In many ways, Tom and Wendy Box count as what one of Donald Trump’s warm-up speakers called the “good people” of the country — ordinary Americans who are tired of politicians they view as too strong on political correctness, too weak on national security.
The two are Christians, and pleasant company as they chatted while the sun set after a Trump rally here — he’s a retired flooring salesmen, she still works at a hospital. The event was “pretty cool,” she said. And his plans to temporarily halt Muslims from entering the U.S. made sense even before the Orlando shooting, worried as they were that newcomers are arriving too quickly and adding unfamiliarity to a country they no longer always recognize.
“It just doesn’t seem there’s a cohesiveness to our culture any more,” said Tom Box, who laments that students no longer pray in school and today’s immigrants don’t seem to assimilate as did arrivals to Ellis Island.
“It’s not so much a nativist sentiment, but we better be watching ourselves,” he said. “If we’re not careful, we’ll lose our republic.”
Trump may be more unpopular than ever — new polling shows 70% of American adults view him negatively, and the GOP establishment is having gut-wrenching second thoughts about its presumed nominee. But as the general election battle begins with Democrat Hillary Clinton, many of Trump’s core supporters still see the New York businessman as the only leader who can salvage the country as they know it.
Trump’s appeal among this group of fewer than 1 in 3 registered voters — not enough to win the White House — goes beyond policy debates about immigration and national security, though those were dominant this week in the aftermath of Orlando. It taps into the deeper social and economic changes disrupting the country.
Talk to these voters in places like Greensboro, in this swing state of North Carolina, and they quickly unload grievances: over President Obama, who many don’t believe truly cares for Americans; over Clinton, whom they see as untrustworthy — a shirt commonly for sale outside Trump rallies reads “Hillary for Prison 2016”; and over the demographic shifts that have remade the country racially and ethnically.
In some ways, the upheaval that voters speak of is reminiscent of the way the Industrial Revolution displaced entire professions and brought waves of Irish, Italian and other immigrants who reshaped America.
“He’s hit a chord with people who’ve lost jobs, whose unemployment has run out,” said Michael Prevette, a service repairs manager for a home improvement company at the Trump rally. “I don’t see him as a racist. He’s connecting with common people … common people want to see a change in America.”
After a somber address in the aftermath of the Orlando shooting, Trump quickly returned this week to his unplugged self, rallying thousands in venues across the Southern states.
“I’ve been getting good reviews when I use the crazy teleprompter,” he said in downtown Atlanta. “But I like this much better.”
In Greensboro he led the now-routine call-and-response over his plans to build a border wall to deter illegal immigration. Who’s going to pay for it, he asked? “Mexico!” the crowd responded, as it always does.
“Don’t even worry about it,” he assured them.
In Atlanta, Trump suggested that Muslims want to bring sharia law to the U.S. and noted that even though the Orlando gunman was born in New York, his parents were immigrants.
“He was born in this country,” Trump said, but “his ideas weren’t.”
Trump, noting that it would be one year Thursday since he rode the escalator at Trump Tower to launch his improbable campaign, marveled at what he has unleashed: voters flocking to the notion espoused by both him and Democrat Bernie Sanders that the political system is rigged against ordinary Americans in favor of special interests — a situation that the Washington establishment has failed to successfully address.
“Who knew this was going to happen?” he chuckled as he took the stage at Atlanta’s historic Fox Theater.
“It’s been an amazing journey. It’s been incredible because I’ve really gotten to know the people of our country and they are incredible, incredible people,” he said. “There are a lot of people right now who are not happy and we’re not going to take it anymore.”
As for Republican leaders, he suggested they toughen up and stop complaining. “Just please be quiet,” he said.
“Either stick together or let me just do it by myself,” he added.
Miranda Harwell, a stay-at-home mom who had supported Florida Sen. Marco Rubio in the primary, now backs Trump, chalking up his often impolitic tough talk to Hollywood bravado.
“I don’t think he’s really talking about banning all Muslims,” she said. And nor would she want him to, noting she sees plenty of devout women in headscarves when she shops at Macy’s, and she welcomes them.
“It’s OK to worship whatever God you want, but [you have] to realize our country was based on Christian principles,” she said. “Americans shouldn’t have to change for everyone else.”
Danna Wagers, a semi-retired retail clerk attending the Trump rally in Atlanta, said she sees no need for Trump to change to have greater voter appeal.
“He knows exactly what he’s doing — he needs the camera, he needs the space, and y’all are helping him very well,” she said.
Jim Hoogerwerf, a retired airplane pilot, knows Trump should be more diplomatic, especially on the world stage, but doubts he will change much.
“The rhetoric is going to be absolutely terrible for the next five months,” he said as he entered the Trump rally in Atlanta. But he accepts that. “The issues need to be hashed out.”
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