We’re three rows back at the Trump rally, my mom and I. Mike Pence is thirty feet away, and his eyes look chinkier in real life. I can see the rivers of sweat carving his face.
“Let’s make no mistake,” he says. “The death of George Floyd was a tragedy.”
A few people hoot.
“But you know what else was a tragedy? The senseless acts of looting and violence enacted upon our great American cities.”
The crowd erupts for an entire minute, and Pence looks pissed. I glance at my mom, who is squinting and fanning herself with a MAGA pamphlet, and I’m not sure how much she’s understanding. There are thousands of unmasked white people around us and I’m so paranoid my chest is throbbing, but this is precisely the point.
The idea came to me a week ago, on July 4th, after smoking a joint and drinking seven Miller Lites with my “pod,” other recent college grads who found themselves unemployed and back home in the suburbs of Atlanta. We mainly talked about the degrees to which our lives felt worthless.
I ubered home from the party, carne asada burrito in hand, and ended up crashing on my bed, cradling the half-eaten burrito as I dozed. The burrito slowly sneaked out of my hands, dripping oil and rice all over my shirt, and I started chuckling, my eyes still closed, as an idea shimmied its way into my head: the only way I could convince my mom to turn against Trump was by taking her to his rally.
A sober mind could have never made this connection: during my freshman year “great books” class, we began with the three dramatic heroes of Ancient Greece: Aeschylus, Sophocles, and Euripides. The goal of their tragedies was to induce an overwhelming sense of “catharsis,” or the feeling of purging something from yourself after seeing it performed on stage. According to Aristotle, by watching someone fuck their sister or sacrifice their kid, you would then rid your soul of these pesky tendencies.
My mother is a five-foot-one Korean immigrant, and I’m not sure if she has ever strung together more than a few sentences toward a white person. Like a lot of other second generation immigrants, from the age of seven I was calling Georgia Power, taking my mom to the DMV, and translating during parent teacher conferences. For once, she needed to experience Trump and his people firsthand, and my logic felt airtight: she would face racism, the fealty would be purged, and our family would be restored.
“Thank you, and God bless America,” Pence says in closing, and he gets a mild round of applause—everyone can see that he’s miserable in the heat. The speakers start blasting “Proud to be an American,” which I memorized at the Bible camps my mom made me go to. I find myself humming along—I still listen to the song on my runs sometimes, because when the chorus hits I’m guaranteed to start pumping my fist in the air.
My mom immigrated to the US when she was thirty two, ditching her husband and bringing my infant self as her carry on. We overstayed our visa and lived in a basement for eight years, until my mom saved enough money to start her own dry cleaners. Church people helped us with immigration stuff, and in 2016 she not only became naturalized, but fell in love with her first American politician: Michael Richard Pence. My mom told me everyday that Pence would take back the country from Barack Hussein Obama and redirect its course, by which she meant two things: repeal gay marriage and end abortion.
“Trump—he’s not the greatest guy,” my mom acknowledged back then, whenever I showed her his latest pussy grab. I had been a high school senior, newly politicized and desperate to tell her about how wrong she was about literally everything. She never listened to me, and I never listened to her, but at least we agreed on Trump’s moral bankruptcy.
“But Michael Pence,” she always continued. “Wow, a man who lives for God. I want you to be like him, a great politician, someone who will finally end homosexuality in this country…”
I got her a poster of Pence before I left for college, and it’s still hanging on our living room wall.
“Y’all from around here?” the middle-aged man next to us asks. He’s wearing a Coca-Cola shirt with a matching MAGA hat, and is about as white as my mom is Korean. I nudge my mom, encouraging her to engage with her teammates, but she doesn’t budge.
“Duluth,” I awkwardly fill in.
“Thought so. Koreans?”
I nod as we shake hands. Might as well get the virus now and stop worrying about it.
“I’m over in Alpharetta, but I head over there all the time, mainly cause I’m a sucker for the bim bim bap at Seoul Garden.”
“Very good,” my mom says. “I know the owner. Same church.”
“My mom is really excited to be here—” I begin to say, but I’m cut off by the loudspeaker announcing that Trump is coming on stage.
The stadium isn’t even full, not even a third full, but the cheers are louder than the time that I saw Kanye West and Jay-Z perform together at Madison Square Garden. Coca-Cola guy is going berserk, and a guy in the front row is beating his chest. I can hear a vuvuzela somewhere.
