The president’s 2020 campaign-kickoff rally in Orlando was an attempt to hark back to the old days … of four years ago.
ORLANDO—These are snapshots of loyalty.
Rain-soaked Donald Trump supporters huddle under a tent outside the 20,000-capacity Amway Center, where in a few hours the president will “officially” kick off the reelection campaign he filed the paperwork for more than two years ago.
It’s 2 p.m., and the “45 Fest”—a political tailgate of sorts outside the arena—started hours ago. There are rows upon rows of collapsible chairs, Yeti coolers, and a live band playing “Free Bird.” People hawk merchandise on the sidewalks lining the perimeter, offering, as one sign advertises, “the Rightstuff” (Trump 2020 socks) “at the Right price” (10 bucks). Young people with clipboards politely ask rally-goers if they would like to sign a “citizenship petition,” the details of which are unclear. The “Western chauvinist” Proud Boys attempt via megaphone to rally support for their efforts to “bring down the Southern Poverty Law Center,” which has deemed them a hate group.
The rain has failed to thin the crowd. Under the tent, Joseph Belnome, a 43-year-old white man from New Jersey with “Trump” and “2020” stenciled in white eyeliner on either side of his buzz cut, looks at the sea of people with pride. “I’ve been following Trump since the day that he came down the escalator,” he says. “And I never regretted that decision because he’s been keeping every promise that he’s made since day one. And I’ve been defending him ever since because he’s been criticized and ridiculed ever since.”
The escalator ride Belnome refers to took place four years ago this week, on June 16, 2015, when a brash businessman many viewed as past his prime descended a golden escalator to announce his candidacy for president. The image was spectacle, amusement, and unreality distilled: a thrice-married real-estate mogul slash reality star with a penchant for pomp and no discernible ideology, vying to be the leader of the free world. In the generally dull landscape of campaign announcements—platitudes sung atop a makeshift stage in some strategically determined locale—Donald Trump’s made for a delicious escape.
But today, a Trump rally no longer represents something like a curious getaway, an amusing escape from the norms and protocols that define everyday life—indeed, now, it is everyday life. To attend Trump’s first campaign announcement in 2015 was to come across actors hired to play devoted supporters. To attend his second is to have conversations with steadfast loyalists who, even if they jeer at fake news, or claim to believe that the CIA has brainwashed the public to be anti-Trump, now represent the power of the incumbency.
Joining Belnome is Nick Fadael, a 29-year-old black man from New York. Fadael wears a red MAGA hat—though not the one Trump signed when he visited the White House as part of Turning Point USA’s Young Black Leadership Summit last fall. That one, Fadael says, he framed. “He’s not a politician to me. He’s one of us who happened to be sent to the White House to get the job done,” Fadael tells me. “Usually politicians lie; they don’t keep their promises or anything like that, and POTUS—promises made, promises kept. He’s the first guy who’s been ridiculed and bashed because he’s keeping his promises.”
A high moment of the past two years for Belnome, he says, was Trump’s “exoneration by the Mueller report.” (Trump was not exonerated by the Mueller report.) “That was a proud moment because I knew he’s been telling the truth from the beginning, and now it’s been proven by our Justice Department.” Really, though, he adds, “when is there not a proud moment when you have Donald Trump as your president?” Fadael jumps in. “Here’s what I’m most proud of,” he says. “He tweeted yesterday that those millions of people that got into the border are being deported ASAP. That one: number one.” As the rain stops, the two say they plan to go find the Fox News tent.
Rick Carter, a 58-year-old white man, is here from Indiana for his fourth rally. His self-designed cap and T-shirt both read: my president tweets!!! “Ever since he was elected president, they say they didn’t like it,” he explains, referring to the media and/or Democrats, “and when they don’t like something, I love it.” Carter says he has voted for Ronald Reagan, Ross Perot, and Donald Trump, but tells me he likes Trump best. He likes that Trump doesn’t let Democrats “push him around,” and that Trump is trying to bring back the kinds of manufacturing jobs that sustained Indianans like Carter’s father.
Chris, who asked me to withhold her last name, a white, 71-year-old retiree from Edgewater, Florida—originally from “Taxachusetts,” as she calls it, with the accent to boot—has come here on a bus with the Volusia County Republican Party. Her tank top reads god, guns, & trump. Chris and I are mid-conversation when a U-S-A chant begins in the pit of the Amway Center. More specifically, Chris is mid-sentence when a U-S-A chant begins, but her thought can wait. She turns from me as though programmed from afar. As she pumps her fist and chants, her red, white, and blue drop earrings quiver.
“So,” she says, turning back to me. “I’m here today because I think he’s the greatest president there ever was in this country.” I ask her if there’s anything Trump could do that would make her rethink her support. “No,” she says.
Trump’s speech itself—which began around 8:15 p.m. and lasted for more than an hour—was almost beside the point. He said hardly anything new, nor was he expected to. He lambasted the “fake news” for perpetuating the “Russia hoax.” He relitigated the investigation of Hillary Clinton’s private server. He pledged to “drain the swamp.” He seemed to be reading from a list not of his greatest hits so much as his only hits.
But then again, his supporters didn’t say much of anything new, either. Resolute Trumpers then are resolute Trumpers now, enthusiasm for “promises made” now swapped for a belief in “promises kept.”
When visiting Orlando, even if for no other purpose than a Trump rally, you feel the looming presence of Disney World. Disney iconography is everywhere, namely images of the Magic Kingdom, which stands 21 miles from the Amway Center.
The Magic Kingdom is the centerpiece of the local Disney empire, Cinderella’s castle flanked by a panoply of roller coasters and routinized parades and theme shows and wax-paper-wrapped turkey legs. It’s a phantasmagoric whirl through Space Mountain and Big Thunder Mountain and Alice’s Mad Tea Party that for 47 years has delighted infants and newlyweds alike. It is a cocooned splendor. One is never under the illusion that its attractions—the costumed Mickeys and Minnies waving atop floats, the fireworks bursting before sundown—even remotely resemble reality. Indeed, the promise of escape is precisely what entices tens of millions of visitors a year. But the inverse is true as well: The Magic Kingdom is a place you eventually leave. Nobody lives at Disney World.
It was with this fantastical curiosity that much of America became intrigued by the sideshow taking place in the lobby of a gold-plated castle in Midtown Manhattan four years ago this week. The problem, of course, was that many would continue to view Trump’s campaign in this way. Reporters covered his rallies just as they might have a trip to Disney World, detailing for readers all the curious characters and sites and souvenirs. (The red hats! The build-the-wall chants!) The appetite for those dispatches and rally broadcasts was ceaseless in large part because they seemed to depict the stuff of fantasy—a fantasy, crucially, that would surely be vacated come Election Day.
Last night, Trump’s campaign-kickoff event was far closer geographically to the Magic Kingdom than it had been four years ago on that morning in Manhattan. But the sense of unreality that once linked them was gone. The ride—which thrills some and terrifies others—has become real, and it has been on loop for four years now. As the unshakable loyalty of voters like Chris suggests, it could well continue for several more.