by Jordan Green
Republican presidential frontrunner Donald Trump spoke to a capacity crowd at an auditorium on the campus of Lenoir-Rhyne University in Hickory today, accompanied by New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie, before jetting to campaign rallies in Tampa, Fla. and Youngstown, Ohio on the eve of a major primary contest in North Carolina, Florida, Ohio and Illinois.
Speaking for less than an hour in a relaxed, interview-style format with Christie, Trump hit on familiar themes of a nation under siege.
“They’re chopping away at the Second Amendment,” he said.
The United States is no longer respected around the world because its military is weakened, he continued.
“We’re like the whipping post for the whole world,” he said.
The candidate shifted blame for the poor care that military veterans have received to undocumented immigrants.
“Illegal immigrants are getting better services and better care in many cases than veterans,” he said.
He promised to elevate the status of Christianity in the United States, recounting how he had met with a group of pastors and discussed how churches risk losing their tax-exempt status if they engage in partisan activity.
“I said, ‘If I win, we’re gonna work really hard, we’re gonna get rid of that restriction,” Trump said. “Because Christianity should be able to have some power and strength; they shouldn’t be shy.”
Early in his remarks, Trump mentioned off-handedly, “When I say, ‘We’re gonna build a wall — and we are gonna build a wall….”
The crowd erupted in cheers. The candidate’s pledge to build a wall to keep out undocumented immigrants from Mexico has become a standard bit in his campaign. Trump laughed with Christie at the crowd’s reaction, and declared, “We love the wall.”
That was a cue to Jackie Olive, a documentary filmmaker from Wilmington, and LA McCrae, an activist from Asheville, to hold up a small banner reading, “Turn away from hate,” and to start chanting, “No racism, no hate,” and “Dump Trump.”
“A lot of times they’re kids and they don’t know where they’re coming from,” Trump said, as Olive, McCrae and four other protesters were escorted out of the building by Hickory police officers.
Outside the auditorium, after marching past Trump supporters who shouted “Throw ’em out” and “Take ’em to jail,” Olive explained that her work on a forthcoming documentary about the history of lynching galvanized her to take a stand.
“Donald Trump’s rhetoric is not unlike a lynch-mob mentality,” she said. “It’s not unlike how governors in states like Georgia instigated white folks to lynch black folks to give them an enemy while they pillaged the state. I felt like I had a responsibility to talk about love.”
McCrae said her decision to participate in the protest grew out of a desire “to stand on behalf of marginalized youth of color, particularly queer youth of color. We are unapologetically saying that black lives matter, not ‘all lives matter’ because this society already constantly reinforces that white lives matter. We need to send a clear message that we don’t need to make our country great again; our blood and sweat and tears made it great to begin with.”
Inside the auditorium, Trump breezily minimized the violence that has plagued his rallies, downplaying an incident in which a white man punched a black man in the face in Fayetteville last week.
“The press say, ‘Oh, the Trump rallies are so violent,’” he said. “You know how many people have gotten hurt at our rallies? Basically none. Other than someone got hit once. These are love fests.”
Christie tried to prod Trump to talk about how he would unify the country as president, prompting the candidate to talk about anger, without getting much further.
“The level of anger from all sides, including our side — we’re angry,” Trump said. “Now, we’re not angry people. I’ll tell you that. We’re not angry people. We’re good people, but there’s a lot of anger. There’s anger, Chris, at incompetence. There’s anger when you look at the trade deals. There’s anger at our military when they can’t beat ISIS. We can’t beat ISIS. There’s anger at the fact that America, the United States, it doesn’t win anymore. We don’t win on trade. We don’t win with the military.”
Trump also took the opportunity to gloat about his support from evangelical Christians.
“We win with the evangelicals so big league,” the candidate said, taking a swipe at his strongest competitor in the Republican primary, whom he referred to as “Lyin’ Ted Cruz.”
“I’m a good Christian, I will tell you that,” said the candidate, who has been thrice married and is a casino magnate. “And I’m a believer.”
