RALEIGH, N.C.—Most presidential candidates like to end their campaigns on a positive note, thanking their supporters, delivering inspirational rhetoric, and encouraging voters to think that whatever the result, they’ve made a difference.
Then again, most presidential candidates are not Donald J. Trump.
“If we don’t win, I will consider the single greatest waste of time, energy—wow, you need energy for this—the single greatest waste of time, energy, and money,” he said at the North Carolina State Fairgrounds on Monday, the day before Election Day. “If we don’t win, all of us—honestly? We’ve all wasted our time.”
The Republican nominee has been using variations on this line for some time now, but it hasn’t gotten any less strange. While it is intended as motivation to vote, it can also seem like he is passive-aggressively sniping at his fans, a petulant child fuming in the face of a possible loss. Yet his crowds seem to love it. Career politicians like Mitt Romney or John McCain may be willing to see defeat as just part of the game—win some, lose some—but to Trump’s supporters his all-or-nothing attitude just shows that Trump is not a politician, and he’s playing because he thinks it matters to the fate of the nation.
Trump is facing down the possibility that he may have wasted all that time, energy, and money, even though he retains a very real chance of being president-elect by the end of Tuesday. His stop in Raleigh was his last visit to North Carolina, a state he must win, and the second of five campaign stops—one each in Florida, Pennsylvania, New Hampshire, and Michigan to round out the swing. Most forecasters are predicting a Hillary Clinton win, but with a few small shifts in enough states, the race could be Trump’s. A victory in the Old North State is likely necessary but insufficient for him to win.
The tight race has partisans on both sides trying to tamp down anxiety. The common thread is a belief—willed into existence, if necessary—that a person’s chosen candidate will triumph. At a Democratic rally elsewhere in the state capital last week, Clinton’s supporters were terrified by the polls, their mood fluctuating with each adjustment of the FiveThirtyEight forecast. The Trump supporters, by contrast, simply reject the polls, believing that they’re either rigged or don’t capture the true shape of his support.
“He’s gotta,” Carol Mazurick said, when asked whether she thought Trump would in. “I’m so excited. I could cry so easily,” she said. She’d been watching his rallies on the internet throughout the campaign season, and now she finally had her chance to see the man in person, just a few minutes from her home.
Melissa Whetzel, of Mebane, was feeling optimistic. “People are going to see that the things that Clinton has done—they’re just the same as things that other people have gone to jail for.” Sitting next to her, Roger James rejected FBI Director James Comey’s announcement on Sunday that his agents had reviewed a new tranche of thousands of emails in just eight days. The math didn’t make add up: “If you’re going to blow smoke up my ass, build a damn fire,” he chuckled.
Even with these rosy predictions, there was a necessarily valedictory atmosphere. N.C. State frat boys, suburban moms, and graying men in “Vietnam Veteran” hats picked over merchandise tables, taking their last chance to take home some swag: from the classic (“Make America Great Again,” “Trump That Bitch”) to the unusual (“Pumped for Trump” over a pink shoe) to the newer and novel (“Adorable Deplorable,” or “Crooked Together,” playing off the Clinton logo). A flag vendor seemed unable to convince buyers that they could take a large flag into the venue or on a plane. “You don’t have to take the pole,” he offered. A couple vendors laughed in giddy disbelief that a lucrative but punishing stretch of travel was about to be over. “Hours. Hours!”
Inside, a string of speakers worked up to Trump’s appearance. There was David Clarke, the Milwaukee County sheriff, in his trademark cowboy hat. Mike Huckabee, one of Trump’s vanquished rivals, brought his dad jokes to the dais, noting that as an Arkansan, he’d known the Clintons for a long time. “The big difference between the Clintons and the Sopranos is the Sopranos never kept emails,” he said. Lara Trump, wife of Donald’s son Eric and an N.C. State grad, spoke, and so did Diamond and Silk, a rambunctious pair of African American women who often open Trump rallies.