“U-S-A,” the crowd is chanting, but my mom is quiet, and I’m trying to read her face until I realize that the men around us are beginning to stare. Having just got back from college in New York, where white people at least pretended to hide their glares, I had forgotten that Georgians will stare at you until it rips two holes through your body.
For further context, I’ve never had a white male friend, especially one of the fraternal, southern variety, who all scare the shit out of me. I grew up in a part of Atlanta so Asian that sociologists visited our neighborhood and coined a new form of “white flight,” in which white parents were so tired of their kids getting beat out by Koreans that they simply transferred districts, where they could feel better about outperforming poor Black students again.
So, I quickly join the “U-S-A” chant, feeling my pores begin to overflow in ways that I didn’t know were possible.
“Thank you, thank you,” Trump says, pointing at various posters in the crowd, raising his fist in solidarity. He then looks directly at the cameras in front of him. “Can you believe how many of us are seeing beyond the fake news?”
“It’s your guy,” I say into my mom’s ear. “Why aren’t you cheering?”
“Pay attention,” she hisses.
“Turn your cameras around,” Trump orders the press booth. “Show the mainstream media how many Georgians are here.”
Everyone’s waving and booing the camera operators, and I join in. My mom’s waving too, although her hand is limp and barely above her chest.
“Joe Biden is hiding who-knows-where, but I’m here in the great state of Georgia, run by the fantastic Brian Kemp—Brian, come up here, say hello—to let you know that we will win this election and make America great again.”
“Four more years,” the crowd is chanting.
“Latinos,” Trump yells through the din. “I love you Latinos.”
The three pockets of brown people are screaming, and the vuvuzela goes off again.
Two months earlier, I was ready to start my first post-grad job in New York, doing marketing for a biotech startup, but the company reneged their offer in the middle of my Zoom graduation ceremony. “Unprecedented financial difficulties,” are all the words that I remembered from that email, those fuckers. During the ceremony I took three more shots of Peach Svedka and dragged my roommates to a graduation party.
A week after that I flew home, and at the airport I got into my mom’s Toyota sedan. The first thing she did was pull off my mask.
“I just came off of a full flight.”
“You’re immune,” she responded.
“The malaria vaccine you got—it protects against coronavirus too.”
“Have you tried drinking bleach as well?” My mom ignored me and kept driving.
A few days later I was sprawled out on the couch, scrolling through Twitter, watching clips of protests across the country, when my mom snatched my phone out of my hand.
“What the hell?”
“Don’t swear at me. What is this?”
“I bet they’re not showing you all the businesses getting destroyed.”
Later that night she entered my room with a plate of apple slices.
“Move,” she said, and began to type into my laptop, “Michael Kim YouTube.”
She began playing me one of his videos, about how George Soros was controlling Joe Biden’s son, which somehow transitioned into Mr. Kim telling Koreans that Black people would target them just like they did during the LA Riots. He said that these were all signs pointing to Jesus’s Second Coming, that Trump would deal the final blow to the anti-Christ, and as I exited YouTube I wished we could go back to our Michael Pence days.
“Yup umma, got it.” I was too tired to argue, but my mom had a rabid look on her face, dropping her voice to a low whisper.
“Stop reading New York Times, CNN, watch this guy. He’s the only one telling the truth about Trump—”
“Is this the guy telling you corona is a hoax?”
“If we lose the dry cleaners we lose our house too, you know that?”
“Why would they even loot cleaners? To steal dress shirts?”
“Black people hate Koreans.”
“No they don’t, mom.”
“What do you know? All your friends are Indian. I spent ten years working in a beauty supply store.”
Over the next few weeks, however, we didn’t argue about politics—the gulf was just too chasmic. While we spent the days working together at the cleaners, I just nodded at her remarks, my AirPods in for so long that they became bodily appendages. We ended up fighting more about simpler things, such as my future: she made sure that I knew what every one of her church friends’ kids was up to. Why couldn’t I be studying for the CPA exams like Josh Rhee? Peter Choi is already working at Google, couldn’t I do marketing for Google? Why was I coming home smelling like weed, was I having sex too? What a waste of a private school education.
