Former President Donald Trump delivered a dark assessment of the country Friday night at a rally North Carolina Republicans hope will boost GOP enthusiasm ahead of key elections.
“We are a nation where free speech is no longer allowed,” Trump said, as ominous music played at the end of his speech.
“Where crime is rampant like never before,” he said. “Where the economy has been collapsing.”
Trump’s bleak description, less than two years after he left the presidency, touched almost every aspect of American life. He told the crowd that, if they want “the decline and fall of America,” they should vote for Democrats. He continued to pound the false conspiracy theory that the 2020 presidential election was stolen from him. He called President Joe Biden and other Democrats “arsonists.”
The event, held outside a private hangar at the Wilmington International Airport, wasn’t meant to convince undecided voters. Instead, it was aimed at increasing turnout among Republicans heading into the Nov. 8 elections. North Carolina’s U.S. Senate race, and a key U.S. House race in the Triangle, may ultimately determine party control of the U.S. Congress.
Political consultants on both sides acknowledged Trump as a double-edged sword. He remains a major draw for Republicans, but Democrats raised funds off the visit and trumpeted it as if they’d planned it themselves, hoping GOP candidates appearing with Trump — most prominently U.S. Rep. Ted Budd, the GOP candidate for U.S. Senate, are tied to him in the voting public’s mind.
Morgan Jackson, who consults for most of the top Democrats in the state, called Trump “the most motivational force in modern political history.” He also called him “the largest unifying, motivating factor in turning Democrats out.”
Trump won North Carolina in both 2016 and 2020, and the rally was held in Eastern North Carolina, an area Budd’s campaign has targeted. Trump is popular here, and a spread-out populace makes it more difficult to knock on doors and gather voters together.
Thousands attended Friday’s rally. Security guards on site said they didn’t have a count, but the crowd was an eager one. People near the front of the line mid Friday afternoon said they’d been there since 7 a.m. Security said some people camped out the night before.
When the gates opened the available chairs filled up quickly. Much of the crowd stood for hours on the concrete tarmac, and for much of the day lines were long for five food trucks and a stand selling water for $2 a bottle.
One man said the barbecue on offer was good, but he had to wait an hour for it.
Trump took the stage about 7:50 p.m.
“You know there’s an expression,” Trump said at one point. “Trump was right about everything.”
Trump endorses Smith, Robinson
Eight North Carolina Republicans spoke from the stage, including state GOP Chairman Michael Whatley, Speaker of the North Carolina House Tim Moore, U.S. Rep. David Rouzer and Sandy Smith, the GOP candidate in Eastern North Carolina’s 1st Congressional District, who, among other things, has been accused of domestic violence by two ex-husbands.
Trump endorsed her Friday. Like other candidates, and many in the crowd, Smith blasted Biden over record inflation and immigration.
“It seems like Joe Biden just wants us all to suffer,” she said. “Just as long as he gets his ice cream and his nap he’s fine.”
Bo Hines, the GOP’s nominee in the 13th Congressional District, told the crowd that Republicans are “not winning the culture war.” He said compromise doesn’t always equate to progress,” and that conservatives are “about to compromise our way out of the country.”
Among other things, Hines said former President Barack Obama “tried to tear apart the whole fabric of this country.” He promised to “go on offense” and defend free speech rights in online forums, 2nd Amendment rights everywhere and parents’ rights to have more say in what their children learn in school.
Hines faces Democratic state Sen. Wiley Nickel in the 13th district, which is the state’s most competitive congressional district by far. It’s made up of southern Wake County along with all of Johnston County and parts of Harnett and Wayne counties.
Nickel spokeswoman Abby May criticized Hines for “district hopping.” As state lawmakers, and a series of lawsuits, shifted North Carolina’s congressional lines earlier this year, Hines prepped for runs in different parts of the state before settling on the 13th district, which he moved to this summer.
“North Carolinians know they can count on Bo Hines for one thing,” May said in a text message. “His unconditional allegiance to Donald Trump and the far right.”
Lt. Gov. Mark Robinson, expected to run for governor in 2024, introduced Budd, and the crowd perked up as Robinson hit the stage. Some who’d been resting on the concrete tarmac stood as Robinson, too, lit into Biden, calling him “weak, ineffective, incontinent.”
But it will be OK, Robinson, told the crowd, comparing this moment in America to Pearl Harbor, 9.11 and the American Revolution. It’s OK, Robinson said, for the same reason it was OK all those times.
“Because you were here,” he said. “Because you were here.”
Robinson, along with Budd, got multiple mentions from the former president during his nearly hour-and-a-half speech.
“Whatever you’re running for let me know, I want to give you a real early endorsement,” Trump told Robinson, calling the lieutenant governor “a friend of mine.”
Trump told the crowd that his daughter-in-law Lara Trump, who is from Wilmington and recorded a video message shown earlier in the day, decided not to run for the U.S. Senate in North Carolina this year because of Budd.
“I said, ‘Lara, why don’t you run?’” Trump said. “She said, ‘Because Ted Budd is going to do a fantastic job.’”
Budd got called up on stage during Trump’s speech. By then it was nearly 8:45 p.m., the night had turned chilly, and some people were headed for the exits. Hines, Rouzer, Smith, Whatley and Moore also got shout-outs, and Trump added Smith to his list of North Carolina endorsements.
In his own speech before Trump arrived, Budd contrasted himself with his Democratic opponent, former state Supreme Court Chief Justice Cheri Beasley, saying that she would “vote to continue each and every policy that has made life worse” and that he would vote against Biden’s agenda.
“If you want to stop Joe Biden, you’ve only got one choice,” Budd said.
Beasley spokeswoman Dory MacMillan said Budd “realizes he is losing this election and is trying desperately to pull out all the stops to salvage his flailing campaign.”
