This week’s Democratic debates didn’t offer many hints about who will be the face of the party next year. In fact, they highlighted how far the Democrats are from deciding what their pitch will be to voters and who will make it.
On the Republican side, however, it was clear at President Trump’s campaign rally Thursday night in Cincinnati, that the general election is already underway.
I hadn’t been to a Trump rally since 2016 — right before he won the South Carolina primary and long before he had the nomination wrapped up. Back then, voters were drawn to Trump’s message with the hope that he could deliver for them.
On Thursday night, I arrived at the arena with lines snaking around the block full of adoring supporters who say they trust President Trump completely — and are already energized to re-elect him.
Dolores Scardine and Barbara Bergdall saw our microphones and came right over.
“We love Trump!” they shouted in unison.
“I like Trump because he’s hardcore,” Scardine added. “He talks like I’m talking to you now. He’s rough around the edges and that’s what I am. I’m rough around the edges, and whatever comes to my mind, I just say whatever comes to my mind.”
I asked Ronnie Gilbert about Trump’s tweets calling Baltimore “a disgusting, rat and rodent infested mess,” comments widely denounced as racist.
“If the shoe fits,” Gilbert said, who was wearing a shirt that said, “Stop Getting Offended.”
“He’s given [Rep.] Elijah Cummings’ district $16 billion this year and where’s it going? What’s it going to?” Gilbert said. “[Trump] is trying to do good for America.”
One of the first things you notice at a Trump rally is that nearly everyone in attendance is white. In a crowd approaching 20,000, I saw a few dozen nonwhite people.
Alicia Kemp was one of them. She arrived with two of her six children.
“I immigrated from the Philippines when I was six, and I became a citizen the legal way,” Kemp said. “I have kids that are going to school here, we pay taxes and I don’t want to pay taxes for things that I don’t think I should have to, so that’s why I’m here.
“I’m a conservative, so I’m fiscally responsible,” she added. “I’m conservative in our social values. We’re Catholic.”
I asked Kemp why she thinks there are so few nonwhite people in line for Trump’s rally.
“People are afraid,” she said. “You don’t know what the people who don’t think properly are going to act like, because a lot of people act immature when they come to these rallies.”
The line to get into the rally two hours before the event snaked around the side of the U.S. Bank Arena and then back again. Almost everyone in line was wearing a Trump T-shirt of some kind. The slogans included, “The Democrat Party is the enemy of the people”; “If this is what winning looks like, another four years of Trump will kill us. Lol;” “Stand for the flag, kneel for the cross.”
Or in the case of Eric Staeuble, “COLLUSION DELUSION.”
“I think it’s a false narrative all the way through. They haven’t been able to prove anything,” he said when asked about that shirt. “Trump’s been right all along.”
Many of the people I spoke with mentioned Fox News when asked where they get their news, but if you looked closely, you’ll see that some wore T-shirts, hats or pins that had the letter Q on them. It’s a reference to the Qanon, the conspiracy theory that claims a deep state plot against President Trump and his supporters, among other things.
A man who would only give his name as Jared was wearing a shirt that called Qanon “the new American Revolution.” I asked him what attracted him to Q.
“The fact that it’s exposed government corruption, and what they’re doing behind closed doors and Americans don’t even know about it,” he said. “If you actually dig close enough, you can find factual evidence on the United States government websites like the Department of Justice and other things that Q points to and other things of that nature.”
The president made no mention of Q in his speech, which went on for 80 minutes and touched on everything from the coal industry to the pronunciation of Lima, Ohio.
But the crowd was electrified by his words, which were very much on message 15 months ahead of the 2020 election. Trump, Vice President Mike Pence and Ohio Gov. Mike DeWine touted themes and slogans such as, “Promises made, promises kept;” “JOBS! JOBS! JOBS!” and talked about a crop of new conservative judges in the federal courts.
Whatever brought voters to this rally, the president used it to unite them against his eventual opponents, whom he is already branding. Trump’s voice boomed in the packed arena.
“No matter what label they use,” Trump said, “a vote for any Democrat in 2020 is a vote for the rise of radical socialism and the destruction of our great, our beautiful, our wonderful American dream. We’re not going to let our country ever go down the route of socialism.”
That was one of many applause lines drawing enthusiastic cheers from the tens of thousands of people gathered in this crucial swing state of Ohio.
This article was originally published on WBUR.org.