At The Trump South Carolina Primary Rally: Notes From The Campaign Trail

If you want to know why Donald Trump won in South Carolina tonight, you need only have attended his rally yesterday at the Myrtle Beach Civic Center. Here’s part two describing my four-day visit to South Carolina, focusing on the Trump rally.

After deciding not to wait for The Donald to vacate my hotel, we headed to his nearby rally. When we arrived, the line snaked outside the Civic Center for about ¼ mile. We took our place at the end and waited. Fortunately, in contrast to his New Hampshire rally, this time they had multiple security screening entrances so the line moved quickly. As we moved forward, there were the usual vendors at a Trump rally hawking pins, buttons, shirt, caps – anything with the Trump name and face on it.

Of course, there was also the occasional discordant voice:

Inside, Elton John’s Rocket Man blared so loud the floor shook.  There was an air of expectation as the large crowd waited for The Donald to arrive. The floor of the Civic Center was packed – I estimated maybe 5,000 people pressing forward to the stage, trying to get a closer glimpse of the candidate. As always, the media was fenced off in the back – I recognized CNN’s Dana Bash and NBC’s Katy Tur, among other talking heads that were in the media pen.

As is typical for a Trump crowd, there was a healthy cross-section of demographic groups, but there was a definite segment of what appeared to be the working class voter. For example, a group of bikers gathered next to me, with one of them wearing a leather jacket and clutching a Trump poster.

Finally, to a roar from the crowd, The Donald appeared on stage and immediately launched into his speech. It touched on the familiar themes, and was delivered in the same stream-of-consciousness, lack-of-detail level of specificity that characterized his previous speeches I’ve seen. But he sprinkled in references to recent events, such as his recent dustup with the Pope that showed he was paying attention to the campaign narrative and was trying to influence it. He also played to his specific audience, in this case mentioning a video of workers for the Carrier Corporation, which has corporate headquarters in South Carolina, who found out their manufacturing plant was moving to Mexico. “I believe in free trade, but it has to be smart trade,” Trump thundered. He would return to this theme again and again throughout his speech by critiquing the politicians and “political hacks” that currently run American’s trade policy, but also laying out his strategy for preventing this from happening in the future.

Trump briefly shrugged off the recent dustup about whether he had first supported the Iraq War “It was very early in the war – I might have said something” and also briefly noted that the Pope had apparently been misinformed about what Trump had said about immigration – and then he moved on. No one in the audience appeared nearly as concerned about these issues as the media seemed to suggest they might be.

As always, Trump riffed on every possible topic, often veering from one topic to the next with no apparent logic but without missing a beat. He promised to rescind Obamacare “which has destroyed many businesses” and then moved on to attack Ted Cruz as a liar – “he doctored a photo of Marco Rubio!” as well as playing dirty campaign tricks in Iowa against Ben Carson. He noted that his Republican rivals are all beholden to special interests “Cruz is controlled by the oil lobby…he’s Robin Hood” – while he, Trump, is self-funding his campaign (“I don’t believe I get enough credit for that.”). He repeated, to great applause, that every time Mexican officials say they won’t pay for a “great wall” on the southern border, it is only going to get 10 feet higher. “China built a Great Wall – and they didn’t have Caterpillars made in America”.

Again and again he referred to his theme that the reason the U.S. is hemorrhaging jobs is not because the Chinese are evil – it’s because the U.S. is led by incompetent people. Here he took a swipe at Caroline Kennedy’s appointment as U.S. ambassador to Japan. (“She said she had nothing to do and they offered her a job.  She said ‘Really’?”) He noted that Americans needed leaders who were both smart and tough – and here he referenced General George Patton, something I hadn’t heard before in his speeches. At this point the usual protestors stood up, sending the crowd into a frenzied “We Want Trump” chant as The Donald roared, “Throw them out! Don’t hurt them, but throw them out!”

After the protesters were tossed out,  Donald said what he always says, “I love these protests because they force the media to turn their cameras and show how big my crowds are.”  He then returned to his stump speech, reiterating his stance for a temporary ban on Syrian refugees. He noted that he wasn’t going to disavow Putin for calling him “a genius – why would I? Wouldn’t it be great if we got along with Russia?”  The crowd applauded. He also mocked Jeb Bush for calling Trump “a highly gifted politician”. “I would never praise one of my opponents!”

And, as always, there were the polls. Donald mocked the one poll that showed him losing to Cruz. Otherwise he noted he was winning them all, and not by a little. He pointed out that he would do well in the general election because he is so popular in large states like New York, New Jersey and Michigan. And he said he would do well among African-Americans and noted how high the African-American unemployment rate was under Obama. As he said this, an African-American woman next to me screamed out “Amen, Amen.” He also promised to reform the Veterans Administration and to make the U.S. military the most powerful in the world. “Hopefully we won’t have to use it.”

Trump ended by asking the people to come out and vote for him. “We are going to start winning, winning, winning” he intoned, to rising applause.  As we left the arena, people seemed in a festive mood, as if they had attended a great rock concert or sporting event. “You’ll remember this great meeting” Trump told them near the end of the speech.

And he may very well be right.

I’ll have a third post up describing the rest of my South Carolina trip soon.

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