Donald Trump's Great Escape

On Saturday, the president slipped away from the doubters in Washington to address a Florida crowd filled with loyal supporters.

Kevin Lamarque / Reuters

MELBOURNE, Fla.—After four miserable weeks of being locked up in presidential prison—starved of affection, suffocated by bureaucracy, tormented by the press—Donald Trump made a break for it Saturday.

Touching down just before sunset here in the heart of Trump Country, the president was greeted as he emerged from Air Force One by an adoring crowd of 9,000 super-fans, many of whom had stood in line for hours to see him speak. Trump made no effort at masking his gratitude. “I’m here because I want to be among my friends,” he told them, adding, “I also want to speak to you without the filter of the fake news.”’

The rally was widely trumpeted in the press as a return to the campaign trail, and it’s easy to see why. The event had all the trappings of Trump-style electioneering—he deployed the same slogans, recycled the same stump-speech rhetoric, and walked out on stage to the same soundtrack. What’s more, the White House made clear earlier this week that the rally was being funded not by the federal government but by his campaign, making this perhaps the earliest launch to a reelection bid in history.

But for Trump—a man who has long relied on his loyal crowds for validation and reassurance—the rally also seemed like an exercise in escapism. Back in Washington, his administration is teetering constantly on the edge of chaos: His national security adviser has resigned, his immigration ban is unraveling, and he faces a steady stream of leaks from the intelligence community that could imperil his presidency. But here inside an airport hangar packed with red-capped supporters chanting their hearts out, none of that mattered.

Indeed, for at least one evening, Trump was able to inhabit a world where all bad news was fake, all protesters were paid, and the first month of his presidency was universally regarded as an historic success.

Toward the end of the rally, I began asking attendees how they would grade Trump’s time in office so far. All but one awarded him an ‘A+’ (and the outlier gave him an ‘A’). If pressed, they would often add caveats such as, “given what he’s up against...” or, “...considering all he’s trying to accomplish.” Even if some were grading on a curve, it didn’t make their reviews insincere.

“In my opinion, he’s the only president in my lifetime—and I’m 65 years old—who’s doing what he said he was going to do,” said Richard Barrington, a retiree from Orlando. When I asked what campaign promises Trump had kept, he replied immediately: “Jobs.”

“When I grew up,” Barrington told me, “everything was made in America, and we made good stuff. Throughout my lifetime, we started buying all that junk in China that winds up in the garbage, and our jobs went overseas. It’s like nobody cared. He’s the first president that really understands. He’s tackling all these problems, and the news media, they twist it, they turn it, they don’t want to tell it like it is.”

Rene Foland, a former campaign volunteer from Marianna, Florida, was similarly effusive in her praise. “He keeps his word and he knows how to speak to the American people who matter most—the people without jobs, the people that are really, really hurting out here.”

She said she was upset that so many Americans seemed unwilling to acknowledge the good intentions behind the president’s restrictionist immigration policies, and when I asked her about the apparently slapdash nature of his executive order earlier this month, she shrugged.

“You learn as you go along,” she replied. “He’s not a politician.”

Preaching to the faithful Saturday night, Trump made it clear that he valued them, as much as they valued him. They’re his people, and—he promised—they’re winning again. “You’re all part of this incredible movement, this movement that we talk about so much, that’s been written about on the cover of every magazine all over the world,” he said. “It’s a moment that’s just sweeping, it’s sweeping across our country. It’s sweeping, frankly, across the globe.”

“People want to take back control of their countries,” he added, “and they want to take back control of their lives.”