Trump’s North Carolina Supporters Were Ready to Unload
GREENVILLE, N.C.—Whatever President Donald Trump was planning to do at his rally Wednesday night, the crowd outside Minges Coliseum was ready for it and ready to ramp it up.
More than three days after President Donald Trump triggered national outrage with tweets telling four Democratic congresswomen of color to “go back” to the countries “from which they came,” the feeling among the throng mustering in the sweltering heat at East Carolina University was that the president had ample rope before he even came close to offending them.
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The best-selling “MAGA” merchandise, perfectly parroting and even amplifying his taunts on Twitter, indicated just how much latitude he enjoyed.
“LOVE IT OR LEAVE IT.”
“LET ME HELP YOU PACK!”
“BUILD THE WALL DEPORT THEM ALL.”
“FUCK OFF WE’RE FULL,” said one of these sorts of shirts, the design of the letters contorted into the shape of the United States of America. It was prominently displayed in the tent of sweat-drenched Glenn Wilcoxson, who had come from his home in Hudson, Florida. “Four left,” he told me, “out of—I don’t know—a lot.” It was a special offering, all his own, envisioned by him, his wife and his daughter, its timing the opposite of accidental. “We go by news cycles. We’ll design what’s going on in the news,” he said.
The vendors and the snaking line of voters—they were pumped up and primed for the rally and for what would be the essence of its message. Inside, barely 15 minutes into his hour-and-a-half stemwinder, Trump gave the people what they wanted: “The four congresswomen,” he said. The capacity crowd in the venue of 8,000 seats booed on cue. And then Trump named the women, starting with the only one of them not born in this country. “Representative Ilhan Omar,” he enunciated. He talked about the Minnesota lawmaker originally from Somalia, and only her, for the better part of five minutes, portraying her, a U.S. citizen since she was 17, as an anti-Semitic, America-hating sympathizer of terrorists.
“Traitor!” someone shouted from high up in the crowd.
“Treason!” someone else yelled.
And then the chanting started.
“Send her back! Send her back! Send her back!”
If there had been any doubt about how Trump’s latest political gambit would be received—had it inspired his supporters as much as it had enraged his opponents?—it disappeared here. Earlier in the week, when Trump defended himself against charges of racism, insisting “many people agree with me,” it was crowds like these he almost certainly had in mind. But until right then and there, he hadn’t heard directly from them—a live audience feeding back direct proof that this was something he could keep running on.
This is and always has been the engine of Trump’s political ascent and appeal—not just perpetual, calculated conflict, but particularly and specifically race-laced foils and feuds. His proto-candidacy was birtherism. The crux of the announcement of his 2016 candidacy: Mexican rapists. The ongoing battle cry: “Build that wall!” And while he filed for reelection the day of his inauguration, and his first official 2020 rally was a month ago in Orlando, Florida, this past half-week capped by Wednesday night felt like the truer, more telling start.
In this state, which he won in 2016 by nearly 4 percentage points—a wide, varied, critical swing state that is slightly more red than blue—Trump flagged with a new vigor and venom what is to come in these next 15-plus months. To his overwhelmingly but not exclusively white audience — composed of people wearing Trump flags like capes and “Make America Great Again” caps of an array of colors and shapes — the president roll-called his newest enemies.
The mere mention of Hillary Clinton had acted as an adrenaline jolt through crowds at scores of rallies just like this one. The Pavlovian response of “lock her up” had carried Trump all the way to the stage of the 2016 Republican National Convention in Cleveland and then on to the White House. It seems self-evident he would have been looking for a useful replacement.
And he had to hear what I heard, seated in the press pen. Trump stood at the center of the stage, under a giant American flag, and that blunt chant, unscripted and spontaneous, rained down, a newfangled three-syllable shiv. Television clips fail to convey its intensity. It was, by far, the most visceral, guttural sound of the night.
The place Trump picked to test this sharpened pitch isn’t purely Trump-friendly territory. But it has the kind of divisions—between immigrants and native-born citizens, Democrats and Republicans, whites and people of color—that look a lot like the broader American fault lines to which Trump has taken a crowbar.
The largely rural eastern end of North Carolina leans hard for Trump, but Pitt County does not, or didn’t nearly three years ago. He lost handily to Clinton. Greenville, with a population of just over 90,000, and the county as a whole, with a population roughly double that, is home to both a major university and a community college and is a regional health care hub. It’s one of the state’s most educated metropolitan areas. And as popular as what Trump said was to those inside Minges Coliseum, it was chilling to many others I spoke to mere miles away.
Across the street from the local airport where Air Force One landed is a Tropicana Supermarket that services a growing Latino population. Surrounded by shelves stocked with Hojaldra cookies, chicharrones and the jerseys of the Mexico national soccer team, one of the owners told me business was markedly slower than on a typical Wednesday. With the arrival of president, this president, he said, many of his customers seemed to be lying low.
Outside, in the mostly empty parking lot, Miguel Ramos looked around.
