I saw Donald Trump at Dorton Arena 11 months ago, and I saw him there (on the State Fairgrounds in Raleigh) again yesterday.
First, the crowd. Last time, as I wrote, the crowd was rather loose and raucous. They were like fans of a stand-up comedian, laughing and applauding as he spouted their favorite zingers.
Monday, they again crowded the arena. Yes, they cheered and applauded their favorite lines. They booed the media and Hillary Clinton when Trump zinged them. They applauded and chanted vigorously.
In another sense, however, it seemed to be a more serious crowd. They weren’t there so much to be entertained, though as Trump himself says, “What’s more fun than a Trump rally?”
My totally subjective take is, first, that even supporters are still curious about him. That means they are still scrutinizing him seriously.
To explain what I mean, I think I know what President Hillary Clinton would be like. I’m not eager for that, but I think I know what she will do, and I bet most voters also think they know what she will do.
Trump … He’s still an unknown, in many ways. He never has held elective office. How will he respond? That’s a genuine question. And, let’s face it, he’s an eccentric person with a voluble personality.
So, will he really build a wall? Will he bomb the @#$% out of ISIS? Will he make America great again? I would guess that many at Dorton Arena came to do a last-minute check on whether he seems to be kind of man who might be able to do all that, and more. They weren’t just there for kicks.
Second, I think the crowd was serious because the news suggests he is now more serious. Eleven months ago, he basically said his policies could be found on his campaign website. Um, that’s the kind of answer a customer service rep gives when the company guidelines say to get off the phone with an annoying customer.
On Monday, however, his speech had more substance. In this case, the policies were the bricks, the barbed comments and wisecracks were just the mortar holding it all together. I would even speculate that people came, wonder of wonders, to hear what his policies are.
Last December’s crowd was like people going to hear a show. Yesterday’s was more like students going to hear a popular, entertaining professor give a lecture. Think of that as a hypothesis: People came to hear Trump because they wanted to learn something.
I know I’m going out on a limb there.
By the way, in the interests of fairness, I did try to get into Hillary Clinton’s midnight rally at North Carolina State University. But Reynolds Coliseum was full by the time I got there. So good for her and her campaign. It just goes to show that if some big-name entertainers and Bill Clinton put on a free show on a college campus, students (and adults) won’t stay away just because Hillary is there.
Turning back to Dorton Arena, in addition to the audience, others were in attendance who were absent in December: politicians.
That includes Gov. Pat McCrory, Lt. Gov. Dan Forest, U.S. Rep. Mark Meadows, former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee, and others.
What was striking, to me anyway, was how relaxed they seemed to be. McCrory, for instance, noted that as he campaigns, people sort of sidle up to him and whisper, “Pat, I’m with you.” At Dorton Arena, when he called out, “Are you with me?” the crowd gave a resounding cheer and applauded enthusiastically.
Huckabee quipped, “The only difference between the Sopranos and the Clintons is that the Sopranos didn’t save their emails.”
Milwaukee County Sheriff David Clarke, who proclaimed, “Blue lives matter!”, was especially impressive. I’ve seen him on TV and the Internet, but there in the arena, dressed in black with a big cowboy hat, he had a powerful presence.
In short, many politicians have often seemed skittish about Trump. Yesterday, however, the crowd and the setting seemed to energize them, and I’ve seen a number of them many times before. Before a Trump crowd, with him waiting in the wings, some of the politicians seemed stronger and more relaxed than they usually do.
It’s often been speculated that Republicans might oppose a President Trump. But could the opposite be true? Could a Trump-led party be more dynamic and confident?
One group was missing yesterday: Protesters. They interrupted his November speech several times. None showed up Monday. It would be mere speculation to wonder if this was connected to the revelation that Democrat operatives had funded and directed many anti-Trump protests.
It was the crowd that interrupted him, at times, chanting, “USA! USA! USA!” and “Trump! Trump! Trump!” and “Lock her up! Lock her up! Lock her up!”
My sense was that the people there feel they too are part of the show, and when they feel it’s time to say something, they’re part of the show too, and they go ahead. Trump nods along, applauds, gives a thumbs-up, then swings back into his talk.
Which underlines what Trump has been claimed: this is a movement of the people.
For conservatives, a popular movement is neither good nor bad, in itself. Our constitution aims to channel and direct the wishes of the voters through settled institutions. The whole trick is to properly balance the will of the people with effective institutions, while protecting the rights of communities, minorities and individuals.
But could a Trump administration do so?
Monday he seemed more serious than 11 months ago. Sure, there were the one-liners, the standard riffs, the bombast and bluster. He’s still a showman. He doesn’t want people fidgeting in their seats. But, in perhaps the real upset of the campaign, he basically delivered a typical campaign speech that at least outlined what he would try to do in the Oval Office.
Monday, he laid out a number of ideas most conservatives would be comfortable with. He insisted that a top item on his agenda would be repealing and replacing Obamacare. He would stop payments sent to the United Nations to cut global warming, and instead would route the money to rebuilding inner cities.
He also said he would cut taxes, and especially would cut corporate taxes down to be among the lowest in the world. He at least seems to realize that high taxes are driving corporations, and their cash and jobs, away, and that cutting taxes could help bring them back.
To be sure, corporate tax cuts don’t always excite ordinary taxpayers. But at the Trump rally, people applauded the line. It may be that Trump has helped his followers make the connection many people don’t: if taxes are lowered, companies have more money to hire workers and buy things from other companies, starting a virtuous cycle of growth and job creation.
Moreover, he said he aimed to rebuild America’s inner cities. “I will fix it,” he said, in effect telling the urban poor, “What the hell do you have to lose? We’ll all fix it. … There is tremendous potential in the inner city.”
And his audience, mostly white, cheered as heartily for that as almost anything else. That raises yet one more possibility: That he not only champions ordinary people, he might be able to change them.
I can’t pretend to predict if he will win or be a good president. There is not enough information to decide either question.
But I did get an impression of how he had changed. In December, he was very much the showman, obviously having a good time, enjoying the attention and fuss. It’s not that he disdained the job. It might be that as an entrepreneur he was willing to take a flyer and see what happened.
Monday, I thought he had moved beyond that, and become a much more aware and committed leader.
Somewhere along the line he seems to have gotten more serious about the whole thing. They say John Kennedy when running for president was shocked by the poverty he saw in Appalachia, and it changed him. Did something like that happen to Trump? He seemed genuinely outraged that, according to him, 70,000 factories have closed in the U.S. since NAFTA was signed.
Trump noted how he had traveled all over America, and said, “I’ve really gotten to love the people of this country.” Did his campaign put him through the furnace, and make him (relatively) more thoughtful, more serious, more empathetic?
By tomorrow we may have a better idea. After he left, and we filed out, a song came over the loudspeaker. The Rolling Stones were singing, “You can’t always get what you want … but if you try sometime, you get what you need.”
(Photo is courtesy of Paul Chesser.)