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They Came, They Saw, They Left Early: Trump Stumps in South Carolina

The insurgent energy of a 2016 Trump rally is gone. But the enemies are the same, and that may be all that matters.

Donald Trump dances across the stage after speaking at a campaign rally held at the Winthrop Coliseum in Rock Hill, South Carolina.
Jabin Botsford/Getty Images
Donald Trump dances across the stage after speaking at a campaign rally held at the Winthrop Coliseum in Rock Hill, South Carolina.

There are monsters to be found everywhere, even if they were not immediately visible outside Winthrop Coliseum in Rock Hill, South Carolina, at 10 a.m. on a Friday morning. It had been pouring on the drive from Columbia, the state capital, to this former mill town of 20,000 people. The rain had let up for now, but the clouds were still there, and wind rippled through the giant Trump 2024 flag being held up by a member of the group known as the Front Row Joes. It was strong enough that the man holding the flag struggled to keep his footing, leaning back like a sailor on a ship buffeted by a storm. The flag swirled the other way, rendering everything incomprehensible but for the red-white-and-blue color scheme dwarfed by that ominously gray sky.

It was still early, with Donald Trump not scheduled to speak until 4 p.m. at the 6,000-capacity basketball arena that was the Coliseum. The faithful lining up were only in the dozens, easily outnumbered by vendors pulling carts full of Trump regalia and smartly gray-suited Team Trump members, who managed the proceedings with a certain nonchalance. The day before, in Columbia, I had spoken on the phone to Hollis “Chip” Felkel, a longtime Republican consultant who worked for the George W. Bush campaign in 2000. With two days to go before the South Carolina Republican primaries, Felkel, an anti-Trumper, described himself as “frustrated, aggravated, and disillusioned,” wanting a defeat for Trump and yet feeling that Trump had the support of “low-information voters,” people he characterized as evangelical isolationists obsessed with the politics of revenge and retribution. 

The mood outside the Coliseum was more carnival in spirit, revenge politics mostly confined to the violent slogans about guns and pedophiles displayed on T-shirts and sweatshirts. People winced when I said I was with the media, but they spoke eagerly enough, always polite, even friendly as the line grew ever longer and people waited with some anxiety for the gates to open at 1:00. They talked endlessly, to one another and to me. They spoke about the backchannels of Telegram and QAnon and of Trump finishing his job of draining the damn swamp. They spoke about the drugs coming into the country and the open border and the ever-rising price of gas and groceries. They offered their own stories, of personal encounters with Trump, of his office responding to a letter for help from the wife of a veteran suffering from Parkinson’s after serving at the Camp Lejeune Marine base. They asked me to listen to Steve Bannon on Pluto TV and get my news from The Epoch Times. There was a giddy sense of anticipation, a fervor in the crowd that occasionally bubbled up into something else, as when the slightly frenzied woman giving me some of this information was asked to shut up by the tall taciturn man standing behind. “He’s probably a Democrat,” she hissed.

The line grew longer, looping up the gentle rise of the hill and down to the parking lot and back up again. The MAGA baseball caps of 2016 were still prominent, unified in their branding, but their 2024 iterations had more mixed messaging, “Keep America Great” and “Take America Back” thrown in among the anti-Biden signage of “#NJB” and “Let’s Go Brandon.” The price of the new Trump hats dropped to $5 as we got closer to the entrance. “All made in China by a three-year-old,” the seller called out. It seemed like a good line, until I heard him use it again and again, and it seemed of a piece with the disappointing, diffuse echo of the 2024 hats and the confusion of the present moment underlying the anticipation. In 2016, Trump had been the outsider. Many of the people I spoke to had been drawn to him because he was not a professional politician, because he was, in their eyes, the self-made businessman. Now he was a repetition of the outsider, and was an outsider who was also the ultimate insider, his campaign insisting in its messages to me that he was President Donald J. Trump.

Inside the stadium, it was a sea of white faces again, the people of color sprinkled prominently in front. Steve, my next-seat neighbor, asked me to check out the basketball scoreboard that read “President: 45, Trump: 47,” which seemed clever until it became schizophrenic and nonsensical. The playlist was superb, Freddie Mercury and Johnny Cash turning in their graves. The opening acts, among them the African American Senator Tim Scott and Governor Henry McMaster, were brief. At 4:30, the crowd standing up to cheer, Trump strode in from the right.

The hair was the first thing one noticed, brilliantly fixed in place. He walked slowly, shoulders square, soaking in the adulation. It was astonishing that he looked exactly like his representations—the hair, the blue suit and red tie, the face preserved in plastic. But then he stepped up to the podium and spoke, and the voice was a surprise; dissonant and even a little froggy as he mentioned all the “hardworking, God-fearing American people” who hadn’t been able to get in and were standing outside. There were still empty seats in the bleachers.

Trump spoke for nearly 90 minutes. He gave the impression that he was sitting across the sofa from you, a strong, honest man airing his strong, honest opinions, but then there would be bursts of standing ovations, and one surveyed the crowd and remembered that the fate of nation, empire, and the vast, suffering world was at stake. The speech came at you like the tide, covering a little more fresh ground each time. The failed policies of the Biden administration, the suspicious “Democrat” backing for Nikki Haley, the radical left consisting of communists and fascists rigging the election in 2020. The rapists and thugs coming across the open border from the Congo, from all over Asia, from the Middle East and Latin America, monsters everywhere. The speech brought in the achievements of his administration, of “the rising wages for Americans of every race, religion, and color” and 571 miles of border wall, taking on the occasionally solemn tone of a swearing-in oath as promises were made to improve things further the second time around.

There were few pauses in the speech, just shifts in intonation and volume, an endless patter that gradually brought in the indictments against him. Trump talked about it with a smile and a shrug, pausing to take in the loud cheers for him and the chants of “USA! USA!” The enemies were personalized more deeply now: “crooked Joe Biden” and Nikki Haley, who was portrayed as a hapless schemer. Mitt Romney was kryptonite, Rush Limbaugh was missed, and there, on the media platform, were the eternal representatives of fake news.

Forty-five minutes into the speech, the attention of the crowd began to waver. A few people slid out of their seats and left. The applause was now dutiful, labored. Trump’s voice dropped low as he talked of the January 6 hostages and migrants assaulting the police with impunity. Organ music began to play in the background as Trump shifted into the first person plural of “We are a nation,” and a somber, Churchillian note entered the proceedings. We were in decline, no longer respected by the world, but he would turn things around. He would begin the “largest domestic deportation program in the country,” restore law and order, and cut federal funding for any school that taught critical race theory. He would bring down oil prices and drill everywhere and stop World War III. He would defeat the deep state, the communists, the fascists, the fake news media, and, yes, he would drain the swamp.

No one part of the speech cohered with the other. The 18 million migrants who had entered the country under Biden dropped to 14 million a minute later. Trump was against wars but for a strong military. The radical left was supporting Haley and also promoting insurrection in the streets. Ultimately, the specifics mattered little as the seats around me emptied out and Steve’s wife, Darlene, who had been so anxious about not being able to get in, left before Trump had even finished. I could see the tiredness in her face, maybe even disappointment. The insurgent energy of 2016 was missing, the craziness dialed down, and it was inevitable, Trump no longer outsider-refulgent, but a persona caught between outsider-insider status. In any case, the message was simple enough. You could pick it up at any point, without ever having gone into the arena. There were monsters everywhere, and the swamp was still out there.