Reporter Andy Chow remembers the woman, in part, because he had been kind to her before the Donald Trump rally began in Columbus, Ohio.
She had arrived in a wheelchair. Chow, who works for Ohio Public Radio’s Statehouse News Bureau, saw her struggling to maneuver the entrance and rushed to assist her. It was a gentle moment between strangers.
A few minutes later, Chow found himself on the receiving end of this same woman’s ire, sort of.
As is his habit lately, Trump began to mock the journalists in the room, and asked the crowd to join him. They turned toward the reporters and photographers, herded into the mandatory pen, and began to taunt them.
To Chow’s surprise, the woman in the wheelchair joined in. She chanted the angry words, he said, but her face didn’t mirror the requisite rage.
“It was as if she were saying, ‘I am not angry at you — this is for fun,’” Chow said. “It kind of felt like the old World Wrestling Federation matches. You booed the bad guys, but it was all in fun. It sort of put it in perspective for me.”
I first heard about Chow’s encounter with the Trump fan from Chow’s colleague, Karen Kasler, during a panel discussion I moderated on media and civility recently at the statehouse in Columbus. We shared the stage with Akron Beacon Journal Managing Editor Doug Oplinger and retired newspaper reporter Bill Hershey. We had agreed to discuss the media’s role in the declining civility of campaign coverage.
No one on the panel attempted to claim we bear no responsibility in this regard. Every newsroom is an annex to the Island of Misfit Toys, and our professional zeal often dishonors our upbringing. But when our discussion turned to how to cover Trump, the conversation shifted to the issue of growing concern for the safety of our fellow journalists.
For months now, Trump has regularly targeted our colleagues in the room to stir up rage in his supporters. He has made a game of mocking the media, particularly television photographers who refuse to obey his orders and scan for crowd shots.
At his February rally in Biloxi, Mississippi, for example, Trump repeatedly pointed to the cameraman — readily identifiable to the crowd — and shouted:
“Turn it. Turn it. Turn it. Spin it. Spin the camera. Spin the camera. Look at the guy in the middle. Look at the guy in the middle. Why aren’t you turning the camera? Why aren’t you turning the camera? Terrible. It’s so terrible. Look at him — he doesn’t turn the camera. It’s a disgusting — I tell you, it’s disgusting…”
This taunting went on for more than six minutes, with the crowd egging on Trump, to his obvious glee.
I am not the only journalist concerned about where this could lead, which is why I drew a bit of comfort from Andy Chow’s account of that kind woman pretending to hate him. It reminded me of a 2011 tea party rally I attended in suburban Cleveland.
The rumors of a Mitt Romney appearance proved to be unfounded, but the crowd was having a great time anyway. As I wrote at the time, the longest and most fiery speech of the day came from Apostle Claver T. Kamau-Imani of RagingElephants.org.
“We do not stand for bipartisanship,” he yelled. “Do not be yoked together with nonbelievers.”
In case someone had missed who he was going after: “I have nothing in common with someone who doesn’t believe in Jesus Christ,” he said.
The crowd cheered.
I made note of a number of the audience members clapping and interviewed them after his speech. I wanted to know if they really believed they should not mingle with nonbelievers. With Jews, for example.
They looked shocked by the question.
When I read back Kamau- Imani’s words about Jesus, every last one of them assured me they didn’t agree “with that part” of Apostle Claver’s creed.
And you know what? I believed them.
I walked away from that rally thinking I’d met a lot of mostly decent, disenfranchised Americans who felt they’d finally found a club that wanted them.
Connie Schultz is a Pulitzer Prize-winning columnist and professional in residence at Kent State University’s school of journalism.