It got to the point where I would replay CCTV footage to see customers come in, overhear two people arguing in the back, cursing each other out in a mongrelized mix of Korean and English, and then slowly back their way out of the store. After work, I took long drives, feeling like an unshaved forty-year-old on the brink of divorce. I would head to a park, smoke, replay the insults I botched in front of my mom, workshop new ones, and then drive back home.
I hope it makes sense, then, that July 4th was a breaking point. My mom had walked into my room, carrying in my laundry and slapping me awake.
“If you love Trump so much,” I said. “There’s a rally next week over in Macon. Let’s go.”
“I have to run the store.”
“It’s on Sunday. You can listen to your church service and I’ll drive you after.”
She picked up the burrito, which had fallen onto my sheets. “It’s been prophesied, by the way. He’s going to win in the fall. We’ve been praying for the past year.”
“Who is we? Your church?”
“Yes. And Michael Kim YouTube, who you obviously have not been watching.”
Trump is going on about how the governor of Michigan is disobeying his orders by locking down the state. The sun is making me dizzy, and I’m pissed that I don’t have water, which was intentional because I thought that dehydration would speed up my mom’s catharsis.
“Wretched Gretchen—she’s killing the livelihoods of hard-working Americans,” he says.
“Op-en up,” the people are chanting.
At that moment, however, I swear to God I make eye contact with Trump. He is looking straight at me and my mom, smirking in his usual way. He then looks back up, quiets the crowd, and whispers into the mic, “We’re gonna make China pay big for sending us the virus.”
The cheers are louder than they’ve ever been.
He waits, and then whispers again, “We’re gonna make them pay big for destroying our economy.”
I’m raising my hands and clapping, and my mom is clapping and saying “ah-men,” but the people next to us are slowly slinking away, creating a little moat around us. Coca-Cola man is still somewhat close, but everyone else has their arms crossed: a Black man in a beige plaid button up, a mildly overweight, sixty-ish guy in a Monster Energy Drink tank top, and two blonde girls dressed like they’re going to the rodeo.
“Tell them,” I say to my mom in Korean, which can’t be helping. “Tell them that you’re on the same side as them.”
She’s quiet, glancing around at possible exit routes, which all of a sudden gives me a burst of confidence.
“I’m not a Trump fan personally,” I announce. “But my mom? My mom loves him, practically worships the guy. I took her here because I want her to be happy. She says he’s prophesied to win come November.”
I take off my mom’s MAGA hat, which I bought for her while queuing, and put it on my own head.
“I like his energy though, I’m not gonna lie. The vibes have been good. I mean, fuck Biden right? The man’s got Alzheimers.”
I nudge my mom, who starts saying, “Not Chinese, Korean—” but then Trump interrupts, announcing, “But the Chinese love me. We’re going to win the trade war, bring all those jobs back to America.”
“Yeah!” Coca-Cola man shouts, and he gives me a blistering high five. He begins introducing me to the Black man and the two blondes, but not the Monster tank top man, who even he seems to be intimidated by.
The rest of the rally proceeds uneventfully—Trump goes on tangents about Kamala and Joe. My mom is now crouched down, hands on knees, shading herself under me.
“I’m gonna try something new today,” Trump says. “It’s a wonderful idea. We’re going to unite America starting here, in the state of Georgia. Put your arms around the person next to you, right now.”
Coca-Cola man on one side, my mom on the other—steaming, rancid bodies glued together.
“Tell the person on your left, we’re going to win.”
“Four more years, son,” Coca-Cola man says, squeezing my shoulder. I can smell his armpits, but I also feel safe in his grasp.
I smirk at my mom. “Four more years, umma. Just like you predicted.”
My mom continues to look down, and I can see a “pre-throw up look” over her face.
“I’m going to go to the car,” my mom says. “I’ll wait for you until the rally ends.”
“Do you think I’m here because I want to be? I came here for you.”
“I know, but my head hurts. Too much noise, too hot.”
“You can’t stick it out like everyone else? Aren’t you one of his biggest fans?”
My mom smacked me with her MAGA pamphlet. “Other sons would say, umma, do you want water? Umma, here are some snacks. Umma, we can go home whenever you want. But of course I get stuck with the son who never passed puberty, who thinks his fifty year old umma is dumb as rocks, when in fact she has lived thirty more years than him.”
