I have covered some of the most colorful Southern political figures of recent decades, from George Wallace to Jesse Helms. Donald Trump’s rally last week, though, was the first to feature arias from Italian operas.
But one does not attend a Trump rally for the pleasure of Puccini. The rally reminded me more of the simpler pleasures of my boyhood with my grandmother, a textile worker, watching pro wrestling on TV.
No argument could convince her that it wasn’t real.
Like pro wrestling, the rally had heroes and villains. The heroes – Trump, police officers and soldiers – would get cheers from the crowd of more than 10,000 people at the Crown Coliseum in Fayetteville.
The villains – “Lying Ted” and “Little Marco,” as his competitors in Tuesday’s GOP presidential primary, Texas Sen. Ted Cruz and Florida Sen. Marco Rubio, are called – always get booed.
Then there are “the very dishonest media.”
But the biggest boos were reserved for the protesters, who have become such an integral part of Trump rallies, I am half-convinced that if none showed up, Trump would be tempted to hire some.
That was not a problem last week, when Trump was interrupted more than a dozen times by individuals or small clusters of protesters who were shouting, standing or holding up a sign. Each time, law enforcement officers hustled them out as the crowd booed, stood to get a better view and took photographs and video on their smartphones.
Rather than ignoring or shrugging off the protesters, Trump would stop speaking each time, often stepping away from the podium to stare at them and to make a comment such as “get them out” or “go home to mama” or “why are they allowed to do things we are not allowed to do.” Trump used them as campaign props.
And there was the viral video clip of a Willie Nelson wannabe, a 78-year-old guy with a cowboy hat and a ponytail who sucker-punched a protester, who was already in police custody, in the face. Mr. Ponytail was later charged with assault.
I was sitting up in the nosebleed seats – not in the press section – and the crowd seemed pretty good-natured to me, with many parents bringing children. But as in a pro wrestling match, there were a few people who got carried away. It seems a Trump audience attracts a small number who are spoiling for a confrontation – protesters who want to make a statement and those who don’t like them. The Trump crowd attracted not only North Carolinians but people from Virginia and South Carolina.
Trump knows something about professional wrestling, having participated in five Wrestlemania events, his promotion efforts earning him induction into the World Wrestling Entertainment Hall of Fame in Madison Square Garden in 2013.
Playing to a crowd’s emotions is old hat. Indeed, Jesse Helms and his campaign people would sometimes use me as a prop.
Helms’ operatives had me thrown out of the state Republican convention in 1984 in Raleigh because they didn’t like The News & Observer’s coverage. People were standing on chairs hooting and hollering and shouting, “Throw the bastard out!” As I was being led away, the convention’s presiding officer, Barry McCarty, intoned from the podium: “The cancer has been surgically removed.”
At another rally in a huge Goldsboro tobacco warehouse, Helms was providing a laundry list of how the liberal news media were destroying America. He finished by pointing at me and saying, “As represented by Rob Christensen, who is sitting right there.” That night I was with a well-known New York magazine writer, who jumped and nervously looked around. He leaned over to me and said: “That would be scary, if this crowd wasn’t so damn old.”
But I digress.
If you had gone to a Jeb Bush campaign event, you expected a 12-point plan to revive the economy.
From Trump, you mainly get symbolism — such as his promise to build a wall on the border with Mexico.
“We are going to have a very big, powerful wall,” Trump says. “We are going to have a wall. We are going to have a real wall. And who is going to pay for it?”
“MEXICO!” responds the crowd.
“Who?” Trump asks.
“MEXICO!” shouts the crowd.
The wall can mean different things to different people. It can mean an end to the loss of U.S. manufacturing jobs. North Carolina’s textile and furniture industries have been particularly hard hit. Trump says the country has been losing trade deals for 40 years.
It can also mean stopping the influx of immigrants – legal and otherwise – from Latin America, who may compete for jobs in construction and other industries. And it can stand for stopping the illegal drug trade – a point that Trump specifically mentions – a scourge that has particularly hurt working-class America.
The wall also could mean stopping the browning of America.
The Trump speech is light on issues. He calls for repeal of the Affordable Care Act. He will take a tougher line against terrorism, including more unrestrained methods. He will repeal Common Core, the program designed to raise educational standards in the states.
But his campaign is more about attitude. He is doing what he does best – selling Donald Trump. The country is beset by “incompetent leadership,” Trump says, and as president he will make this “a brilliant country.”
He doesn’t exactly say how a New York real estate mogul is going to succeed where others have failed. You’re going to have to trust him.
But it looks as though a plurality of North Carolina Republicans are willing to do just that. Statewide polls suggest that Trump is leading Cruz by a double-digit margin just days before Tuesday’s primary. The other two major candidates, Rubio of Florida and Ohio Gov. John Kasich, are busy elsewhere, trying to win their home states.
In his closing pitch, Trump was short on specifics, but long on his leadership ability. The country has been losing under President Obama, he says, and he will turn the country into a winner.
“We are going to win so much. We are going to win, win, win. We are going to win with our military. We are going win with trade. We are going to win with everything. We are going to win so much, you are going to say, ‘Mr. President, it’s too much. We can’t stand it. Please, let’s lose a little bit.’ I’ll say, ‘No way. We are going to keep winning. We are going to make America great again.’ You are going to love your president.”
And you get opera as well.