Donald Trump acknowledged that his path to the White House runs directly through North Carolina during a relaxed, comparatively low-key speech at the Winston-Salem Fairgrounds Annex on Monday night, as state GOP leaders, facing headwinds of their own, got comfortable with their party nominee.
“I’m gonna be in North Carolina so much you’re gonna be sick and tired of me,” Trump told upwards of 4,500 people in the enthusiastic audience. “You’re gonna say, ‘Please, Mr. Trump, we’ll give you our vote, but just leave us alone.’ But I’m going to keep coming back because we need to win in November.”
In contrast to his most recent appearance in the area — a campaign stop in Greensboro in June — when state lawmakers and local sheriffs were the highest ranking Republican elected officials to join the presidential candidate onstage, Monday’s appearance in Winston-Salem on the heels of the Republican National Convention drew politicians up and down the ticket, most notably Gov. Pat McCrory.
Winston-Salem police reported no arrests among the 300 protesters on the scene, but 21 people were treated by Forsyth County Emergency Medical Service for heat exhaustion and other illnesses.
An upbeat McCrory, whose contest with Democratic challenger Roy Cooper is razor thin, made light of the national controversy brought down on the state by HB 2, the law requiring transgender people to use the bathroom on their birth certificate, by making a joke about the crowded conditions in the facility.
“If you need to leave, there’s doors on either side,” he said. “If any of you need to use the restroom….” He didn’t finish the sentence, but howls of laughter confirmed that the audience made the connection.
While inflaming resentment against Latinos, undocumented immigrants and Muslims, Trump has struck a comparatively moderate tone on LGBTQ rights, positioning himself as a defender of LGBTQ people from Islamic terrorist attacks since the massacre at the Pulse nightclub in Orlando, Fla. in June. And he criticized HB 2 in April, after carrying North Carolina in the March 15 Republican primary.
“People go, they use the bathroom that they feel is appropriate,” he said during a televised town hall hosted by NBC’s “Today Show.” “And the problem with what happened in North Carolina is the strife and the economic punishment they’re taking.”
PayPal cofounder Peter Thiel ridiculed HB 2 without mentioning it by name during his address at the Republican National Convention last week, while praising Trump for being “honest” about “fake culture wars” distracting the nation “from our economic decline.”
Trump made no mention of HB 2 and did not acknowledge McCrory, who appeared earlier in the program, during his appearance in Winston-Salem on Monday. Meanwhile, McCrory characterized himself as an “outsider,” like Trump, who came to Raleigh four years ago to turn the state around.
“We need somebody from the outside to clean up Washington DC,” McCrory said. “We have no idea about Syrians coming into North Carolina. President Obama is not communicating with me, your governor, about what’s happening.
“We need an outsider because we believe there should be no such thing as sanctuary cities,” the governor added, striking at an issue central to Trump’s campaign — violent crime committed by undocumented immigrants. North Carolina became the first state to ban so-called sanctuary cities in October 2015, when McCrory signed a bill outlawing local ordinances that prevent local law enforcement from providing information to immigration authorities.
US Sen. Richard Burr, who also faces a close reelection contest with Democratic challenger Deborah Ross, made a relatively mild pitch for Trump’s candidacy, praising his children and declaring, “I’m convinced that with Trump in the White House and a Republican majority in Congress you will get the change our children and grandchildren deserve.”
Burr’s speech was followed by several North Carolina Republican candidates for Congress: Ted Budd, Virginia Foxx, Renee Ellmers, Mark Meadows and Robert Pittenger.
The GOP showcase also introduced North Carolina voters to Trump’s running mate, Indiana Gov. Mike Pence, who drew loud cheers when he gestured towards the wings of the hall where police officers stood in position.
“Donald Trump will put the safety and security this country first,” Pence said, “and we will always stand with those who stand on the thin blue line.”
Trump hit familiar themes in a speech that sometimes meandered, beginning with taunts at presidential candidate Bernie Sanders for capitulating to Hillary Clinton as the Democratic National Convention got underway in Philadelphia.
