A Tale of Two Trumps

At a rally in North Carolina, an optimistic audience doubted the media but hoped for a circumspect performance from the Republican nominee. Results were mixed.

Mike Segar / Reuters

GREENSBORO, N.C.—Hillary Clinton is fond of saying that there’s only one Donald Trump, and anyone waiting for a new one will be disappointed. But in fact, there are two Donald Trumps, and both of them came to speak in this crucial swing state Friday afternoon.

There’s one Trump who is a reasonably disciplined candidate, hitting hard on his opponent’s weaknesses—her flip-flop on the Trans-Pacific Partnership, or embarrassing passages in leaked emails—and pushing his populist message. Then, there’s the Trump who detests his teleprompters, yearns to improvise, and loves to sling insults.

There are at least two kinds of Trump audiences, too. Some audiences are angry, resentful, baying for blood. Some of those crowds came out for Trump on Thursday, berating reporters and motivating police in riot gear to monitor the situation. At a rally I attended in Fayetteville, North Carolina, in March, there was an air of violence in the arena. But the crowd at the White Oak Amphitheatre here was not that kind of crowd. They were cheerful, friendly, and affable. (A scuffle between a protester and an attendee was one exception—but more on that later.) These people are worried about the country, and they’re nervous about the election. They don’t trust the media, but they’re courteous and friendly. They don’t like Hillary Clinton, but they wish Trump could express that a little more delicately.

Waiting for the rally to start, I chatted with Fran Rafanovic and Darlene Schadt, two older women from High Point. They were not pleased with the press. “The media is corrupt. They’re trying to stop us from finding anything out about WikiLeaks and these supposed women,” Schadt said. “All these people know the media is corrupt. We’re like mushrooms—fed shit and kept in the dark.” But they were happy to chat with me, laughing uproariously, and as they headed for their seats, Rafanovic told me, “Thank you for what you’re doing!”

Just as friendly was George Ellsworth, who said he was known as “Hellsworth” during his Marine Corps days. “I pray that there’s enough level-headed people to realize we don’t want a liar in the White House,” he said. He complained that Clinton had given every man a license to cheat on his wife by condoning her husband’s behavior in the 1990s. But what about Trump, who had very publicly cheated on his first wife—to say nothing of the more recent allegations? Ellsworth drew a line between Trump’s past and his newer career as a politician.

“Anything that Mr. Trump done as a civilian—we’re only human males,” he said. “It was only one perfect person, and He died on a cross for our sins.” The tape of Trump making lewd comments and boasting about sexual assault bothered him, but he saw it as part of Trump’s civilian past. On balance, he thought the nation needed Trump because of the importance of Supreme Court appointments.

Two common themes emerged in conversations with voters: a consistent skepticism of polling on the race, and a slight unease with Trump’s rhetoric. Dwight and Ruth Hastings, a distinguished-looking couple from Hickory, told me they didn’t believe the recent set of polls that show Trump trailing nationwide and in critical swing states. “They’re fixed,” Ruth said flatly. But Dwight said he didn’t like Trump’s attacks on politicians like House Speaker Paul Ryan. “I wish he’d be less critical of other Republicans,” he said. “You need those guys on board.” He thought both men had let their egos get the better of them. “Establishment Republicans are jealous of him because he’s doing something they could not do,” Ruth said. “I voted for Romney … but he let us down.”

The most fanatical Trump voters tend to be the loudest and get the most attention, but many of his supporters have a nuanced view of him. Kara Hoffman, a freshman at East Carolina University, is a decided Trump voter, yet she told me, “I think he’s very disrespectful. I’d like to see him be more respectful to his opponent and other people.”

Stephen Poston, a fellow ECU freshman with her, agreed. “When he has his head in the right place as a politician, he’s compelling,” he said. The problem came when Trump went off script, Poston said.

Which he did, at times, on Friday. Trump took the stage a little after 2:30 p.m. He complained that the press never mentions his crowds, so in the interest of transparency: The Charlotte Observer reported attendance of around 4,000. It was smaller than the capacity crowd that came to see President Obama on Wednesday in the same venue, with 7,700 inside and another 1,500 in an overflow space. It was smaller than the almost 10,000 who saw Trump at an adjacent venue in June.

