking along highways and streets. From the parking lots, the campaign shuttled rally-goers to the venues where they heard from leaders of the Nevada Republican Party and, eventually, the president himself.
Though pollution from nearby fires lent a grey tint to the air and landscape, none of the attendees in Minden seemed to care. People decked out in red, white and blue attire stood in line chatting, waving Trump signs and spontaneously breaking out into chants of “USA” and “four more years!”
Attendees in Northern Nevada were so excited to see the president that they pushed down the security barricade and rushed in to grab a seat around 5 p.m., two hours before Trump’s scheduled speech.
The rush attracted additional social media scrutiny to an event that was rescheduled to rural, Republican-heavy Douglas County, which made national headlines after the county sheriff told the library system not to bother calling 911 for help when the library included “Black Lives Matter” in a draft diversity statement. It’s also home to a siren that sounds at 6 p.m. each day in what tribes assert is a remnant of a “sundown ordinance” warning indigenous people and non-whites to leave town at dusk.
The event in Northern Nevada had to be moved after the Reno-Tahoe Airport Authority said it could not be held at that airport because it would violate Nevada’s 50-person limit on formal gatherings.
In Southern Nevada, shuttles from a lot located off of Las Vegas Boulevard brought rally-goers to Xtreme Manufacturing in Henderson, where waiting fans had a similar disregard for less-than-comfortable conditions. Some got in line as early as 6:30 a.m. and braved direct sunlight and temperatures that exceeded 100 degrees to try and snag a seat inside the warehouse when doors opened at 4 p.m.
The Henderson Fire Department estimated about 5,600 people congregated inside the venue at the indoor event, and security estimated a total of 20,000 including outside crowds, putting the rally squarely in violation of Nevada’s prohibition on gatherings of more than 50 people, even after the city of Henderson issued a warning a few days prior. A city compliance officer observed six violations of the state’s emergency directives at the event, has issued a business license notice violation to Xtreme Manufacturing and assessed a penalty of $3,000.
Neither the campaign nor law enforcement officials offered any estimates for the size of the gathering in Minden, but the president said 25,000 assembled to hear him speak and others speculated that there were anywhere from 5,000 to 10,000 people or more at the event.
Between the shuttle buses, blaring music, and jam packed crowds, this overtly patriotic Coachella brought in many supporters hoping for a moment of normalcy in an upended election year, even as health officials braced for the potentially deadly consequences of the masses throwing health precautions to the side.
The Nevada Independent spoke with attendees, and these are some of their stories.
Celina Hubbard, 33, arrived at Xtreme Manufacturing in Henderson at 10 a.m. on Sunday, and, even after a six-hour wait in the Southern Nevada heat, was still laughing and joking, excited to see the president she plans to vote for come November.
Hubbard only recently registered to vote. Although she didn’t cast a vote for Trump in 2016, she said her entire family is made up of vocal Trump supporters.
The Las Vegas resident kept her mask in her pocket for the Trump event, although she said she normally wears one when she goes out.
“I thought I’d give myself a day off,” she said. “I’m used to being around people … Usually, I wear my N95 one with the filters.”
She feels good about how Trump has responded to the pandemic and credits him for how many people have survived the virus even after testing positive.
“I think he is handling it quite well. Masks are being handed out. I feel like we have less corona than other countries around here,” she said. “I feel like he’s doing a good job locking it down. Like, people are getting cured, they are getting vaccines [made].”
Delfino and Elviraa Vaga packed their children into the car and drove from their home north of Sacramento to hear President Trump speak in Minden.
The two brought their children along to expose them to democracy in action.
"We're united as a family and we're here to support Trump and to show our kids that we have to stand and let them know we have a voice," Elviraa said.
Elviraa, 32, works part-time as a lunch lady, but her husband, 33, is unemployed following coronavirus-related layoffs, and money is tight.
Delfino pointed out that before the pandemic, the unemployment rate was going down. Though he voted for Obama in 2008 and 2012, Delfino said he wants someone like Trump who “speaks out loud” and would stand up to the status quo.
"To me, a rattlesnake that doesn't rattle is more dangerous," Delfino said. "I'd rather be surrounded by a handful of people that tell me when I'm wrong than to be surrounded by a thousand yes-men."
A nearby group listening to the interview nodded their heads and occasionally punctuated the couple’s words with claps and cheers of affirmation.
"I'm glad to support our president, he has got four more years coming," Delfino said. "If Joe Biden wins this election, this country, no one's going to come here no more. No, one's going to sacrifice and go through great lengths to be here anymore."
Kathleen Robinson will "absolutely" vote for Trump in 2020 just like she did in 2016. Robinson, a manager at a health care company in Las Vegas, said she's been a Trump supporter since he announced his campaign.