“Usually,” said Ramos, 44, a Puerto Rican-Jamaican who runs a catering company with his Trinidadian partner, “Tropicana’s booming right now.”
I asked Ramos what members of the local Latino community think of Trump. His answer was as profane as some of the shirts I would see a few hours later.
“Fuck Trump,” he said.
People are afraid.
“The fear,” he said, “of being sent back to a country they were trying to get away from. I know people from Mexico, I know people from Honduras, I know people from South American countries …”
It’s what I heard all over the more Hispanic sections of the city in the morning and early afternoon before I headed over to the arena for the rally.
“People are tense,” said Jay Bastardo, the owner of the Dominican restaurant Villa Verde.
“The president has displayed scare tactics, and it actually has worked,” he added, “because there’s some self-deportation that we know, and people who would rather not spend six, seven months going through the process of getting deported, and some families that we know who are just not looking forward to making a future in America. And that’s a little discouraging.”
Wednesday crystallized this overall anxiety.
“You have the commander in chief coming into town, the guy who has called for these massive deportations,” Bastardo told me. He had heard from fellow business owners about employees calling in and not coming to work, “assuming,” he said, “that there’ll be checkpoints all around.”
Immigration and Customs Enforcement raids haven’t happened here. Yet.
“You see all the stories,” said Esperanza Whitfield, the owner of the El Azador taqueria.
“We’ve heard rumors,” said Leticia Zavala, the local head of the Farm Labor Organizing Committee.
There’s a significant population, too, of Latino migrant workers, working seasonally in the fields in surrounding areas on cotton and tobacco and soybeans and sweet potatoes. “Thousands of them,” said Spencer Crawford, the research coordinator of the Greenville-based Association of Mexicans in North Carolina. “Just a completely underground population. They’re completely unseen.”
Wednesday afternoon, I talked on the phone with a 17-year-old high school student who wasundocumented and whose mother and father, also undocumented, brought him to the U.S. when he was a toddler. His younger sisters were born here and are citizens. His family were originally migrant workers, he told me, and their lives changed when Trump became president. He and his sisters get to school via the school bus, and his parents struggle to pay bills with odd jobs, and they live increasingly as shut-ins in their trailer in a nearby town. They make quick trips to the grocery store a couple times a week and hurry home.
“The fear for ICE,” he said. “Having to be careful, where you go, who you go with, how long we go somewhere.”
This, needless to say, was not the North Carolina that Trump described in his remarks at the rally. The way he described it was transactional and passing, saying the state was “beautiful” and calling its people “patriots” and thanking them for their votes. To me, it felt like the star of a sports team after a winning season praising his or her fans for being the best fans, which is to say: rote. The applause sounded about as obligatory. He welcomed onto the stage the Republican candidates in the pair of special congressional elections in the state this fall. “But let’s not talk too much about North Carolina,” Trump said at one point. What he said on Wednesday night mostly could have been said anywhere.
And in large part has been. It was a meandering mixture of breezy, box-checked, sometimes specious accomplishments (rolled-back regulations, “big, beautiful” tax cuts, a roster of confirmed conservative judges and Supreme Court justices, “jobs, jobs, jobs,” “better health care,” “we’re taking care of trade … nice and slow,” the economy that he’s “created”), reprised greatest hits (“hoax,” “witch hunt,” “fake news”), and odd phrases and easy laugh lines. He said bullshit once. He said goddamn twice.
The longer he talked, the more he told mostly uncheckable tales in which people called him sir. A smattering of policy squeezed between much more rousing personal asides and attacks, the speech was a sine wave of energy peaks and troughs. It was the extemporaneous product of an attention-seeking, room-reading savant, an instinctual gauger and tweaker and torquer of crowds, who understands the ebb and flow of their appetites, always aware of what line will get the biggest reaction.
Oddly for a campaign rally, one of those troughs came when he finally mentioned the Democrats who might be his actual opponent come next November. His invocations were brief, halfhearted, practically parenthetical. He called Joe Biden “Sleepy Joe.” He called Elizabeth Warren “Pocahontas.” He called Bernie Sanders “desperate.” He called Kamala Harris “a new one that knocked the hell out of Biden during the debate.” He called Pete Buttigieg “a beauty” who “runs a failed city” before poking fun at his name (“Boot-edge-edge!”). He called all of them “sad.”
The real takeaway, though, was some 20 minutes in. He spent far, far more time on the quartet of congresswomen he labeled “vicious” “extremists”—first Omar, and then Rashida Tlaib of Michigan, and then Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez of New York, and then Ayanna Pressley of Massachusetts, a hard-to-miss chronology that prioritized the two Muslims before shifting to AOC (whom he pointedly called “Cortez”), and finally Pressley. He paused to listen to the chants about Omar and let others in the arena do the same.
Vote for Trump next year, the president suggested, or vote for them.
“The choice for every American,” he said, “has never been more clear.”