CHARLESTON, S.C., DECEMBER 7, 2015 — The people kept coming, and the line kept growing and growing.
The line of people to see Donald Trump snaked from the entrance to the USS Yorktown aircraft carrier down the parking lot, back up toward the entrance again and then back around alongside another lane of cars. By the time the fire marshal stopped letting people in, with almost 2,000 people onboard the ship, there were still around 1,000 people waiting outside.
For three hours, I walked among the Trump supporters standing in line, engaging them in conversations that lasted between 10 and 20 minutes, trying to better understand who they were and what had drawn them to come see Trump.
The portrait of a Trump supporter — drawn from those conversations as well as an extra three hours of interviews with attendees at a rally in northern Virginia the week before — did correspond much of the time tothe basic profile: white, middle or working class, resentful of immigration, overwhelmed by dramatic changes in morality and technology, and fearful and angry about being left behind culturally and economically.
And so there were plenty of men like Willis Priester, a 63-year-old independent contractor, who told me that President Obama is a Muslim and that gay people are “the devil.” He was quick to condemn Muslims but hesitant to voice his objections to homosexuality. Once he did, however, it was clear he felt just as strongly, if not more so, about both the acceptance of gay marriage and about the sudden social disapproval of his views.
There was also no question that the heightened alarm over terrorism after the San Bernardino, Calif., attack on Dec. 2 was drawing some people toward Trump. Trump’s “toughness with the situation” was a point of appeal to one man who gives guided tours of the Yorktown, and others voiced similar sentiments.
But I was surprised at how a fair number of those I met at the Trump rallies were not like Priester. Trump is drawing people who defy stereotype. They were not necessarily older, or all that conservative, or even white. What’s needed, they feel, is someone larger-than-life, someone who they hope can bring about change and fix what’s broken in the country through sheer force of personality.
For these people, Trump’s nativism and faux-populist appeals weren’t the main appeal. For some, Trump stood for a return to hard work and personal responsibility. For others, Trump appeals to something instinctive about their sense of what’s needed. And for others, his celebrity and entertainment appeal drew them and functions in their view as a form of leadership that may carry over into effective governance.
Curtis Quinn, 54, and his wife, Janelle, were stylishly dressed like the kind of couple you might see at a hip Brooklyn bar. The considerably younger Mrs. Quinn wore expensive-looking boots, formfitting pants with a camouflage design, and made the black “Make America Great Again” cap on her head look like a fashion statement.
She was originally from Milwaukee. Quinn was from just outside Boston originally, and is a thoracic surgeon here in Charleston. He wore a leather jacket covered in colorful patches, which represented the military service of five men in his family. One grandfather, he said, served in the “Lost Battalion” in World War I. Another served in the U.S. Navy. His father fought in the Battle of the Bulge. One uncle flew 48 bombing missions over Germany in World War II. And another uncle took part in the Bay of Pigs invasion of Cuba in 1961, Quinn said.
“I will never be the caliber of people these people are,” Quinn told me in a Northeastern accent, referring to his forebears. “Never will be. I don’t have that in me. But I see that however lax I’ve became from this generation, the now generation is so much worse.”
“I just don’t see motivation. I don’t see hard work. I don’t see ethics. Things like that that I think are totally lacking,” Quinn said. He spoke with passion, but did not come across as angry. He was warm, engaging. The Quinns have two young children, and Curtis said he didn’t want them to grow up in a country where the government controls too much of human activity, commerce and thought.
Quinn thought Trump was the type of public figure who can bring back a cultural attitude of personal responsibility because he is “not afraid to say things.”
“I don’t think that he’s afraid to offend people. And I don’t think he’s trying to be offensive, but I also don’t think that he’s trying to also be so politically correct that he’s, like, bland,” he said.
I found in Quinn the kind of admirable decency I’d experienced in talking with Justin and Shelley Neal, both 39, in Manassas, Va., the week before. Justin works as a mechanic at Marine Corps Base Quantico, and Shelley in the local public school system. They have two daughters in high school, and we spoke at length about their fight to be good parents when their influence over their children has to compete with all that is coming at them through the Internet and mobile technology.
“These things,” Justin said, pulling out his iPhone, “are poisoning our kids’ minds.” The Neals have no-phone zones in their home and try to eat dinner together most nights and then do activities or watch movies or just talk with their girls afterward.
Justin said he preferred either New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie or former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee, but he was at the Trump rally because the real estate magnate and reality TV personality was leading in the polls, and he wanted to see him firsthand. Justin said he doesn’t like the “modern day Robin Hood” mentality that takes money from hardworking Americans to give it to those on public assistance. And he described with frustration the medical bills that a friend was left with after the death of his wife. He looked tired.
Shelley shared her concern that younger generations are increasingly entitled and disrespectful, don’t know the value of work or responsibility, and often have immature parents who don’t teach their children right from wrong. “I work in the public schools,” she said. “I see what’s coming.”
The Quinns and the Neals were quite different from the caricature of the average Trump supporters, the kind of men who in Manassas yelled as Trump walked onstage, “Kick Hillary’s ass!” Another yelled back, “Which part of it?” And a third chimed in, “It’s disgusting!” Another man in front of me hopped up and down in excitement.
Sometimes ugly sentiments came from surprising sources. I talked with a middle-aged woman with short, close-cropped blond hair who wore a Red Cross pin on her cream-colored sweater. She helped raise money for the disaster relief organization across the region, she said. But when I mentioned illegal immigrants, she declared, “I want ’em all gone.” However, she was the only person I spoke with who said she agreed with Trump that all undocumented immigrants should be deported.