“But voters know that he is too extreme for North Carolina with his career of undermining our democracy and even now refusing to commit to upholding this year’s election results,” MacMillan said in a text message.
In recent weeks multiple media outlets have asked Budd, who voted against certifying the 2020 presidential election after the Jan. 6 attack on the U.S. Capitol, whether he’d commit to accepting this year’s election results. At least three times his campaign declined to say. Then he told WRAL News at a campaign event that it was a non-issue.
“Why wouldn’t I?” he said. “Unless the Democrats do something.”
Conspiracy fears stoked
Trump told the crowd that “every weapon of the deep state” has been used against him. He called his enemies “crazy … left-wing tyrants … the sick Washington establishment” and the “repulsive political class.”
He called New York Attorney General Letitia James, who filed a lawsuit this week against Trump and his family alleging hundreds of millions of dollars in fraud, a “disgusting human being.”
Many in the crowd were prepared to embrace anything he said.
“He’s the most honest president we’ve ever had,” said Michael Tevepaugh, a Trump supporter from Brunswick County who traveled to the rally with a friend.
Historians have called Trump the most dishonest president in U.S. history, but Tevepaugh said he doesn’t believe it. He accused the Federal Bureau of Investigation and U.S. Department of Justice of spreading lies about the former president, and he complained about the recent raid of Trump’s Florida home.
The Department of Justice said it raided Trump’s home to collect classified documents after repeated requests that the former president return them. The saga angered many in attendance, and it was part of a video featured on the rally’s big screens ahead of the president’s speech.
Renee Stevens, of Columbia, South Carolina, said Trump wanted the FBI to raid his home to set a precedent so that former President Barack Obama and former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, Trump’s Democratic opponent in the 2016 race, can be raided later.
Stevens said she let her seventh-grade son skip class to travel to the rally. Asked whether there’s anything she could hear that would change her mind about Trump, she shook her head.
“No sir,” she said.
Other issues that stoked anger in the crowd: Immigration, U.S. aid to Ukraine to fight the Russian invasion, foreign aid in general and, over and over, inflation in the U.S., which is the highest in decades.
“Everything is just going up,” said Michael Quinn, who owns a landscaping business and came from Ash. “I would have gotten here last night if I could.”
Trump said Russia wouldn’t have invaded Ukraine if he’d remained president. He called the U.S. border with Mexico, “the worst border in, maybe, the world.” He said other countries wouldn’t allow such a flow of immigrants, that they’d “get out there with sticks and stones” if they had to.
Trump called during his speech for the death penalty against drug dealers, saying he’d push for the change if re-elected, and that it would immediately lower crime rates.
“And I think Ted Budd would head it up,” he said.
Trump also called for the hiring of more police officers and said the first step to restoring public safety in North Carolina is electing Budd.
Attendees wore a wide array of Trump shirts, hats and other merchandise, and more could be purchased outside from vendors lining both sides of the road leading to the event’s front gate. Many wore shirts declaring themselves “Ultra MAGA,” a focus-grouped moniker Democrats have taken to using for Trump supporters, and which Trump’s fans embraced.
“I feel like I’ve been promoted from a deplorable to a MAGA supporter, so thanks, Joe Biden,” said Vivian Cable of Wilmington, referring to Trump’s rally cry of “make America great again.”
“My motto is live free or die,” she said. “That’s going to be up to Joe Biden.”
Cable initially didn’t want to give her name.
“Right now, honestly, I feel like someone would look me up to kill me,” she said.
Trump still ‘has some juice’
Trump’s impact in North Carolina’s competitive U.S. House and Senate remains to be seen.
The former president endorsed Budd early in the Republican primary, and Budd blew through the GOP field with 59% of the vote, despite facing a former governor in Pat McCrory and a former member of Congress in Mark Walker.
Trump went one for two in North Carolina congressional primaries, though. Hines, a first-time candidate who, like Budd, benefited from major financial support from the conservative Club for Growth PAC, won the GOP primary in North Carolina’s 13th Congressional District. Scandal-plagued U.S. Rep. Madison Cawthron lost to state Sen. Chuck Edwards in western North Carolina’s 11th Congressional District.
“I still think Trump has some juice among Republicans in NC and could still help Budd,” David McLennan, who directs an influential poll at Raleigh’s Meredith College.
McLennan pointed to a High Point University poll released this week that put Trump well ahead of President Joe Biden in North Carolina on favorability. Trump was just behind Democratic Gov. Roy Cooper in the poll, and he polled well ahead of Budd and Beasley.
Trump helps with the still relatively-low name recognition Budd showed in that poll, McLennan said. But Trump also show high disapproval ratings in that poll, McLennan noted.
”Only behind Biden and [Vice President] Kamala Harris, so I also think his visits to NC will energize Democrats,” he said.
State races an issue, too
The rally was held in New Hanover County, which is important to the power balance in the North Carolina General Assembly.
If Republicans win a few more seats in the November elections they get a supermajority, which would let them pass laws over Gov. Roy Cooper’s vetoes. New Hanover has two swing districts with moderate Republicans trying to keep their seats: Rep. Ted Davis and Sen. Michael Lee.
Davis declined comment Thursday on Trump’s visit. Lee didn’t return a message seeking comment. Whatley, the state GOP chairman, said the goal was to boost Republican turnout and “that’s going to lift all boats with it.”
Paul Shumaker, a long-time GOP consultant, said any negative impact Trump may have in local legislative races should be blunted by Democratic President Joe Biden’s unpopularity due to high inflation.
“Down-ticket races are going to be more influenced by who’s in the White House than who’s not,” Shumaker said. “The economy steps on everything.”