"I think he is the one person, the one man who is going to help fix this economy. If anybody can do it, he's a negotiator, and he thinks money. He's all business and he's not a politician," she said. "I knew right away this will be the man to get it done."
But the economy isn't her only reason for supporting Trump. She enjoys "everything he's doing for the country," including his support of the Second Amendment, which she had printed on her back in a red and blue, football-style jersey.
Robinson, a Black woman, said that people would be surprised at just how many people of color support Trump even though the stereotype of Trump supporters is that they are white.
"Because of the hate that you get for saying that you're a Trump supporter, a lot of them just step back and don't really speak out," she said. "But you'd be amazed at how many there are."
As attendees waited in line in Minden, a drag queen wearing a Lady MAGA USA sash and waving red, white and blue pom-poms danced through the crowd.
"By dressing up as a drag queen for Trump, I am very deliberately and openly defying the stereotype of conservatives, because they are not homophobic, they are not hateful, I am welcome here," Lady MAGA USA said.
Originally from Salt Lake City, Lady MAGA USA said that he grew up in the Mormon church and when he came out as gay, thought that the only option for him politically was to become a Democrat.
However, Lady MAGA USA said that after he started supporting President Trump, friends of his ostracized him, and various LGBTQ community members threatened and insulted him. He said he refers to the LGBT community as a cult and said there is no diversity of thought.
"You can't love America. You can't support your president Donald Trump. And their LGBT narrative is so anti-Christian, so anti-traditional family. And I feel like the beauty of America is there's room for everyone, even people who might not want to bake me a cake at their bakery," he said. "And the reality is I will survive that. I will be just fine. And their religious freedom is more important than my personal feelings."
Though Lady MAGA USA said that he knows some of the attendees at Trump rallies are not fond of the idea of someone dressed up in drag, they generally leave him alone out of respect for his First Amendment rights.
"All of the deep hate and the threats and the insults and the mockery has come from the LGBT community," Lady MAGA USA said. "I have people around here cheering me on saying, ‘you are welcome here,’ where if I were to wear my Trump gear and go to a gay night club or a mainstream drag show, I would literally be asked to leave. And I would fear for my safety."
Olivia Vieira's mom was the one who had the idea to drive the six or so hours from their home in the central coast of California to attend the Trump rally in Henderson, but she didn't have to drag a reluctant 13-year-old: Vieira wanted to come because she supports Trump, too, and has since he ran in 2016.
"I understand him more now than I did when I was nine years old. I understand more what he goes towards," she said. "When he ran in 2016, I was just like 'oh he's just president, it won't affect me because I'm not an adult.' But now I'm thinking how it will affect me when I do become an adult."
Vieira supports Trump's philosophies and admires his persona. In four years, she'll be able to vote in the next presidential election and register for the Republican Party, but she's already been politically engaged and is hoping to help with a campaign for her town's mayoral election this year.
A first-year student at a private Catholic high school, Vieira said most of her friends don't share her admiration of Trump.
"It's mainly because they take what the news and their parents and the internet gives them instead of going out and seeing the stuff that's going on and actually resonate with issues in the community," she said. "They have very Republican philosophies. They believe in Republican stuff, but they just don't like him. I don't know why."
Deborah and Brian Torrey were not expecting to end up at a Trump rally when they first put their Vegas trip on the calendar two years back.
The Michigander couple were planning to come for a vacation in April, but their plans were postponed because of the pandemic, and their new September dates happily coincided with a visit from the president, whom they both voted for in 2016.
“We’re Americans,” said Brian, 54. “We like to promote America.”
While they did not wear their masks at the event, the two said they’ve been wearing them pretty consistently on their trip, with mask rules and social distancing protocols strongly enforced in the casinos they’ve visited. That’s a stark contrast to their hometown, where they said masks are rarely, if ever, worn.
“Everybody asks us … ‘Why’d you go out to Las Vegas?’ And I said, ‘To learn how to wear a mask,’” said Deborah, 59, as her husband held up his “Trump 2020” mask.
The couple believes Trump is being unfairly blamed for how lockdowns have been handled throughout the U.S. because, ultimately, it was governors who were given control of each state.
“He’s doing his job, better than anybody else would have. They’re trying to blame the man for something he had nothing to do with,” Brian said.
The two think that “hands down,” Trump will win the general election in November, with Deborah even adding that she doesn’t know anybody who is voting for Biden.
“Any moron that votes for Biden is that — a moron,” Brian said. “And I’m trying to be nice.”