More puzzling than those who broke the mold of a typical Trump supporter were those who represented the gut factor. These were people who couldn’t articulate much about why they liked Trump or what they thought was wrong with the country, in part because they had never paid attention to politics before. But Trump was speaking to them on some deeper, primal level.
Alison Garbarini, a 30-year-old transplant to Charleston from Rumford, Me., who is working toward her master’s degree in public health, wore a mustard-colored pea coat. The first issue she mentioned was marijuana legalization. The second was the political influence wielded by large pharmaceutical companies. She favored a ban on military-style weapons.
“This is really the first time I’m really into politics,” she said. “I don’t know what it is. Something this year just started to get me more interested in politics and knowing that something needs to change — that’s obvious.”
I asked her why she felt that way. “Because the way things are going is not working. I know that. I don’t really have a more detailed answer. But I can see that things are not going well and have not been going well,” she said.
Obama is not “a strong leader,” said Garbarini, who also said she was no fan of former president George W. Bush. She said that “there’s just something about [Trump] that I think is very independent.”
“There’s something about the way — the issues he talks about, the way he talks, just the way he is in general — I find to be very independent,” Garbarini said.
Having never voted for president before, Garbarini said she’d watched every Republican and Democratic debate so far and definitely planned to vote in this election.
Spencer Guinard, 18, stood in line in Charleston by himself, without a jacket over his short-sleeved shirt as temperatures dropped into the 40s. His close-cropped hair gave him away as a recent military recruit, and indeed he had recently finished basic training in the U.S. Coast Guard.
Guinard, originally from Boise, Idaho, had never heard of most of the Republican presidential candidates. When I mentioned Marco Rubio, the Florida senator, Guinard told me he’d “never heard that name.” Trump, however, had got his attention.
“I just saw that he was breaking through in the news and thought I’d follow him a little bit, and I just liked some of the stuff he says, and I’m trying to learn more about him,” Guinard said.
“What was Trump saying that he liked?” I asked.
“Just how he says it, how it is,” the young man said.
Then there was the entertainment factor, which is drawing some people to Trump rallies who will never vote. But plenty of them probably will, like Mike Montiel, a 26-year-old temp agency recruiter.
Montiel seemed more than anything to want to be part of the spectacle himself. He had a Mexican flag and an American flag draped over his back and tied together around his neck, a sombrero on his head, and a small American flag in each hand. He held the flags up and shouted randomly, “Presidente Trump!”
“I’m a Mexican-American, and I thought it’d be fun to come support Donald Trump, like to show my heritage and that I like Donald Trump. I think he’s cool. I think he’s a straightforward guy,” said Montiel, who told me his father was born in Tijuana.
Montiel has lived in Charleston ever since visiting from Georgia for the weekend. “I really liked the beach, so like I went back to Augusta and I put my two-week notice in and then moved here with my friend and slept on his couch for like a month,” he said.
“I’m the only one in my family who likes Trump,” Montiel said. “I went to visit my family in Tijuana a couple months ago, and they’re like, ‘Mike, why do you like Trump?’ I’m like, ‘I don’t know.’”
John Mack, a 57-year-old African-American who owns a construction company and a radio station in the western part of the state, drove three hours to see Trump. Mack voted for Obama in 2008 and 2012 and praised the president’s performance in office. Mack, tall and fit in a dark suit and overcoat, said he is torn between voting for Trump and Democratic frontrunner Hillary Clinton. But he also rattled off a list of Trump’s shortcomings.
“Yeah, he says he’s gonna create jobs. Yeah, he says he’s gonna control the border. Yeah, he said he’s gonna make America better. But what’s the process? And I haven’t heard that, and I don’t know if he’s really got a firm hand on how to do it,” Mack said.
“So why was he open to supporting Trump again?” I asked.
“Well, he creates excitement that the world need to see. He creates that. That’s something he does. His knowledge of business is something that draws a lot of these folk out here,” Mack said. “He knows what it takes to stir up the people. He knows he has that vernacular.”
I asked whether Mack thought Trump wasn’t stirring up negative, ugly sentiments.
“No, it’s not negative. It’s not negative. It’s positive, because folk need to see the excitement of who we are supporting and if that’s who we choose to support, and folk need to figure out how to rally around him,” he said.
Mack laughed off Trump’s call to ban all Muslims from entering the U.S. in the wake of the San Bernardino terrorist attack.
“That’s not gonna happen. He knows that. But you got to say things and promote things that’s gonna tickle the ear of people to make them believe that’s what you’re going to do. But you know it and I know it that it’s not gonna happen,” he said. Mack added that Trump needed to “be careful with saying any negative things to any ethnicity.”
What I heard from Mack and from others is that they thought Trump was big enough for the job and for the problems facing the nation. Most people I talked to expressed a sense of being overwhelmed by the number and scope of challenges the country is facing, and bewildered about how to fix them. Trump could do something, anything, they thought.
“I think that people see Trump as just something different and looking for a change, and because he’s so far out there, there’s hope that he’s going to go in and shake things up in D.C.,” said Clyde Ray, a 54-year-old small business owner at the Manassas rally.
Ray, who started his own business in 2008 in the wake of a divorce before the economic crisis hit in the fall of that year, was frustrated with the economic impact of illegal immigration, with the cost of regulations and health care costs on his business, and with the nation’s fiscal challenges.
Ray understood that any president will “have his hands tied because you still gotta get everything pushed through Congress and the Senate, and they got the power of veto.”
And he recognized that Trump’s rhetoric and ideas are over the top, provocative and preposterous. “I think he’s out in left field,” Ray said.
Nonetheless, “people see it as an opportunity that even if the Senate or the House can veto some of what he’s going to do, there’s still checks and balances, but at least he’s going to be in there trying to seek the truth,” Ray said. “That’s what I see.”