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Politics

Inside a week of Trump rallies: Talk of a rigged election, biased media and barbecue fries

Trump rallies
Donald Trump speaks at a campaign rally Thursday in Cincinnati.
(John Minchillo / Associated Press)

As he wrapped up a rally in a Cincinnati arena Thursday night, Donald Trump, battered by a week of unceasing bad news, paused to bask in the moment.

“Is there anywhere better to be anywhere in the world … than a Trump rally?” the Republican presidential nominee bellowed, arms outstretched. “We love each other!”

The crowd roared back. Yes, the din seemed to say, this is the best place in the world.

The last eight days have thrust Trump’s campaign into a tailspin, starting with a leaked recording from 2005 in which he discusses groping women. Multiple women have since stepped forward to accuse him of unwanted sexual advances. The fight over whether to stick by Trump or give up on him consumed the Republican Party. His poll numbers plummeted, and his path to victory has never been narrower.

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But at Trump’s rallies throughout the week — in which the faithful came by the thousands in the battleground states of Pennsylvania, Florida and Ohio — the mood was more ecstatic than funereal. His loyal band of “deplorables” was undaunted, fortified by a common language, common enemies and a common conviction that Trump will win this election.

Trump rallies have become their own bubble of facts and feelings. And in that bubble, the campaign is going well.

“I’m feeling good,” said Scott Abbott in Ocala, Fla., on Wednesday afternoon, pressing his face against a chain-link fence to catch a glimpse of Trump’s motorcade pulling up to the Southeastern Livestock Pavilion. He acknowledged he’d be stuck outside during the speech, but he was chipper rather than disappointed. The thousands inside the pavilion and many others waiting in line must be a good sign, he said.

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“It’s going to be a landslide with Trump,” said the Tampa-based software developer. “It certainly looks like it.”

News reports of Trump rallies tend to focus on the seething anger of the audience — the chants of “CNN sucks!” and escalating hostility toward the press, the profanity-laced homemade signs and T-shirts, and the anti-Hillary Clinton mantra “Lock her up!” often beginning even before the candidate takes the stage.

But Trump supporters saw themselves not as roiling, but “electrified” and “invigorated.” Above all, they were steadfast. First Lady Michelle Obama may have been “shaken” after this week, as she said in an emotional speech Thursday in New Hampshire, but there was no wobbling among the Trump faithful.

At one event Tuesday at a Panama City, Fla. amphitheater, the vibe was akin to a community picnic. Waiting for Trump to arrive, rally-goers lounged on blankets and tossed around Frisbees. They ate the unappetizingly named but appealingly pungent “butt fries” — barbecue pork heaped on a pile of french fries.                    

Smoking a cigarette on the periphery of the crowd, Mark Breaux, a contractor from Santa Rosa Beach, approvingly surveyed the scene.

“I like the feeling here. You’re all on the same side,” he said. In his hometown community populated by, as he termed them, hippies and artists, “many times, I know I’m on my own. It feels like I live around a bunch of idiots.”

Most of the two dozen Trump supporters interviewed this week were unlike Breaux in that respect. They live in solidly Republican neighborhoods and have solidly Republican social circles. They are inundated with evidence of Trump support, including neighborhoods dotted with Trump-Pence yard signs and Facebook feeds brimming with pro-Trump sentiment.

Diane Fudge said she meets Trump supporters everywhere she goes. Her 83-year-old uncle, a lifelong Democrat who backed President Obama — he’s voting for Trump. Fellow passengers on a cruise she took this year — most are voting for Trump.

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“Why does everyone I’m running into say they’re voting for Trump, and then the news says he doesn’t stand a chance?” asked Fudge, a 55-year-old travel agent from Homosassa, Fla.

The polls, which showed the GOP candidate falling further behind in national surveys and in key battleground states, were not to be trusted inside the bubble. They simply didn’t align with what Trump supporters saw themselves.

“They’re all lies. Look at these people. People are still standing in line,” said Sandy Dubey, a retired nurse watching crowds amass at the Ocala event. “The polls, they’re rigged.”

One popular theory held that some Trump supporters were keeping their preference to themselves, leaving his popularity underrepresented in the polls; some evidence of this existed early in the Republican primaries but disappeared as Trump solidified his hold on the nomination.

“Somehow being a Republican became being a racist. A lot of people don’t want to be classified as a bigot or a racist,” said Dwaine Hodge, a contractor from Ocala.

His own son asked Hodge not to wear his Trump gear when he picked up his grandson from school “because everyone will think his son is a racist,” Hodge said.

Others dismissed the polls using a now-standard Trump talking point.

“It’s going to be Brexit,” said Mike Hollowell of Inglis, Fla., a reference to the British referendum to leave the European Union, which stunned political observers when it passed in June after final polls predicted a loss.

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The skepticism extended beyond the polls to the media as a whole and the stories it was producing, particularly the accusations of inappropriate groping by Trump that emerged midweek.

“That’s just propaganda that Hillary is putting out there,” said Cindy Wells, a factory worker from Mason, Ohio, as she waited in the concession line at Cincinnati’s U.S. Bank Arena. “A lot of the media is putting spin out there. They’re going to dig up anything they can to make him look like a bad person.”

Rebecca Robinette, also at the Cincinnati rally, said the timing made her suspicious.

“Them coming out now — I don’t believe it,” said Robinette, a social worker from West Chester, Ohio. “If it’s true, they would’ve come out way earlier.”

Faith in Trump sometimes requires leaping into an alternative universe. Throughout the week, Trump insisted he stood still during Sunday’s town-hall debate against Clinton, despite video from the event showing him pacing the floor.

“Did you see where she said I entered her space? … This is a liar,” he said in Panama City. “She entered my space.”

The riff became an instant applause line; when he said it in Cleveland, audience members clapped and nodded their heads in agreement.

Trump supporters don’t assert their candidate is flawless; many related to his rough edges, his vices, his past embarrassments.

Some even acknowledged he could be his own worst enemy.

“Some of the things he says — dang, did you really just say that? I could slap you myself,” said Brenda Warner of Port St. Joe, Fla. She said she was disappointed by his answer in the second debate to a question posed by a Muslim woman about Islamophobia.

“He was talking at her,” Warner said. “I didn’t care for that. Because there are a lot of good ones,” she added, referring to Muslims.

Fudge said Trump’s unpredictable activity on Twitter could make her cringe.

“I wish he’d stop tweeting at 3 o’clock in the morning,” she said. “His wife needs to hide the phone.”

Both women admitted to being more anxious as the election neared, fearing voting shenanigans or a hostile political establishment could stack the deck against Trump.

But as women, their mere presence at these events was proof to fellow Trump fans that he would win. After all, if Trump was alienating women, why would there be so many female fans at his rallies?

“There were a ton of women at that thing. A ton of them,” Breaux said, reflecting days later on the Panama City rally. “I got the feeling that there is a sleeping giant out there, and Trump is going to kick some ass.”

melanie.mason@latimes.com

Follow @melmason for the latest on national politics.

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