Early on, Trump seemed to be sticking closely to a written speech, reading grudgingly from the teleprompters while inserting his trademark digressions and amplifications. He began hitting Clinton hard over the emails released by WikiLeaks. He reprised his promise that if elected he would ask his attorney general to appoint a special prosecutor to look into Clinton’s private email server, and added that the prior FBI investigation needed to be investigated. “For what she did, they should lock her up,” he said, responding to the now familiar chants.

And then he hit the sexual assault allegations against him. (As the rally went on, two more women’s claims emerged.) Suddenly, Trump was alive—throwing punches left and right, feeding off the crowd’s energy, having a good time. He was blunt in denying the accusations.

He was also wildly offensive.

“I have no idea who these women are. I have no idea. I have no idea and I think you all know I have no idea because you understand me for a lot of years, okay?” Trump said. In case people didn’t understand, he made clear what he meant—building on his innuendo during a rally in Florida on Thursday that he couldn’t have assaulted one woman because she wasn’t attractive enough for him.

“When you looked at that horrible woman last night, you said, ‘I don't think so,” he said, referring to Jessica Leeds, whom Anderson Cooper interviewed Thursday. “Yeah, I'm going to go after you. Believe me, she would not be my first choice, that I can tell you … That would not be my first choice.”

Of People magazine writer Natasha Stoynoff, who also accused him of assault, he said, “Check out her Facebook page, you'll understand.”

Unable to resist the opportunity to take a jab at Hillary Clinton’s appearance, he did that too, discussing an incident during the second presidential debate. “I'm standing at my podium and she walks in front of me, right? She walks in front of me and when she walked in front of me, believe me, I wasn't impressed.”

As for Barack Obama, who Trump deemed “an incompetent,” he wondered, “Why doesn't some woman maybe come up and say—what they say falsely about me, they could say about him. They could say it about anybody.”

It’s not as if Trump doesn’t realize the danger in going off-script like this. He said his aides had counseled him not to bring it up. “My people always say, ‘Don't talk about it, talk about jobs, talk about the economy,’” he said. “But I feel I have to talk about it. Because you have to dispute when somebody says something.”

Perhaps Trump should have listened to his advisers. Trump’s series of ill-advised quips was easily more exciting and eclipsed the rest of the speech. It was for the most part a workmanlike but effective attack on Clinton as an insider out to enrich herself, mixed with discussion of his immigration policy and opposition to NAFTA and the Trans-Pacific Partnership, both of which were very popular with the crowd.

There were a few off-key notes. An attack on “international bankers” sounded a lot like anti-Semitic whispers. As promised, Trump also launched an attack on the Mexican businessman Carlos Slim, who bailed The New York Times out during the financial crisis, taking a sizable stake in the company. Slim also gave at least $1 million to the Clinton Foundation. Trump sees in this a conspiracy, by which Slim is manipulating the newspaper to advance the interests of his friend Hillary Clinton. “Reporters at The New York Times, they’re not journalists, they're corporate lobbyists for Carlos Slim and for Hillary Clinton.”

Trump also amplified his claim that the election is a fraud. “The whole thing is one big fix. It's one big fix. It's one big ugly lie. It's one big fix,” he said. “The process is rigged. This whole election is being rigged. These lies spread by the media, without witnesses, without backup or anything else, are poisoning the minds of the electorate.”

To many people, this sounds like paranoid fantasy. But to a crowd conditioned to believe the media are lying and the polls are faked, it rings true. Trump seemed to be grappling with the possibility that he would lose on Friday, complaining that the “fabricated” stories of sexual assault might convince some voters and sink his campaign. The genius of the “rigged” charge is that it shifts the blame preemptively; if Trump loses, it will be because he, and his movement, have been stabbed in the back.

This is ugly stuff. There was some minor ugliness in the crowd, too. At one point during the rally, a protestor interrupted the speech and was removed. From where I sat, I couldn’t tell what happened. On my way out of the rally, however, I ran into Poston and Hoffman, with whom I’d spoken earlier. Poston offered to share a video that he’d taken—it turned out that an attendee had tried to wrestle the protestor down:

Even in a friendly crowd, there could be some nasty moments—just as even in a speech from a teleprompter, Trump always has the possibility of throwing the script to the wind and delivering some unwise soundbites. “Well, that was certainly eventful,” Poston said as he walked off into the parking lot.