EL PASO, Texas — Ostensibly, everyone at the “March for Truth” was here in El Paso to protest President Donald Trump and his proposed wall. And to some extent, that’s true. They did.
But the event ended up being less about the president, who was holding a rally within a mile on Monday night, and more about giving former Texas Rep. Beto O’Rourke — failed senatorial candidate and prospective presidential candidate — a send-off, all thanks to Trump giving them a reason to gather.
If O’Rourke wasn’t there as a potential presidential candidate, the crowd didn’t care. Beto 2020 flags, signs, T-shirts, and buttons were everywhere, as a series of speakers protested the president’s proposed border wall and thousands marched along the US-Mexico border.
At one point, in response to a speaker’s comment about a new president, the crowd burst into a chant of “BETO.”
In return, O’Rourke gave a sheepish smile to the people around him.
Reporters so swarmed O’Rourke that volunteers held hands and formed a human chain around him and his family during the march. Supporters cheered his name as they walked. O’Rourke jaunted along in the middle of it, giving thumbs ups, carrying his son on his shoulders, and picking up his kids’ lost shoes.
Onstage inside, Trump remarked on the protest march from his own rally. He made reference to O’Rourke as “a young man who’s got very little going for himself except he’s got a great first name,” before comparing his estimates of their crowd sizes. “I would say that may be the end of his presidential bid.”
The president focused much less on his expected topic of the border during his rally, and much more on his developing 2020 message: a mix of taxes, abortion, and climate.
O’Rourke, who’s said he’ll decide about running by the end of the month, said the event was about “coming home to support this community.”
While a lot of the crowd outside was made up of locals, there were some like Linda LaMotte, who traveled to get there. LaMotte rode a bus from Ennis, Texas, for 13-and-a-half hours through rain to get to the rally. She teared up when talking about O’Rourke, on whose Senate campaign she volunteered, and how she thought he was someone who could unite the country.
Juan Franco, an El Paso native who said he’d known O’Rourke as a customer in restaurants where he’d worked in the past, said “Nobody can actually compete against Trump the way this guy can. Beto has balls. And I think he’s the only one that can actually take on Trump, honestly. I really do. Everybody else doesn’t stand a chance against him.” Franco was handing out free burritos to people at the rally.
And while Tina Duarte, another El Paso resident, said she would have probably gone to the protest even if O’Rourke wasn’t making an appearance, “it’s a bonus that Beto’s here,” she said, adding that she wants him to run.
Many of O’Rourke’s supporters had kept up with him since his midterm loss, including O’Rourke’s cross-country trip, which he documented himself with Medium posts. One person noted they get notifications whenever he livestreams. People referenced his recent interview with Oprah, where he said he’d make a decision this month about whether he’ll run.
“I think he just took a break. I think he needed it. He’s human, just like every single one of us. And this loss for him was just something that happens, but I think he’ll come back from it,” said Alyssa Aguilera, an El Paso resident.
The march ended with a rally-style gathering, where people held battery-powered candles that were handed out. From the stage, O’Rourke argued El Paso is “safe not because of walls, but in spite of walls.” O’Rourke laid out a broad outline to an immigration plan that included making DREAMers permanent citizens and giving their parents a path to citizenship.
“From here, I see the future of this country. The promise of this country. So powerful. So positive. And I’m so proud to be a border citizen with you,” O’Rourke said in Spanish to a clapping crowd.
“This is where we make our stand. And there’s no other place I’d rather be, and no one else I’d rather do it with. I love you El Paso. The country’s counting on us, let’s do it.”
Said one man in the crowd as soon as O’Rourke wrapped up his remarks: “When he says, ‘let’s do it,’ does he mean, let’s run for this?”