“Other moms aren’t voting for Trump, damn it. Other moms aren’t belittling their sons everyday, telling them how much of a failure they are. And you know what? All I did in college was try to get a job that would please you, my very own mother, only to have it taken away from me, not because of any fault of my own, but because of a pandemic left so uncontrolled by this man standing right there, the man you believe is the second coming of Christ, who has fucked up this country so badly that the the job I grinded to get—again, not because I love marketing, but because I was trying to please an unpleasable woman—was taken away from me due to circumstances outside my control.”
Coca-Cola man taps my back. We still have our arms around each other. “Son, I don’t know what you’re saying, but you shouldn’t speak to your mother with that kind of tone.”
“Sorry,” I mutter. “Just a disagreement.”
My mom doesn’t respond, compressing her body even more.
“How about Omar of Minnesota?” Trump says, like the thought has just flitted into his mind. “She wants to tell us how to run our country. They don’t even have a government where she comes from.”
“Send her back,” the crowd chants.
Trump leans back and waves his arms up and down, letting the crowd do his work. My mom is slipping away, but I can’t leave with her, especially not during a bit about immigration, and I can see her disappear in the way that small girls get sucked into music festival crowds.
“She says we need to defund the police,” Trump continues. “You know what we get without law and order?”
“Socialism,” the crowd yells.
My voice is booming, my arms are raised high, and pretty soon people are slapping my shoulders, giving me daps, and I’m bouncing back and forth like I’m about to open up a mosh pit.
“Four more years,” I yell, eyes closed, face gleaming in sweat. I’m being yanked back and forth by the sway of the crowd.
It’s the first time since lockdown—no, since going to college, really—that I feel churning in myself what seems to be an overwhelming sense of surprise. I wonder if it’s this easy, to shorn decency and enjoy the fruits of a deep, aching ecstasy I haven’t felt since high school church camp, where I would leap up and down to worship songs at two in the morning, streams of penitence tumbling out of my mouth, snot pouring out of my nose.
It’s at that moment that I trip and fall forward onto someone’s back. I’m pushed off, and subsequently collide into another person, whose elbow welcomes my face. There’s blood coming out of my nose, and I can’t see either, because my glasses are somewhere on the ground. I wobble like a lacrosse ball in a lottery machine, unable to gain firm footing, and I can hear myself getting cursed at—”fucking chink got blood on me”—until I feel someone gripping my arm. It’s Coca-Cola man, and pulling him from behind, my mom.
After breaking out of the crowd, I fall and plant my butt on the ground, tilting my head back to stop the blood flow. There’s blood all over my shirt, and I pull out my mask from my pocket and scrunch it into my nostrils. My mom crouches down, pulls wet wipes out of her bag, and begins to dab my face. I wonder if I’ve screwed it all up, if my mom has doubled down on Trump, or worse, if she has doubled down on Trump and grew more disappointed in me. At the same time, however, all signs of frustration seem to have left her face, and I feel like a crucified Jesus being tended to by Mother Mary. His last words, my last words: “Father, forgive them, for they do not know what they are doing.”
I realize Coca-Cola man is still hovering over me, and for a second I imagine the three of us at the dinner table together, eating Beef Stroganoff and catching up on the latest Braves win.
“I’m good,” I say with my nasally, clamped nose voice. “You should go back. Thanks for getting me out of there.”
Coca-Cola man leans down and nuzzles my head. “You—take care of yourself,” he says, and then turns to my mom. “We need more soldiers like you on the frontlines.”
He walks back into the crowd, raising his fist and chanting as if he had never left.
I head with my mom to a shaded canopy, where we buy some MAGA water. Trump is droning on about how Eric and Don Jr. are carving out a beautiful vision for his next four years.
There’s a big fly buzzing above us, which I soon realize is a drone (that’s how bad my vision is). I wave at it and imagine what the drone operator is seeing: a sea of red dots, but in the corner, separate from the crowd, two glistening black specks. I imagine the operator zooming in, curious about this exotic sight, only to find that the larger black dot is being hit over and over by the smaller black dot, with what seems to be a plastic bottle. The operator would then shrug and think, such is the nature of these things, and fly out his drone toward more rah-rah sights, leaving the two specks to figure it out among themselves.