They
Came, They Saw, They Left Early: Trump Stumps in South Carolina

They Came, They Saw, They Left Early: Trump Stumps in South Carolina

There are monsters to be found everywhere,
even if they were not immediately visible outside Winthrop Coliseum in Rock
Hill, South Carolina, at 10 a.m. on a Friday morning. It had been pouring on the
drive from Columbia, the state capital, to this former mill town of 20,000
people. The rain had let up for now, but the clouds were still there, and wind
rippled through the giant Trump 2024 flag being held up by a member of the
group known as the Front Row Joes. It was strong enough that the man holding
the flag struggled to keep his footing, leaning back like a sailor on a ship
buffeted by a storm. The flag swirled the other way, rendering everything
incomprehensible but for the red-white-and-blue color scheme dwarfed by that ominously
gray sky.

It
was still early, with Donald Trump not scheduled to speak until 4 p.m. at the 6,000-capacity
basketball arena that was the Coliseum. The faithful lining up were only in the
dozens, easily outnumbered by vendors pulling carts full of Trump regalia and
smartly gray-suited Team Trump members who managed the proceedings with a
certain nonchalance. The day before, in Columbia, I had spoken on the phone to
Hollis “Chip” Felkel, a long-time Republican consultant who worked for the George
W. Bush campaign in 2000. With two days to go before the South Carolina
Republican primaries, Felkel, an anti-Trumper, described himself as
“frustrated, aggravated, and disillusioned,” wanting a defeat for Trump and yet
feeling that Trump had the support of “low-information voters,” people he
characterized as evangelical isolationists obsessed with the politics of
revenge and retribution. 

The
mood outside the Coliseum was more carnival in spirit, revenge politics mostly
confined to the violent slogans about guns and pedophiles displayed on t-shirts
and sweatshirts. People winced when I said I was with the media, but they spoke
eagerly enough, always polite, even friendly as the line grew ever longer and people
waited with some anxiety for the gates to open at 1:00. They talked endlessly,
to one another and to me. They spoke about the backchannels of Telegram and
QAnon and of Trump finishing his job of draining the damn swamp. They spoke about
the drugs coming into the country and the open border and the ever-rising price
of gas and groceries. They offered their own stories, of personal encounters
with Trump, of his office responding to a letter for help from the wife of a
veteran suffering from Parkinson’s after serving at the Camp Lejeune marine
base. They asked me to listen to Steve Bannon on Pluto TV and get my news from
The Epoch Times. There was a giddy sense of anticipation, a fervor in the crowd that
occasionally bubbled up into something else, as when the slightly frenzied
woman giving me some of this information was asked to shut up by the tall
taciturn man standing behind. “He’s probably a Democrat,” she hissed.

The
line grew longer, looping up the gentle rise of the hill and down to the
parking lot and back up again. The MAGA baseball caps of 2016 were still
prominent, unified in their branding, but their 2024 iterations had more mixed
messaging, “Keep America Great” and “Take America Back” thrown in among the anti-Biden
signage of “#NJB” and “Let’s Go Brandon.” The price of the new Trump hats
dropped to $5 as we got closer to the entrance. “All made in China by a
three-year-old,” the seller called out. It seemed like a good line, until I
heard him use it again and again, and it seemed of a piece with the
disappointing, diffuse echo of the 2024 hats and the confusion of the present moment
underlying the anticipation. In 2016, Trump had been the outsider. Many of the
people I spoke to had been drawn to him because he was not a professional
politician, because he was, in their eyes, the self-made businessman. Now he
was a repetition of the outsider, and was an outsider who was also the ultimate
insider, his campaign insisting in its messages to me that he was President
Donald J. Trump.

Inside
the stadium, it was a sea of white faces again, the people of color sprinkled prominently
in front. Steve, my next-seat neighbor, asked me to check out the basketball
scoreboard that read President: 45, Trump: 47, which seemed clever until it
became schizophrenic and nonsensical. The playlist was superb, Freddie Mercury
and Johnny Cash turning in their graves. The opening acts, among them the
African American senator Tim Scott and Governor Henry McMaster, were brief. At
4:30, the crowd standing up to cheer, Trump strode in from the right.

The
hair was the first thing one noticed, brilliantly fixed in place. He walked
slowly, shoulders square, soaking in the adulation. It was astonishing that he
looked exactly like his representations—the hair, the blue suit and red tie,
the face preserved in plastic. But then he stepped up to the podium and spoke,
and the voice was a surprise; dissonant and even a little froggy as he mentioned
all the “hard-working, God-fearing American people” who hadn’t been able to get
in and were standing outside. There were still empty seats in the bleachers.

Trump
spoke for nearly 90 minutes. He gave the impression that he was sitting across
the sofa from you, a strong, honest man airing his strong, honest opinions, but
then there would be bursts of standing ovations, and one surveyed the crowd and
remembered that the fate of nation, empire, and the vast, suffering world was
at stake. The speech came at you like the tide, covering a little more fresh
ground each time. The failed policies of the Biden administration, the
suspicious “Democrat” backing for Nikki Haley, the radical left consisting of communists
and fascists rigging the election in 2020. The rapists and thugs coming across
the open border from the Congo, from all over Asia, from the Middle East and
Latin America, monsters everywhere. The speech brought in the achievements of his
administration, of “the rising wages for Americans of every race, religion, and
color” and 571 miles of border wall, taking on the occasionally solemn tone of
a swearing-in oath as promises were made to improve things further the second
time around.

There
were few pauses in the speech, just shifts in intonation and volume, an endless
patter that gradually brought in the indictments against him. Trump talked
about it with a smile and a shrug, pausing to take in the loud cheers for him
and the chants of “USA! USA!” The enemies were personalized more deeply now:
“crooked Joe Biden” and Nikki Haley, who was portrayed as a hapless schemer.
Mitt Romney was kryptonite, Rush Limbaugh was missed, and there, on the media
platform, were the eternal representatives of fake news.

Forty-five
minutes into the speech, the attention of the crowd began to waver. A few
people slid out of their seats and left. The applause was now dutiful, labored.
Trump’s voice dropped low as he talked of the January 6 hostages and migrants
assaulting the police with impunity. Organ music began to play in the
background as Trump shifted into the first person plural of “We are a nation,”
and a sombre, Churchillian note entered the proceedings. We were in decline, no
longer respected by the world, but he would turn things around. He would begin
the “largest domestic deportation program in the country,” restore law and
order, and cut federal funding for any school that taught Critical Race Theory.
He would bring down oil prices and drill everywhere and stop World War III. He
would defeat the deep state, the communists, the fascists, the fake news media,
and, yes, he would drain the swamp.

No one part of the speech cohered with the other. The 18
million migrants who had entered the country under Biden dropped to 14 million
a minute later. Trump was against wars but for a strong military. The radical
left was supporting Haley and also promoting insurrection in the streets. Ultimately,
the specifics mattered little as the seats around me emptied out and Steve’s
wife Darlene, who had been so anxious about not being able to get in, left
before Trump had even finished. I could see the tiredness in her face, maybe
even disappointment. The insurgent energy of 2016 was missing, the craziness
dialed down, and it was inevitable, Trump no longer outsider-refulgent, but a
persona caught between outsider-insider status. In any case, the message was
simple enough. You could pick it up at any point, without ever having gone into
the arena. There were monsters everywhere, and the swamp was still out there. 

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