I-95 northbound came to a complete stop Thursday night as cars one-by-one filed off the exit. The parking lot behind the Trump rally’s location was packed before 6 p.m., and people abandoned their cars on the sides of roads, in empty lots, and in the yards of residents to hike to the rally.
“The Farm” is a wedding venue outside the small town of Selma, in Johnston County. Too small to accompany his audience, Trump addressed throngs of people outdoors, in an empty field behind the building.
At 6:30, a Republican congressman is hyping the crowd for the night. He’s energetic, and he’s loud. A stream of potential Trump voters endures scanning by guards outside the only gate. No one seems to check anyone’s tickets– why bother? The field’s big enough for everyone. The highest-ranking NC official to participate in this pre-game warmup is Lieutenant Governor Dan Forest, who is running for reelection.
A Trump rally seems much more like a rock concert than anything a politician might hold. Indeed, Trump supposedly chose the playlist of songs that appear at each rally. If that’s the case, Donald clearly has a thing for the Rolling Stones– “Hard as Stone”, “Let’s Spend the Night Together”, and “You Can’t Always Get What You Want” play.
The crowd was almost entirely white. That much could be expected. Nobody stands out as “deplorable”. There was no hostility, no anger, among these people — at least not for each other. How could anyone dislike each other here? Everyone at the rally is a Trump supporter. If you’re willing to be a Trump supporter and wear the big red hat emblazoned with “MAKE AMERICA GREAT AGAIN,” it seems you’re “in”.
The tickets say the rally begins at 7 p.m., but after the pre-show Republicans abandon the microphone the music continues to play until about 7:40. At one point the playlist ends and is quickly restarted from the beginning. TV Spots play on two large screens placed on the sides of the crowd, halfway between the stage and the back of the audience. Trump’s merchandise is selling like hotcakes, but technical issues with the iPads used by the clerks slow things down considerably.
Just as doubts are truly settling in, the flashing lights of a motorcade announce themselves beside the building and in just a few minutes the show starts. The first Republican to take the mic apologizes for being late and jokes that “We were looking for 30,000 emails.”
The Trump campaign has one central theme tonight: The military. The first move is to announce the names of a select group of Admirals, Generals, and Medal of Honor recipients who support Trump and seat them behind the mic. The three people who introduce Trump are the leader of “Veterans for Trump”, followed by two of the military heroes now at the back of the stage. A short spiel about what Trump’s insurgent campaign means to them leads into the appearance of the man himself.
Selma is a town of about 6,000 people, but easily twice that many stand in the field. The crowd is huge and impenetrable. From even at the midpoint between Trump and the back of the crowd, he’s a small, indistinguishable blond figure talking into a mic shielded by blinding white lights. The people in the back are surely just watching the screens. He conducts himself with a friendliness uncharacteristic in his news coverage. He occasionally tosses out his prepared speech and responds to the shouts from the front of the audience, feeding off their enthusiasm.
Someone yells “Build the Wall!” and Trump stops mid sentence to assure this man that yes, the wall will be built, and it will surely be a “great wall”. Someone else yells “I love you!” and Trump replies with “There’s a guy over here, he’s a rough looking guy, but he loves me– I don’t know.” The crowd laughs, cheers and eats it up.
Apart from these asides, everything about his speech is standard fare for him. He jumps between Hillary, her emails, the military, Isis, taxes, and Obamacare.
He keeps returning to the military, talking about how it needs to be lead better and expanded, things he charges Obama with failing to do. He cites the rise of ISIS and the “gutting of the military” to be the express failure of Secretary Clinton and President Obama. It’s easy to believe him. No one so far, neither in the media or in the Republican party, has been able to stop Trump from doing what he wants– so he seems honest when talking about this particular topic. However, he’s largely playing to his audience.
If Wake County is fairly blue, Johnston County is blood red. It was a key that gave Romney the win in North Carolina in 2012. Selma, Benson, and the rest of Johnson County have been Trump territory since day one. Trump’s campaign is just reminding these folks to go vote.
As his speech comes to a close, Trump’s voice blasts over the speakers. His final line is “Make America Great Again!” He beckons the crowd goodnight, and fireworks promptly go off over the field. Most of the crowd stays for just a while to be part of the spectacle.
Trump walks off the stage, evidently tired (He had held another rally in Concord just hours earlier). As people leave, they notice the only protesters of the night, a shorter man in a white shirt with “DUMP TRUMP” written in marker on the front accompanied by a woman in a wheelchair. Nobody seems to acknowledge them.
The night of the rally, RealClearPolitics’ average showed Trump and Clinton neck and neck in North Carolina, a must-win for Trump and a should-win for Clinton. Clinton was holding a rally simultaneously in Raleigh on Thursday. It often feels as though this campaign is not just for NC’s votes as much as it is for the state’s very soul. The experience of Trump’s rally wasn’t as energizing as one would expect. At this point, the endless politicking, whether it be in Raleigh or the quiet town of Selma, just feels brutal and melancholic.
A Trump rally isn’t as exciting, dangerous, or outrageous as one might expect. If Trump truly isn’t a career politician at this time last year, by this point he surely seems like one.