With the Faithful at Trump’s North Carolina Rally: ‘He Speaks Like Me’

FAYETTEVILLE, N.C. — Rick Myers traveled from central California2,861.9 estimated miles, according to a sign he was carrying — to arrive more than seven hours early at President Trump’s rally on Monday.

“I wanted to see it for myself,” Mr. Myers said, pointing to the long line of people waiting to enter the Crown Theater. There were two main draws: the crowd of like-minded superfans, and the prospect of hearing the president “tell it like it is” about undocumented immigrants, he said.

The president soon delivered.

“North Carolina has released thousands of dangerous criminal aliens into your communities and you see it,” Mr. Trump said. “The charges against these free criminals include sexual assault, robbery, drug crimes and homicide. Murder!”

Of Democrats, Mr. Trump said: “Your way of life is under assault by these people.”

Two months after Mr. Trump’s last North Carolina rally, where supporters unleashed a “send her back” chant about a Somali-American congresswoman that was immediately denounced as racist, the president did what the president often does. On Monday night, rather than deliver remarks about a crucial special congressional election in North Carolina on Tuesday, or about economic numbers that White House officials have been trying to tout, Mr. Trump brought his signature brand of identity politics — steeped in racial division and fears of white Christian replacement — to a crowd that was eager to embrace those themes.

They cheered loudly, urging Mr. Trump on, as he talked about mass deportations, “foreign refugees” overrunning communities and unproven allegations of voter fraud in California. They booed on cue with every mention of the Democratic enemies, all women or people of color: House Speaker Nancy Pelosi; Hillary Clinton; former President Barack Obama; and the group of freshman congresswomen nicknamed “the squad.” Democrats were branded the “America-hating left.”

In conversations with more than a dozen attendees before and after the rally, they made clear that their support for the president was not in spite of his inflammatory rhetoric, but because his chosen targets often match their own.

“This is like college — it’s like a pep rally of like-minded people and we feel safe here,” said Linda Barrera, 66, from Charlotte. “Obama wanted to be the global leader of the world. He felt like he knew what was best for me. Trump fixed it.”

Brian Kelly of Fayetteville said he felt Mr. Trump understood “the people who experience most discrimination right now are us, Christians.”

“I hate this racist nonsense. It’s just a political ploy,” Mr. Kelly said. “You can say anything you want if you’re a Muslim or an atheist.”

The symbiosis between speaker and audience is a reminder of Mr. Trump’s powerful hold on the Republican Party’s base heading into his 2020 re-election bid. Although two former congressmen, Joe Walsh of Illinois and Mark Sanford of South Carolina, have both recently announced primary challenges against Mr. Trump, there is little evidence that the majority of Republican voters feel any moral objection to the president.

In fact, they are seemingly in lock step, and the Republican infrastructure has been remade to reflect that marriage. Mr. Trump’s latest approval ratings among Republican voters hovers around 90 percent, almost identical to where it was after his inauguration in 2017. At the North Carolina rally, down-ballot Republicans echoed Mr. Trump’s rhetoric as soon as they took the microphone, warning of the liberal Democrats who want to “destroy the nuclear family’’ and who had brought America to a tipping point through “sanctuary cities.”

Even in the order of speakers who warmed up the crowd before the president’s arrival, Mr. Trump’s impact was felt. Republican Senator Thom Tillis of North Carolina got the early slot, while Donald Trump Jr., his girlfriend, Kimberly Guilfoyle, and Diamond and Silk, the slick-talking social media stars and Trump superfans, got the later, more coveted speaking times.

“We got off that Democratic plantation and switched our party to Republican to vote for Donald J. Trump,” Diamond and Silk said to cheers. The women, who are both black, have risen to superstardom in Mr. Trump’s media orbit by lending their personality, and their identity, to insulating Mr. Trump against accusations of racism.

“When they try to play the race card, I want you all to stand up and play the Trump card,” they said to huge cheers.

But while Mr. Trump’s events are often known for the drama that unfolds inside — the chanting, the propensity for inflammatory remarks from speakers, the occasional scuffle among protesters, and the bombastic words of the president himself — the rally does not encompass the entire experience. Like Mr. Myers, the Californian who arrived early, many of Mr. Trump’s rally-going supporters said the outings were equally defined by the carnival-like atmosphere that greets attendees even before Mr. Trump speaks.

It’s in the hours before the rally, in the lines for refreshments and sunscreen and knockoff Make America Great Again merchandise, where Mr. Trump’s crowds are ripened for the coming spectacle. Fears of illegal immigration are swapped over popcorn, and anecdotal stories about voter fraud and food stamp fraud committed by noncitizens and black Americans are rampant. A man wearing a “Communism News Network” shirt with the CNN logo as a hammer and sickle said he wanted to see a more respectful political climate. A “build the wall” chant broke out suddenly, after another man walked through the crowd carrying a large sign that said an immigrant killed one of his family members.

Trisha Hope, 55, was attending her 23rd rally for Mr. Trump. Ms. Hope sells a book of all the president’s tweets since Inauguration Day. They are “history that needs to be preserved,” she said, and have “never been inaccurate.” Ms. Hope estimated that she’s read every tweet about 50 times.

“President Trump touched something inside me,’’ Ms. Hope said. “He speaks like me and he talks like me. When the media acts like he’s offending everyone, I know that’s not true.”

During Mr. Trump’s first presidential run, Republicans and some curious Democrats would arrive wide-eyed to his events, after scenes of anti-media taunting and unvarnished anti-immigrant sentiment repeatedly went viral. This time around, that raw energy has been professionalized, as evidenced by the big-screen televisions that play news clips from Mr. Trump’s election night victory on loop.

Among the most popular of Mr. Trump’s supporters at rallies are the black attendees, who are frequently stopped by people asking to take photos, or personally thanked by white attendees. A traveling group of about a dozen black Trump supporters wear shirts that read “Trump and Republicans are NOT racist!” and often enter the rally to cheers.

Osigah Kakhu, 23, a North Carolina Trump supporter who is the son of Nigerian immigrants, wore a signed hat from Vice President Mike Pence. Like his white counterparts, Mr. Kakhu said he agreed with Mr. Trump’s rhetoric about immigrants, including his infamous insult of African nations.

The president “tells things blatantly, and he’s rude, but he’s also right,” Mr. Kakhu said. “Can you name a white country that’s a” dump, he asked, though he repeated the vulgar language the president used.

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