The Torrey’s trip hasn’t gone as expected. While the couple have had a full schedule, visiting Red Rock and going on a helicopter ride in addition to their time on the Strip, strict guidelines and fewer visitors have made things feel far less “Vegas.”
And even with the surprise highlight of the Trump rally, the two say the trip isn’t one they’d be excited to repeat.
“Vegas isn’t Vegas anymore,” said Brian. “If things don’t change, we won’t be back.”
Jarred Smith, a 21-year-old from Minden training to be a helicopter pilot, said that he is unequivocally voting for Trump, especially after all the recent protests and political turmoil.
"I don't want the country to end up like Portland, and I feel like if Joe Biden gets into office, there's just going to be no law and order left," Smith said.
His mother, Kelle Sampson, owns a local design business and said that Trump's background speaks to her as a small business owner.
"I actually think that Trump has done a lot for women, businesses, you know, African-Americans,” she said. “I think he's got a great business sense and I totally support him 100 percent.”
Both Smith and Sampson said their top policy priorities are immigration, China and the military. Asked about polling showing Biden with a slight edge over Trump in Nevada, Smith gestured at the crowd.
"Look at the turnout,” Smith said. “This is a small town. How can he not win Nevada this time around?"
Neither Smith nor Sampson wore masks. Smith said most people are blowing the virus out of proportion, and he's healthy, so he's not worried at all. Sampson said that as they got closer to the venue, she would put on her mask.
"I think it's important to protect myself and others, so I have no problem wearing it," Sampson said, adding that she's used to wearing it at work.
Regardless of the pandemic, however, Sampson and her son did not want to miss listening to the president.
"I'm just super excited about this,” Sampson said. “I'm glad he's here in Minden so we can be a part of it.”
Sunday’s event in Henderson was the third Trump rally Las Vegas resident Heather Borggard, 46, has been to and the first for her 11-year-old daughter Mary.
“Are you afraid your friends are going to hate you for coming here?” Heather asked her daughter, laughing.
“No,” Mary said, adding that she thought the event was “pretty cool.”
Heather was previously registered as an independent, but after voting for Trump in 2016 and saying she was glad to see him make good on promises he made during his campaign, she made the choice to register as a Republican.
“Over the years, I feel like he has proven that he means what he says,” she said. “And I can count on him to do the things that I voted for in the first place.”
Heather didn’t vote in Nevada’s 2020 primary election because she’s uncomfortable with the mail-in voting system and says she plans to vote in person in November.
“I think the legitimacy of results will be in question in either direction,” she said of the mail-in plan. “I don’t have a lot of faith in that.”
She added that she supports voter ID laws, and believes even with in-person voting they’re important to ensuring an election’s legitimacy.
“I believe that each person who’s registered should have to prove that they are the person who’s registered in order to cast that vote,” she said.
Michael Pannone, a 65-year-old retired highway worker, came to the Henderson Trump rally decked out in Trump gear from head to toe: colorful Trump shoes, a navy "Make America Great Again" shirt and a red Trump 2020 cloth mask.
"He's a New Yorker, I'm an ex-New Yorker. We tell it how it is," he said. "That's why I don't think a lot of people like Donald: because he's very blunt."
Though he might have brought his New York City frankness to Las Vegas, Pannone, a life-long registered Republican who lists economy, guns and immigration as his policy priorities, said he did not bring the liberal ideologies the city is known for.
"I was Republican, I wanted to get out of New York," he said. "Ten years ago when we first moved here, Nevada was more Republican than it is now. And I just hope the state's not going blue for good. We're getting a lot of people in from California, and they're bringing their ways with them."
Despite Nevada going blue the last three presidential election cycles, Pannone thinks this election will be different because of the state of the economy. He thinks that Trump is "doing the best he can" with the pandemic and that the responsibility for the economy lies on governors.
Pannone disagrees with Gov. Steve Sisolak's decision to keep local bars closed as he thinks that the Strip, not small businesses, is the epicenter of the virus spreading in Las Vegas. He's also frustrated that Sisolak waited several weeks before applying for Trump's Lost Wages Assistance program that comes with a $300 per week add-on in unemployment benefits.
"I think a lot of people are fed up with Sisolak, and that might carry Trump to victory out here," he said.
Dixie Hodge, a self-employed real estate appraiser from Douglas County, wore a bedazzled “TRUMP” hat to the Minden rally.
She said she appreciates the president's straightforwardness, immigration policies and approach to the economy.
"His values align with mine — free enterprise, no wars, get out of the wars, be able to speak whatever you want to speak, no political correctness," said Hodge, 62. "I think he is really good with the racial biases that are going on … He's a good businessman. You know, that's what you need to run a country."