Kraig Moss, a self-described country-Christian troubadour, serenaded supporters outside the auditorium with a guitar. Moss, who has attended 17 Trump rallies and said he was baptized in a horse trough at the Morningstar Cowboy Church in Florida, said he could relate to Trump as an imperfect Christian.
“I refer to Christianity as it’s like riding a bull,” he said. “There are some better practicing Christians than others. If you’ve been on a bull for eight seconds you’ve reached a plateau. No one can take that away from you.”
The event drew a couple hundred protesters, including a sizable group of pastors wearing clerical collars who sang religious songs like “This Little Light of Mine” and “Jesus Love the Little Children” outside the auditorium.
“For evangelical Christians, I want to say, ‘Release your fear,’” Olive said. “Hold onto the faith you espouse. It’s what binds us together and it’s what will move us into the future.”
Trump’s message about manufacturing losses and bad trade deals resonated, along with his appeal to Christian identity politics.
“Your businesses have been devastated — is that correct?” he said. “You know why they’ve been so devastated? Because of people who are incompetent on trade deals. We’re gonna bring our jobs back.”
Mike Bolick, a Yadkinville resident who formerly managed a hosiery mill that employed 400 people in Hickory, said he’s considering voting for Trump in the Republican primary.
“This area’s got hit hard; we lost all our textiles and furniture,” he said. “We need a president that can help us get our jobs back. The four counties around here — Catawba, Caldwell, Burke and Alexander — we all lost jobs and unemployment stayed higher than 20 percent for years. If he’s the businessman he says he is, he should be able to help us to get the jobs back.”
Bolick added that he sees Trump’s vow to build a wall to keep undocumented immigrants out of the country as “delusional.”
The rally also drew some people who were attracted to the spectacle as much as the candidate himself. Vance Pollock, who hosts a North Carolina ’60s garage rock show on 103.3 Asheville FM, wore a Ramones T-shirt that said, “Kill a commie for Johnny,” and carried a small Confederate battle flag and a small “Don’t tread on me” flag.
“Basically, this is a small town,” he said. “It’s not that far a drive. Right on the heels of the Chicago debacle, I thought this is a historic moment. Why not be part of it?”
Although he said he considers Trump a “showman,” Pollock said he’s attracted to Trump’s message about bringing industry back to the United States.
“The nativist sentiment — it’s almost nationalist — I find that appealing,” Pollock said. “Even if a good percentage of the country isn’t behind it, it’s gonna shake stuff up.”
While he said he finds Trump’s promise to “build a wall” to be largely symbolic, Pollock said it doesn’t bother him.
“I don’t think if he’s elected there’s going to be Gestapo kicking down the doors and dragging out illegals,” Pollock said. “He might give strong enforcement powers to the immigration officials.”
Explaining his identification with the Confederate flag, Pollock said, “Everyone leading down to me — all my forebears lived and worked and died under that flag. Even though it only flew for four years, it represents a homeland.”
Inside the auditorium, Trump reveled in the new political coalition his campaign has created.
“We’re taking from the Democrats,” he said. “Remember the Democrats for Reagan? We have it bigger. It’s Democrats for Trump. It’s a bigger number. We’re taking also from independent and we’re talking from people who never voted before.”
The candidate urged Republican elected officials to get on board with his campaign, as Christie has.
“What the Republican leadership should do is try to unify things,” Trump said. “Instead of fighting it, get used to it. This is the most incredible phenomena that they’ve ever seen in politics in this country. Embrace it. Embrace it. And let’s go win.”
When the rally ended and his supporters left the auditorium, they passed through a gauntlet of protesters who proved that Trump’s elevation to the presidency will not be greeted with complacency.
“Who’s building the wall?” Hugo Guerrero of Hickory shouted at Trump’s supporters. “Are you building the wall? You aren’t. We build everything.”
The United States was built on immigrant labor, Guerrero elaborated in an interview.
“[Trump is] saying he’s going to deport Mexicans,” Guerrero said. “He says he’s going to build a wall and make us pay for it. He’s not going to make us pay for it. Hispanics — we are the workforce — construction, factories, farms. I’ve seen it in my own life: I’ve worked in a factory and I’ve worked on a farm, and my family works in construction.”