“We’re tired of being the stupid country,” Trump said, hitting his stride. “We’re tired of being the country where our jobs are taken away. We’re tired of being the country where our military is being depleted. We’re tired of being the country that can’t make good trade deals. We’re tired of being the country with no borders. We will have a wall, and Mexico will pay for it. Believe me.”
He promised to correct trade imbalance by making “great deals” with other countries.
“We have to use the power of tariffs and taxes,” Trump said. “By the way, I’m a free trader. Every air-conditioning unit you make [in Mexico] we’re gonna make them pay a 35 percent tax to sell the product back here. You know what we’re gonna do? We’re gonna change their whole bottom line.”
He pledged to make US allies like Japan, German, South Korea and Saudi Arabia pay full freight for their security arrangements with the United States.
“If you say, ‘We’ll never walk,’ they’ll never pay,” Trump said. “We may have to walk…. If we say to Saudi Arabia, ‘Bye bye,’ in two days they’ll be coming back to us.”
Similarly, while pledging to stop Syrian refugee resettlement in the United States, Trump said he would create “safe zones” for them in Syria.
“We’re not gonna pay for it,” he said. “I’m a developer; I never pay for anything. We’ll have the Gulf states pay for it. They wouldn’t be around for another week if it wasn’t for us.”
Trump also made a pitch to the same social conservatives who form the core constituency for HB 2, promising to “get rid of” the Johnson Amendment, a law that prevents tax-exempt houses of worship from intervening in partisan campaigns.
“We’re gonna do things for the Christian, the Jewish and the evangelical communities that have never been done before,” Trump said.
While the parade of down-ballot candidates speaking before Trump underscores how the party is closing ranks around its nominee, some party members are expressing something short of full-throated support.
“We gotta be looking at the Supreme Court,” said David Singletary, a Republican member of the Winston-Salem/Forsyth County School Board. “There’s no such thing as a perfect candidate, and Lord knows, both of these candidates have some baggage. We’re going to have to say our prayers with this election and hope some good comes out of it.”
Singletary suggested Trump’s brash Northeastern tone might not be a perfect fit for mannered North Carolina.
“It doesn’t hurt any of us to be more humble,” he said. “[Trump is] a classic type-A figure. He’s an aggressive business type. He needs to appeal to the genteel people of the South. It never hurts anyone to show they’re thankful and humble.”
Trump left most of the inflammatory rhetoric to supporting acts, notably Pastor Mark Burns, who has spoken at many of the candidate’s events.
“I think it’s a shameful that the Democratic Party would have Michael Brown’s mother as a speaker at the Democratic National Convention,” said Burns, alluding to the young black man who was killed by a Ferguson, Mo. police officer in the summer of 2014. “I mean, really? They really should be ashamed of themselves because making Michael Brown’s mother to speak at the Democratic convention is a sign to every black person that they are reaffirming that we should be afraid of the police force. The devil is a liar!”
The predominantly white crowd ate it up, roaring, “Stop!” when Burns asked, “What do you do when a police officer says, ‘Stop?’”
“I’m a black man from South Carolina married to a beautiful white woman,” Burns said. “I’ve never been beaten by the police. Donald Trump is not going to pander to just one race to get your votes.”
Ty Turner, an African-American delegate to the Republican National Convention who came to show support for Trump in Winston-Salem cited religious liberty, national security and economic challenge as three issues that attracted him to Trump’s candidacy. He said he believes many black people privately support Trump, but aren’t willing to declare it publicly.
“I might be one of a small number to stand up and say, ‘Yes, I support Trump,’” Turner said.
As workers on the lower rungs of the economic ladder, blacks are the most likely to be affected by foreign labor and competition for scarce resources, Turner said.
“Illegal immigration — it affects African Americans more than anyone else,” he said. “When you go to Social Services, you primarily see African Americans and Hispanics.
“The Democratic Party has been trying to create division, but it’s not working anymore,” he added. “They want you to see these people as racists. They want you to see me as an Uncle Tom.”