Though polls show Biden with a slight edge in Nevada, her 30-year-old son Aaron Whalin said the 2016 election results show that polling is inaccurate.
"After ‘16, I dunno,” he said. “I mean, there's no enthusiasm on the left. It's bizarre. Joe Biden just did a rally, I think in Pennsylvania, and it's four people sitting in a backyard. How is he up?"
As far as COVID-19 and the state's response, Hodge said that directives and guidance seem haphazard and political.
"I think it's definitely political, you know, why we're wearing masks and why our businesses are shut down, but the casinos can be open, but I can't go to church," Hodge said. "And it's so random.”
Whalin said shutting down the economy and forcing people to lose paychecks when there are plenty of other diseases and conditions that can harm the public does not make sense.
Asked if he was afraid of catching the virus, Whalin responded, "I'm not afraid of the bogeyman."
Eric Hill, 58, took off his mask to begin eating his lunch near the back of the Henderson venue, watching the speakers from afar as he snacked on potato chips and enjoyed the air conditioning after his long wait outside.
The Las Vegas native said he’s normally very consistent about wearing his mask when in public as he suffers from diabetes and asthma. But he said he’d feel safe enough without it by keeping a distance from other rally-goers and instead sticking close to his wife and son.
“I’m worried about it to an extent, but not really,” he said. “I mean, I stay healthy, I do the things I’m supposed to do.”
While Hill recognizes the need to take certain precautions to stay safe from the virus, he says, in his opinion, the pandemic has been exaggerated as a partisan ploy to make the president look bad.
“I believe what (Gov.) Sisolak is doing is just falling on party lines, and it’s pretty political,” he said. “Sisolak wants to keep the status quo… The numbers were going down for cases, and they don’t want that. Democrats don’t want that because that makes Trump look good.”
Hill, a registered Republican, described Sisolak’s strategy regarding the coronavirus as very “reactive” as opposed to Trump’s more “proactive” moves, including his early travel ban.
He thinks the push being made for a mail-in general election is another partisan-motivated move used to hurt Trump in November, saying he believes Democrats are using the system to harvest votes and talk people into voting for a certain candidate.
“I think it will be a negative [for Trump]. I don’t know to what degree, but I cannot believe it will be a positive,” he said. “I believe the reasons it’s happening are not the reasons the people who are pushing it are giving us… I believe that’s the smokescreen.”
Denise Mercer, 64, first moved to Las Vegas four years ago to take care of her elderly father. Even though she's not a "Vegas fan," she said she could "never go back" to her native California and thinks that if more Californians like herself flock to Nevada, Trump will win the Silver State.
Her sister Glenna Urton, who’s from Humboldt County, California, thinks the outcome of the election will be cut and dried.
"Honestly, I don't think there's any way that Trump's gonna lose," Urton, 66, said. "I'm confident he's gonna win. But I also think if he does, there's going to be like a civil war with the Democrats because they won't accept it."
Urton describes herself as a "die hard Trump fan" and agrees with Trump's political stances, from his "America First" philosophy to the border wall to his stated desire to reinvigorate the manufacturing industry. She liked him as soon as he announced his candidacy in 2015.
"Everything that he said just made sense to me. He wasn't talking in 'politician speak.' He was talking like an American to Americans," she said. "I know a lot of people don't like it, but it doesn't offend me. I enjoy it myself."
When asked about how some people have criticized Trump's attacks on opponents, Mercer highlighted jobs Trump has brought and said he's "done better things than a lot of people."
"We have presidents getting blowjobs. Has he done anything like that? No," Mercer said, referencing President Bill Clinton's infamous scandal.
"Everybody has their faults. At least he says the truth," she said. "I'm for the right person who can do the job. I don't care what party they're from. I don't even like calling myself a certain party. I just want what is best for everybody."
Mercer thinks that's Trump.
Though she declined to give her name, a woman wearing a "MY GOVERNOR IS AN IDIOT" mask said that she wore it because she has a right to do so, regardless of whether she supports the message.
"You and I should both be glad that I get to have the freedom to wear this," the woman said. "We can't be offended by each other, but be happy for each other, having the freedom to speak whatever we want."
She said she worries about losing her freedom of speech, which is why she's voting for Trump.
"I do support Trump, and it's mostly that he is for freedom," the woman said. “There's nowhere else to go. There's no more land. There's no other place in this universe that we can go that we're going to be free."
At the rally, the woman noticed photojournalists taking pictures of her and the mask.
"I see people make faces about it when I wear it and I can see they're taking pictures and it's quite bold," she said. "But, what I want people to say, is like, 'yes,' whether they agree with it or not, 'look that's freedom. This is freedom.'"