Governor Pat McCrory, himself in a very tight race, spoke briefly, and said supporters had been approaching him on the street to whisper that they were voting for him. McCrory has endorsed Trump, but he hasn’t appeared many times with him on the stump, for reasons that became clear Monday. McCrory has argued that the state is going through a “Carolina Comeback,” an economic boom instigated by his policies, which sits uneasily with Trump’s doomsaying about the state of manufacturing here and in other states.
By 3 p.m., the Dorton Arena hadn’t filled up to its 7,000-person capacity. The floor had plenty of space, and chunks of the grandstands remained open. But Trump had a lot of travel to get in, so he came on up and said he’d better get started, even though thousands were waiting outside. (They weren’t.)
Trump was perhaps slightly lower energy than normal, though given his grueling schedule over the final few days, who could begrudge him that? (OK, maybe Jeb Bush.) He kicked off with confidence.
“I hear we’re winning North Carolina big,” he said. “We’re winning Florida, doing really big. I think we’re going to win the great state of Pennsylvania. We’re winning plenty of other places. You know we’re in a rigged system. You gotta go, you gotta vote, you gotta make sure your vote gets registered.”
The speech was, as usual, a little bit of everything. He is funny; he is blustery; he is defensive; he is puzzling. There were a few largely unnecessary lies, in addition to the thousands waiting outside. He said that murder rate was the highest it had been in 45 years, and that the dishonest media wouldn’t tell you. (While the percentage increase in the murder rate last year was one of the largest in recent memory, the rate remains well below where it was four decades ago.) He also said, confusingly, that “Hillary is going to cut your Social Security and really injure Medicare.”
He reminisced about the Republican primary, and how he’d cut through a crop of supposedly formidable, seasoned candidates like a fresh scythe. He’s often returned to that triumph at moments when the outlook for his campaign seemed bleak, though there were few other visible signs of pessimism. Just as he was back then, Trump remains obsessed with ratings. “You know the NFL ratings are way down,” he noted. “You know why? Everyone’s watching this. It’s actually tougher.”
Not coincidentally, the group of celebrities campaigning for Hillary Clinton seems to have gotten under Trump’s skin. At two separate points during his remarks, he grumbled about the power couple who performed on Clinton’s behalf in Cleveland on Friday. “If I ever said the words that Jay Z said or that Beyonce said the other night? You know what would happen to me? The reinstitution of the electric chair,” he said.
Trump led the requisite boos of the media, but it seemed like, he, and the crowd, were going through the motions. He dismissed Comey’s announcement, saying, “The FBI, the director, was obviously under tremendous pressure. They went through 650,000 emails in eight days. Yeah right. So sad what’s going on.” But when the familiar “lock her up” chants started up, Trump turned almost statesmanlike, offering an alternative to incarceration. “Now it’s up to the American people to deliver the justice that we deserve at the ballot box tomorrow,” he said, stopping to repeat: “At the ballot box.”
Trump has a label for this: “Drain the swamp.” It’s a slogan that was foisted upon him by aides, as he mentioned. “I told this story, I hated that expression,” he said. “I said, ‘No way I’m going to say that. That’s so hokey.’ I said it and the place went crazy. I said it to another place and it went crazy. Then I said it with more confidence and the place went wild. Now I love the expression, I think it’s genius.”
Much like his waste-of-time riff, it’s an odd thing to say. Trump has positioned himself as a non-politician, a candidate who works by intuition alone, but the anecdote shows him as something different: a politician whose coterie of aides is workshopping lines for him, and whose instincts were wrong. At one point in his speech, Trump even tried on the mantle of unifier.
“We are an unbelievably divided country,” said the man who has run arguably the most divisive campaign since George Wallace. “We’re going to come together. Just imagine what our country could accomplish if we started working as one people, under one God, saluting one American flag.”
Perhaps Trump, despite his admonitions about wasted time, is not immune to the reflective tendencies of a politician in the last hours of his race after all.